Sweep of history across the Steppes

August 24, 2001

Dominic Lieven carries off the formidable task of comparing the experience of the Russian and Soviet empires with that of others. From the Han Empire in China to the failure of the American Confederacy to become a nation and the lessons of empire for the European Union, his comparisons display enviable mastery of a vast range of subject matter, an admirable capacity for synthesis and generalisation, and readability.

In part one he surveys the changing meanings of "empire" from Roman times and sketches the rise and fall of the British, Ottoman and Habsburg empires, the principal competitors of Russia, and the major cases with which she is compared. Part two examines the political structures and cultures of these three empires and the different dilemmas faced by an insular, maritime empire, such as Britain's, or a continental, military and bureaucratic empire, such as the Austro-Hungarian. Part three focuses on the rise and fall of the Tsarist Empire, which Lieven sees as combining features of contemporaneous European empires and of autocratic land empires that go back to antiquity.

He proceeds to a hard-nosed, but never moralising, account of the Soviet Empire, locating its imperial dimension in its harnessing of a universalistic ideology to traditional preoccupations with territory, autarchy and the mobilisation of resources for military power. The final part of the book looks at the aftermath of the British, Ottoman and Habsburg empires, tracing the consequences of their demise for former colonies, the peoples of the metropole and for the international order. In respect of the aftermath of the Soviet Empire, Lieven argues that the costs of its demise have so far been limited; it may, however, be too early to make this judgement, given that in Chechnya in the first war alone, more than 50,000 were killed between 1994 and 1996.

Lieven defines an empire loosely as a great power that has left its mark on the international relations of an era, as a polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples and as one that is usually linked to a great religion or high culture. He is critical of definitions that centre on the distinction between core and periphery, arguing that these cannot accommodate the experience of ancient empires such as the Roman or Han, and he rejects the notion that political domination or economic exploitation are constitutive features of empire.

His analysis is underpinned by an argument that there are six key sources of power in any polity: geopolitical, demographic, military, political, economic and ideological-cultural. Alert to the specificity of his case studies, he invokes all at different times but geopolitics he sees as fundamental. At the heart of his account of the Russian and Soviet empires, for example, are geography, position in the international state system and capacity to sustain power against rivals. As scholarly interest in empire centres, somewhat narrowly, on discourses, representations and identities, this is refreshing.

Economics receives short shrift: the exaction of tribute, the scramble for markets and raw materials, the search for investment outlets feature barely. His multidimensional definition of empire, while enabling him to deal sensitively with historical diversity, sometimes leads to rather arbitrary judgement since there is no consistency in the criteria applied to determine whether a polity qualifies as an empire. Lieven argues, for example, that modern China is not an empire because only 6 per cent of its population is non-Han. Tibetans or the Uighurs of Xinjiang would doubtless beg to differ.

Despite its sweep, the book is emphatically about empires rather than imperialism and, occasionally, this leads to strained judgements. Most would agree that the contemporary United States is not an empire in a conventional sense - though she fits at least two of Lieven's criteria - yet many would balk at the claim that her international role "also is less than imperial". Other lacunae include a rather cursory treatment of relationships of ethnic domination and a virtual absence of any consideration of empire from the viewpoint of the colonised.

Curiously, for a work that is critical of excessive abstraction, the author tends to operate a rather sharp distinction between nations and empires. He writes interestingly about the multi-ethnic states of India and Indonesia, which, he contends, are not empires because neither state exercises much power beyond its region or embodies a potentially universalist ideology. Yet both face the same central problems as empires: namely, the management of scale and multi-ethnicity. Together with the examples of China and the US, they suggest that empire is a relative rather than absolute term and reading modern history as the transition from empire to nation state should be resisted.

Lieven, for example, assumes that Russia today is post-imperial, yet it is still 5,500 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok and, of the 21 ethno-republics in the Russian Federation, the titular nationality is a majority in only five. This is not to argue that the Russian Federation is an empire - for one thing, federalism now has real substance - but it is to suggest that the distinction between empire and nation is bound to be blurred on a continental land mass where, from the 16th century, state building was inseparable from empire building and where much expansion was the result of peasant migration rather than state initiative.

From this comparative perspective, finally I drew the somewhat perverse conclusion that imperial problems per se , such as issues of direct or indirect rule or cultural assimilation, have rarely been of overriding significance in determining the evolution of the Russian polity. Neither the demise of the tsarist nor the Soviet regimes, for example, was the direct result of the dilemmas of empire. That is not a conclusion that Lieven himself draws, but the fact that I drew it is testimony to his rare capacity to think on a grand scale and to open vistas on old subjects. For one who styles himself the "wicked descendant of aristocrats and imperialists", that is no mean achievement.

Steve A. Smith is professor of history, University of Essex.

Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals

Author - Dominic Lieven
ISBN - 0 7195 5243 5
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £.50
Pages - 486

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