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Struggle over the borderlands.

The editors of Kritika deserve my thanks for organizing this roundtable discussion of my book, for inviting four distinguished scholars to comment, and for offering me the opportunity to respond. Although these four critics and I share a common interest in the comparative history of empires, we all (myself included) work out of a regional specialization: Chinese (Perdue), Russian (LeDonne), British (Farrell), and Ottoman (Islamoglu). Beyond their imperial gaze, therefore, the views of my critics also reflect the current concerns and historiographies of their intellectual base of operations. The same is true about my own Russian-centered comparative analysis. In my case, however, the result has been a reaction against the reigning orthodoxy on Russia's imperial policies, which in turn has required a revision of the imperial policies of its rivals. In place of the traditional geopolitical perspective, I suggest an alternative called geocultural. In place of a uniquely expansionist Russia, I propose a rivalry among continental empires over the contested space of the Eurasian borderlands. Revisionist views in history shake up established verities and, for this reason often engender strong reactions, as in the case of my four critics.

The use of the term "geocultural" provokes skepticism from Brian Farrell and Huricihan Islamoglu and outright rejection from John LeDonne, while Peter Perdue expresses disappointment over the book's "political framework" (926) and concludes that my "approach fails to break new ground" (927). Ever since Theda Skocpol brought the state "back in" and Jacques Le Goff, Charles Tilly, Jack Goldstone, and many others devised new ways to explore politics and state building, political history has enjoyed a renaissance. (1) My aim is to contribute to this rich literature by situating the rise and dissolution of the great multicultural continental empires in what I consider an innovative spatial setting encompassing three geocultural entities: Eurasia, complex frontiers, and borderlands. My approach is comparative over the longue duree (five centuries) and, whenever appropriate to my main thesis, transimperial with an eye to the transfer of ideas, technologies, and models of reform. The book seeks to combine a history from above--the ideological and structural features of imperial rule and the course of imperial rivalries--with history from below through the actions and reactions of the conquered peoples of the borderlands. My use of the term "geocultural" was meant to challenge the implications or uncritical acceptance of the term "geopolitical." I have two objections to geopolitics as an analytical construct. First, it grants physical geography an overly determining-- yes, even deterministic--role in explaining international conflicts. Second, its intellectual origins and subsequent evolution in both its German and Anglo-American versions have in my view led to dangerous real world outcomes. The geocultural, I submit, avoids both of these pitfalls.

How has the term "geocultural" as a reconceptualization of space been defined and employed as a guiding thread throughout the book? I define five major interactive themes linking physical geography, state power, and cultural practice: conquest, colonization, conversion, co-optation of elites, and cultural assimilation. These are instruments employed by the centers--I use that term in preference to "core"--of imperial power to guarantee external security and internal stability. Once incorporated into an imperial state system, the new subjects struggled to retain their cultural identity or regain their political independence by engaging in a broad range of practices from resistance to accommodation. Resistance has assumed many forms, from continuous and persistent adherence to religious and linguistic identification to flight or armed rebellion; accommodations are similarly varied, from serving in imperial armies and bureaucracies to embracing the faith and/or language of the dominant culture.

The interplay of these factors over time defines Eurasia as a series of historical processes rather than as a static physical entity. In a different mix they also define complex frontiers, although Farrell dismisses the term as "oxymoronic" (918). What is complex about them, as compared to simple frontiers or borders, as the current literature defines them? (2)

Complexity arises from two unique features of Eurasian frontiers. First, these frontiers are broad bands of territory or zones where large-scale movements of populations differing in ethnic, linguistic, and religious composition have been jumbled together with no clear lines of demarcation separating them. This process takes place over long periods of time, going back to the earliest migrations of peoples across the Eurasian steppe, which deposits pockets of old migratory groups as new ones succeed them. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century, the spread of Islam and the Turkic invasions from the east, the migration of Slavic populations from their aboriginal home in the Pripet region and the Drang nach Osten of the Germanic peoples further contributed to this demographic kaleidoscope. The wars of the 17th and 18th centuries further scrambled the mix. I call these frontiers "shatter zones," a term borrowed from anthropologists which has only recently been revived by historians.

