Imperial Apocalypse World War I

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.

2 replies on “Imperial Apocalypse Part III”

To follow up on Willard Sutherland’s remarks about ‘unpacking’ the term “decolonization”: among other things, it is the antonym of “colonization.” And as Willard suggests, in the expansion of the Russian Empire in the first place, there was colonization and there was colonization.

Broadly speaking, at least two distinct trends existed. The first rather resembled what the British did in building the Indian Raj, namely dominate and then incorporate previously existing polities. This is the version of “colonization” that tended to dominate on the western edges of Russia, e.g. in the Baltic states, Poland, etc. The second rather more resembled Frederick Jackson Turner’s picture of American westward expansion, where permanent settlement lagged behind but followed the exploration/exploitation of comparatively virgin territory. Neither in the American West nor in Siberia was the land wholly unpopulated, but in neither case was there anything resembling, say, historical Lithuania or Ukraine. Interestingly, late-Imperial Russians routinely described the ongoing incorporation of Siberia in terms of “kolonizatsiia” — and the term persisted into at least the mid-1930s despite its negative connotations for Marxist-Leninists. They had in mind this second type of expansion.

The point here is that neither “colonization” nor its antonym “decolonization” necessarily meant the same things in different parts of the Russian Empire at different moments. I’m actually pretty well persuaded by Josh that “decolonization” as an antonym for type 1 colonization is a useful lens through which to view Russia’s war-prompted fissiparation on the European side of the Empire. But to me, that leaves us with the need to ‘unpack’ the term with regard to Siberia, the polar regions, Russian Manchuria, the Russian Far East, and anywhere else where Imperial expansion followed my second broad category. Rather crudely put, you don’t see ethno-nationalist polities emerging in those places out of the dust of an imploding Empire. That’s probably because 1) the strains of the war diminshed with distance from the front lines; and 2) there weren’t any subsumed ethno-nationalist polities out there in the first place. Thus the first stage of Josh’s analytical framework of Imperial collapse doesn’t really seem to apply to an awful lot of erstwhile Russian territory, to be sure containing a small minority of the nominally Imperial population and maybe not all that important in the grand scheme of things. I’m still working out in my head how the rest of the stages played out on the eastern periphery, and for now will suggest that the timing (at a minimum) was rather different than it was in the west.

Again, I don’t see any of these rather inchoate musings of mine as detracting in any significant way from what I happily agree is a major, major achievement by Josh. It’s more a matter of suggesting that it’s always complicated when it comes to Russia, with Siberia and ‘my’ neck of the taiga frequently exceptions that prove the rule.

Jon, thanks for the comment! I agree completely that decolonization was quite different, even structurally so, depending on the nature of the imperialized zones in question. However, I don’t think that historians actually use the term “decolonization” as an antonym for “colonization.” Perhaps we should, but we don’t. As your example of India suggests, the term is used regardless of whether these were co-opted principalities or “cleansed” and colonized territories. We also don’t necessarily need to see ethno-national polities as the only possible things that might emerge from decolonization. It’s certainly not logically necessary, and the broad political experimentation that we saw in the Revolution and Civil War attests to this, not only in European parts of the empire, but in Siberia and Central Asia as well. I give attention in the book not only to the 1916 insurrection on the steppe, but also the surprising (to me at least) strength of federalist ideas in 1917 in many different places.

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