Monday, June 5, 2017

Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals

Lieven, Dominic. Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals.

In Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, Dominic Lieven sets out to examine both the impetus toward the formation of empire as a methodology of governing territory, factors that all empires hold in common, and the elements leading to the demise of various modern European and near Asian empires.  His method is primarily to compare and contrast empires through the ages, and then to relate them to the development and experiences of the Russian and Soviet Empires that spanned Eurasia.  Although he admits that his methods and goals may be viewed as politically incorrect or not academically rigorous when examined according to the biases of current political science and economics thought, the depth of his comparative analysis and the force of logic behind his arguments is more than adequate to stand against criticism.

Lieven organizes his work according to topic rather than chronology, which greatly enhances its readability.  He devotes Part One to defining “Empire” as a political concept and the place of empire in global politics.  Part Two examines the British, Ottoman, and Habsburg empires, particularly contrasting them in terms of style of empire and the nature of their collective collapse.  Part Three is primarily concerned with the Russian Empire, its fall, and the evolution of the Soviet Union.  Finally, in Part Four, Lieven examines the aftermath of the empires discussed, especially relating the aftermath to the underlying issues related to the fall of those empires.

Understanding that a mutually understood definition of what “empire” means is a pre-requisite to any useful discussion of the role of empires in the world, Lieven begins there.  Lieven uses a multi-part definition of empire that may not be immediately intuitive to readers.  His primary definition of an empire is “a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of an era” and that it further represents a “polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples.” He also defines “empire” as a form of government that is inherently not a democracy, or in his words “not a polity ruled with the explicit consent of the governed.” (pg. xi) Lieven believes that this represents a simple and unsophisticated definition of empire, and it may be if taken at face value.  However, it is clear that Lieven does no such thing.  Both in his Preface and in the later discussion of the dilemmas and nature of empire, he notes that not all empires are repressive, unpopular, or illegitimate in their governance.  Indeed, Lieven repeatedly links the continued success and existence of different empires to the existence of some high imperial culture that subject peoples can admire as being more advanced than their own.

Before launching into his exposition on the dilemmas facing ancient and modern empires, Lieven indulges in the almost requisite tracing of the word “empire” from its historical roots in the Roman concept of “imperium”.  He correctly links the words imperium and imperator with successful generalship.  Lieven believes that the traditional Roman view of the Emperor as a military figure survived into the modern era where the 20th century emperors of Japan, Germany, and Russia rarely appeared in public in anything but a richly decorated uniform.  In the Roman context, Lieven shows the gradual drift from the authority of a Roman magistrate or general to that of monarch.  He also is careful to describe the Roman conception of Empire as a carefully defined legal and political system that was viewed as a universal monarchy for the “civilized” world.  One of the distinctions of the Roman imperial system is that many of the later emperors were neither Roman nor Italian in origin.  In the Roman Empire all of the subject peoples could aspire to the status of citizenship and membership in the senatorial class, which greatly distinguishes it from both the empires that preceded and followed it.

Lieven concludes his discussion of the Roman Empire by briefly identifying and describing the “heirs” to the Roman Empire, which he identifies as Western Christendom, Islam, and Byzantium.  He almost immediately launches into a discussion of the early European conception of empire followed by a discussion of the modern debate on the nature of empire and the ideological basis for the seemingly innate distaste for “empire” in modern liberal democracies.  Although the heirs to Rome are discussed more fully later in his work, Lieven doesn’t really provide enough background for his designation for the three groups as Rome’s heirs, particularly in the case of Islam, which can scarcely have been considered a unified empire at the time of the fall of the Western portion of the Roman Empire.  In fact, it appears that Lieven basis his entire inclusion of Islam as an heir to the Roman Empire almost solely based on the spread of Islam and the resulting linguistic, governmental, and ethnic similarities that spread with it.  However, it is difficult to accept his claim that the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates were the heirs based on their geographical location and monotheistic religion.  The caliphates were certainly not Greco-Roman in character or philosophy.

Lieven presents the modern debate regarding empire as being divided into two camps.  The first camp sees empire in terms of the maritime colonial empire that Americans are familiar with, the thirteen colonies being the first to wage a successful war of independence against a remote imperial government.  The second camp sees empire as the extended territorial domains of a absolutist monarch, sometimes intertwined with a “universalist” religion such as Christianity of Islam, and operating on either the Roman model of devolved local control or the Han Chinese model of direct control by a rigid bureaucracy.  In either case, the camps agree with the modern liberal conception of empire as a totally negative, repressive, anti-democratic, and illegitimate regime.  Part of Lieven’s goal is to show that this is not necessarily the case.

