1979, the End of the Cold War, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

_images_afghan-rugs-5Nineteen seventy nine was a pivotal year in twentieth-century history – as momentous, perhaps, as 1945 and the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan; Iranian revolutionaries seized American hostages in Tehran and overthrew the Shah; Islamic fundamentalists attempted to seize Mecca; and enraged crowds of Pakistanis, goaded on by Islamic extremists, attacked the US embassy in Pakistan. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that these events signaled a radical break from the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The world had changed, and a new kind of war had emerged; yet the United States and the Soviet Union continued to fight proxy wars against each other, blinded by their own ideological obsessions and incapable of discerning the new common enemy of Islamic fundamentalism.


A captivating and timely film tells the story of the ten-year Soviet war against Afghanistan (Afghanistan 1979: The War that Changed the World: http://icarusfilms.com/new2015/afg.html). The war triggered an ever-increasing cycle of violence. Fueled by American and Soviet weaponry – which armed future enemies of both the United States and Russia – Afghanistan became a failed state, creating a power vacuum filled by terrorist movements of various sorts and spreading like a cancer throughout the region. Over a decade more than one million Afghanis died – mostly civilians – and millions more became refugees. At least 15,000 Soviet soldiers fell in battle, and the aura of the Red Army’s invincibility, which had been so crucial to Soviet power and prestige around the world, was shattered.


Curiously, despite its enduring and tragic significance, few historians or political scientists have studied the war in depth: the reasons for the Soviet invasion, the conduct of the war, the relationship of the failed war to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the role of the war in creating the world in which we now live. The primary piece of documentary evidence for the decision to invade comes from a single hand-written page from the Soviet Politburo leadership. The document does not even mention Afghanistan, referring to it as simply country “A,” and it provides little insight into the Soviet decision to send in troops. It is as if Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time, was a kind of Mafia Don, and his fellow Politburo members and generals his mob family bosses. Through various winks and nods – but with nothing concrete or coherent presented as an explanation – Brezhnev let it be known that it was time to do a “hit” on the increasingly annoying and irksome Soviet clients. By comparison there has been far more research and analysis of the war with which the Soviet invasion is often compared –the American Vietnam War – though arguably the Afghan war has had a much greater impact on the course of world history.


Whatever the exact reasons for the invasion, Afghanistan was certainly considered a strategic prize, both for the Soviet Union and earlier for the Russian Empire, when the region became a pawn in the “Great Game” for control between the British and Russian Empires. The Soviets were the first to recognize the new state of Afghanistan in 1919. Relations remained close, as the Soviets attempted to use Afghanistan as a buffer zone between itself and Pakistan and Iran. Only an attempt at radical communist revolution – generated not by the Soviets but independently by more extremist communists within Afghanistan in April 1978 – destabilized the situation. The revolutionaries’ agenda of social, agrarian and economic reform immediately created stiff resistance and polarized the country, radicalizing the political environment and opening the way to more extreme forms of political expression from all sides. Afghani communist officials persecuted religious leaders, causing blowback that drew inspiration from the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeni. As resistance to the new communist Afghani President Nur Mohammad Taraki grew, so too did Afghani appeals for Soviet aid. Meanwhile, the country continued to splinter, as warlords and tribal leaders began to fill the vacuum of power created, unintentionally, by the revolutionary upsurge.

Afghan 1 F

One of the more intriguing claims in the documentary is that Brezhnev’s advancing dementia and lack of stamina played a central role in the invasion. Manipulated by alarmist memoranda from the KGB head Yuri Andropov, and their suggestion that immediate action needed to be taken, Brezhnev assented to intervention – though just what kind and why was unclear, and perhaps will never be known if in fact Brezhnev was not entirely lucid, as seems to have been the case. The seeming success of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which Andropov believed produced a more docile and controllable client state to its west, perhaps fed the delusional notion in the Kremlin leadership that Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, could be just as easily invaded, and with just as few military and political consequences. Eurocentric views of the Afghanis as inferior, similar to US views of the Viet Cong, also seemed to have made the Soviets underestimate their foe.


There are many compelling stories and revelations in the film. The Soviets, for example, early on trained Soviet Central Asians to form a special battalion that would wear Afghan uniforms – so that Soviet military intervention could be disguised in May 1979, before the actual invasion in December of that year. The CIA countered, on the borders of Pakistan, with support for anti-communist insurgents. A state of civil war, with various war lords in control of the provinces, emerged by December 1979, when another fateful event occurred. President Taraki’s erstwhile ally and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin overthrew his revolutionary comrade, commanding his secret police to strangle him.


