- New Perspectives on Russian History in World History
Jürgen Osterhammel’s Transformation of the World is a balanced and thoughtful example of a true world history. The book consists of three parts. Part 1, “Approaches,” discusses Memory and Self-Observation, Time, and Space and thus convincingly addresses the fundamental categories of history writing in general. Part 2 is called “Panoramas” and Part 3 “Themes,” both of which are also appropriate, although it’s unclear why Osterhammel chose to place topics such as Mobilities, Living Standards, Cities, Frontiers, Imperial Systems and Nation-States, International Orders, Revolutions, and The State under “Panoramas,” while grouping topics such as Energy and Industry, Labor, Networks, Hierarchies, Knowledge, Civilization and Exclusion, and Religion under “Themes.” Still, there’s no doubt that the book fully deserves to be considered a world history, as all the regions of the globe are represented and receive their fair share of attention.
This includes Russia, which is treated fairly consistently throughout the book. But even more important is the way that Osterhammel integrates the Russian experience into his analysis. Basically he goes about this in three ways, adopting the same approach to Russia that he does to the other countries and continents that figure in the narrative. He includes individual cases in his narration of general global developments; he makes comparisons between states and regions to underscore the realities of historical variation; and he draws attention to the entanglements between countries and continents, ranging from political interaction to the flows of commodities and the movement of ideas and peoples that tied them together. This approach applies [End Page 139] to the whole analytical sweep of the book. No single paragraph highlights a given country or region for its own sake. Instead every detail appears as part of a larger interpretation. As for Russia specifically, Osterhammel relates its history to the larger world in a few key ways.
First, he uses Russia to exemplify general global developments of the 19th century. Of the many ways that Osterhammel does this, four of the analytical rubrics that he devises strike me as particularly useful: the 1880s threshold, territoriality, mobilities, and wars.
Discussing various chronologies that structure the 19th century, Osterhammel highlights the so-called 1880s threshold as a time of change on a global scale. This threshold links the Victorian age and the fin de siècle leading up to World War I. In terms of political, military, and economic history, Russia serves as one of many examples to drive home this view of the 1880s as a key period of transition (63–65). Alexander’s III restoration of autocracy is compared to Sultan Abdülhamid II’s suspension of the Ottoman constitution in 1878. The Russian revolution of 1905–7 is put into line with revolutions in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and China in the early 20th century. As to the economy, Osterhammel says: “Global industrialization entered a new phase. Japan and Russia experienced what economic historians used to call a ‘takeoff,’ that is, transition to self-sustaining growth. Things were not yet so advanced in India or in South Africa (where large gold deposits were discovered in 1886), but a core of industrial and mining capitalism began to take shape in both countries, for the first time outside the West and Japan” (63). Thus Russian history from the 1880s until World War I appears to be in line with trends in a number of other countries across the globe.
Russia also plays an important role when it comes to the issue of 19th-century territoriality: “Large states came into being—huge entities such as the United States, Canada (federated in 1867), and the Tsarist Empire, which only now really took possession of Siberia and expanded into Central Asia. The sober Friedrich Ratzel was not merely engaging in social Darwinist reverie when he elaborated a ‘law of the spatial growth of states’ ” (108). Border zones provided another important feature of imperial territoriality: “Every empire had...