Recent developments in Soviet-American relations have heightened popular interest in Russian and Soviet history. Those curious about this topic find it difficult to decide which of the recently published histories will be valuable. Observant readers will quickly recognize that many of these publications single out violent and grotesque aspects of Russian history or simply gossip about the personal lives of the tsars. There are, however, well-written studies of the Russian and Soviet society that provide a more balanced view of the Russian past.
One of the best introductions to the history of prerevolutionary Russia is a textbook, Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia, which scholars have used in their classrooms for over twenty years. The textbook’s popularity stems from its clear, concise style, judicious blend of interpretation and narrative, and insightful treatment of numerous spheres of Russian history.
Unlike many popular histories, Riasanovsky’s work confronts historical issues. The author describes the differing positions of historians on important issues, analyzes the strengths of their arguments, and offers his own conclusions. The textbook never addresses any issue without providing the narrative detail that gives meaning to abstract analysis. When discussing the fourteenth-century unification of central Russia under Moscow’s leadership, for instance, Riasanovsky does not simply list the factors responsible for Moscow’s success; he also describes the actual methods employed to acquire new territory.