The documentary claims, though it is not clear based on what evidence, that the Soviets believed Amin was an American pawn. In his brief time in power Amin waged a campaign of terror and purges against the dead former President’s real and suspected allies. At one point the Soviet officials in Kabul charged with protecting Amin from a counter-revolution were now ordered by the Soviet secret police to assassinate him and his entourage. They tried to poison the President’s drink at a dinner in the palace – by slipping poison into his Coca Cola, with which the Soviet agents were not yet familiar. Coke, however, was not “it.” It apparently neutralized the poison and the dining party survived! So the Soviets instead bombed the presidential palace to smithereens, sure that they would find evidence that Amin was a CIA pawn (just as, perhaps, the US was sure in its invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction). There was no such evidence; Amin was simply a loose cannon — and not even a Chinese spy, as other KGB agents thought might be the case.


By the mid-1980s it had become clear to Mikhail Gorbachev that the war was a strategic, political, and military disaster. The architect of Perestroika and new political thinking makes a fascinating and typically self-serving appearance in the film. As a young Politburo member, he claims that most of the political leadership was excluded from the initial decision to invade, and that the invasion was a kind of coup orchestrated by Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, General Dmitrii Ustinov, and Brezhnev. Of course, this position perhaps too conveniently absolves Gorbachev of complicity in the invasion on December 28, 1979. The absence of documented records makes it impossible to say. When Gorbachev in the film proclaims fatefully, “you can’t rewrite history,” it is entirely possible that he is the one doing the rewriting.


Among other things, the Afghan war derailed the politics of Détente, which Jimmy Carter and his hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski decisively ended. Providing lethal aid to the Mujahideen, they intended to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, payback for the American nightmare that had only ended five years previously. A boycott of the Moscow Olympics soon followed, as well as termination of broad-ranging intellectual and cultural exchanges — as well as collaboration in space exploration — between the United States and the Soviet Union, all initiated by Nixon and Kissinger.

Reagan with Afghan Mujahideen 1985

Especially blameworthy in this story, as recounted in the documentary, is the role of the ideological Cold Warriors of the Reagan Administration, who were determined to defeat the Soviet Union at all costs, even as Gorbachev attempted to rely on the most moderate forces in Afghanistan, in order to achieve a national reconciliation and remove Soviet troops. Reagan’s advisors, gleeful at the humiliations suffered by their ideological foe, armed the most radical Jihadists they could find with billions of dollars of sophisticated weaponry and training, thus creating a kind of hothouse for growing future terrorism. Stinger missiles — handheld anti-aircraft weapons — were given to the Mujahideen, taking down hundreds of Soviet attack helicopters. Sly Stallone exploited the triumphal embrace of the Islamic Jihadists in 1988, producing Rambo III, in which Rambo heads a CIA operation to help Mujahideen blow away Soviet soldiers. Reagan greeted Mujahideen in the White House as partners in defense of religious faith and freedom against Godless commies.



If Brezhnev’s dotage played a role in the initial Soviet invasion, goaded on by hawks within the Soviet military industrial complex, Reagan’s own advancing senility in the mid-1980s allowed Cold Warriors like Richard Pearle, blind to the dangerous implications of their Afghanistan gambit, to enact a fatally-flawed policy in the Middle East.


This is a well told story that clearly outlines the series of blunders and missteps that led to the overthrow of Amin, the invasion, the installation of the new Soviet-chosen leader Babrak Karmal and to the many unintended and tragic consequences that resulted – especially for the United States and the Soviet Union, who armed their current and future enemies in waging a proxy war against each other. It contains excellent archival footage as well interviews with important historical figures on all sides of the conflict at the time. This documentary, in short, is a must see for anyone interested in the blunders and miscalculations of both Soviet and American leaders that produced the terror-infested world in which we now live.


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Ivanovo: Surprise

Unexpected stories emerge when you poke around in archives. The best laid plans often lead away from where you originally thought they’d go. Sometimes it’s because a letter that is mostly about one thing veers away to discuss a totally different issue (something that is all too familiar when I look at my own email inbox and try to find important materials by looking only at subject lines). Sometimes it’s because files themselves are opaque in their names—the document I’m going to talk about today is from a file simply labeled “current correspondence for 1843.” And of course it’s almost always because people, historical and otherwise, are themselves surprising.

That’s how I felt about a petition that showed up in the Ivanovo estate records. I started reading it and then found it turned into a place I did not at all expect. At the start, I thought it was one version of a mother/daughter story, and then quickly realized it was not.

