Archives Soviet Era 1917-1991 World War I

A Snapshot of the 1918 Global Influenza Pandemic in Russia

Judging by my social media feed, several folks with an interest in Russian history have been asking themselves “Hmm, I wonder what happened in Russia during the 1918 global influenza pandemic?” Many moons ago, when researching medical care and medical personnel during World War I for my book Imperial Apocalypse, I had the same question. At that time, I found very little work on the question, either in English or in Russian, though I may have missed something then or something might have been published more recently. (And if there is something out there, please reach out and let me know. I’m interested!)

I did some archival research on this question, though it was limited both by the fact that the flu struck right after the period (summer of 1918) at which I was wrapping up my story and by the scattered nature of some of this material. As is often the case, much of the research I did ended up on the cutting room floor, and I had only a couple of sentences in Imperial Apocalypse that dealt with it:

“As 1917 turned to 1918, and then throughout the rest of the Civil War, the Whites, Reds, and warlords all failed to create the conditions of state support and personal security necessary for vibrant economic institutions to re-emerge. People were hungry and cold. Then, increasingly, they starved and froze to death. As they weakened, they sickened further. Each month saw an increase in the number of people hospitalized, and epidemic diseases became more prevalent. In the summer of 1918, cholera ripped through cities like Iaroslavl. By October, the global influenza pandemic was hitting other towns in the Golden Ring like Rybinsk and the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin alike. Many Russians no sooner recovered from one disease than the next one struck.” (p. 256)

My mention of Rybinsk, a town just north of Iaroslavl, was of course not accidental. One of the sources I found was a set of records from a “flying detachment of the Red Cross for the fight against epidemics in the city of Rybinsk” from the summer and fall of 1918. (GARF f. R-4094 op. 1 d. 137). I entered these data into a spreadsheet to see the ways that disease hit at least one medical facility in at least one city in this critical period. My basic takeaway was that, in Rybinsk at least, the flu was just the latest and not the most lethal of the epidemics to affect the town. The flu first made its appearance into the records in October 1918 as the “Spanish Illness,” though by December it was more correctly labeled as “Influenza.” In October, 17 people were treated, 7 were released, and 10 were still in the clinic. In November, 10 more people became ill, 14 were released, 1 was still in care, and 5 had died. In December, 7 more cases appeared, but by the end of the month all 8 patients had recovered and been released. In sum, then, 34 people in Rybinsk were treated for the flu by this flying detachment, and 5 of them died. This was, of course, terrible. But just before the flu arrived, there had been a cholera epidemic in the city. From July-September, 284 people were treated by the detachment for cholera, with fully half (142) dying of the disease. Earlier still, in May, June, and July, 55 people had gotten typhus, though only one died.

These numbers offer only partial insight into the dynamics of the epidemic, of course. Epidemics strike unevenly in geographic terms, as we are currently learning. Was Rybinsk more or less affected than other regions? These were the records of a single medical detachment. Were there other medical institutions operating in Rybinsk? If so, did they treat infectious cases or send them directly to the flying detachment? There is narrative evidence given by officials in these records that many of the cholera cases they treated were at death’s door because families tried as much as possible to care for them at home, often infecting themselves in the process. Did they try to do the same with the flu? If so, were there many cases unaccounted for because they got better (or died) without ever seeing a doctor? Did the fact that many young men (a particularly hard-hit group in this pandemic) were serving in the military mean that civilian areas saw a lower impact? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. All I really feel confident in saying is that the social and medical impact of the influenza pandemic likely affected Russia differently than many other areas because of this larger context of mass epidemics and, even more broadly, of state and social collapse.

One more point of interest is that in November, 1918 a request was made to a Smolensk clinic to send weekly reports on the “Spanish disease” both to the oblast department of health and to the regional administration of the Red Cross. Perhaps at least some of those records survive. Maybe, once our current pandemic crisis eases, some historian will be able to fill in some of the many gaps of knowledge we have. In the meantime, stay healthy, my friends!

Imperial Russia Research & Practice World War I

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.

Imperial Apocalypse Uncategorized World War I

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).

Imperial Apocalypse World War I

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!

Imperial Apocalypse World War I

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.

Imperial Apocalypse World War I

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.

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.

