- Interview with John P. LeDonne
It would be hard to identify many people who have taken on more proverbially “big” questions in Russian history than John P. LeDonne, research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.1 The scope and character of Catherine II’s “great reforms” of 1775–85, the social foundations of the modern Russian political order, the personal networks of kinship and patronage that structured Russia’s governance, and the geographic and ideational foundations of Russia’s dramatic expansion in the late Muscovite and imperial periods—these are the main elements of LeDonne’s voluminous oeuvre.2 Few have done more to explore the deep structures and broad tendencies that shaped Russia’s imperial period, especially its first 150 years.
Given the centrality of the long 18th century to his work, it may come as a surprise that LeDonne’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia University in 1962 focused on early Soviet administration.3 But his first publication in 1967 already moved back into the 1880s, and from there he quickly found a more lasting home in the early imperial period, extending from the late Muscovite years until around 1830. A wave of articles in the 1970s and 1980s culminated in the monograph Ruling Russia, which provided the first comprehensive account of Catherine the Great’s critical reforms of the 1770s–80s.4 LeDonne described these reforms as being “as important as those of the 1860s” (vii), interpreting them as the regime’s capitulation to an antibureaucratic rebellion on the part of Russia’s upper nobility. He thus integrated a social dimension into Russian administrative history. From there, [End Page 701] he moved quickly to expand his chronological parameters to the entire 18th century and to provide an even more comprehensive account designed to show the methods and purpose of autocratic rule in Russia. The resulting monograph, Absolutism and Ruling Class—winner of the prestigious Wayne S. Vucinich Prize in 1992—explored the evolution of the relationship between ruler and hereditary nobility, essentially confirming and extending the main thesis of his first book.5 He focused on three critical eras of reform—under Peter I, Catherine II, and Alexander I—that sought to institutionalize a consensus between these pillars of the Russian political order. Both works laid out the case for the nobility in Russia as the critical socioeconomic foundation for the country’s political order. The central proposition was that if the nobility lacked political power in a formal sense, given the absence of a parliament and similar institutions, it nonetheless possessed “the ability to impose a consensus on the nature of social relationships and to frame policies expressing that consensus” (Ruling Russia, 82).
LeDonne’s subsequent work took him into the realm of geopolitics and strategy. In The Russian Empire and the World, he offered a grand interpretation of Russian foreign policy from the outbreak of war with Sweden in 1700 until the fall of the Romanov regime in 1917.6 He posited a deeper logic to Russian expansion and argued that Russia’s relations with its neighbors were shaped to a substantial degree by geographic factors. As he wrote in the book’s preface, “Geography so restricted the range of options that there were few alternatives most of the time, and none very often.” In this conception, Russian expansion amounted to “the timely decision of each move on a predetermined geographic path,” albeit made by individuals conscious of the intentions of their predecessors (xv–xvi). Drawing on the concepts of “heartland,” “cores,” “frontiers,” and “peripheries,” LeDonne posited a striking continuity in Russian foreign policy over more than two centuries. He developed this line of inquiry further in his next book, The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire.7 Yet if in the previous monograph he explicitly denied the existence of “some sinister master plan of Russian expansion, worked out at some indefinite date in the past and carried out in masterly fashion” (Russian Empire, xv), then in the newer book he posited that Russia possessed a “grand strategy.” An “integrated military, geopolitical, economic, and cultural vision” [End Page 702] (viii), he argued, could be discerned in the country’s...