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Ivanovo: Property

When Kirill Ermolaevich Gandurin died in May 1820, he left behind a wife, a daughter, and a long list of property. A one-story stone house, a list of sixty four icons, a second list of twenty seven additional icons, two clocks, silver, jewelry, seven books, all on religious topics. And, of course, extensive lists of clothing and cloth. The last is the least surprising, because Gandurin was not a nobleman, nor was he a merchant. He was wealthy—no one looking at the long list of property could doubt that—but he was wealthy in a most unusual context. He was one of the wealthy serf industrialists of the village of Ivanovo, the major textile center of early-nineteenth-century Russia.

Because Gandurin was a serf, the settlement of his property was overseen by the Ivanovo estate administration, which represented the interests of the village’s owner, Count Dmitrii Nikolaevich Sheremetev. It operated according to strict regulation—a set of domovye postanovleniia that had established regular practices regarding serf property. As a result of that regulation, “Ivanovo represented its own little self-contained state [gosudarstvo] within Russia” as the former serf Ia. P. Garelin put it in his history of the village (and eventually town). Continue reading

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Ivanovo: Energy Crisis

Firewood showed up in my last post in what was for me a rather unexpected way, as the source of artistic inspiration. It also showed up in other accounts of Ivanovo in the 1830s-1860s in a very different way: as fuel for industry. More than that, though, its absence showed up as an industrial energy crisis.

A path through the forest near Abramtsevo. Photo from July 4, 2015.

A path through the forest near Abramtsevo. Photo from July 4, 2015.

By most accounts of Ivanovo, the textile industry was already of long standing by the early 1800s, but growth really took off around 1820. One story claimed that refugees from the Napoleonic burning of Moscow settled in or near the village and helped drive a new round of growth. A second story claimed that the greatest period of growth occurred between 1825 and 1840—this vision was presented without explanation, but it may well be that it reflected a surge of manumission at the end of the 1820s (the village owner, Count Sheremetev, freed twenty households between 1828 and 1831, most headed by local manufacturers who then continued to run factories in the village). Or it reflected the fact that at nearly the same time, something else happened—machines came into the village.  The first machines appeared in Ivanovo factories in 1832, causing worry for the local peasants, and also introducing a new problem: finding fuel to keep them running. Continue reading

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Ivanovo: Patterns (literally)

Ivanovo textiles, from Ивановские ситцы

Ivanovo textiles, from Ивановские ситцы

One of the things that’s a bit tricky about working primarily with written texts about old Ivanovo is that the major work of the village/town is obscured. Ivanovo was not just a center of textiles in the sense that it was a place in which linen or cotton fabric was produced. Although linen or cotton manufacture was at times a major part of the industrial world of Ivanovo, the village and then the town was particularly known for one particular kind of textile production: printed calico. That meant that it produced colors and patterns. (It also means that it came to be home to some chemical works that produced dyes and maybe caused some other problems, but that’s another story.) Continue reading

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The Russian Manchester

I’ve been following a thread from my work on soslovie that has led me to do some reading on the then village of Ivanovo in the early parts of the nineteenth century. I came across references to a number of serfs freed by Count D. N. Sheremetev who became merchants of Moscow in the 1820s, and they led me back to Ivanovo, where a number of them continued to live as factory owners in the area. I’ve been trying to trace out some issues with the social world of the village, where former serfs turned merchant factory masters lived in very close contact with their workers—who were of course mostly still serfs—and what that meant for life in the “Russian Manchester.”

On the side, though, I’ve also come across a whole slew of interesting little stories about other aspects of life in the region, and so I’m going to do a mini-series of posts about Ivanovo, mostly from the time of serfdom, but a few moving later into the nineteenth century.

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Common Good: Collectives

I intended to post a second response in the conversation a while ago, but thoughts about cheese and then a trip intervened. I’ve been thinking about the commentary here a lot, though, and in particular about another aspect of the shift from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. I got distracted by thinking about the process of writing and revising last time, so this is in some ways a more serious response to the questions about the eighteenth century and the ways it is distinct from the nineteenth century.

