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.” )
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.