The second dimension of complexity arises from the expansion of the rival state systems (Ottoman, Russian, Habsburg, Polish-Lithuanian, Iranian, and Chinese) into the space occupied by these shatter zones. Unlike frontiers elsewhere, with the exception of a brief period in mid-18th-century North America, Eurasian complex frontiers are sites contested on one level by multiple rival imperial powers, generally three or more, and at another level by the local populations. (3) The latter are often nomadic or seminomadic but also may be settled, even urban, communities organized into their polities. For purposes of analysis I have located and identified seven complex frontiers: the Baltic littoral, the Pontic steppe, Triplex Confinium (Western Balkans), the Danube, the Caucasian Isthmus, Trans-Caspia, and Inner Asia.

Borderlands, another key geocultural construct introduced in the book, are territorial entities carved out of the complex frontiers in the course of the imperial competition and incorporated into the peripheries of the multicultural empires as distinctive administrative units (e.g., the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Kingdom of Poland, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Danubian vilayet, Georgia, Iranian Azerbaijan, Xinjiang, Mongolia) or brought under the protection of an imperial power (the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the Crimean Khanate). Defined by military action, imperial borders cut through shatter zones, dividing the same ethno-linguistic and religious groups. Inhabiting both sides of contiguous borderlands, the conquered populations shared cultural and commercial ties and often aspirations of reunification. Consequently, the centers of imperial power regarded them as volatile and vulnerable to external attack combined with domestic rebellion. Attempts were made to secure their loyalty through the promulgation of dynastic ideologies, the co-optation of their elites into imperial institutions, and cultural assimilation.

Although these efforts secured the longevity of empires, ultimately they failed. Periodically, the domestic resistance of nobles, religious leaders, and later members of the local national intelligentsia challenged and eroded imperial rule. Defeat in external wars threatened the multicultural states with the loss of their borderlands and the prospect of dismemberment. But defeat also generated reforms from above. In the long run, the dialectical result of this process created new, professional (some would say modern) civil and military elites that themselves exhibited nationalizing tendencies. Toward the end of the 19th century, a series of crises within the borderlands persuaded some of these elements to question imperial authority as no longer the most effective and reliable means of maintaining the state order. The disasters of World War I accelerated these tendencies in the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires (similar tendencies had already surfaced in Iran in 1908 and China in 1911). The army, once the glue, became the solvent of imperial rule. Thus the geocultural approach, by incorporating the ideological and institutional practices of the multicultural empires into an analysis of their competition for territory, illustrates the central importance of the struggle over the borderlands as a source of international conflict and its relation to domestic reform.

Let me turn now to a few of the more specific critiques. Perdue, whose work I frequently cite and admire, criticizes my lack of originality. He sprinkles his criticism with references to a number of recent methodologies ranging from quantitative history to environmental history, saddling me with the stigma of being a traditional historian. These days, no greater sin can be committed! My interest in recent historiographical turns has developed as a result of having taught Historiography at the Central European University for many years in hopes of breaking the mold of traditional national narratives, which have succeeded dogmatic Marxist narratives in the region, from which most of our students come. But I also believe these turns have to be employed selectively and with an eye toward fitting the problematique. There is also the danger of becoming intoxicated with the cocktail of historical turns, as a recent round table hosted by the American Historical Review suggests. (4) They can induce dizziness. Perdue takes me to task for a teleology (another cardinal sin), having among other things neglected paths not taken in forming new nations such as those connected with the Buddhist movements. Frankly I do not see how the Buddhist movements fit into the set of questions I am trying to answer. As for the Pan-Asian movements, Perdue will be happy to note that in my sequel to the Struggle over the Eurasian Borderlands, now in print as Stalin and the Struggle for Eurasia, I devote a great deal of attention to the Japanese concept of an All-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere as an instrument in its competition with Russia (and the West) for hegemony in Inner Asia. (5) Which brings me to his regret over my alleged omission of Japan from this narrative. Alas, Japan does not appear in the index. However, in the section "The Revolution of 1905," I deal, not for the first or only time, with the Russo-Japanese rivalry over Manchuria and Korea (the Inner Asian complex frontier) and its reverberation as far away as the Kingdom of Poland (the Pontic complex frontier) from where Josef Pilsudski journeyed to Japan to put himself and his party at the service of the Japanese. In the section "Reviewing the Imperialist Drive," I analyze the Russo-Japanese Convention of 1907, linking this attempt to create a sphere of influences on the Inner Asian frontiers with similar efforts with respect to the Habsburgs in the Balkans and the British in Tibet and Afghanistan. This is only one example of the numerous interactions that he claims I ignore among rival imperial states sharing common political and cultural practices.