First, I think Lindsay is right, that the Catherinian charters are meant in part to give incentives to take up a formal status that more or less accurately reflected socio-economic activity rather than live in a murky in-between. Now that I think about it, the fact that the charters to the nobility and to the towns (and the one for the state peasants that was never enacted) are so very similar in format plays into this more than I perhaps originally thought. Comparing the two charters really brings out their essential similarity—the nobility is comprised of six different parts (“true nobility,” military nobility, eighth-rank nobility, foreign nobles, those with distinguished titles, those of “ancient high-born noble lines”) and the townspeople are also divided into six parts (those who owned real estate in the town; merchants, artisans, foreign or out-of-town guests, notable citizens, meshchane). They both get record books (rodoslovnye knigi or obyvatelskie knigi) with similar lists of documents that can be presented in order to get listed in those books. The charter to the state peasants would have been very similar. In a way, it’s like a version of universal rule of law—everyone (except, of course, serfs) governed by essentially the same kinds of laws of status, even if the specifics of what applied to any one person might be different. Continue reading

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On cheese

Who knew, when I started writing about the Swiss cheese master Tinguely last November, that cheese would become the star of its own foreign policy drama? And yet, here we are. Type “cheese” and “Russia” into twitter’s search field and find a slew of half serious, half ironic stories about Russia’s turn against the evils of Parmesan. Type “сыр” in and find a slew of often pretty funny memes about it (my favorite? Melisandre hovering over Putin’s shoulder, urging him to burn the cheese).

Certainly when I was in Moscow earlier this summer, cheese was a big topic of conversation already, even before the burnings began. (Another sentence I never dreamed I’d write.) My first day in Moscow, at the prompting of a Russian friend, I spent some time looking at the cheese section at a new grocery store, raising my eyebrows at the labels indicating that some cheeses had been imported from Belarus, wondering at the labeling on the “No. 1 in Italy!” mozzarella that had apparently been produced in a nearby province. Later, I heard the saga of the palm oil rumors—the idea that Russia had begun importing huge quantities of palm oil, which was being used to increase the production of processed cheese. Rumors of its dire effects on health ensued, and labels began to appear on cheese, announcing its purity. When I went off to Berlin for a weekend, someone told me to “bring back cheese!” (I didn’t.)

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Common Good: The Eighteenth Century

First, let me thank Josh for organizing this conversation, and Alex, Lindsey, Charles, and John for taking time at summer’s end to take part in it. You are all very kind, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to think about what’s in my book by seeing it interpreted from your various points of view. I have a number of things I’d like to develop more out of this set of comments, and rather than put them all in one long post, I’ll spread them out a bit.

I’ll start by thinking about chronology, or rather, of the problem of the eighteenth century. Alex and Lindsey are both totally right when they note that I cover the eighteenth century differently than the nineteenth century—that, for example, the first and particularly the last chapters, the chapters in which I try to think more broadly about the meaning of soslovie, are very much weighted toward the nineteenth century (and the last chapter toward the last half of the nineteenth century). They’re also very nice in putting this off on a problem of the sources, rather than on how I wrote the book. Continue reading

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Sosloviia in Individual and Collective Lives

Before reading Alison K. Smith’s new book, I had two broad visions of sosloviia in Imperial Russian life, one a dream, the other a nightmare. Both centered on its meaning for collective, rather than individual, life.

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The Uses of Soslovie in Imperial Russia

It is a pleasure to comment on Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. Her careful examination of the mechanics of changing estates through painstaking research on individual cases demonstrates her central point—that estate mattered. It mattered enough to many Russians that they were willing to endure lengthy engagement with local estate administrations and at times costly bribes to move from one category to another. Alison combines archival work on particular people with memoir literature to show how changing estate status made possible ways of imagining themselves and their futures. Beyond Alison’s work in the capitals, she has worked in a half dozen regional archives to show that estate status had a powerful geographical/spatial dimension as well as a social hierarchical one. The chronological sweep of her study matches its geographical breadth. Her work addresses urban estate institutions from the eighteenth century to their demise after 1917, which makes her argument about the larger importance of estate all the more sweeping.

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Soslovie and the City in the Eighteenth Century

Many thanks to Josh for organizing such great panel and inviting me to participate, and also to Alison for writing such an insightful and engaging book. Her study of soslovie provides much food for thought, and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s comments over the coming days.

It would take far too much space to enumerate all the things I liked about Alison’s approach to soslovie, and thankfully Alexander Martin has helped me by so concisely summarizing the book and its many merits. In particular, I’d also like to add that I am grateful for the reassurance that “confusion” really is the right response to the mess of laws and practices related to soslovie and cities in the eighteenth century. During the early stages of my dissertation research, I spent a great deal of effort trying to make sense of the conflicting regulations surrounding the phenomenon of trading peasants. I can now definitively put to rest any lingering worries that I had overlooked the magical law (if only!) that would have reconciled the contradictory strains of legislation and made everything clear on the matter.