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.
Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Imperial Apocalypse

Many thanks for inviting me to participate in this blog discussion. I am delighted to participate in the lively scholarly discussion that Sanborn’s work has already sparked. I should make some excuses for myself before I begin in earnest: I am not a Russianist, I cannot speak authoritatively on the work’s contribution to Russian History; I am only tangentially connected to research on the First World War (being more interested in its aftermath and the ‘shadow’ of the conflict in the interwar period); and I am a novice blogger! Perhaps these shortcomings do not matter too much. Sanborn’s past work on military mobilization in the Russian Civil War has transcended the boundaries of its immediate field, it has found its way into the bibliographies of works on a range of topics. Imperial Apocalypse will not be different. Indeed, the very title could apply to a number of states, for the First World War was also an apocalypse for the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and, eventually, the Ottomans (although not the British, the French, or the Portuguese). Indeed, the author himself has drawn out the comparative dimensions of his work: he makes very good use of the concept of ‘cultural mobilization’, first used by the contributors in the volume edited by John Horne, State, Society and Mobilization in the First World War to express the ways in which states at war need to imaginatively and culturally – as well as militarily – mobilize their populations towards the prosecution of total war.

Sanborn argues convincingly that this was a decisive failure on the part of the Russia’s imperial rulers, one to set alongside their equally dire failures on the battlefield. The First World War took on the form of a war of Russian decolonization. The problem of the Russian colossus is not per se one of manpower or materiel , but rather the limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples. Perhaps in times of peace these limits would not be exposed, but the frailty of imperial institutions is revealed because the imperial state must impose itself upon its subjects in an unprecedented fashion. As the war stretches on, the more the Russian state needs of its subjects, the more it demands, the less it gets, leading to a fatal breaking point. Historians of France’s First World War have described this as a ‘refusal’, the nexus can be applied throughout the belligerent societies, the critical refusal was never reached in France or in Great Britain, but it was in Russia, and in Austria-Hungary (and, I would argue, in Bulgaria, whose collapse says something about the limits of the Balkan nationalizing state idea). Sanborn’s great comparative insight is that the war was not simply a great gladiatorial battle between states and their leaders, it was also a matter of ideologies and ideas behind which people could rally.

And what a proliferation of ideas we are faced with. I think that anti-imperialism is actually one of a many political impulses to which the war gives birth. The First World War is marked by a great contemporary public discussion about the future, one that broadens as the war goes on…and on. Ideas about how international relations and states should look once the war is over, about how the great empires should reform themselves, dualism, trialism, Mitteleuropa, utopias of the far left and right (and of the liberal centre, too). Look at the would-be decolonizers: people like Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, or anti-Habsburg émigrés of the Yugoslav Committee in London. In retrospect, they look like prophets or messiahs of the coming kingdom, the men of the hour, but this is to read the war backwards: at its outset they looked more like fanatical chiliasts raging and ranting at the edges of reasonable opinion. So, too, for that matter, did Lenin and his fraction. But my point is that these waking dreams were not simply the preserve of those who will for the imperial apocalypse: there is in fact a wide spectrum of ideas about the future, a panoply of voices and opinions about the architecture of post-war Europe. And they are vying with one another. I wonder if such a spectrum exists in Russia, of which decolonization was one, albeit the most significant, of many shades of opinion. If there is an antithesis to this decolonizing impulse, an alter-ego, perhaps one place to look for it would be in the occupation policies employed by the Russian state in those lands it temporarily gained during the war. I am thinking here of Jonathan Gumz’s work on the Habsburg occupation of Serbia, in which the author argues that the occupation was the monarchy’s attempt to boldly re-assert its Staatsidee in the heart of its nationalizing/decolonizing opponent, Serbia. Was something similar happening under Russian occupation?

Finally, this process of mobilization and imposition does not only have implications for states: it shapes the individual, too. This is present in Sanborn’s book, even though his emphasis, as the title suggests, is on the great Russian state cataclysm. We must also make a case for the transformative effect the war had on political and social subjectivity, in Russia certainly, but throughout Europe. As Saonborn notes, the war ruptures traditional ties, it uproots men and women from their homes and hearths, either as soldiers or as refugees. It scatters people across continents, it tears asunder families, it kills and maims. It permanently changes the relationship between state and individual. Even those men and women who, at war’s end, will retreat into ‘private’ spaces and abjure political or public life will likely carry with them an altered outlook on their relationship with the state, their expectations of it, and so on.