I explore a different type of interaction by providing examples of historical actors who compare their respective political systems both within Europe and across Europe and Asia in my comprehensive treatment of economic reforms--in particular, the sharing of cameralist thinking in the Habsburg and Russian empires in the 18th century exemplified in the writings of J. H. G. Justi, which express an idealization of the Qing Empire. Still another example is the perennial problem faced by the empires of border crossing along the porous complex frontiers, whether by Muslims fleeing Russian expansion in the Pontic steppe and Caucasus, or Zaporozhian Cossacks crossing in the opposite direction into Ottoman lands, or the great migrations of the Serbs in and out of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, or the Iranian Azerbaijani seasonal workers in Baku, returning home with radical ideas in their bags. These varieties of interactions--or entanglements, if you prefer--seem to have escaped Perdue's notice.

That my analysis is exclusively political or lacks justification as a geocultural approach is belied among other sections by chapter 2, "Imperial Ideologies." Curiously ignored by my critics, it is devoted to the attempts over time of the rulers and ruling elites of the multicultural states to devise an overarching ideology to impose unity and loyalty on ethnically, linguistically, and culturally mixed populations. I characterize these as an amalgam of four representations of real and symbolic power: a divinely inspired dynastic succession; a founding myth based in part on ancient chronicles and in part an invention of intellectuals in the service of the state; a set of cultural practices designed to glorify the ruler's power; and a geographical imagining of borderlands as an intrinsic manifestation of imperial power. I borrow the concept of political theology from Eric Voeglin and others to characterize the transfer of ecclesiastical tropes and images by Christian and Muslim clerics and Confucian scholars into their monarchical equivalents in order to legitimize imperial power. (6) Cultural practices in all five major multicultural empires are explored through rituals, ceremonies, and architectural styles of imperial capitals. The final chapter on "Imperial Crises" returns to this theme. In crisis, rulers couched appeals for unity in traditional tropes combined with nationalizing ideas as they sought to combat the rising aspirations of nationalist intellectuals in the borderlands. I do, contrary to Perdue's assertions, demonstrate how such invented traditions as Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism, Pan-Turkism, Pan-Islam, and a Confucian revival represent alternative paths to nation-state building and attempt to explain why they failed.

Let me turn now to LeDonne, who considers my terminology blurred or confused and expresses outrage that I could conduct a study on the struggle of empires without wielding the wand of geopolitics. My difficulty in dealing with his critique stems from his categorical dismissal of any deviation from his traditional geopolitical approach to Russian history and the ill-tempered tone of his remonstrance. Let me address just two of many examples. He wonders how the Baltic littoral could be imagined as a complex frontier. May I remind him that for two centuries or more, possession was contested not only by Sweden and Russia but also by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth? Cultural hegemony was contested after the region's incorporation into the Russian Empire by Russian nationalists, the German Baltic nobility, and, at the end of the 19th century, by an emerging nationalist intelligentsia among Finns, Latvians, and Lithuanians, who sought to rally a discontented peasantry and a socialist-minded proletariat in the modern factories, culminating in a violent explosion in 1905. Is this frontier not complex enough for LeDonne?

