- Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908–1918 by Michael A. Reynolds
In Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908–1918, Michael Reynolds has produced a first-rate study of the international state system, nationalism, and empire during the First World War. A broad and well-researched work, Shattering Empires is a must-read for historians working on issues pertaining to nationality, identity, and international relations in the early twentieth century.
At the heart of Shattering Empires lies Reynolds’s focus upon empires and communities in an international context. “The historians,” writes Reynolds, “routinely interpreted the break-up of the Ottoman, Russian, and Habsburg empires as a lesson in the irresistible potency and reach of nationalism” (p. 9). Arguing that historians must not attribute the break-up of these empires to a reified and autonomous “nationalism,” Reynolds makes a convincing case for viewing nationalism in the borderlands of the Near East and Eurasia as “a form of geopolitics, not as a phenomenon that springs from some non-political base” (p. 18). Reynolds turns away from discussions looking specifically at nationalism by focusing on “the institutions and actors that prosecute conflict [End Page 242] rather than on the identities and passions generated by conflict” (p. 266).
Shattering Empires displays many obvious strengths. Reynolds’s research skills are particularly impressive, most noticeably with respect to his ability to thoroughly and systematically research in the archives of both Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Reynolds’s mastery of the relevant secondary literature pertaining to the fields of both Russian and Ottoman history is also noteworthy, and enables him to punctuate his narrative with interesting and important details such as Ottoman support for Armenian dashnakiun fighters (p. 99), Kaiser Wilhelm’s advocacy for Ottoman pan-Islamism (p. 122), and the undertakings of mysterious freelancers, like Ahmet Agaoglu and Ali Shahtahtinskii, who operated between the two states before and after the First World War (pp. 92–94).
Each chapter of Shattering Empires covers a different aspect relating to events linking trans-imperial communities to the Ottoman and Russian states. Chapter 1 examines the foreign relations of the Ottoman Empire and Russia between 1908 and 1914, introducing the reader to the fascinating intersection of issues and events linking Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the communities of the Ottoman-Russian borderlands. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Russian state policy making and examine Russia’s policies toward eastern Anatolia and the efforts of Russian and Ottoman statesmen to exploit the mobile and cross-border nature of communities such as the Armenians and Kurds. Chapter 4, perhaps the strongest chapter in Shattering Empires, looks at Russian and Ottoman policies during the First World War and provides an excellent analysis of the war aims and strategies of the two empires as they related to the borderland regions between them. Chapter 5 discusses the Armenian deportations and massacres of 1915 alongside developments taking place with respect to other borderland communities, such as Greeks, Kurds, and Assyrians, during the war years. The final three chapters of Shattering Empires provide an account of developments taking place after the Bolshevik Revolution and the withdrawal of Russia from the war, including Ottoman-Bolshevik relations after Brest-Litovsk (chapter 6), the short-lived independence movements and governments of the postwar Transcaucasus (chapter 7), and the final, frantic geopolitical end game taking place between Bolsheviks, remnants of the Ottoman Army, and local fighting forces raised in the borderlands between the two collapsed empires in the immediate wake of the First World War’s conclusion (chapter 8). An epilogue leads the reader through the immediate postimperial reconsolidation of the region into the Soviet Union and the Republic of Turkey. [End Page 243]
The expansiveness of Shattering Empires is admirable, and the book’s fluency in engaging the historiography of both states and communities is very impressive. At the same time, however, this very strength can, in...