Along those lines, while reading the chapters on the eighteenth century I found myself pondering the challenges historians face when undertaking a study that spans the entire imperial period. As Alex noted in his post, source limitations inevitably shape the narrative one can construct for this century. Alison skillfully handles this challenge by focusing on legislative developments related to soslovie and the complexities of how magistrates interpreted these laws in practice. But laconic sources mean that these chapters lack the rich insight into how individuals and communities negotiated the various meanings of soslovie that appear in subsequent chapters on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The source limitations are unfortunate, because it seems to me that a fundamental question underpinning this study is not just the evolving meaning of soslovie in the eighteenth century, but also how soslovie came to have any meaning at all. As Alison reminds us at various points throughout the text, the eighteenth century was a period when new social categories emerged yet older, pre-Petrine ones persisted. How and why did soslovie come to subsume these other categories, and what compelled individuals to opt in and choose to “fit” themselves within this new system?

This may be a relatively moot point for groups like the nobility or serfs whose status coincided more neatly with soslovie prescriptions, but it’s quite a different story for the jumble of urban residents that legislation struggled to corral and categorize throughout the eighteenth century. My experience digging through the Moscow Police Chancellery archives for this period made it clear to me just how easily individuals could—and did—lead prosperous lives that openly defied soslovie regulations, and also the tangible benefits one gained by transgressing category boundaries and opting not to fit within the system. These benefits ranged from the financial, such as avoiding taxes and other fees registered merchants had to pay, to the social. Serfs in Moscow could turn to an owner or, in the case of non-serf peasants, a chancellery to advocate on their behalf in moments of conflict, and very often with successful results. From this perspective, it always struck me as remarkable, not inevitable, that so many individuals opted to forsake these advantages by joining the merchant or townsmen ranks by the end of the eighteenth century.

Following this train of thought, I wonder what insights might be gained by considering how the eighteenth century may have been a period where rulers aimed not simply to categorize, but to co-opt subjects so they would adopt this new social framework. For example, I think Catherine’s legislation can be seen not simply as an effort to organize and reshape urban society, but also to raise the status of merchants and townsmen in order to entice her errant urban subjects to register in categories that better corresponded to their socioeconomic status.

Similarly, this perspective might allow for a study of how broader social changes throughout the eighteenth century connect to the evolution of soslovie. For example, land disputes adjudicated by the Moscow Police in the 1770s and 1780s show that individuals who engaged in commercial activity, including peasants, were more likely to view the Moscow Police or documents produced by the General Survey as a source of authority in times of conflict. In contrast, other segments of society like the city’s iamshchiki (which John knows more about than I do!) continued to articulate an older conception of the city where neighborhood elders served as the primary source of authority and where communal precedent, not state records or regulations, provided the ultimate standard for right and wrong. Perhaps viewing the decision to change soslovie as part of a larger process whereby urban residents came to increasingly accept the conception of authority, society, and the city Catherine promoted could shed new light on what compelled individuals to change their official status.

These are complicated questions, but I’ve always enjoyed the space this blog provides for more informal and forthright conversations about history, exemplified by Alison’s recent posts on the dead cheese master. I’d love to invite Alison and others to wade into the waters of speculation with me and hear their thoughts on the eighteenth century and the murky beginnings of soslovie.

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Common Good

I’m honored to have been invited to contribute to this conversation about Alison Smith’s new book For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. This is, unless I’m forgetting something, my first-ever blog post, which makes the occasion doubly exciting!

If you have followed Alison’s posts on this blog about the dead cheese master of Gatchina, you have an idea of how she approaches history. Her overarching project is to understand how social identity worked in Russia, especially before the Great Reforms. Social identities, she argues, were constructed through a process of negotiation that included individuals, their local communities, and the state. She looks for evidence of this process primarily in the intermediate, mostly urban layers of society, because here (a) people moved actively between social statuses and (b) extensive documentation survives in the form of administrative records and ego-documents. Alison draws on massive archival research for her evidence, and as with the cheese master, she has an eye for the intriguing individual story that sheds light on wider social processes.

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For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being – Introduction

I’m very pleased to launch the eleventh “issue” of this blog’s book conversation series. Today we begin discussing Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014). Alison is well known to regular readers of this blog, not least for her fascinating multi-part series of posts on the “dead cheese master” over the past year. One can only admire her ability to write engagingly for the blog, compellingly for articles in the most prominent journals in the field (among them the American Historical Review and the Journal of Modern History), and in an equally attractive way in her most recent book.

