Academic journal article
By Steinberg, Mark D.
Canadian Slavonic Papers , Vol. 50, No. 1/2
Dominic Lieven, ed. Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Volume 2 of Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xxvii, 765 pp. Plates. Maps. Chronology. Bibliography. Index. $217.95, cloth
Cambridge Histories have a distinguished lineage extending back over a century, in many ways defining the state of various fields of historical knowledge and interpretation since Lord Acton planned the monumental first Cambridge Modern History at the end of the nineteenth century. The present collection of essays is the middle volume of three on Russia's history from early Rus' to the end of the twentieth century, giving Russia far more sustained attention than in any previous Cambridge History, and in a remarkably wideranging and variegated way. Briefly recalling Acton's original conception may be relevant here. It is rather a convention when writing about edited collections for reviewers to comment on a volume's coherence or, most often, lack thereof. Serious questions of methodology in history can be at stake. When Acton was planning the first Cambridge Modern History in the late 1890s, he insisted that his goal was a definitive and unified "ultimate history," realizable "now that all information is within reach and every problem has become capable of solution" (see E. H. Carr's discussion in What Is History?). It did not take long for this empirical and interpretive optimism to collapse. By the time the second edition of the Cambridge Modem History appeared in the 1950s, the new editors acknowledged that the search for a complete and accurate vision of the past, in which all the connections are knowable, was a myth. Most historians today-even those who would never consider themselves "postmodern"-eschew Acton's positivist hubris in thinking that we can construct a unified and final historical account of our topics. In this spirit, the editor of the volume under review, Dominic Lieven, makes no bones about not trying to create a single coherent narrative. "Comprehensiveness" in recognizing the complexity and "diversity" of the historical past is more important than "coherence," he advises at the outset (p. 2). Indeed, with nearly 700 pages of text and contributions by thirty different authors, the volume is quite varied in its concerns, methodologies, and interpretations of the Russian past (though there are some important emphases and leitmotifs, a subject I will return to).
Lieven concedes that only the rare "martyr" will read this book from cover to cover (p. 4). Book reviewers, of course, are one such category of necessary martyr. This toil is not without its rewards, however; the volume contains a number of exceptionally good contributions. But, as lieven implies, the book is designed as a reference. Students studying for examinations, for example (including doctoral students preparing for comprehensive exams), will find these articles to be excellent syntheses of a large scholarly literature. Teachers may find it worthwhile to assign students selected chapters (though the high cost of the book makes it impossible to use as a textbook). Scholars or students needing reliable, up-to-date, and compact coverage of key topics in imperial Russian history, ranging from literature and art to diplomacy and the military, will find quite useful articles in these pages. And the bibliography, organized around major topics, enhances this work as a starting point for further reading. Some of the excellent maps from Martin Gilbert's Routledge Atlas of Russian History are also included, as well as two dozen pictures, mostly formal portraits of important individuals but also a number of prerevolutionary tourist postcards.
The volume is organized topically rather than by chronological period or ruler, which enhances the book's value as a reference work and its potential for interpretive and analytic depth. The scholars lieven has chosen to contribute chapters include many of the most widely recognized authorities on particular topics and eras, though also some less canonical choices (sometimes felicitous, sometimes not). …