Dominic Lieven gave public lecture at HSE in St Petersburg
On October 11, Professor Dominic Lieven delivered a public lecture at the HSE St Petersburg. Lecture was titled “Reflections on empire, Russia and historical comparison” and was organized by the Center for Historical Research.
On October 11 Professor Dominic Lieven gave a public lecture at the HSE St Petersburg. Lecture was titled “Reflections on empire, Russia and historical comparison” and was organized by the Center for Historical Research.
Professor Lieven started his speech from the point that in early 1970-ies when he entered the research field as graduate student, Russian Revolution dominated history of Russia. In general, western historians could be divided on those who supposed revolution in Russia to be inevitable (so-called “pessimists”) and those who opposed them (“optimists”) by saying that without the war Russian Empire had a chance to evolve in a normal version of political modernity - western liberal democracy. In his opinion this way of looking at Russian history probably could say more about the Cold War context rather than about historical realities.
According to the lecturer, in the beginning of 20th century in the vision of right-wing government officials Russian Empire faced a potential agrarian revolution, socialist workers revolution, potential separatist movements, particularly Ukrainian, and, thus, any kind of liberalization would rather lead to the disintegration of the state. On the other hand, liberal part of the elite viewed Russia more as a modern European society with modern industrial economy, a country, which could not be governed through the means given by the mixture of absolute monarchy and medievalism. In Professor Lieven’s opinion both views were to a great extent correct, and the room for maneuver was far less than most of historians have thought.
Then, Professor Lieven turned to the international relations and comparison. “Comparison does not usually tell you answers, but it certainly makes you ask interesting questions, it makes you subversive about to the dominant assumptions of your specific national historiography with its own traditions, obsessions and conventions,” – he said. “You come at things from different angles by looking at the same problems in similar or not so similar societies, realize that the answers are not so self-evident now the questions so simple as often national historiography will suggest.” Comparison helped Professor Lieven to understand Russian Revolution better. As the western, southern and eastern European peripheries entered the modern era of mass society, literacy and politics, they all despite being hugely diverse met similar challenges - societies were poorer, middle classes was weaker, peasantries were bigger, regions were less integrated and states were less powerful in their ability to penetrate societies. Almost all countries of European periphery failed to make peaceful and successful transition to liberal democracies and maintained authoritarian regimes until 1945 or even until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Given this it does not look surprisingly that Russian Empire failed to make a peaceful transition as well.
However, Professor Lieven pointed out that the First World War and Russian Revolution themselves both influenced much on the situation in the rest of the world. He exampled that the “right triumph” in Spain or in Italy was precisely a consequence of the fear of Russian-style revolution. Thus, one should be careful while making comparisons. But even beyond Russian’s position as a “second Europe” Russia also was an empire. All empires met a challenge of modern empire and eventually collapsed trying to survive modern era of mass politics. Professor Lieven said that it seems to him that fundamental dilemma of global politics before 1914 was that the logic of international power pointed to empire as a political entity with continental-scale resources, but the logic of domestic political stability and legitimization of governments and elites lied with nationalism mostly everywhere defined in ethno-linguistic terms.
Given the international context, in Professors Lieven’s opinion if Russian monarchy collapsed (which nearly happened) in the winter of 1905-06 and the “left” came to power, that would had led to the genuine full-scale European intervention spearheaded by the German army. “It is absolute fantasy to imagine that in peace time the European great powers would allow Russia to secede from the international system and to set itself as a headquarters of international socialist revolution and to expropriate or devalue huge foreign debts” – he said. Counterrevolution would have certainly succeeded with unexpected consequences for future European politics. However, the situation of 1917 differed a lot as Germany in the situation of the First World War did everything to destroy Russian power and by doing so gave Bolsheviks a crucial year to consolidate themselves in the Russian geopolitical heartland and win the Civil War. In Professor Lieven’s opinion this shows a crucial role of international context.
Professor Lieven continued the lecture with the comparison between Russian and Ottoman empires. Imperial Russia succeeded in creating a combination of a Eurasian empire and European fiscal-military state, two key features of which were the westernization of the elites and an extremely harsh form of serfdom. Ottoman empire failed to create viable version of fiscal-military state and while Russian population suffered from the deprivations of established system, Muslim people of the Ottoman empire suffered even more from the Ottomans failure, resulted in ethnic cleansing and the European penetration into the country. In this regard, the revolution of 1917 might be viewed as a mass revolt against precisely those elements which were the core of Russian success as a great power of 18-19th centuries, a cultural and class revolution of masses against the Europeanized elite.
Continuing to speak about the international context Professor Lieven added that in case Germany was able to win in the eastern front in 1915-16 it wouldn’t necessarily need to win in the west as without US entering the war neither Britain nor France would have managed to continue the war. In such case an outcome of war would have been an independent Ukraine greatly influenced by Germany, and Russian Empire would have lost a great power status without vast resources of this territory. “The First World War was above all else a war between Germanic empires and the Russian Empire for hegemony in the East-Central Europe. The irony is that all these empires collapsed throughout the war, and the new world order was based on the exclusion of Germany and Russia”, he said. In his opinion, to a much extent the Second World War had the same meaning and no doubt that other outcomes of the First World War might have greatly changed the world order of so-called “Anglophone hegemony”.