The University of Toronto’s historian of the imperial era, Alison has always been interested in looking across long periods of time in her work. Her first book, Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), ranged from the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. In this book, Alison covers the period from Peter the Great through 1917 and proves able to make many interesting arguments on the basis of a longitudinal study of practices surrounding soslovie membership. I will leave the substantive comments to our panelists, all of whom are more expert on this topic than I am, but I will say that I was particularly interested in the way that Alison describes not only the multiple ways that soslovie functioned in the early imperial period but also the implications of this complexity in the post-reform period. Most notably, an institution that had been (from the perspective of the central state especially) primarily about defining specific tax and military obligations came to carry increasingly important entitlement implications as the rudimentary welfare state developed in the last decades of tsarist rule. Alison proves able to show not just how soslovie persisted after emancipation, but why. Continue reading

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Lists, researching, and writing

My posts on the dead cheese master may have made one thing about me as a researcher very clear: whenever I come across a list—of people, of things, of places—I am drawn to copy it. Last summer, as I started work on my project on Gatchina, I obviously copied down a fair number of lists, like those of the dead cheese master’s possessions that appear in several earlier posts. I did manage to stop myself from copying down every plant and tree in the gardens of Gatchina palace at the time Nicholas I inherited it from his mother, but there were many, many other lists that made it into my notes. There’s something about them that make places and people feel more known. Through them I see the sometimes unexpected variety of names that actually existed in a particular place (yesterday I found two Kleopatras and two Olimpiadas in early 19th century Vladimir province), or the foods bought for a noble family’s table (asparagus bought every day in May), or household goods left behind by a serf or a merchant (surprisingly long lists of icons).

I’m drawn to lists as I sit in the archives. As an academic writer, though, I always find them very difficult to use. I sometimes wonder if things would be different if I were writing different kinds of prose. One of the things that I particularly appreciated about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is the way she incorporates things like these sorts of documents into her narrative. It’s most explicit here, in a passage from Wolf Hall:

He rubs his eyes. Sifts his papers. What is this? A list. A meticulous clerk’s hand, legible but making scant sense.

Two carpets. One cut in pieces
7 sheets. 2 pillows. 1 bolster.
2 platters, 4 dishes, 2 saucers.
One small basin, weight 12lbs @ 4d the pound; my Lady Prioress has it, paid 4 shillings.

Mantel is completely right. Lists like these make scant sense. Or, rather, in one way they make completely literal sense: this is a list of things that were, that existed, at this point in time (always assuming the list maker was telling the truth, and not hiding a thing of greater value or inflating the cost of a small basin). That may explain the attraction of lists—they seem to be history in its purest form, a recovery of an actual lived past. Continue reading

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More on Empire, Pro and Contra

Many thanks to Josh for getting back with such wide-ranging elaborations on my, David’s, and John Paul’s original posts. In the interest of keeping things going, let me take up just one of Josh’s points here, hoping to chime in on others as the discussion continues.

On decolonization as a useful frame for understanding of Russia’s Great War: I agree with Josh’s sensible defense of the term in his post on the topic. For all of the unavoidable shapelessness of the concept, “decolonization” as a way of understanding the formal end of empire shouldn’t be thrown out. In fact, if anything, Josh should be credited for bringing this conceptual terminology into our vocabulary on the Russian side.

The great benefit of Josh’s decolonization framework, as David suggested in his post, is that it places the messy, even torturous social politics of empire at the very center of the analysis. We’re used to thinking of the conflict as a contest of imperial alliances and have no trouble citing “nationalism” and “imperialism” among the various “-isms” on our list of the war’s causes. But we’ve done far less to explore the way that Russia’s “empire-ness” – that is, its possibilities and limitations as a sprawling multiethnic society and polity – affected all the dynamics of the time, high and low, including how the country experienced the momentous and ultimately uncontainable upheaval of 1917. Josh gives us a new way to perceive the relationship between empire and the Great War in the Russian context, all of which is a good thing, in my view.

But can one have too much of a good thing? One of the unavoidable perils of a singular provocative thesis is that it overshadows other dynamics and, perhaps unavoidably, takes on its own seemingly unassailable logic. Decolonization – yes, but did the tensions of empire drive everything? The war tested the form of empire that characterized the Russian state at that particular moment, and the white heat of the conflict ultimately proved too much. There is no denying that much — the empire, indeed, cracked apart, not least because Petrograd lost control of huge swaths of the country as the war progressed, including parts of its Central Asian hinterland.

