Discussing empire and imperialism in the broad sweep of world history

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Ramadan 16, 1422 2001-12-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 19, Ramadan, 1422)

EMPIRE: THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE AND ITS RIVALS by Dominic Lieven. Pub: John Murray Publishers Ltd., London, UK, 2000. Pp: 486. Hbk: £27.50.

The USA is often described by its critics as a global empire. Those who are less critical of its role in the world sometimes prefer to describe it as the world’s sole superpower. Both labels are broadly accurate, and at the same time ambiguous, for both mean different things to different people. This book, by a Professor of Russian government at the London School of Economics, explores the emergence, meanings and forms of empire in Western and world history, from ancient times to contemporary history. Lieven’s focus is primarily on the experience of Russia — the other superpower of the recent past, and arguably the world’s last traditional empire — but he places it in the context of a broader consideration of world history that makes the book compelling reading for anyone who is interested in world history.

This is history on such a massive scale, so sweeping in its coverage, that it is hard to know where to begin in reviewing it. It is divided into four parts. The first, called ‘Empire,’ is as good a general introduction to world history as any dedicated book on the subject. The second, called ‘Empires,’ is a comparative discussion of the British, Ottoman and Hapsburg empires over the second half of the last millenium. The third part, called ‘Russia,’ is the heart of the book, a discussion of the Russian empire from the emergence of Tsarist expansionism to the fall of the Soviet Union; and the fourth part, called ‘After Empire,’ is a short discussion of the world in the late twentieth century.

Lieven begins by tracing the historic usage and understanding of the word empire, to try to grasp some of its central meanings. “‘Empire,’” he tells us, “derives from the Latin word imperium, the meaning of which is best defined as legitimate authority or dominion.” He then traces subsequent European conceptions of empire, through what he regards as three heirs to the Roman empire: Byzantium, Islam and Western Christendom. Islam may seem out of place here; Lieven does not claim that Islamic civilization was rooted in Rome in any sense, but that it succeeded Byzantium as the dominant power in the region and surpassed all previous empires in terms of size and power: “To a degree that no other empire ever matched, the caliphate controlled almost the whole of the ancient world, in other words Egypt and what we nowadays describe as the Middle or Near East.”

Lieven then focuses on Western Christendom and the understandings of empire that characterised early European history, including those of the ‘Holy Roman Empire,’ the Carolingian empire of Charlemagne and the Papal empire that the Holy See tried, in medieval times, to build into a new Christian empire to rival, and then succeed, Byzanium. He then moves forward to consider understandings of empire in Europe’s last territorial empires, the Hapsburg and the Russian, and the modern, colonial empires of the Dutch, the British and the French that launched the globalization of European imperialism. Lieven’s object in this introductory discussion is to highlight the common features and continuities of a key concept through a long period of history. He highlights three key elements of people’s understanding of empire that, in different ways and in different circumstances at different stages of history, provide common features of all empires, and can be regarded as fundamental to them. These are — very broadly indeed — power, economic exploitation and a legitimising ideology, usually one of a civilizing mission of some sort or another.

Having clarified some implications of the meaning of ‘empire,’ Lieven then launches into a sweeping survey of the history of empires in Eurasia. He begins by comparing the contemporaneous Roman and Han Chinese empire that dominated either end of the Eurasian continent. He points out the similar problems that both faced, in terms of running vast empires with minimal technology, and the many similarities in their approaches. Both, for example, developed excellent communications and expert bureaucrats in order to administer their empires. Both were also remarkably assimilationist and tolerant. At the same time, there were obviously huge differences in approach as well, not least those reflecting fundamental differences in their views of the nature of society. Lieven then moves on to discuss the successors to these empires, and in particular to compare the European experience, where the Roman empire collapsed into what we now know as ‘the dark ages’ from which emerged the medieval European states system that became the precursor to the modern West, with the durability of the Chinese empire, which survived through to less than a century ago.

The core of the book is comprised of the sections on recent empires, comparing the Russian experience of empire with those of the British, the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. These are broad surveys that inevitably tend to reflect the perspective of the imperial powers that then ruled. He mainly compares Russia with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Both were contiguous, multinational land empires that acquired their first imperial possessions in the mid-16th century. In Russia’s case, it came with the first victory of Muscovy over the Tatars to its east, enabling it to colonise Siberia, particular benefiting from the rich fur trade. A second burst of expansions came in the mid-eighteenth century, mainly towards Europe. By this time, Russia was consciously competing with the empires of other European powers. It was late in the eighteenth and through the nineteenth centuries that Russia expanded into Muslim lands of Central Asia and the Caucasus to the south. He then goes on to discuss the Soviet administration of the Russian empire.

Although his perpective is imperial, however, Lieven is not blind to the realities of power as experienced from below, in any of the empires he discusses. He reminds us, for example, of the declaration of one Russian governor of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century: “gentleness, in the eyes of the Asiatics, is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and thousands of Muslims from treason.” Lieven is equally blunt on the realities of Soviet rule over Muslim lands, from the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution to the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the empire in 1989.

Lieven’s style and object is not of detailed micro-history, however. His emphasis is on highlighted trends and long-term developments and continuities. It is in this sense that he moves on, in the final section of his book, to discuss contemporary history, including the question of whether the US today constitutes an ‘empire’ in the classical sense of the word. He acknowledges its unprecedented dominance in power terms, and its economic exploitation of that power, but cannot quite bring himself to describe it as an empire, concluding that its lack of direct rule over vast areas of territory excludes it from the term. In the classical usage of the term that may be a fair conclusion; but Lieven himself emphasises that the understanding empire and imperialism are flexible and change over time. One suspects that in a few years a similar book may well have the title Empire: the USA and its Rivals.

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