- Russian Economic Growth in Global Perspective
Connections, Entanglements, and World Perspectives
Here we have a bestselling global history, which was a dazzling success in Germany, even among nonspecialized readers, and subsequently translated into many other languages. Its success is well deserved, for it is truly exceptional in the wealth of materials it contains; its complex, subtle arguments; and the number of aspects, issues, and perspectives it examines. There seems to be no end to Osterhammel’s appetite for knowledge or his skill. From the very first chapters on methodology, the author demonstrates an outstanding degree of competence and intellectual finesse.
From this perspective, we can only applaud the book’s success, confirming that of other global histories such as those of Christopher Bayly and John Darwin.1 All these works share one and the same aim: to decentralize history and rule out a Europe-centered view—as well as, in Osterhammel’s case, histories based on predefined models and theories. They are targeting Eric Hobsbawm and his Marxist summaries of a history in which revolution and the shift from feudalism to capitalism form the keystones.2 According to Hobsbawm, the transition from “feudalism” to “capitalism” passes through the age of revolutions, then capital, and last imperialism, as in conventional Marxist periodization. The problem with this historiography is that continuities seem equally important [End Page 151] between the 17th and the early 19th centuries and in the “age of revolutions.” Last but not least, this approach has been qualified as Eurocentric insofar as it gives Britain the leading role in world history and forgets the important transformations of Asia and Africa, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam and others have shown in their global approach to the age of revolution.3
For this reason, these global histories are equally far removed from Immanuel Wallerstein’s approach, which is also determinist and, despite his criticism of capitalism, absolutely Eurocentric.4 Many historians—Frederick Cooper, for one—have stressed the overdeterminism of world-system theory, which provides no agency at all to India, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.5 This is also true for Russia. One well-known argument of Wallerstein’s consisted in showing that the expansion of Western capitalism was the cause of the second serfdom in Russia: increased demand for wheat in Europe prompted Russian lords to coerce peasants into producing the amount of wheat required for export. In the general historical literature, this was said to have resulted in an international division of labor: England produced textiles using wage labor, whereas Russia sold grain by resorting to serfdom.6 Indeed, serfdom had been progressively introduced since the 16th century and, as we know, the economic dynamics of 18th-century Russia cannot be explained by an increase in serfdom in response to European growth but, on the contrary, by a relaxation of the labor constraints weighing on peasants and their gradual integration, together with noble landowners, in trade networks.7 These dynamics went beyond the official rules governing serfdom, which were increasingly overtaken by social and economic changes. It is just as hard if not harder to find confirmation of Russia’s dependence on the West as it is in the case of India or colonial Africa. Finalism and historical determinism keep us from seeing the temporal dynamics specific to the Russian context.
At the same time, it is important to distinguish these new syntheses from other approaches such as those of economic historians taking part in the debate on the “great divergence.” Kenneth Pomeranz explained Chinese momentum using the same criteria applied to Europe: rapid demographic development, [End Page 152] protection of private property, and dynamic trade and proto-industrialization.8 The “great divergence” theory asserts that until the late 18th century, Chinese growth was in no way inferior to Europe’s and its institutions were not hostile to the market. The West was able to impose its economic and military control only because it had access to colonial resources. Conquest—not war—was what...