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Definitions, methodology, and argument.

Alfred J. Rieber, The Strugglefor the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War. 652 pp., maps. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-1107043091. $95.00.

Alfred Rieber incorporates the now fashionable term "Eurasia" into his new and voluminous political history, which covers that huge land mass from the days of the Mongol Empire to the disintegration that followed World War I. It is an ambitious and impressive work, and full credit must be given to Rieber's erudition. The book is divided into six chapters, each usually subdivided into another six subchapters devoted to the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Iranian, and Manchu empires, and--in deference to Polish exceptionalism-- the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The chapters are arranged by topic (imperial space, ideologies, institutions, frontier encounters, crises, and legacies), the subchapters by territory. Such an organization creates a certain awkward overlapping--something the author himself recognizes in his introduction (3), but that may be inevitable in a work of such scope. The book reads well but requires sustained concentration. It raises some important issues, and it is quite fitting that the editors of Kritika should make it the subject of a forum in which scholars of different fields may offer a rewarding criticism. For my part, rather than offer a systematic critique of the work, I have selected three large issues requiring further discussion and focus on the Russian case, with which I am most familiar.

The first major issue has to do with definitions. Nowhere did I find a definition of "Eurasia." Some scholars, like Robert Kaplan, use the word to mean Europe and Asia. (1) Others simply avoid the issue by saying it means the same thing as Central Asia. I use it to mean very much what Halford Mackinder meant by the Heartland--that is, Russia as its core surrounded by Sweden, Poland, Anatolia, Iran, and Outer Mongolia abutting against the Scandinavian Alps, the Balkans, the Taurus and Zagros mountains, the Hindu Kush, and the Gobi Desert. (2) In that sense, Russia partakes of both Europe and Asia. One may disagree with definitions, but the writer must be clear about what s/he means by the terms. It simply will not do to use that term everywhere, including in the title, and take it for granted that the reader will know what it means. There is a reference to the unity of Eurasia (21) in the days of the Mongol Empire: does this mean that Eurasia included China, the Russian lands south of the Volga, the Ukrainian lands, and a Greater Iran including Central Asia? That may be so, but why then should it be called Eurasia? What was the European part? Twenty pages later, we find the term West Eurasia as the title of a subchapter (41); it will never again reappear in the text. It seems that West Eurasia included the Polish and Lithuanian lands, Hungary, even Bohemia. There is a hint that it may also include the Baltic lands conquered by the Teutonic and Livonian Knights. What of Novgorod and the northwestern Russian lands? Where does West Eurasia begin? If there is a West Eurasia, there must be a Central and an East Eurasia as well. What were they? Rieber's lack of precision about the geography of Eurasia becomes manifest when Hungary, first placed in West Eurasia, is then described as an "Asiatic colony in the heart of Europe" (193). I know that the Central European University is based in Budapest, but still ... If Hungary is to be the center of Europe, where does Europe end in the east? Along the Urals? But I thought the Urals were in Eurasia. We are told at one point that Belarus is at one end of Eurasia and Xinjiang at the other end (62). I do not see China as the "oldest continuous empire in Eurasia" (281). China is in Asia, not in Eurasia.

We also need to be clear about the meaning of frontier and borderland. In American usage, a frontier is not a boundary but a zone. (3) There is no such thing as a "moving military frontier" (1): frontiers do not move, but boundaries do. Ukraine, Lithuania, and the Baltic lands remain frontiers; their boundaries have changed over time. The Russians used the word liniia for a military boundary. What differentiates a frontier from a boundary and a borderland? Does a frontier lying beyond the periphery of a core power become a borderland when it is incorporated into the expanding core? We are told that "borderlands faced frontiers in two directions: an inner cultural frontier turned toward the center of state power; and another, inherently unstable military frontier facing territories contested by rival powers" (59); in such a case a borderland would be a territory facing an inner frontier and an unstable military frontier--that is, sandwiched between two frontiers. I do not find such a statement a model of clarity.

Chapter 4, "Imperial Frontier Encounters," tells us that the frontier "became less a zone of encounter between nomadic and sedentary societies and more a zone of encounter between organized state systems based on agricultural communities and urban centers, ruled (mainly) by hereditary monarchs" (293). Has the frontier disappeared to become an internal borderland while the core power has become a "conquest power"? Why should simple frontiers become "complex frontiers"? Examples would have helped. I find some difficulty in applying Rieber's terms to Russia's expansion across the Ukrainian steppe in the direction of the Black Sea.

