Eric's Reviews > Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals

Empire by Dominic Lieven
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Dec 05, 10

bookshelves: etudes-slaves, history, war
Read in December, 2010

Most governments are in truth private societies pitted against each other in the international arena and giving in the meantime at home exhibits of eloquence and more rarely of enterprise… (George Santayana, Reason in Society)

The above would make an excellent epigraph for Dominic Lieven’s study of Russian imperial elites in six centuries of competition with everyone from the Tartar Khan to the nuclear-armed North Americans. Like a philosopher Lieven watches on heights from which the monumental features of politics—elites, masses, polities, dominions, empires, civilizations—can be seen and their contours compared. But for all the laconic loftiness of his survey, Lieven never skims over the chancy splashes of individuals, the pathologies of the great rulers or tyrants without whom, in Cioran’s words, “the idea or the course of empire would be inconceivable”—an observation that applies to Russia more than to almost any other nation.


The realm of Muscovy began as an ancestor-worshipping pagan periphery ruled by descendents of the “semi-mythical Viking chieftain Rurik.” During the 13th and 14th centuries, its princes bowed before the Mongols and the tribute-collectors of their successor state, the Golden Horde. In the 15th century, united after a princely civil war, and infected by “Byzantine monarchial ideology and symbolism,” Muscovy began to expand into the vacuum left by the collapse of Byzantium and the decay of the Golden Horde. Under Ivan the Terrible, it conquered the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. Under Michael Romanov, the dynasty’s founder, it drove off the scavenging Swedes and Poles who gnawed at Russia in the aftermath of Ivan. Under Peter the Great, cannon-caster and navy-builder, teacher of Western warcraft, Russia’s new European-style professional army (peasants conscripted for life) stormed to the Baltic Sea, annexed modern Estonia and Latvia, and recruited Baltic Germans as the super-efficient administrative cadre needed to staff the bureaux of the new imperial capital and fleet base, St. Petersburg. Under Catherine, Russia took a big bite out of Poland, added much of modern day Ukraine and Belarus, thrashed the Ottomans in two wars to gain access to the Black Sea, and finally asserted its might on the grassy steppe, that highway of nomadic raiders since Mongol times. Under Alexander I, Russia destroyed the grandest army Napoleon was ever to field, and contributed 200,000 men, headed by the Tsar in person, to the reactionary alliance that in 1813-14 pushed Napoleon out of central Europe, invaded France and breached the gates of Paris.


Peter the Great wanted Russia to compete as one of Europe’s Absolutist kingdoms, and as such Russia was spectacularly successful from Peter’s reign to the Napoleonic wars. But as industrial capitalism and mass politics accelerated the 19th century beyond the grasp of all but the most nimble statesmen (and depressed visionary poets), the conservative Russian empire began to lose ground. For one, the military technology essential to successful statecraft was emerging from a century of deceptive stasis; as John Keegan once noted, the infantries of Marlborough and of Wellington, Britain’s two great generals, fought the French with essentially the same musket, though a century apart in time. By the commence of the Crimean War (1854-56), in which Russia took on Britain, France, Austria and the Ottomans all at once, things had changed. In a recent review of Orlando Figes’ Crimea: The Last Crusade, Lieven mentions that the British redcoat’s rifled musket—the Pattern 1853 Lee-Enfield, which in Confederate hands was to shatter so many Union assaults in the American Civil War—outranged every weapon in the Russian arsenal, including its field artillery. Russia’s defeat in the Crimea thus prompted the second of the three great cycles of top-down Westernization Lieven sees as the engines of modern Russian history.


The reformist Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861 but Russia’s imperial elites were still hobbled by absolutist habits of mind. They still viewed the masses as a vegetative peasantry, an unprotesting instrument, at a time when the great fact of European societies, even of comparatively backward Russia, was the spread of literacy and urbanization:

Within Europe in the nineteenth century nationalism was increasingly adopted in most polities by conservative elites and right-wing parties. Bismarck and Disraeli were in the forefront of this process. In part nationalism served as a popular doctrine with which to challenge the potential hold on the masses of radical and socialist ideologies. In part too it was a natural response of leaders trying to retain a sense of solidarity and purpose in a community whose traditional values and identities had been transformed by urbanization, mass education and work in the factory. The old dynastic, religious and local loyalties which might suffice for a peasant needed to be fused with something broader and more inclusive for his newspaper-reading, city-dwelling children.


In the past, to control the masses, to squeeze them of revenue and conscripts, it had been enough to command the allegiance of their local lords; by contrast, the literate, urbanized, master-less citizen had to be wooed more or less directly—had to be granted the vote, had to be allowed the illusion of schooling, had to be convinced that the interests of the nation were synonymous with those of the empire. Lieven doesn’t descend to inspect the citizen co-opted by 19th century imperial elites, but he’s a familiar enough figure: literate, but only basically so; essentially provincial, yet emboldened to pronounce upon the destinies of distant peoples; lowly and ineffectual, but aggrandized vicariously through ethno-nationalist identification with hero-statesmen, Napoleons and Bismarcks. Adolf Hitler is of course the hellish mutation of the type. An Austrian petit-bourgeois who identified wholly with the German imperial idea, Hitler was given the keys to the kingdom by social and military elites who, while they disdained his origins and style, could not ignore his re-enchantment of the masses with dreams of empire, at a time when they might have been disillusioned. Little could these elites suspect that Hitler was to realize and orchestrate all their primordial nightmares (the cordon of foes, ravenous Asiatic hordes, the extinction of the unified German state). It is this operatic self-immolation, this piece by piece dismantling of his own ideal that in Cioran’s judgment made Hitler “unique as a monster” and “the most sinister character in history.”


Ironically, the absolutist rein-tightening and imposed Westernization of Peter and Catherine, integral to Russia’s success in the 18th century, disrupted Russian society so profoundly, so polarized masses and elites, that the relaxation or refinement of coercion required of 19th century imperial elites who would rule literate subjects was simply too dangerous to fully implement. Alexander II, the liberal Tsar, emancipator of the serfs, was blown up by revolutionaries the day after he drafted plans to establish a parliament; and when the Poles were given a longer leash, they took the opportunity to revolt. Conservative advisers warned the last Tsars “that only an authoritarian police state could hold Russian society together and preserve the existence of its propertied elites”—advice Lieven thinks not necessarily wrong. This theme of socially disruptive modernization, successful in the short run but weakening the legitimacy of elites over time, is one Liven also identifies in the arc of the Soviet phase of Russian empire. The Soviets, above all Stalin, industrialized the economy and urbanized the populace, but at a traumatic cost. By 1991, Lieven concludes, “the Russian people had suffered so much in the cause of communism and empire that they were totally unwilling to suffer further in defense of either.”

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11/23/2010 page 119
23.0% "“So long as these outsiders did not impinge on local life too greatly or exploit too gratuitously they would be tolerated. Their tyranny was unlikely to equal that of nature, to whose cycles and arbitrary cruelties the mass of the population was enslaved.”" 2 comments

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