- A War of Images: Russian Popular Prints, Wartime Culture, and National Identity, 1812–1945, and: Voennyi faktor v povsednevnoi zhizni russkoi zhenshchiny v XVIII–nachale XX vekov, and: Reforming the Tsar’s Army: Military Innovation in Imperial Russia from Peter the Great to the Revolution
In different ways the three works reviewed here posit the centrality of warfare in shaping the course of modern Russia’s historical development. Although warfare exerted a profound influence upon the history of most, if not all, European states in the modern era, wars both large and small played a crucial role in the foundation, expansion, and later collapse of both the tsarist and Soviet empires. If so with war, so it was also with the institution tasked with waging it, the military. As both the primary instrument and the prop of tsarist power, the military played a crucial role in the regime, not only in providing for the physical security of the state but in profoundly influencing political structures, methods of governance, and conceptions of authority. Furthermore, the scope of the military’s interaction with society was arguably broader than that of any other institution. As Bruce Menning and David Schimmelpenninck contend in their introduction, the kinds of military reforms that they analyze in Reforming the Tsar’s Army “have affected Russian society more thoroughly than perhaps any other society during the modern era” (3). The influence was reciprocal. From conscription to repression to local administration, some form of military experience was shared, and hence in part shaped, by nearly every tsarist subject.
In light of this, it is telling that in his contributing essay to Reforming the Tsar’s Army, David McDonald still feels compelled to make the case for [End Page 668] the inherent value and broader relevance of military history in the Russian context. He first identifies some of the causal factors responsible for the continuing “outsider status” of Russian military history: the complex nature of the military itself (“a society within a society”), restricted archival access, political antipathies among scholars toward the tsarist regime, and a larger disdain for military history itself. One might also add the emphasis on social history in the 1960s–70s and the linguistic “turn” of the 1990s—movements that, as a rule, did not prioritize analysis of the military. In response, McDonald persuasively suggests a “closer relationship between Russia’s military, political-institutional, and social history than is often evident in the scholarly literature” (307–8). In particular, he notes how the essays in Reforming the Tsar’s Army illustrate several compelling themes: the influential role of the military in shaping the institutions, personnel, and political culture of the tsarist state; the connections between these essays and recent historiographical trends regarding new areas of thematic and chronological focus; and military historians’ engagement with broader conceptual motifs in approaching the late imperial period, including “change vs. continuity” and “Russia vs. the West.”
All three of the works under review develop these themes in a number of ways. First, they display an appreciation for the breadth and complexity of the experience of warfare in the Russian context. From diverse perspectives they address the nexus of military, state, and society in a wide variety of forms, including conscription policies, strategic planning, technological modernization, popular culture, imperial ideology, and the unique experience of women. Moreover, all three explicitly emphasize a long and broad historical arc, explore the evolution of this dynamic interaction over multiple decades, and introduce comparisons with developments in...