Another example: LeDonne asserts that I claim Peter the Great had no grand design. Not true! I describe his policy (296) as seeking to demolish the barriere de l'est that had walled off Russia from Europe, to secure leverage over the barrier states (Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire), and, in "his grand design"--I use that very expression--to construct a vast system of canals linking Russia's great river system from the Baltic to the Black and Caspian seas as an opening to Iran and the East. Opposing my inclination to treat geography as a fluid concept, LeDonne asks "what could be more permanent than geography?" (946). This is where we differ fundamentally. LeDonne is a great admirer of Halford MacKinder, the grandfather of the Anglo-American school of geopoliticians and darling of the Russophobes. MacKinder derived much of his thinking about space (Raum) from the German geographers of the 19th century, Together with Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who shared MacKinder's view that Russia was seeking world domination, his views inspired U.S. geopoliticians and advisers to presidents to shape the containment policy. Incidentally, MacKinder could not make up his own mind about the boundaries of his imaginary Heartland! (7) It is against this interpretation of Russian history that I have reacted in this and other studies of Russian foreign policy. (8) Here I argue that all the contending powers for Eurasian space were engaged in expansionist policies (including at certain periods even Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which, however, lacked the resources to carry out their grand designs). Why Russia emerged as the ascendant power, was defeated, then resurrected by the Bolsheviks as a multicultural state only to witness in 1991 the loss of its borderlands (which it is now striving to recover in some measure) is indeed a recurrent theme in the history of Eurasia. LeDonne expresses astonishment that Russian historians--and I assume that he includes me in this number--ignore the fact that the Cold War of 1948-91 (sic) was the second one. Farrell answers this one for me by stating that my treatment of the great Anglo-Russian duel in the 19th century comes close to "something of a grand narrative" (921). How could LeDonne have ignored all this? I can only conclude that he gave up reading my book early on.

Farrell's critique comes as a source of relief. True, he has his reservations. Some of these I have already addressed. He wonders whether I believe that the relationships among the German, French, and British empires played no significant role in sparking the world crises. Of course, they did. My purpose, however, was not to write a history of the origins of World War I but to suggest that the role of the continuous struggle over the borderlands has been underestimated in the July 1914 crisis. The struggle over the complex frontier of the old Triplex Confinium had gone on since the three-sided rivalry among the Habsburgs, the Venetians, and the Ottomans in the 16th century. After Venice dropped out, Serbia emerged as a new contender in the struggle. From 1907 to early 1914, three major crises, including two wars in the Balkans, had narrowly escaped becoming generalized into a European conflict. July 1914 was the fourth. It involved at first the traditional competitors: the Serbian government entangled in nationalist conspiracies to liberate their co-nationals across the border; the Habsburgs fearing the effects of Serbian nationalism on its recently acquired borderland of Bosnia, with the possibility of greater disruption among the other nationalities; and Russia, a sometime protector of Serbia with a reputation for backing down from all-out support over the previous century, now facing a final test of its influence. The July crisis then took on the characteristics of "Galloping Gertie." (9) The metastasizing of the conflict arose from the breakdown of the international system as the result of a complex set of interacting perceptions and commitments shared by the architects of the system in order to keep it stable. Once the two multicultural empires perceived that the outcome of the Bosnian crisis would decide their great-power status, statesmen were caught up in an accelerating rhythm of irrevocable decisions that led to a general war. (10) Farrell wrongly identifies me as a Central Europeanist (whatever that means) and suggests that my treatment of the "Sinic imperial experience" (918) lacks depth and substance. I am pleased that Perdue, who is a sinologist, does not find that to be the case.

While LeDonne finds too little politics in my book, and Perdue is disappointed by too much politics, Islamoglu declares that there is too great an emphasis on culture. Who is right? One is reminded of the proverbial pachyderm which is identified differently by blind men touching its separate parts. Islamoglu rightly reminds us of the importance of what she calls the institutional context and its constitutive elements--that is, property relations, tax farming, and trading networks in influencing power relationships. (11) The role of local elites in challenging state authority was a recurrent theme, as I attempted to show, in the history of the Eurasian empires. But in my view, by the early 20th century economic factors, while contributing to the identities and aspirations of local elites, played much less of a role in undermining imperial authority than the national or regional movements in the Russian and Habsburg borderlands. In the Ottoman, Iranian, and Qing empires, the new military elites trained along the lines of Western models but arising from provincial origins challenged the ruling elites and contributed to their downfall. Islamoglu's comments on my references to Confucianism exaggerate the importance I attribute to this factor, especially in the role of local rebellions and the final crisis of the Qing. In general, Islamoglu reads too much into my use of the term "geocultural" (as others read too little) by attributing to me "nostalgia" for empire (936) and a "preservationist" (942) cultural policy, which she implies runs counter to the alternative of ordering society through institutions or rules. I do not understand this section of her commentary. My intention was not to draw lessons from the imperial past for solving contemporary problems. I leave such speculations up to others.