Professor Lieven finished his lecturer with the reference to the present day. Though admitting that one has to be careful with the predictions, he spoke about supposedly incoming threats such as disintegration of the Islamic world and the ecological crisis in Africa and the rest of the world. He also mentioned that as it was in 1914 so it would be in the future that the fate everyone would be in hands of rather few number of people. In his opinion those who made decisions in 1914 had very pessimistic view of where the world was going. “History spans the whole, you cannot leave the individual side,” he concluded.
Discussion that followed the lecture were devoted to a great variety of topics concerning both history and politics. First Professor Lieven was asked whether United States move towards neo-isolationism or more active participation in conflicts around the world. He expressed an opinion that there is no exact contradiction between these tendencies as US isolationism can bring in new conflicts which then shall become unavoidable. Given the nature of the global economy it is complicated to withdraw from the world system, especially for country with such intertwined economic relations, thus even in case of temporary isolation US would probably have to reverse.
He also answered a question about the concept of the global order, by saying that in the geographical sense we may speak about the global order after the discovery of the New World which immediately became an important political factor, but even before it is possible to speak about Eurasian order or Eurasian-African order as significantly integrated system, especially if we leave Eurocentric point of view. While answering this question he also pointed out that though historians have to define the difference between the empire and the nation state, but even the recent events in Catalonia or Scotland example that even in the “heartland of the nation-states” ethnic problems occur. Thus, the impact of the ecological crisis on the multiethnic states of Asia may be disastrous in political terms.
Professor Lieven was also asked to make a comment on the role of Great Britain in the Reunification of Germany. He recalled his personal experience of being the member of the advising committee of Margaret Thatcher and said that even British policy towards the Euro reflects deeper fear of German hegemony in Europe. In his opinion neither Thatcher nor did Bush assumed or wanted the collapse of the Soviet Union as liberalized Russia was seen as more as a balance to Germany. He also added that probably without the Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states and Western Ukraine Soviet Union could have survived the fall of communism at least at medium-term run.
Religious identities were also discussed. While the second wave of globalization was about industrialization and mass politics but earlier one related to the spread religions, which is an important factor of nowadays politics. Professor Lieven gave some comments on this topic. First, he stated a question of whether monotheism or polytheism is a more useful ideology for the empire. Then, while in Europe religious topics became less important with the rising importance of ethno-linguistic model of identity, triumph of the secular state model is still being questioned outside the Europe.
One interesting question was whether it is possible to look at the Russian Revolution of 1905 as national one. Professor Lieven agreed that partly it was truth and the fall of the tsarist government could lead to many autonomous regions, but not secessions, even with a possible move towards federal democratic republic. The extent to which a sense of ethno-linguistic national identity has penetrated the peasantry was limited, except some regions as Poland or Baltic regions. Same was with the Ottoman empire where Islamic identity dominated over ethno-linguistic. Dynastic identities as well mattered a lot. Thus, it is too simple to see a national revolution in the events of 1905, though in some regions national aspirations were stronger, but even in that case not exactly secessionist as for example Baltic states could hardly be independent in the imperialistic context.
The question about the cyclic nature of Russian political system Professor Lieven answered that he does not think that any country develops only in a cyclic way. However, vast geographical scale, political traditions and cultural assumptions make political transitions to various versions of self-government more complicated. Another question was about the climate change. Professor Lieven admitted that his assumptions on the climate change impact are mostly based on the researches done by his colleagues. He expressed opinion that water crisis probably shall be the first.
Being asked about the question about the “cost of empire”, Professor Lieven answered that in his opinion the center-periphery vision of empire is very common for Eurocentric point of view with a distinct metropoles and colonies, while great land empires often exploited their center even more than peripheries. The reason why the study of empires was dominated by European overseas empires was because the emergence of these empires was strictly tied to the development of capitalism and thus teared up with the ancient empires. And there was clear distinction between metropole and periphery: geographical, racial, economic and fundamentally between the citizenship in metropole and subjecthood in peripheries. But such concept of empire does not work well with the great empires of the past or with vast Asian continental empires. Especially strange for this definition of empire are those empires that were conquered by nomads but then absorbed them. In Professor Lieven’s opinion the best way to define empire is to define it through the concept of power.
Report: Alexander Turbin
Prof., University of Cambridge
Dominic Lieven is a research professor at Cambridge University (Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College), a Fellow of the British Academy and the most prominent English scholar in the domain of the Russian Imperial history. He graduated first in the class of 1973 in history from Cambridge University and was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard in 1973/4. Subsequently, he has been inter alia a Humboldt Fellow in Germany, and a visiting professor at Tokyo University and Harvard. He was elected in 2001 Fellow of the British Academy, and was Head of the History Department at Cambridge University from 2009-2011, where he continues to teach. His research focuses primarily on history of empires and monarchy, and ranges from the Napoleonic era till the First World War.
His key publications include: Russia and the Origins of the First World War (1983); Russia’s Rulers under the Old Regime (1988); Aristocracy in Europe (1992); Nicholas II: Emperor of all the Russians (1993); Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals (2001); The Cambridge History of Russia. Volume 2 (2006, Editor); Russia against Napoleon. The Struggle for Europe, 1807-1814 (2009); Towards the Flame. Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia (2015).
In 2016 Dominic Lieven was also historical adviser on the BBC dramatic adaption of Leo Tolstoi’s “War and Peace”