Imperial Apocalypse and Decolonization: Havighurst Lecture Series Opens

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By Riley Kane

September 19, 2016. Oxford, OH.  Dr. Joshua Sanborn, Professor of History at Lafayette College, opened the Havighurst Center’s “Russia in War and Revolution” Lecture Series on his recent book, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire. In the lecture and book Sanborn introduced a new understanding of Russia’s defeat in WWI – as part of the history of decolonization.

Sanborn asserted that Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and other nationalities-cum-nations in the borderlands of the Russian Empire followed a path shared with many African and Asian states that gained independence after WWII. Before the First World War, Russia ruled much of present-day Poland and Ukraine, and all of modern Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (among other places). During the war the front lines crashed back and forth across this borderland region creating unprecedented devastation, but also empowering nationalists.

Sanborn’s decolonization thesis began with what he termed the imperial challenge, where national and anti-imperial movements developed before the war. However, the war initiated the second, state failure stage, which empowered nationalists. Bureaucrats along the imperial borders fled the war, so only dedicated local ethnic nationalists remained to administer the affairs of daily life. Army officials, who, as Sanborn writes in his book, “to the extent that they thought about it at all, appear to have believed that life would continue as normal” during wartime and officers with a “complete lack of perspective” took over regional government, while local rule devolved to incompetent district chiefs.[1] Military rule exercised “varying degrees of arbitrariness” including price ceilings, persecution of merchants, looting followed by the pointless destruction of local property, and pogroms against local Jewish communities.[2]

The war’s cataclysmic ebb and flow of armies initiated the third, social disaster phase, when civilians became refugees, violence broke out within the community, and shortages turned to famine. The government also practiced what Sanborn called a “poisonous brand” of ethnic politics, dealing with communities strictly along ethnic lines. State policy saw “trust, legitimacy, prosperity, reliability, accountability, and above all hope for the future… deeply weakened.”[3]

Confronted by such massive problems, the Russian parliament, the Duma, and the zemstvos, essentially civilian aid NGOs, offered their support. Tsar Nicholas II refused them, then took personal command at the front. Sanborn called this a “cracking moment,” as the Tsar assumed all responsibility for his failing state. In February 1916 first women, then most factory workers struck for food.   Because of  this growing revolt the generals and Duma convinced the Tsar to abdicate. The Provisional Government assumed control of the state, but workers’ and soldiers’ soviets challenged their legitimacy.

The Provisional Government launched a final major offensive in summer 1917 to restore the boundaries of the former Russian Empire, but it broke down as individual soldiers’ soviets determined not to advance. The army collapsed, and routed Russian soldiers streamed across the countryside fleeing the Germans, but also pillaging their own country. Sanborn recounted that when administrators requested government intervention, the response was that those soldiers were the men that would have been sent. Sanborn warned that “unless arrested quickly, this social disaster phase can lead to an apocalyptic death spiral.”[4] And it did, the Bolsheviks seized power amid the chaos, created the USSR, and initiated the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922.

The fourth stage of decolonization, what Sanborn calls state-building, occurred as the Bolsheviks created their new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it is important to emphasize that plural. The Bolsheviks recognized the different ethnicities of the former empire. The Moscow Bolsheviks formally recognized the sovereignty of the Ukrainian Bolshevik government in Kharkov, a massive break from the imperial policy that Ukrainian was a cultural subset of Russian. This fourth stage encompasses the now independent society’s reconstitution and establishment of durable social and political institutions, which happened in Eastern Europe after the end of the war and produced the most unique results within the Soviet Union.

Sanborn convincingly argued WWI was not just a cataclysm, but an imperial apocalypse. The Russian Empire was not replaced. The USSR was no empire as understood before 1914. Similarly, the war destroyed the Austrian and German empires, both replaced by ethnic nation-states. The war destroyed the very idea of a multi-ethnic empire, which led to the horrific ethnic cleansing and genocides of the twentieth century. In this sense, Sanborn made good on his thesis:  these horrors were not unlike the struggles of other post-colonial societies in Africa and Asia.

Riley Kane is a senior majoring in History and Political Science.

[1] Joshua Sanborn, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire (Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2014), 44-45.

[2] Sanborn, 46-51.

[3] Sanborn, 53, 64.

[4] Sanborn, 5-7.

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