One has to wait until chapter 4 to find a description of the frontiers: the Baltic littoral (295-301); the Danubian frontier (301-14); the Pontic steppe (347-71); the Caucasian isthmus (371-94); Trans-Caspia (395-415); Inner Asia (415-23). In what way was the Baltic littoral--the Russo-Swedish frontier would have been a more appropriate term--transformed from a simple into a complex frontier? In what way did the rule of the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Iranians transform the societies of the Caspian isthmus into complex frontiers? This might be true of the Cossack communities in the Pontic steppe, but was it true of the Tatar communities in Crimea, the Kazakhs, and even the Buriats? Much depended on the extent of sedentarization, but that was bound to be a very limited and slow process. Did nomadic Buriats who gave up stock raising to engage in agriculture transform their society into a complex one?

Nevertheless, Rieber raises here an interesting question. Much work remains to be done to analyze the nature of the impact of Russian rule on the old frontier societies in general, not only the steppe frontiers. Could it be, for example, that the Russians were agents of modernization who transformed simple and archaic societies into more "modern" ones? Anyone familiar with the economic situation in the Baltic lands and Transcaucasia in the 18th century will cite as examples the absence of a uniform system of weights and measures, which sometimes varied from one estate to another, the multiplicity of tolls that paralyzed trade across Transcaucasia, and the more severe repression of crime--Swedish and Mongol laws were sometimes harsher than the Russian penal law. Although it is not clear how the integration of frontiers created more complex societies, one can make a case for the Russian passion for uniformity--which did not need stimulation from Enlightenment philosophy--helping to bring those frontiers into the more modern world. Or must this be dismissed as an argument of colonialism?

The second major issue is that of Rieber's methodology. It may be that his blurred vision of Eurasian geography results from a self-imposed limitation. He is afraid of being called a determinist, the ultimate insult in our scholarship. In an attempt to do "scientific work," we tend to forget that science develops by assuming that certain findings determine the appearance of others, that the combination of certain circumstances determines the production of other effects. It also develops by offering bold assertions that challenge the scientific community to prove or disprove them. Therefore, the author rejects geopolitics as well as a "civilizational" approach in favor of a "geocultural" one (6), although the difference is not altogether clear to this reviewer. We are told that "the basic assumption underlying the geocultural outlook is that climate and soil, the contours of the land, abundance or lack of navigable rivers, proximity to seas, all present possibilities as well as imposing constraints on human action" (8), but we are then informed that Eurasian frontiers and borderlands will be treated in the book as fluid rather than fixed and immutable concepts (8). In other words, permanent factors--and what could be more permanent than geography?--create fluid rather than fixed and immutable concepts. Both the geopolitical and the civilizational approaches are "complicit in the coming of the Cold War" (5). What if they were? How is it possible to reject geopolitics in a work dedicated to the "struggle" for the Eurasian borderlands? Seeing the specter of Samuel Huntington and of determinism, Rieber settles for a neutered version of the rich life of the frontiers, which he has spent so many years studying; that may be the chief weakness of the book.

It is incredible to this reviewer that Russian historians should remain so oblivious to the fact that the Cold War of 1948-91 was in fact the second one. The first one had lasted from the later 1810s to 1907, when Britain and France, frightened by the prospect of Russian hegemony in "West Eurasia," developed an ideology and policies to contain the Russian monster looming on the horizon after the defeat of Napoleon. France had already inaugurated a policy of containing Russia in the 18th century through its alliance with Sweden, Poland, and Turkey. Anyone wishing to challenge this interpretation must read John Gleason's Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain, (4) The language used in London in the 1820s and 1830s was strikingly similar to that used in this country in the 1950s, and Lord Palmerston's vision of the 1850s bore a close resemblance to our policy toward Ukraine in our own day. That "cold" war even turned hot once, in 1853-55. George Kennan did not discover anything new. In each case, the rise of Russian hegemony in Eurasia generated a struggle for the borderlands and set off a containment policy by the coastland powers, a policy grounded in geography and politics--that is, geopolitics. If Rieber had seen this, he would have given us a dynamic vision of the struggle for the borderlands and a clearer understanding of what was at stake. In his conclusion he tells us that the struggle for the borderlands had not yet come to an end (614). It certainly has not. But if it has not come to an end, it is because of the everlasting manifestation of geopolitical ambitions in the struggle among core powers for hegemony in their respective borderlands. That is why we hear so much talk about another cold war.

