Sunday, April 15, 2007

Book Review: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals

Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 2000

Dominic Lieven is a Professor of Russian Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He received his degree in history from Cambridge University in 1973 and has taught at both Tokyo University and Harvard as a visiting professor. His recent publications such as Russia and the Origins of the First World War (1983), Russia are Rulers under the Old Regime (1989) and his most recent work, Empire. The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (2000) focus on comparative history on both imperial and post-imperial Russia.[1] Lieven’s purpose in writing Empire. The Russian Empire and Its Rivals was to “put the history of Russia within its international context. The demands of international power politics and of membership of the European and then global system of great powers were of overwhelming importance in Russian history.”[2] Lieven’s thesis is that:

the autocratic and despotic state, with its formidable capacity to
mobilize resources despite ruling a poor society in a very difficult
geographical environment, was the essential element in Russia’s
emergence as a great European power. But the power was bought
at very high cost.[3]

Lieven “introduces [readers to] the concept of empire and explain[s] the international context in which the Russian state had to survive.”[4] He also examined the concept of empire evolved over time. He explains that there are two main schools of thought on what exactly an empire constitutes of during the twentieth century. The first school consists of historians such as Michael Doyle and believes that an empire is the following:

…takes its basis in the modern European maritime empires. It therefore
defines empire as the relationship between metropolitan core and colonial
periphery, usually viewed in terms of economic exploitation and cultural
aggression, and always in terms of political domination.[5]

The second school consists of historians Samuel Eisenstadt and Maurice Duverger “whose interests lie mainly in the great military and absolutist land empires, often linked to universalist religions, which existed from antiquity into the twentieth century.”[6]

He then introduces readers to the various concepts of an empire. He discusses how “the rise and fall of the Russian and Soviet empires was determined to a great extent by geopolitics, by the nature of the European (and later global) system of states, and by the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s rivals.”[7] After defining what an empire is and its concepts, Lieven turns his attention to case studies on four empires: British, Ottoman, Austrian, and Russia. He outlines how “in the nineteenth century Britain was the world’s leading industrial power.”[8] Lieven described the Ottoman Empire as “becoming a backward periphery of Europe” and Austria as “a hybrid, in some respects modern and capitalist, in other a military, dynastic, land empire based on very traditional principles.”[9] The next four chapters are devoted to the Russian empire.

The first of which focuses on the regions, peoples and geopolitics of the Russian empire. He also explains “the significance of Russia’s peripheral position in Europe and the global economy” and various types of empires that bordered Russia.[10] Chapter seven explores the origins of how Russia became a national state and the influence of the political leadership by the Tsars “influenced the whole subsequent nature and development of the Russian Empire.”[11]The rise and fall of Tsarist Russia is analyzed in chapter eight while the ninth chapter compares Soviet Russia to Tsarist, British, Austrian and Ottoman empires, “the aim being to show both the imperial quality of the Soviet regime and its peculiarities when compared to other empires.”[12] The final chapter examines the collapse of the four empires previously mentioned during the twentieth century.

Lieven’s monograph is an excellent work on the concept of what an empire is and how it evolves over time. His analysis of how power comes in a variety of forms: military, political, economic, ideological, demography and geography provide readers various examples of how each of these contributes to the building and destruction of an empire, namely Russia. Lieven’s extensive notes and bibliography make available to readers an excellent and stimulating array of further investigation into the Russian and other empires that have existed throughout history. This work is highly recommended for readings in both undergraduate and graduate courses.

[2] Dominic Lieven, viii.
[3] Ibid., 418.
[4] Ibid., xiv.
[5] Ibid., 25.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., xv.
[8] Ibid., xvi.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., xvii.