“The Russian Strategy of Empire”

Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on 20 March 2013.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9  [1]


Over the last few weeks the sections of the blogosphere which I frequent have been filled with predictions, advice, summaries of, and idle chatter about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.  I have refrained from commenting on these events for a fairly simple reason: I am no expert in Russian or Eastern European affairs. Any expertise that my personal experiences or formal studies allows me to claim is on the opposite side of Eurasia. Thus I am generally content to let those who, in John Schindler’s words, “actually know something” take the lead in picking apart statements from the Kiev or the Kremlin. [2] My knowledge of the peoples and regions involved is limited to broad historical strokes.

But sometimes broad historical strokes breed their own special sort of insights.

I have before suggested that one of the benefits of studying history is that it allows a unique opportunity to understand reality from the “Long View.” From this perspective the daily headlines do not simply record the decisions of a day, the instant reactions of one statesmen to crises caused by another, but the outcome of hundreds of choices accumulated over centuries. It allows you to rip your gaze away from the eddies swirling on the top of the water to focus on the seismic changes happening deep below.

To keep the Long View in mind, I often stop and ask myself a simple question as I read the news:  “What will a historian say about this event in 60 years? How will it fit into the narrative that the historians of the future will share?”

With these questions are considered contemporary events take on an entirely new significance.

Expansion of Russia, 1533-1894.
Credit: Wikimedia.

As I have watched affairs in Crimea from afar, my thoughts turn to one such ‘Long View’ narrative written by historian S.C.M. Paine. In Dr. Paine’s peerless The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949 she spares a few paragraphs to explain the broad historical context in which Soviet statesmen made their decisions. She calls this traditional course of Russian statecraft the Russian “strategy for empire”:

The Communists not only held together all of the tsarist empire but greatly expanded it in World War II. They did so in part by relying on Russia’s traditional and highly successful strategy for empire, which sought security through creeping buffer zones combined with astutely coordinated diplomacy and military operations against weak neighbors to ingest their territory at opportune moments. Russia surrounded itself with buffer zones and failing states. During the tsarist period, the former were called governor-generalships, jurisdictions under military authority for a period of initial colonization and stabilization. Such areas generally contained non-Russian populations and bordered on foreign lands.

Russia repeatedly applied the Polish model to its neighbors. Under Catherine the Great, Russia had partitioned Poland three times in the late eighteenth century, crating a country ever less capable of administering its affairs as Russia in combination with Prussia and Austria gradually ate it alive. Great and even middling power on the borders were dangerous. So they must be divided, a fate shared by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, China, and post World War II, Germany and Korea. It is no coincidence that so many divided states border on Russia. Nor is it coincidence that so many unstable states sit on its periphery” (emphasis added). [3]


It is difficult to read this description and not see parallels with what is happening in Ukraine now (or what happened in Georgia in 2008). Dr. Paine’s description of Russian foreign policy stretches from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th. Perhaps historians writing 60 years hence will use this same narrative–but extend it well into the 21st.

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[1] Authorized Version.
[2] John Schindler. “Nobody Knows Anything.” XX Committee. 16 March 2014. 
[3] S.C.M. Paine. The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 83-84.

Another Look at ‘The Rise of the West’ – But With Better Numbers


Originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 20 November 2013.

Why the West? I do not think there is any other historical controversy that has so enthralled the public intellectuals of our age.  The popularity of the question can probably be traced to Western unease with a rising China and the ease with which the issue can be used as proxy war for the much larger contest between Western liberals who embrace multiculturalism and conservatives who champion the West’s ‘unique’ heritage.

A few months ago I suggested that many of these debates that surround the “Great Divergence” are  based on a flawed premise–or rather, a flawed question. As I wrote: 

Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000.” [1]

I made this judgement based off of data from Angus Maddison‘s Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD and the subsequent updates to Mr. Maddison’s data set by the scholars who contribute to the Maddison Project.

As far as 1,000 year economic projections go this data was pretty good. But it was not perfect. In many cases–especially with the Chinese data–it was simply based on estimates and extrapolations from other eras. A more accurate view of the past would require further research.

That research has now been done. The economic historian Stephen Broadberry explains:

As it turns out, medieval and early modern European and Asian nations were much more literate and numerate than is often thought. They left behind a wealth of data in documents such as government accounts, customs accounts, poll tax returns, Parish registers, city records, trading company records, hospital and educational establishment records, manorial accounts, probate inventories, farm accounts, tithe files. With a national accounting framework and careful cross-checking, it is possible to reconstruct population and GDP back to the medieval period. The picture that emerges is of reversals of fortune within both Europe and Asia, as well as between the two continents. [2]

Drawing on a multiple specialized studies, Mr. Broadberry is able to create a table that is more accurate than the one I used earlier:

Taken from Stephen Broadberry. “Accounting for the Great Divergence.” voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.

There are a few things here worth commenting on.

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Emmanuel Todd’s Theory of Modernity

In my review of Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s America 3.0 I stated that French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd (whose work is cited extensively in said work) “is the most under-rated “big idea” thinker in the field of world history.”


Craig Willy’s most recent blog post explains why:

Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary
Craig Willy. craigjwilly.info 7 July 2013.

Mr. Willy’s post is not something one skims through. It is 9,000 words long and chock full of all sorts of data, tables, and maps. Because L’invention de l’Europe has not been translated into English I am grateful for this level of detail.

What is this book about?

I came, last, to his L’invention de l’Europe, which is in principle not a polemic, but rather a dispassionate book of historical anthropology and demography which is Todd’s academic magnum opus.

I say “in principle” because one is tempted to ask: What the hell is this book anyway? Over 650 pages of text, statistics, graphs, maps and bibliography on the history of Western Europe? A comprehensive look at the correlations between family structures, modernization and ideology in Western Europe? An “Introductory Illustrated Atlas of Western European Socio-Political History”? I’ve already lost you. Who cares? 

No, L’invention de l’Europe is actually about what is almost undoubtedly the most important historical development of all time: the rise of modernity since 1500, also known as the “Great Divergence” or the “European miracle.” It was European civilization, and its various extra-European and notably North American offshoots, which invented “modernity,” which sparked that fire of science and “rationality” which now dominates virtually the entire globe. Europe, as Todd notes on the first page, was “the midwife simultaneously of modernity and death.” (p.13) 
We have modernity: science, mass production, mass destruction, mass consumption, mass literacy, mass and instant telecommunication, long-life (sanitation, health, contraception), godlessness, ideology (including “totalitarianism,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” and “freedom of thought”…), and so on.


So how does Todd approach this bug-bear that haunts all aspiring world historians, the rise of the West?

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