The third major issue actually concerns the particular arguments that Rieber makes throughout the book. Chapter 3 deals with "Imperial Institutions"--that is, the ability of some core powers to build armies and bureaucracies which enabled them to pursue the conquest of borderlands, and the inability of certain other states to do the same, for which they fell prey to the conquest states. Poland-Lithuania was the most obvious case, but Turkey, Iran, and China were not far behind.

One needs to debate whether there was a grand design in the articulation of a Russian foreign policy. Rieber claims Peter I had none. This will come as a surprise to anyone aware that the tsar sent troops as far away as Denmark and deep into Finland to break the back of the Swedish empire, failed against the Turks on his way to the Danube but sent more troops along the Caspian to fight Turks and Iranians in the Caucasus, and sent expeditions around the Caspian to reach Central Asia and the Silk Road. After him, Anna Ivanovna fought a bloody war with the Turks that took the Russians to Moldavia and imposed her candidate on the Polish throne. Catherine II annexed the eastern marches of the Polish empire, reached the Black Sea and broke the back of the Ottoman Empire in the region. Alexander I and his brother Nicholas I completed Peter's work in Finland, Poland, and Transcaucasia. To refuse to recognize a grand design in Russian policy is baffling, to say the least--or is it fear of determinism? The most obvious objection is that one does not systematically build armies and bureaucracies without a purpose; and if a political elite has a purpose, it will have a grand design.

A second point requiring clarification is stated in the title of the book. Does "struggle for the borderlands" mean struggle with the borderlands in order to conquer them, or struggle with another state in order to wrest them from the control of that rival? The two are not quite the same thing, and the former may result in a greater stability than the latter. The conquest of Central Asia was a struggle to subjugate the khanates and other tribal communities; it was not a struggle with Iran for their annexation into the Russian Empire. In contrast, the annexation of Finland was not a struggle with the Finns but with Sweden over the control of the Russo-Swedish frontier. The Caucasian Wars were a struggle with the highlanders for the incorporation of their lands. Rieber apparently sees the "struggle for the borderlands" as one with another conquest state for mastery of the "complex frontiers" between them. But I am not quite sure. The issue needs to be developed; for example, along the lines suggested by Owen Lattimore in his work on the Chinese frontier. (5) This certainly would help us understand some contemporary developments and integrate the present into the past. Alas, in that case geopolitics would raise its ugly head...

A third point has to do with the dynamics of Russian expansion. If there was no grand design, no conscious will to achieve definite objectives, why did Russia expand? This is a large question to which there is no simple answer, if only because several factors are involved. Rieber offers a stark picture; the struggle was between state building at the top and "the reaction of subjugated peoples" below (91). Flere is an initial contradiction; if Russia expanded by subjugating peoples, there had to be a conscious will. If the goals were strategic, as some have claimed, there had to be a grand design. One cannot have one's cake and eat it too. One must also distinguish between a period of empire building, when nationalism was not yet born, and one of imperial disintegration, when nationalism undermined the imperial construction and paved the way for the horrors of the 20th century.

I do not entirely subscribe to the theory that the Russian Empire was an "Empire by Invitation," in which the dynamism of empire building originated in the frontiers, but there is some truth in it. The Russian core expanded at a time when the rising strength of Russia more than matched the growing weakness of the opposite core powers, resulting in greater turbulence in the frontiers--which stimulated Russian expansion, the drawing of Russia into the politics of the frontiers. Such an approach assumes that the frontiers had already been included in the sphere of influence of the opposite core power; it could explain the dynamics of Russian expansion.

It is necessary to reassess the issue of subjugation during the initial period of Russian empire building. No one would question that compulsion was involved, that territories were incorporated by force of arms, but was that all? There had existed a separatist movement in Finland for a long time, and the Russians were received with open arms in 1809 by the Swedish minority that ruled the country. Baltic Germans threw in their lot with the Russians, not so much because they had been subjugated, but because they had been ruined by the "reversion"--the Swedish nationalization of their lands, which the government claimed had been unlawfully acquired. In both cases, dissatisfaction on the part of the ruling elite with the policy of the core power to which they had been "subjugated" encouraged the elite to switch sides. Did the Baltic German nobility of whom Nicholas I boasted that they had given 150 generals to the Russian army, feel subjugated--or the Georgian nobility and the Armenian trading community early in the 19th century?

