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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Eric Lohr and Marshall Poe (eds.)

The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917

History of Warfare. v. 14 (Leiden; Boston, MA: Brill, 2002) 550 pp. $ 180.00. ISBN 9004122737.

This collection of articles addresses nothing less than the life and survival of an empire from its inception until almost the moment of its death. This makes it a highly relevant work to both the Russian area specialist in military history and the generalist in a number of areas outside of the scope of Russian Area Studies. Those potentially interested range from a student of religious history to economic historians interested in agents of change in a nearly closed socioeconomic system, or to the political scientist specializing in the historical evolution of comparative governments.

But to me the most important reason The Military and Society in Russia is of interest is this: The concept of an empire seems to be back in fashion on both a popular level as we listen to broadcast media talk show hosts on both public and commercial broadcast media, and as we gossip over our morning coffee. The other morning I shared my morning coffee with a retired, local, right-wing politician in Eau Claire (a sleepy little college town in western Wisconsin) and after disagreeing on just about every thing of substance, we both sadly agreed that we missed the stability of the cold war, when we at least had a very good idea how civilization as we know it might end. However, that is not the end of it.

Empire also seems to be in the air in the fields of power on highest level of leadership in both the United States and Great Britain, as evidenced by the events of last twelve months in the Middle East. Therefore this book fills an important function as its scholarly contributors help us try to understand our present by making a thoughtful and scholarly study of the past "in order to that fortune does not triumph over virtue" as Niccolo Machiavelli said in The Discourses nearly five hundred years ago.

As I write this review, I must force myself to look at the concept of empire and imperialism from a value-neutral position, which is not an easy thing to do. Interestingly enough, empire is a concept which makes the left and the right very uncomfortable, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s damnation of the former Soviet Union as an evil empire. Those of us who were Vietnam Era protestors must also overcome our abhorrence of the term empire and operationally agree to use it as a value neutral term which describes a particular historical reality. As much as we might wish otherwise, this term might in fact generalize to the Third Millennium as well as it has dominated the last five thousand years of world history.

Yet another problem with the term ‘empire’ is that it is easy to ascribe the word to the dust bin of ancient history by linking with such states as Assyria, New Babylonia, Ancient Persia, and Rome, and ancient China. However, at the same time we must remember that the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople survived as a Christian bulwark against successive waves of militarily, and culturally superior Islamic invaders for the best part of a millennium. Furthermore, if we simply lengthen our historical memories by three generations, the Ottoman, Chinese, Japanese. Hapsburg, German, and Russian Empires were all well on their way to becoming modern states into the first decade of 20th century only to be rent asunder by the cataclysm of "The Great War"

This collection of articles broadly sweeps across the spectrum of four hundred and sixty-seven years of Russian History and contains twenty-two topical articles grouped into the following three broad areas: The Military and Society in Muscovy; The Military and Society in Imperial Russian; Patriotism, Nationality, Religion and the Military. Though the scope of the articles is mostly outside of what is commonly though of as medieval history it is nevertheless of interest. Articles all address the progressive role that the Russian Military had in introducing enough change to allow for nearly five centuries of Russian national survival and growth. Growth from one of the weakest states on the peripheral margins of Europe at the start of the period to the position of great power up to its demise with The October Revolution of 1917.

In order to drive the maxim benefit from this collection of articles it is essential to carefully read both the preface and introduction to this volume. One needs to contextualize it within the broader goals of the fourteen-volume History of Warfare Series under the general editorship Kelly DeVries and its introduction to "The role of Warfare in Russian Society," by its editors Eric Lohr and Marshall Poe. Their introduction integrates the twenty-two articles into the theme of this volume. Each of the contributors is a respected scholar within their areas, doing cutting edge research within their area of specialization as their research moves from the broadest scope of an emergent Muscovite national identity to specific nationalities. This progression involved the incorporation of a number of other nationalities within its structures, according to the findings in Donald Ostrowski ‘s Troop mobilization by the Muscovite grand princes (1313-1533). For example. At the level of specifics, the actuarial data is presented on the granular level of the number of pistols shipped from the Netherlands to Russia in 1662 in Richard Hellie’s "Costs of Muscovite military defense and expansion."

While time and space and energy do not allow me to summarize all of the articles in each section, Peter B. Brown’s "Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich: Muscovite Military Command, Style and Legacy," gave a modern cast to the leadership competence of the father of Peter the Great. Brown presented him almost as a precursor to U.S. Grant in the clarity of instruction he offered his subordinates while functioning as a twenty-five-year-old field commander during the "Thirteen years war".

