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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 390-391

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Book Review

The Russian Empire and the World, 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment

The Russian Empire and the World, 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment. By JOHN P. LEDONNE. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xix + 394. $26.95 (cloth).

In the late seventeenth century, the Russian state was a second-tier player in international politics, whose territory was confined (for the most part) to the taiga and tundra zones of northeastern Eurasia, but by the early twentieth century, it had become one of the world's great powers and its territory had expanded enormously in almost every direction: west into the Baltic region and Poland, south to the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and east to the edges of Manchuria and the Sea of Japan. The obvious question is: How did this happen? How was the Russian state able to expand with such phenomenal success through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and why, in fact, did it ever stop expanding? John LeDonne's erudite survey of Russian foreign relations between 1700 and 1917 offers a largely familiar yet powerfully argued answer to this question: It was a combination of geography and power politics. Geography determined where Russia would try to expand while power politics determined both which states would succumb to its expansion as well as which states would be able to contain this expansion and/or roll it back.

LeDonne begins his book with a preface and introduction that nicely lay out the basic terms and contours of his argument. Drawing on the geopolitical visions of Halford Mackinder, Alfred Mahan, Owen Lattimore, and Geoffrey Parker, LeDonne envisions Eurasia in terms of a vast continental "heartland" that occupies most of the center of the Eurasian landmass and represents a natural terrain for competition between "core areas" (that is, powerful states with expansion-oriented "internal energy") that are separated from one another by a succession of politically weak and often indeterminate "frontier zones" where the "cores" attempt to expand. Of all the "core areas" in and around the peripheries of the heartland, the Russian "core" had what might be called the greatest "heartland complex." Its mission is to expand throughout the heartland and dominate it. As LeDonne puts it, "The Russian empire, even at . . . its greatest territorial extent, was never coterminous with the heartland. To reach its periphery was the ultimate goal of Russian foreign policy, the inability to do so a constant source of frustration" (p. 1). In order to analyze these ambitions and frustrations, LeDonne's work then divides into two basic parts: a first group of chapters examining Russia's expansion along its western, southern, and eastern frontiers; and a second focusing on the containment [End Page 390] of this expansion by rival "core areas" ("The Germanic Powers" [Germany and Austria], and "The Coastland Powers" [Britain, France, and Japan]). Based on his survey of these developments, LeDonne concludes that Russian foreign relations in the imperial period were marked by a remarkable continuity and reflect a constant Russian search for an "optimum of conquest" within the "frontier zones" of the heartland; their expansion was persistently checked but nonetheless largely successful. When they attempted to push all the way to the very edge of the heartland or to go beyond it, they ran into much fiercer opposition and the result was disaster (viz. the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, for example).

LeDonne's book has a great deal to offer for world historians, not least because it is one of the few studies by Russian specialists that explicitly aim to consider Russia's history within a global or nearly global framework. His emphasis on the spatial politics of Russian expansion and the "space-consciousness" of Russia's foreign policy establishment is also insightful and opens valuable ground for comparison with other spacially oriented elites in other places. At the same time, there are a number of points within LeDonne's interpretation...