It is often overlooked that as early as the first partition of "Poland" the magnates of Right Bank Ukraine had already formed a tacit alliance with the Russians to open up the Black Sea for the marketing of their agricultural products blocked on the Lower Vistula by Prussian policies. (6) Likewise, the Cossack starshina, transforming itself into a landed nobility, had a vested interest in integrating into the multiethnic--called "multicultural" by Rieber--ruling class of the Russian Empire, after drawing the Russian government into the politics of the Hetmanate for most of the 18th century. Farther east, we know that Fort Mozdok on the Terek River was built at the request of a Kabardian prince seeking protection against his neighbors; there are other examples in Siberia of local leaders inviting the Russian to build outposts for the same reason. Did all these people feel (at least at the beginning) "subjugated"? Russian expansion is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to the hostility between conquerors and subjugated people. After 1855 the explosion of nationalism caused the empire to weaken and ultimately implode. And what happened?

The reaction of the subjugated intellectuals, together with the disintegration of the core powers, resulted in chaos. Political scientists tell us that an extensive period of peace requires the existence of a hegemon. (7) Instead of resorting to the meaningless "geocultural approach," we should draw lessons from the formative period of Russian imperial history (from the 1650s to the 1830s), which has unfortunately been so neglected.

Finally, one should note that a few minor errors in the book need correction. Rieber vastly overestimates the importance of Adam Czartoryski as curator of educational affairs in the Western provinces (226-28). The proposition that Catherine II was the creator of the Pale of Settlement must be reassessed (236). Konstantin von Kaufmann was not viceroy in Turkestan, only governor-general (239). Grigorii Orbeliani never was viceroy in Tiflis (385). The restrictive clause in Alexander Is statement restoring the privileges of the Baltic nobility "insofar as they are in agreement with the general decrees and laws of our state" (216) originated in fact in 1710, under Peter I. The statement that the ministerial reform of Alexander I "increased the number of competing forms of imperial rule without rationalizing the lines of command" (219) requires an explanation. Bessarabia was not annexed in 1815 but in 1812 (57). A curious and disturbing omission is a reference to this reviewer's work, which covers much the same ground (but in a smaller version). Core areas have become conquest powers and turn out to be the same. Frontiers have become borderlands. The framework is the same. One will not engage in a constructive debate on this complex issues by ignoring the similar work of other scholars, even if it was published 17 years earlier.

I submit these comments as a contribution to what ought to be a serious discussion of the issues raised (and not raised) by Rieber. Too much has already been written about empires, Eurasia, and frontiers by scholars who do not care to define their terms. It is true that no definition will satisfy everyone, but those who use those terms must take their chances. Once we know what a scholar means by using them we can follow the development of his/her thought and criticize it on the same level. So much more work needs to be done for the "positive" period of Russian expansion, from the days of Ivan the Terrible to the end of the reign of Nicholas I. Offering us a strict narrative gives us the building blocks for a comprehensive debate on the geopolitics (alas) of the Eurasian landmass and on the validity of a "geocultural" approach.

Davis Center

Harvard University

1730 Cambridge St.

Cambridge, MA 02138 USA

(1) Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), 73, 76.

(2) Halford Mackinder, "The Geographical Pivot of History," Geographical Journal 23, 4 (1904): 421-37.

(3) Perhaps no one has been so explicit about his understanding of a frontier as Leonard Thompson ("The Southern African Frontier in Comparative Perspective," in Essays in Frontiers in World History, ed. George Wolfskill and Stanley Palmer [Arlington: University of Texas at Arlington, 1981], 87). I would call his frontier an open frontier, which eventually closes, a refinement of Frederick Jackson Turners discussion of the American frontier. I look upon frontiers as geopolitical territories--that is, territories located between two or more core powers seeking hegemony over them. They never close but become internal frontiers which, in changing circumstances, can once again become geopolitical frontiers open to competition for hegemony between those powers. The Baltic and Ukrainian lands are typical examples. I am not sure what a borderland would be in the Russian context.

(4) John Howes Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Policy and Opinion (New York: Octagon Books, 1972), 21-22, 50-56, 101-6.

(5) Owen Lattimore, Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers, 1928-1958 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).

(6) See John P. LeDonne, "Geopolitics, Logistics, and Grain: Russia's Ambitions in the Black Sea Basin, 1737-1834," International History Review 28, 1 (2006): 1-41.

(7) Harold James, The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 30. This is called the "hegemonic stability thesis." See also Charles P. Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-39 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 289; and Robert Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 72, 365.
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Title Annotation:The Strugglefor the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War
Author:LeDonne, John P.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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