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Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars - Book Reviews (4)

Gregory Carleton, Russia: The Story of War

Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017, 304 pages
Pierre Labrunie
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Gregory Carleton, Russia: The Story of War, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017, 304 pages

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1This book, written by Gregory Carleton, a professor of Russian studies at Tufts University, appeared at just the right time, when there is widespread interest in trying to understand Russia’s belligerent behavior. From a Western point of view, Russia is seen as a predator. However, Carleton’s book Russia: The Story of War reverses this perspective and attempts to “see Russia through the lens so many Russians have themselves internalized” (p. 6). Gregory Carleton thus intends to illustrate through various sources (including novels and films) how Russia is shaped by a particular war story, highlighting both famous events and lesser-known facts. This story, as the book seems to reveal, remains alive in the present day.

2The first chapter, entitled “Pedigree”, takes the reader back to the thirteenth century, when the foundation of the Russian state was laid. At that time, Russians were caught between a rock and hard place. Tatars invaded the territory of the Russian principalities from the East, and there were attempts to do the same by European forces from the West. This unlucky time period gave birth to heroes such as Alexander Nevsky and Dimitri Donskoy. Moreover, it constructed, according to the author, the four pillars of Russian history: “invasion, resistance, self-reliance [and] self-sacrifice” (p. 29). As the author states, Russia is the only country that had to face enemies attacking it from all sides (p. 34). Therefore, it could rightly consider itself as being under constant threat rather than the opposite.

3The second chapter deals with the Patriotic War (1812). While Western states considered Russia as being “on the side against freedom” (p. 42), this victory confirmed the vision that Russian soldiers and elites had of themselves: Russia is “the beneficent warrior in the world” (p. 60). The author then quotes Karamzin, who played an important role in spreading the myth of Russians as “the one, blessed people in Europe” (p. 60). According to Gregory Carleton, one can resume the mentality of Russians soldiers during the Patriotic War as follows: “tears for the loss, pride in its sacrifice” (p. 48). From this time Russia can be considered, according to Feodor Dostoevsky, as the provider of a “universal service to humanity” by saving it from destruction (p. 71). Moreover, the author summarizes the mind of General Nikolay Sukhotin — who was appointed director of the General Staff Academy in 1898 — as such: “being attacked is what makes Russia what it is” (p. 74).

4The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) is the main example of what sacrifice means to Russians. While the landing in Normandy (1944) is considered in the West as the turning point of WWII, the author stresses that “for each American soldier who was killed, almost 65 Soviet citizens perished” (p. 107). The author insists on the particular mystical connection that links Russians to their land. Hence, “the war was not a clash of ideo-economic systems, but a life-or-death struggle for their motherland” (p. 85). He then affirms that “only in Russia the war continues to dominate popular culture and consume the energy and attention of so many at all levels of society” (p. 85). If the novel The Damned and the Dead by Viktor Astafiev (1994) provides an important testimony of the cruelty during WWII — i.e. of both opponents —, for Soviet authorities “the more blood that was shed meant the waste was much greater” (p. 92). The Soviet regime stated that the human losses deflect all possible criticism of the USSR. To the Soviets, Western stories and historical researches on the Eastern Front (WWII) were nothing but 'a crime against 'objective history' ” (p. 102), and, according to the author, the Great Patriotic War became “the platform for historic grounding of nearly all of a Russia’s mythic identities” (p. 113).

5The fourth chapter deals with the myth of the Russian soldier. The word stoikost’ defines the demeanorof the Russian soldier who will fight to the end, “knowing how to suffer, knowing how to die” (p. 128). Here, the author insists on the fact that war is not the only idea that matters. Death matters as well. “Without them, there would be no Russia” (p. 142), the author thus summarized the movie Brest Fortress (2010), which deals with the fate of Soviet soldiers during the capture of the fortress of Brest-Litovsk by German troops in June 1941. In brief, Russian soldiers don’t fear death when the defense of motherland is at stake, and as stated further in the book, “war with Russia is never the same as with others” (p. 180).

6The fifth chapter mixes a few episodes that highlight the paradoxical interpretation of defeat by Russians. In fact, even when defeated, Russians are victorious, for “defeat can serve as comfort food for the national soul” (p. 170). Russia can be considered as a master in the art of “deflecting defeat”. The author provides three examples: the defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), which was interpreted by contemporary Russian officers as a confirmation of general Russophobia; the desperate “attack of the dead men” at the fortress of Osowiec (1915), where besieged Russian soldiers braved a cloud of German gas and fought to the death, reminding us of the Russian soldiers’ sacrifice and spirit; and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was eventually softened by the bravery of the 9th Company on Hill 3234.

7Relying on the novel The Wall (2012), written by the current Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Medinsky, Gregory Carleton insists on how the Time of Troubles (1598-1613) provides a “malleable […] period piece, able to accept and hew any ideological or cultural shift” (p.209). Broadly, the Russian state fears smuta, i.e. disruption, that is why Russia must rely “on two rocks: a strong tsar and a state made equally strong by those willing to serve it” (p. 209). In that respect, fear of any destabilization can explain the way Russia is governed: a strong central power fighting against anything that could “infect the body public with a virus” (p. 215). For the author, The Wall provides “a by-the-number rendition of [the] myth that mirrors [the] Kremlin postulate” (p. 209). In brief, according to the author, the state wants Russia to stay “smuta-free” (p. 217). This point can eventually help to understand contemporary political decisions in Russia, but it is, of course, far from exhaustive of this topic.

8The seventh and last chapter, entitled “War Never-ending” is more reflexive and includes recent events and conflicts such as the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), the Kursk submarine disaster (2000) and the on-going conflict in Donbass. As the author writes, Russian history is more cyclical than linear, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 should be seen as a rehearsal. The emphasis on isolation and martyrdom, besides the fascist factor in the case of Ukraine (see WWII), allows the Kremlin to legitimize its policies when it has to intervene, especially militarily. Yet, the current trend is that “Russia exists to stand up to those who seek to dominate the world” (p. 232), highlights Carleton, referencing the words of Sergey Shoygu, the current Russian Minister of Defense. In conclusion, Gregory Carleton argues that in Russia, war has its vital corollary: “the cult of the state as an equal partner in delivering national greatness” (p. 247).

9This book is very interesting as it sheds light on the ways in which Russian identity was constructed. It is also timely as it was published at a time when Russia is considered to be a major threat to Western moral values. Does this book suffice to explain the current geopolitical situation in the post-Soviet space, surely not, but Gregory Carleton highlights important topics that one must be aware of if trying to understand post-Soviet Russia.

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Electronic reference

Pierre Labrunie, “Gregory Carleton, Russia: The Story of War”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 04 December 2019, connection on 12 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Pierre Labrunie


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