He begins this task by comparing the Chinese Han and Roman Empires in existence at the beginning of the 1st century AD.  Starting from the premise that despite their assimilationist nature, multi-ethnicity, and scope, the Han and Roman Empires were fundamentally different.  Where the Roman Empire utilized a small, almost informal bureaucracy, the Han used a vast rigid omnipresent bureaucracy to control their vast holdings.  While immediately noting that generalizations can be dangerous, Lieven draws the obvious conclusion that the different models are primarily the result of the differing philosophies governing the widely separated realms.  Where the Romans followed the well-known model of the rule of law and self-governance based on Greek philosophy, Roman law, and the primacy of the self, the Han Chinese followed the more communitarian model embodied in Confucianism and the Mandarin system, where the benefit of the greater community was prized and the individual was subjugated.  Predictably the two widely different philosophies resulted in incredibly different methods for the maintenance of Empire.

After examining the growth of the modern European state, Lieven finally launches into the meat of his discussion: the dilemmas facing modern empires.  Lieven believes that the modern European empire was born out of the need for Continental powers to acquire the resources to compete with the perceived threat of American and Russian economic growth.  To combat the potential of these two proto-powers, France, England, Germany, and Belgium set out to divide the “lesser” areas of the world amongst themselves.  While they were largely successful, Lieven argues that the patriotic nationalism necessary to create the mass conscript armies of the 19th century for conflicts in Europe proper, combined with the increasingly democratic nature worked to ensure that European Empires could not last.  This is first evidenced in Europe proper as the Habsburg Empire felt the strain of ethnic nationalism within its borders, which were restricted to continental Europe.  Ultimately, ethnic nationalism in the Third World would overcome the weakened colonial powers after two World Wars.
            Most of Lieven’s text is reserved for his comparisons of the British, Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian Empires.  Each empire is placed in historical perspective including the defining elements involved in its rise and eventual fall.  Lieven further complements his analysis by contrasting the weaknesses of each empire with similar issues faced by the others.

The British Empire stands out from the others discussed as rivals to the Russian Empire as being in some way fundamentally different.  This is demonstrably true on multiple levels.  Of the Empires Lieven discusses, the British is the only one that can truly be considered a “maritime” empire with colonies primarily scattered around the globe.  The reason for this should be immediately obvious given Great Britain’s geographical location on a relatively isolated island.  While this difference greatly differentiates the British Empire from the other three empires that are the focus of Lieven’s work, the manner in which England governed its empire is a greater source of difference.  Although it had increasingly liberal and democratic traditions in its home islands (with the exception of Ireland) and allowed its “White” colonies primarily comprised of English, Scots, and Irish colonists great leeway in matters of local governance.  The “Non-White” colonies like India that primarily consisted of indigenous peoples had a variety of local governments.  In India’s case the colonial government was autocratic in nature.  Although he does not make a direct correlation with the Roman system, Lieven describes the nature of British imperial government as distributed and indirect in nature similar to that utilized by the Romans and relying in part on the cooperation of local elites.  To Lieven, the British Empire was a source of pride and loyalty to the majority of its subjects, a situation he finds to be the case in the majority of the Empires he studies.

Another contrast Lieven finds between the British and other Empires is in the nature of their formation.  While he believes that there is an economic aspect to the creation of almost all empires, Lieven shows that with the exception of the territories encompassed in the United Kingdom, Great Britain’s Empire was acquired for primarily economic means as a source of power and wealth for the financiers of London.  The various colonies also provided a much-needed place for the British to dump excess under-employed or dissatisfied elements of society, which maintained a certain degree of stability at home.

]In contrast, the Habsburg and Russian Empires were landlocked multi-ethnic empires created out of both economic and military concerns for the states that controlled them.  The Habsburgs had no extra-European possessions, which created an internal need for a dynamic economy and stable political situation.  Given its early location across the trade routes through the Ottoman Empire into Europe proper and an industrious populace this was possible until the rising pressures of ethnic nationalism began to cause political rifts in the Habsburg Empire during the 19th century.  The aristocratically oriented, anti-democratic nature of the Habsburg Empire had no release for the rise in ethnic radicals during the 19th and early 20th centuries and growing economic and military weaknesses in the 18th and 19th centuries made the Habsburgs vulnerable to both Eastern and Western neighbors.  The relative weakness of the Ottomans and Russians reduced the real threat from the East, but Prussia and France were constant threats.  To provide themselves with an adequate defense, the Habsburg monarchs were forced into a series of alliances with greater powers to protect themselves even from the likes of Russia.