But did “empire” make this so? If Russia hadn’t been the kind of empire it was at the time, couldn’t one argue that the grinding pressures of the conflict, especially when we add the leadership’s clear missteps to the mix, would have been enough to do in the government anyway? That is, “empire” is surely critical. It affects so much on the Russian side, even developments that we might not assume it would. But, for all that, states that are not empires can collapse, too. Perhaps “empire” in regards to the particular question of regime failure, then, is more a question of context than of cause?

On a related note: In his most recent post, Josh suggests – and I agree with him – that the Russian state was stronger than we might think at the start of the war. I’d only add here, amplifying Josh’s view, that it’s helpful to see the imperial state as both strong _and_ weak as the war begins. Obviously, some of the state’s limitations at the time proved to be terribly dangerous ones to expose to what eventually became the first truly “total war” in the country’s history, and these weaknesses took their toll. But I’m not convinced that they were inherent weaknesses of “empire,” even weaknesses of the particular sort of empire that Russia was at the time.

Alongside terrific tensions and seemingly unresolvable “imperial challenges,” Russia’s “empire-ness” also provided the country with abiding solidarities and much-needed resources during the conflict. Perhaps most of all, “empire” was simply the way one did things within Russia’s historical space. As William Appleman Williams might have put it, at the time at least, empire amounted to “a way of life.” [1] And indeed Josh seems to suggest as much himself by reminding us in Imperial Apocalypse of the final stage of decolonization – phase four – the “state-building” phase that actually witnesses the “rebuilding [of] the empire” (258-62), albeit in changed form, under the Bolsheviks.

[1] William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

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How strong was the Russian state in 1914?

OK, after a couple of rambles, this one will be a shorter post, and I’ll frame it around a question for all the panelists and for the readers of this blog. David McDonald remarks in his final point: Finally, in Sanborn’s telling, the forces unleashed by the war and autocracy’s gathering failures took shape relatively quickly during the war itself. Does taking this view unduly underestimate the extent of social, political and ethnic fissures that had become so dramatically apparent in 1905 and that underlay imperial politics even amid the patriotic celebrations in July 1914? Had the empire—not least the “state”—fully recovered by 1914?”

My view, which I treat probably too briefly in my book, is that the Russian state was quite strong at the start of 1914, strong enough that independence-minded Polish and Finnish nationalists were rightly pessimistic about their future prospects and dynamic enough that Russia’s enemies (Germany in particular) feared for the future. This was not just the result of the post-1905 military reforms (and increasingly robust military budgets) but the result of a whole series of what we might call the “little reforms” on and around 1910, many of them spearheaded by Stolypin with the express purpose of bolstering state power. To be sure, the autocracy had its share of weaknesses, a whole Achilles flank rather than just a heel, and these would prove fatal in the war, but I don’t believe it was on the verge of collapse. Collapse, I argue came during the war, not as the amorphous outcome of “war” or “defeat,” but as the result of a series of self-destructive decisions made by political leaders: the imposition of martial law, the refusal to impose “discipline” on army and front commanders, the resolve to fight inflation through a scapegoating anti-speculation campaign and price controls, and the impetuous move to conduct a scorched earth campaign on their own territory in 1915, to name just a few.

I’d like to hear from others, though, who may see the Russian state as weaker in the months leading up to the war than I do. And how would this thesis of a weak state affect the interpretation of the war as a whole? Feel free to leave comments in the thread below. I and/or other members of the blog will “approve” them when we see them, as unfortunately the volume of spam prevents us from having instant commenting on these posts. If time passes and your comment isn’t posted, feel free to email me or another member of the blog so we can check the spam folder in the system too!

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Mobilization, Motivation, and the Staatsidee

One of the pleasures of a forum like this is that an author can see how his or her work is read and used by colleagues in “real time.” John Paul Newman’s comments about mobilization and ideas, more specifically the “limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples,” are particularly interesting for me in this regard. I had not expected this line of analysis, as I have actually long seen this project as a departure from my first book, Drafting the Russian Nation, which was very consciously about the relationship between ideologies and mobilization. Nevertheless, John Paul is right. Ideas – including ideas about empire – were certainly important to the war and to my book. Continue reading

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Imperial Apocalypse – Response regarding “decolonization”

I too want to begin with more than formulaic thanks to Alison, John Paul, David, and Willard. Alison did a wonderful job of soliciting commentators for this conversation, and (shameless plug #1!) readers should keep an eye out later this summer for a conversation on her own excellent new book, For the Common Good and Their Own Well Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia. John Paul, David, and Willard were not only kind in their comments but also unusually reflective and probing. Thanks!