In my response my intention was, first, to give the reader a synopsis of the book, highlighting the main themes that needed to be fully understood before the contributions of the critics could be evaluated. Second, I sought to address specific questions by relating my answers whenever possible to these main themes. Only by reading the full text will readers be able to judge whether I have succeeded in achieving my aims. In reviewing reviewers, Natalie Davis gives good advice: "whatever we do, let's do it so as to advance a critical discourse that keeps our debates bubbling excitedly, keeps our changing community strong, and recognizes how many streams go to make up 'that broad sunken river of historical knowledge.'" (12)

Central European University University of Pennsylvania

(1) Theda Skocpol, "Bringing the State Back In: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research," in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, and Huge Comparisons (New York: Sage Foundation, 1984); Jack Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Jacques Le Goff, "Is Politics Still the Backbone of History?" in Historical Studies Today, ed. Felix Gilbert and Stephen R. Graubard (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 337-55.

(2) Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, "From Borderlands to Borders: Empire, Nation, States and Peoples in Between in North American History," American Historical Review 104,

(3) (1999): 814-41.

(3) See, e.g., my "The Frontier in History," in The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Bates (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9:5812-15, revised as "Frontiers in History" in The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright (editor in chief), 2nd ed. (Oxford: Elsevier, 2015), 9:464-69.

(4) "AHA Forum: Historiographic 'Turns' in Critical Perspectives," American Historical Review 117,3 (2012): 698-814.

(5) Alfred J. Rieber, Stalin and the Struggle for Eurasia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

(6) Eric Voeglin, "The Political Religious," in Modernity without Constraint (Collected Works of Eric Voeglin, 34 vols. [Columbia: University of Missouri Press], 5:27-71); Langdon Gilkey, "The Political Dimensions of Theology," Journal of Religions 59, 3 (1979): 154-68.

(7) Alfred T. Mahan, The Problem of Asia and Its Effects upon International Policies (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1900); Halford MacKinder, "The Geographical Pivot of History," Geographical Journal 23, 4 (1904): 421-37; MacKinder, Democratic Ideab and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (New York: Holt, 1919; exp. ed. W. W. Norton, 1962). For MacKinder's revised views on the potential strength of the Soviet "heartland," see his "The Round World and the Winning of the Peace," Foreign Affairs 21, 4 (1943): 595.

(8) See my "Persistent Factors in Russian Foreign Policy: An Interpretive Essay," in Imperial Russian Foreign Policy, ed. Hugh Ragsdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 315-59; and "How Persistent Are Persistent Factors?" in Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century and the Shadow of the Past, ed. Robert Legvold (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 205-78.

(9) The metaphor refers to a suspension bridge in Tacoma, Washington, caught in hurricane velocity winds, causing severe oscillations in the structure that acquired their own momentum, ultimately destroying the bridge.

(10) Paul Schroeder, "World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak," Journal of Modern History 44, 3 (1972): 319-45; Joachim Remak, "1914--The Third Balkan War: Origins Reconsidered," Journal of Modern History 43, 3 (1971): 353-66.

(11) But see Yanni Kotsonis, States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), which shows that taxation and citizenship in autocratic systems absorb the individual into the state structure through universal participation in the economy.

(12) Natalie Zemon Davis, "On Reviewing," Feminist Studies 14, 3 (1988): 605. The phrase she quotes is from Winston Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times (London: George Harrap, 1933).
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Author:Rieber, Alfred J.
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Date:Sep 22, 2015
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