- Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire by Joshua A. Sanborn
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians of early twentieth-century Russia have increasingly portrayed the years 1914 to 1921–22 as a continuous period of war and revolution. Joshua A. Sanborn’s book contributes to this scholarship by arguing that the experience of world war, revolution, and civil war in Russia constitutes a process of decolonization.
Sanborn’s proposition is a provocative one, both in its suggestion that the concept of decolonization as used to describe developments that occurred in Asia and Africa after World War II should be applied retroactively to interwar Europe (5), and in its assertion that nationalist movements within the Russian Empire played a negligible role in the collapse of imperial power (14). In the book’s introduction, Sanborn proffers a four-stage model of decolonization. The first stage is the imperial challenge stage, during which anti-colonial movements emerge. The second is the state failure stage, when the imperial government loses its authority and legitimacy, including its monopoly on the employment of legitimate violence. The third is the social disaster stage, which is characterized by the dissolution and destruction of social institutions and relations. The fourth is the state-building stage, which for Sanborn remains a work-in-progress. Sanborn emphasizes that these stages are not necessarily sequential or causally connected. For example, the imperial challenge stage often does not induce the state failure stage; states can destroy themselves and thereby feed the development of anti-colonial movements (6).
The author details the decolonization process as it relates to the Russian case in the book’s conclusion. The first real imperial challenge to the Russian Empire arose when Russia backed Serbia in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 and again in 1914. Support for Serbia placed the tsarist regime in the paradoxical position of championing anti-imperialism abroad while strengthening the empire at home (245). The catalyst for the state-failure stage was the imposition of martial law in areas under military occupation at the beginning of the war, a move that undermined the central government’s authority in the empire’s periphery (247). The social-disaster stage began in the wake of the Great Retreat of 1915, when the twin calamities of wartime inflation and forced migration spread to the rear even as the front stabilized (254). These three stages continued to co-exist and ebb and flow through the Civil War. The fourth and final [End Page 347] stage, state building, commenced with the establishment of the Soviet Union, which Sanborn designates as a postcolonial state (261).
The interim chapters of the book are devoted to a description of the momentous events on the battle and home fronts that punctuated Russia’s decolonization. Sanborn deftly weaves information from archival sources, published document collections, memoir literature, and secondary scholarship into a comprehensive narrative that readers unfamiliar with Russia’s Great War will appreciate for its accessibility. For readers who are familiar with the story of the war in Russia, Sanborn’s retelling largely reinforces existing arguments regarding the autocracy’s gross mismanagement of the war effort. His account of the Russian military’s victories and defeats bolsters Norman Stone’s argument that Russia’s losses in the war resulted from poor and competing sources of leadership and not from an absolute shortage of munitions, as contemporary military officials often claimed. Sanborn’s explanation of how public organizations and the political opposition stepped up and provided wartime services that the state would or could not provide substantiates Peter Holquist’s notion of the parastatal complex, although Sanborn’s analysis is distinguished by his use of the conscription of labor and the provision of medical services to illustrate this phenomenon.
The author’s argument that World War I was a war of decolonization would have been more convincing if he had reiterated the ways that wartime and revolutionary developments were indicative...