Those who have read the previous three posts know that there is a lot of terrific food for thought there. This is the stage in a blog conversation where it would be terrific to get lots of back and forth going, not only among the “panelists,” but the “audience” as well. Readers should feel free to use the comments section to question or hold forth on points briefly or at length. I will be responding to these comments in a series of posts over the next few days rather than writing one long response, as that seems to fit the idea of “conversation” a bit better. Plus, I need time to chew on this “food for thought!”

In this first response, though, I’d like to address some of the questions related to the concept of decolonization, as the use of this term has been one of the most controversial aspects of this project as I have presented parts of it in various venues over the years. Criticisms along this line are certainly valid. As Willard notes, the term is both central to my monograph and yet not fully explored in a theoretical or comparative way. This is an issue, naturally, that I have long been aware of. At a certain point in this project, I had to decide what the fundamental nature of my book was. If my core concern was to make a point about decolonization in its global context, with the Russian war experience as a particularly important case study, then I would need to write a comparative and theoretical text that left out much of the various aspects of the Russian war experience that interested (and still interest) me. If my core project was to describe and interpret the apocalypse of the war years, then I felt I had to have a somewhat lighter comparative and theoretical touch. In the end, I chose the latter, largely for reasons having to do with audience. Continue reading

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Imperial Apocalypse Part III

Josh Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse is a remarkable book. With so much written about World War I, including the relatively less studied Russian fronts of the war, it’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that no single work is likely to deliver much that’s new. Yet this is precisely what Josh does. As David and John Paul both point out, his interpretation of the conflict is deeply researched, written with flair and power, and, perhaps most of all, fresh and provocative in the best of ways. As every good book should, Imperial Apocalypse has already begun to stir rich discussion in the Russian field and is bound to resonate with Great War specialists far beyond as well.

Since David and John Paul have already described the scope and themes of the book, let me continue by adding to the discussion they’ve begun of the work’s key contributions, most of which cluster around Josh’s central premise: the contention that the war in Eastern Europe is best understood not as a breathtakingly miscalculated game of chicken fought out between stubbornly expansionist powers or, alternatively, as a rising-up of would-be heroic captive nations against their intolerant imperial masters. Instead, it was a conflict over the very “existence of imperial control as such.” (4) “The Great War,” Josh states directly, “was a war of European decolonization.” (3)

Josh’s argument, in fact, is that the process of decolonization shaped the entire sweep of the war-revolution continuum on the Russian side. He breaks the arc of the times into four stages: a period of “imperial challenge” that helped ignite the conflict, the intertwined stages of “state failure” and “social disaster” that followed as the misery of the war churned on, and, finally, the “state-building” phase, which begins with the civil war and seems to end as the Bolsheviks gradually get the better of their enemies and reassemble much of the empire according to their own avowedly anti-imperialist devices. (I say “seems to end” because Josh leaves open the intriguing possibility that the “state-building” phase could still be with us. As he notes in his conclusion, “the building of a postcolonial state and society [in Russia]…might still be incomplete a century later.” [258])

Decolonization is thus the intellectual lynchpin of the book, the idea nestled at the heart of the argument, but what is it exactly? Josh offers hints of a definition but stops short of actually giving us one. One might say that as long as there have been empires, there have been decolonizations, since empires, like all state forms, are historical. They come and go. If decolonization, broadly speaking, is a process that leads to the undoing of imperial states, then it has been around since the days of the Akkadians. But this also means that it’s a highly varied process since imperial states themselves are nothing if not a motley crew. After all, if empires are put together differently and endure differently, it follows that they come apart differently as well.

Josh writes in his preface that the imperial idea wasn’t his main concern when he began his research on the war. It was only as he immersed himself in the sources that he began to see “a striking resemblance” between the events of the Eastern Front and “the world-historical process of twentieth-century decolonization.” (vii) I’d be curious to know more from him on this score. Even just limiting the view to the twentieth century, one comes across strikingly different forms and processes of “decolonization” – compare Algeria and Hong Kong, for example, or the Philippines and Ireland. How tight, then, is the arc of decolonization that runs from Russia’s Great War and Revolution to these cases and the countless others that mark the 1900s? If we use decolonization for all of these different moments of imperial undoing, does the term itself end up being too baggy and generic to be helpful?

I have more questions – the book is so rich! But since I’m already a little behind with this post, I’ll hope to pick up on them as the discussion unfolds.

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