According to Lieven, the main contributor to the fall of the Habsburgs was ethnic conflict among the Slavic and Germanic populations, each of which were naturally drawn to other states.  This issue was exacerbated by the partition of the Empire into Austrian and Hungarian dominated sections, with each catering to its own populations and traditions to the detriment of their respective minority groups.  This eliminated Habsburg imperial cohesion and greatly contributed to the Empire’s military weakness.  Ultimately, lack of a true imperial identity and the profusion of ethnic groups caused the Habsburgs to become weakened and vulnerable.  Arrogant pride caused them to launch the First World War.

The Russian Empire is yet again different from the others discussed.  Like the Habsburg Empire, aristocrats, especially the Romanov dynasty, dominated the Russian Empire.  The Russian Empire’s location on Europe’s periphery gave it access to different markets and resources, particularly in the mountain regions of the Caucasus Mountains and in Siberia.  However, Russia suffered from many of the weaknesses of its location on the edge of European civilization.  Russian economic and military development were initially slow, gained dominance, and waned again.  According to Lieven, Russian expansion was both military and economic in nature, with economic expansion toward the South and East and military expansion toward the West and Northwest.  The Western expansion into places like the Baltics and Poland was undertaken in the name of greater security for the Motherland.  Like other multi-ethnic empires, Russia was beset with ethnic conflicts and regularly had problems.  In the Caucasus region, with its tradition of ethnic cleansing, even the Russians undertook mass deportation of subject peoples in order to reduce tensions.  Poland, however, presented a different set of problems.  Where the Roman, British, and other empires gained acceptance in part due to perceived economic and cultural supremacy over their subjects, the Poles had recent experience with their own nation state, traditions, language, and literature.  Poles felt that their native culture was more developed and advanced than that of the behemoth to their east, which provided a patriotic center for their resistance to Russian imperialism.

The weaknesses of the Russian Empire were many, and Lieven examines them all.  Briefly put, the political and economic situation brought on by World War I allowed the Bolshevik revolution to progress, changing the nature, but not the fact of the Russian Empire.  Lieven seems confused about whether he wishes to present the two political organizations as separate imperial entities.  The Soviet Union is provided its own subsection in the large discussion of the Russian Empire, denoting its status as different from the Romanov dynasty.  It is understandable to group the two units together, if only to point out the differences between them and to illustrate their common roots.

Lieven finds the problems facing the Soviets to be in some ways an extension of those facing the Romanovs.  Both imperial states faced wealthier foreign rivals.  For the Romanovs, the Rivals were Prussia, France, and England.  For the Soviets, the rivalry was primarily with the United States, but also with England and other Western states.  Both imperial states faced problems with ethnic tensions, although for the Soviets the severity of these was not obvious until the fall of Communism as an ideology.  Both imperial states faced issues of economic weakness and an obsession with security arrangements on their Western frontiers.  However, the causes of the fall of the two imperial states were radically different.  For the Romanovs the fall was caused by economic strains induced by the protracted war against the Central Powers in World War I, which led to the Bolshevik revolution.  For the Soviets the collapse of their Marxist ideology brought the ethnic tensions under the surface of their vast empire to forefront and the federal republics that formed the Union began to break away.  The similarities and differences between the two empires, combined with their historical connections, make it difficult to separate them completely.

Lieven wraps up with a separate discussion of Empire’s aftermath in each of his four objects of discussion.  This approach is valuable, particularly when wrestling with the moral and ethical implications of Empire.  With the exception of England’s “White” colonies and the majority of the former Soviet Republics, the fall of Empire is almost always accompanied by ethnic violence, political turmoil, and economic desolation, at least for a time.  An objective look at an empire’s fall should serve to quell the instinctive modern disdain for imperial systems, which is one of Lieven’s goals.

Lieven’s treatment of the causes of empire formation and the effects of imperial states is by no means exhaustive, and it is certainly not meant to be.  His goal appears to be to rehabilitate the conception of “empire” as a legitimate form of governance by showing that not all of the effects are negative.  Certainly, under the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian/Soviet Empires most of the ethnic bloodshed in Europe during the 1990s would not have occurred, whether through strict controls on weapons and movement, or through shrewd political maneuvers and the economic advantages of the imperial systems.  Given the current claims that the United States is embarked on a path toward “empire” this discussion of the possibilities and consequences of imperialism may be particularly apt.       

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