- What’s New in Russian Military History and Why You Should Care
When one thinks of neglected approaches to the study of the Russian past, military history rarely comes to mind. In mass market publications and on television, military historians are, to say the least, well represented. At Borders Bookstore and on the History Channel, the feats and defeats of Russian arms occupy a large share of the space devoted to Russian history. One would also be hard pressed to argue that military history has been ignored in scholarly treatments of the Russian past. Military explanations have been adduced (and in many cases have become orthodox) for many important "social" events in Russian history, such as the implementation of serfdom and its later abolition.1
Nevertheless, there is a sense among active military historians that the most recent work in military history, by junior and senior scholars alike, remains unread by most of the field. Many scholars, of course, feel underappreciated, but [End Page 615] there seems to be something a bit more substantial about the complaints of military historians that their subject is ignored by the rest of the profession. To take just one example, a series of excellent edited collections on late imperial Russian history appeared in the 1990s, yet virtually none included articles on military history. Russian military intellectuals, line officers, and soldiers were involved in the "quest for public identity," in the development of the professions, in activities that can only be called subversive of the autocratic political system, and in the engagement with "Russia's Orient." But military history is at the center of none of the articles in the major collections on those themes that have appeared over the past decade.2 At a time when new historical paradigms are being formed as a result of the "cultural turn" and the opening of the Russian archives, this lack of integration is damaging not only to the professional egos of military historians but to the quality of scholarship for years to come.
The sense of exclusion is felt acutely by many of my colleagues in military history, even the successful ones. One scholar who began his career in military history advised me – too late to make any difference in my choice of dissertation topic, but early enough to prompt years of anxiety – that studying the army had two major drawbacks. First, your classes fill up with young men who want to show you sketches of warplanes, and second, no one reads your work. At that point, I had had no luck getting funding to do research for a dissertation that foregrounded the notion of "militarization." After dropping that word from the title of my project, I received the next four grants for which I applied.3 From that point forward, I was careful to make clear to anyone who asked that I was not writing a dissertation that could be called "military history," even though the focus of my manuscript was military conscription. This caution is widely shared. In 1994, the American Historical Association found itself in the awkward position of awarding its Birdsall prize in military history to a bright young historian named Leonard Smith, who admitted on the first page of his book on the French [End Page 616] Army mutinies of 1917 that he "fretted endlessly about being tagged a 'military historian'" as he wrote the text.4
Smith's fretting is understandable. He was probably correct to sense...