Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Imperial Apocalypse–Part II

In deference to emerging tradition on this blog, let me begin by thanking Alison Smith for her invitation to participate in this conversation about Josh Sanborn’s important new book on Russia’s Great War. Accessible to specialists and the proverbial “general reader,” alike, Imperial Apocalypse succeeds at an improbable goal: in a mere 250-odd pages it provides a lucid, engagingly written and clear account of the accelerating maelstrom that overtook and overthrew the Russian Empire (as well as its Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Ottoman rivals) after the summer of 1914. Along the way, he deals with the welter of challenges and failures associated with the strains of a total war for which none of the combatants had adequately prepared. In Russia’s case, these challenges included: equipping and maintaining an army led by an often incompetent senior command; managing the huge influx of refugees and POWs along roads and rail-lines that also served as lifelines for the front and the cities; growing distrust or outright hostility between the autocratic state and a self-professed “civil society” organized as Duma fractions and also, increasingly, as managers of transportation and industrial production; and, throughout, the erosion of the state’s monopoly on authority and violence in tandem with the widening gyre of non-state violence on Russia’s imperial peripheries and, ultimately, in the heart of empire itself.   As with Sanborn’s scholarship in general, Imperial Apocalypse rests on an impressive source-base, while also casting its subject in comparative perspective.

Sanborn’s study is the latest entrant in a burgeoning literature on World War I’s eastern theatres. As such Anglophone readers will find Imperial Apocalypse an interesting complement to Peter Gattrell’s books on the period—most notably Whole Empire Walking, or Karen Petrone’s recent study on The Great War in Russian Memory, Peter Holquist’s many writings on the period, Eric Lohr’s book on “nationalizing” the Russian Empire or Russian Culture in War and Revolution, edited by Melissa Stockdale, Boris Kolonitskii, Steven Marks and Murray Frame (part of Russia’s Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922). These works form part of a larger trend to revisit the war as its participants experienced it, rather than as a prelude to 1917. They approach the years of war and revolution as an important and contingent period of both continuity and transformation that bound the Soviet order to its imperial predecessor.

At the same time, Sanborn parts company with his counterparts by incorporating another historical literature that has undergone its own dramatic expansion since 1991, the “imperial turn.” He understands the war and its impact as perhaps the first instance of a “decolonization” process that we more readily associate with the two decades following the end of the Second World War. From this point of view, the Russian state proved incapable of governing and/or mobilizing its imperial peripheries, provoking chaos or resistance in turn. In the zones of military rule along the western and southern fronts, the brutal treatment and expulsion of local populations—Poles, Germans, Ukrainians and, most often, Jews—whose deportation to towns and cities in central Russia only added to already overburdened reserves of food and housing, exacerbating mutual suspicions among ethnic and religious communities that saw one another as strangers or worse. After 1916, the same processes would serve as a vector for epidemic illnesses from typhus to influenza. (Here, his attention to doctors, medics and nurses proves an especially useful lens on the contrast between the state’s and army’s incapacity and the patriotic spirit in large parts of civil society). In Central Asia, the effort to recruit indigenes as labourers sparked such events as the 1916 risings in present-day Kazakhstan.   In both instances, state incapacity created zones in which the capacity for organized and sustained violence slipped from the state’s hands and into those of any force that could maintain itself, as vividly demonstrated by the appearance of rogue paramilitary detachments and the phenomenon of “warlordism” from late 1916 and throughout the revolutions and civil war that raged throughout the former empire—and, indeed, much of eastern and southeastern Europe—into the early 1920s. Sanborn sees signs of the emerging new order of things in the line of succession linking many tsarist bureaucrats, the Provisional Government and administrators under Whites and Reds, all of whom espoused a technocratic and instrumental approach to mobilization, requisitioning, markets and surveillance

Thus, in brief, Sanborn’s new book makes a welcome addition to our growing body of scholarship on the Russian experience of World War I. It largely avoids the teleologies of 1917 by tracing a rolling process of disarray that began at the empire’s edges and made its way in- and upward along various paths in dissolving the autocracy. In doing so, it draws our attention to processes and forces that don’t often appear so distinctly on accounts focused on the capitals or the conflict between “state” and “society.” For this perspective alone, it has much to recommend it.  I will certainly use it in my undergraduate and graduate seminars on the period.

Rather than continue with a detailed discussion of this book and its many virtues, however, I would rather honour this blog’s invitation to a “conversation”—and spare the reader’s patience—by offering some questions that occurred to me in reading and reflecting on Imperial Apocalypse, in the hope that they elicit responses from Josh, the other participants and, of course, the blog’s readers.

  1. As he explains on pp. 4-5, Sanborn organizes his analysis in a schema that characterizes each successive period in what he defines as a process of decolonization: imperial challenge; state failure; social disaster; and state-building. I’d be interested to know what led him to identify these four phases as part of a general process of decolonization in the case of imperial Russia. (I can’t help noting in passing that this structure recalls S. F. Platonov’s categorization of the Smuta in the early seventeenth century as comprising “dynastic,” “social” and “national” phases.) What do historians gain and lose in using such analytic structures or, put another way, what do they reveal and what do they obscure? Such questions seem all the more germane with regard to these periods of systemic convulsion, whether the Smuta, the “imperial collapse,” or the more recent collapse/unraveling of the Soviet order.
  1. In a related vein, one of the great merits of the “decolonization” interpretation lies in the alternative it offers to the older national-liberation narratives that long predominated in the histories of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian (and, more recently, Soviet) successor states. That noted, what are the limits of the “decolonization” concept, particularly when comparing Europe’s “east” with the former colonies in the global south? How might the different trajectories of interwar European and post-colonial history in the global south lead us to rethink or refine our understanding of “empire” or “imperialism” in the early twentieth century? Here, thinking of John Newman’s post, how might an imperial Russian “Staatsidee” [gosudarstvennost’?]—have framed the ultimate outcome of self-determination among the aspiring successor states that emerged from the rubble of Russia’s collapse?
  1. Given the growing attention to the Great War as a link between two periods we long saw as qualitatively distinct, how might we reconceptualize our canonical periodization of modern Russian history? In the same context, Sanborn brings his account to a close in 1918, with a cursory prospective look into the 1920s—what other dates might have formed a plausible end-point for the story and what interpretive implications would flow from each?
  1. 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? We often treat the coming of the war in 1914 as an exogenous factor that disrupted Russia’s “normal” development. Might one not make the case, following Chris Clark’s Sleepwalkers at least part way, that the decision to enter the war stemmed as much as anything from Russian leaders’ concern over the maintenance of the empire’s Great Power status as an imperative buttress for the autocracy’s legitimacy and authority at home? Might not the failure to defend that status on the battlefield have reopened these old fissures? P. N. Durnovo seemed to fear precisely that in January 1914.

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