Section II also had a number of fine articles, among them John P. LeDonne’s "Grand strategy of the Russian empire, 1650-1831" LeDonne makes a convincing argument for an evolutionary grand strategy which moved from a "Fortress Russia " operative system after ‘The Time of Troubles’, in the early 17th Century to a "Fortress Empire" by the dawn of the middle third of the 19th Century. One cannot help but wonder if the historical forces which drove Russia during this one hundred and eighty one year period are still driving her in the early 21st Century. It has always seemed to me that Western perception of Russian foreign policy has been at least as important as that policy itself as historical Russia appears to arise phoenix-like from crushing defeat after crushing defeat.

John W. Steinberg’s "Imperial War Games (1898-1906)," was also of interest to me because it highlighted a number of difficulties encountered by Imperial Russia in implementing changes after the disastrous results of the first Russo- Japanese War Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. This war dictated that war games must have an instructive purpose on all levels of command, and not simply function on a historically symbolic level. This article brought to mind a quip by an eighteenth century general who remarked that he hated war because it messed up the order and beauty of the army.

Gregory Vitarbo’s "Military Aviation, National Identity, and the Imperatives of Modernity in Late Imperial Russia" is first among equals in quality of articles. It is my favorite because I see the antecedents of many of the great Communists’ successes in the Second World War and the Korean War evidenced in this article. I believe it was former S.A.C. commander, General Curtis LeMay who noted that the North Koreans equipped with Russian Mig-15s (and probably Russian) pilots were able to put an end to day American Strategic using B-29 Bombers.

David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye. -- "To build a great Russia Civil Military Relations in the Third Duma 1907-1912", is a fascinating piece of scholarship focusing on liberal reform and parliamentary involvement in the restructuring and transformation of the Russian Military during this crucial period. However he rightly states that this same movement toward reform was instrumental in dragging Russia into the Great War. I would add that perhaps it was that same liberal leadership, which came to power in the interim between the fall of the Tsar and The October Revolution that lead an exhausted and decimated Russia into the disastrous Kerensky Offensive in the summer of 1917 under the leadership of the Liberal Socialist Russian Government. One might argue that Lenin followed a more traditional Russian policy by getting out of the war. For that matter, ten years later, Stalin’s policy of Socialism in one country seems very traditionally "Great Russian" indeed, as does his Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in 1939 which lead to a fourth partition of Poland in Sept 1939, and a fifth Russian partition of Poland after the end of The Second World War.

The articles in Section III: "Patriotism, Nationality, Religion, and the Military," were all up to the high standards of the first two sections. But, realizing I must leave something to the reader, I will focus on two of them. Alexander M. Martin’s "Response of the Population of Moscow to the Napoleonic Occupation of 1812," is fascinating to me because of my childhood images from the 1956 production of Tolstoy’s "War and Peace," staring Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer. That film had almost iconographic status to post Word War II American Generation that was coming of age at that time. I was twelve. Martin using first hand accounts from contemporary sources makes it clear that "The ideology of The French Revolution was not carried into Moscow at the points of The Grand Army’s Napoleonic bayonets. I was also quite interested at what might be called the "thought experiment" aspect of Martin’s article in that he treats Napoleonic occupation of Moscow in 1812 as a variable which we can measure other aspects of the structure and stability of Imperial Russia at the onset of the 19th Century.

David Goldfrank ‘s "Holy Sepulcher and the origin of the Crimean War" throws new light on the origins of The Crimean War since it contests the idea that the Crimean War was simply a result of break down in communication among the belligerents. David Goldfrank links the origins of Europe’s most destructive war in the period 1815- 1914 with the idiosyncratic personality of Nicholas I. This premise at least evokes images of Imperial Germany’s William II in immediate pre- World War One Europe. Some have argued that Imperial German-National policy objectives became entangled with the needs of his personality. It is also interesting to note that both leaders had a kind of reverse Midas touch in the ability to build coalitions against themselves.

The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917 is a priority item for college university and research libraries, and for that matters think tanks whose purpose it is to fathom the depths of change in the 21st Century. My only regret is that a collection like this was not available when I took my diplomatic history and foreign policy seminars in the late sixties at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where the Late Michael Boro Petrovich would compare Imperial Russia to in the 19th century to very a powerful 240 pound fourteen year old teenage boy with asthma, I wish professor Petrovich could have lived to see the end of the cold war and see history repeat itself.

Phillip Kaveny

Eau Clare, WI <1882@cuttingedge.net>

Page Added: March 2004