The war is a transformative event, its white heat burns away many traditional political and social relationships, but it does not leave merely ashes in their place: the conflict is both destructive and generative, it forges new forces, new phenomena. I’ve always been unsatisfied with George Kennan’s famous remark about the war being the ‘Ur-catastrophe’ of the twentieth century. It was more than that: it cleared the space for the foundations of much of what we still have today: the nation-state system, internationalist movements, international institutions (for the League of Nations, despite its manifest failures, is a crucial precursor to the United Nations). The war is more like the ‘Ur-event’ of the twentieth century, a century in which Fortuna did not smile upon the imperial rulers. Sanborn’s terrific book depicts a portentous early turn of her wheel.

Reviews World War I

Article Review: William G. Rosenberg, “Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I,” American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (June 2014): 714-740.

In this post, I’m hoping to use the Russian History Blog platform to explore a different form of scholarly communication – the article review. Articles are of course reviewed all the time, but normally anonymously and with the aim of assessing their suitability for publication. After publication, however, authors are lucky to get more than a few lines of comment in a fellow scholar’s work or glancing attention in a footnote. A happy conjunction of forces – finishing my own large project and then opening my latest issue of the American Historical Review to see an article by Bill Rosenberg on a topic I’ve thought a bit about – allows me to do one now.

Historiography World War I

The Invention of Tradition, or How Military History Was NOT Written

Every few years, military historians in the United States engage in a bout of handwringing about the state of the field. Practitioners argue about whether military history in the academy is threatened, who or what is doing the threatening, and what to do about it.  Whatever else one can say about this debate, I think we can safely say that part of the issue has been that for decades now, folks in other historical subfields have claimed to be doing something different than the “traditional” fields of diplomatic, political, or military history.  Some of those bewailing the current state of historical scholarship agree with this assessment, seeing a decline or “undermining” of military history in recent years. In Victor David Hanson’s words, “military history took a beating in the 1960s and 1970s.” A certain number from each party agree that at one time, many historians did military history, and that now far fewer do.

Imperial Russia Uncategorized World War I

Russians in East Prussia, 1914, pt. 2

I’ve gotten several interesting responses to the first post on atrocities: on this site, in private communication, and on the listserve of the International Society for First World War Studies.  Many of those comments have related to the issue of rape in wartime.  One knowledgeable respondent offered the suggestion that the officers (esp. Gen. Gurko) would not have known that the straggling soldiers had been raping the locals.  Rape, he argues, was a capital crime in the Russian army and was “unlikely to be shrugged off at this early stage.” Another respondent found this interesting and asked whether the Russian army was unusual in its attention to crimes against women and whether anyone was ever punished for it.  A response, with a couple more translations, may help to develop this question further.

World War I

Atrocities in East Prussia, 1914

When Steve Barnes invited me to join this project, I hadn’t given much thought to blogging as a scholarly enterprise.  I have read academic blogs from time to time and I usually enjoy them. Sometimes helpful, sometimes self-indulgent, often stimulating, frequently ranting, I’ve put them on the list of things I’ll browse for intellectual pleasure in odd moments in the day, say the ten minutes I have between lunch and my one-fifteen class. But I didn’t plan to write them myself. Steve convinced me, however, that the blog as a genre held real possibilities for scholars. I won’t go into all of those possibilities in this first post, but I will point out a couple of obvious facts about the current limitations of scholarly publication: we only review new books, we review articles anonymously or in the safety of our classroom, and we comment very infrequently upon the strengths of particular works for teaching.  And, of course, the publishing process takes a long time.  At one time, listserves promised to break down some of these barriers, but few of them really do.  So this group blog, from my perspective at least, is a chance to experiment with short-form publishing in which the peer review comes after publication (in the form of responses to the posts, which are always welcome) rather than before.  It’s an exciting opportunity.

My first post is a short translation I’d like to share and briefly comment upon.  Aleksandr Subbotin was a cavalryman from the village of Kolkovo in Tver’ province who served in Rennenkampf’s First Army at the start of World War I.  Bright and literate enough to keep a diary, but occasionally clueless enough to be confused about the actual army he was in (he wrote that he was serving in the Fourth Army), he left behind a diary of the war and several photographs.  These remnants were preserved by local historians and ended up in a special room of the House of Trades in the town of Goritsy. They were read there by Vladimir Burdin, who thought the story of the local boy off at the Great War merited publication.  His edited volume of the diary was published in 2008 in the small burg of Kimry (pop. 50,000). As far as I can tell, only one library in the United States owns the book, and only the magic of WorldCat and interlibrary loan brought it to me.