Academic journal article Kritika

Geopolitics and Its Discontents

Academic journal article Kritika

Geopolitics and Its Discontents

Article excerpt

Alfred J. Rieber, The Strugglefor the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War. 652 pp., maps. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-1107043091. $95.00.

Alfred J. Rieber has taken on an ambitious and heroic task: to tell the history of Eurasia from its borderlands over the last 500 years. He deserves credit for even attempting this feat, since no one has tried it before. His ultimate goal is to explain the massive dislocation caused by the wars of the 20th century. Unlike so many other historians of the 20th century, he takes a longue duree view. As he claims in the introduction, "The great crises of the twentieth century--the two world wars and the Cold War--had common origins in a complex historical process I call the struggle over the Eurasian borderlands" (1). He covers the Russian, Habsburg, Ottoman, Iranian, and Chinese empires in sweeping chapters of synthesis, based on secondary scholarship in English, German, and Russian.

We certainly need such comparative syntheses, as many historians share his discomfort with an exclusive focus on a single nation-state or empire. But the enterprise raises many knotty methodological questions, and it has produced a wide variety of different approaches. Some writers, from the comparative empire tradition, have expanded their scope from Europe to cover all major empires, past and present. (1) Others have outlined a general theory of social change, aiming to show that many regions of the world fit into one general scheme. (2) At the other end of the scale, a local study of a single place on a border can generate implications about much broader processes. (3)

Rieber's approach primarily relies on parallel political narratives of each of the major borderlands, mainly those bordering the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Introductory chapters outline imperial institutions and ideologies in the Habsburg, Russian, Ottoman, Iranian, and Qing empires. Then, following a circle around the Russian and Habsburg lands, he narrates the rise of imperial power in the Baltic, the Balkans, the Danube, the Pontic steppe, the Caucasian isthmus, Trans-Caspia, and Inner Asia. Chapters 4 and 5, the most interesting ones, describe encounters and crises on each of these frontiers. The final chapter follows periods of decline and crisis in the same empires leading up through the end of World War I.

On the one hand, I do have a personal bias toward the study of frontiers, and I share Rieber's admiration for the pioneering work of Owen Lattimore. Historians of Russia who have investigated the Central Eurasian frontiers have also contributed a great deal to this field. (4) His chapters describing cross-border encounters take a productive step forward in looking beyond the borders of empires and nation-states to discover interactions, large-scale processes, and individual experiences.

On the other hand, I find Rieber's mainly political framework disappointing. Historians concerned about transcending nation-state boundaries have argued for new methods of conceptualizing spatial and temporal boundaries. Transnational historians promote the use of multiple archives and multilingual research, and a focus on social actors below the level of decision-making elites. (5) Global historians track the movements of commodities, people, cultures, and technologies across an increasingly interconnected world from the early modern era to the present day. (6) Environmental and economic historians now recognize the impact of processes that span large regions regardless of political and geographic limitations. Despite the large number of cases, and the breadth of its scale, Rieber's approach fails to break new ground.

Charles Tilly, the historian and sociologist, once described the advantages and costs of traditional history as a discipline. He listed six features that distinguished history from other organized inquiries: it insisted on time and place as fundamental principles of variation; its practitioners divided their subfield by time and place; it anchored most of its dominant questions in national politics; it kept blurred lines between professionals and amateurs; it relied heavily on documentary evidence, focused on the literate world; and it emphasized narrative practices that focus on the attitudes and motivations of crucial actors. …

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