A Close Look at Imperial Apocalypse


Note:  Seven students enrolled in the Fall Colloquium, “Russia in War and Revolution,” review Joshua Sanborn’s recent book by exploring seven themes covered in it.

Sanborn, Joshua, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.


Part One:  Decolonization


By Luke Stanek


Joshua Sanborn, professor of History at Lafayette College, explores the collapse of the Russian Empire during the First World War in Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire.  Using correspondence, personal accounts, official documents, and other sources, Sanborn reconstructs the Russian experience of the war on the front, at home, in Russian imperial provinces, and at every level of administration within government and parastatal organizations.  However, the primary contribution of Imperial Apocalypse is not simply the reconstruction of experience, but rather the model through which he frames it: via decolonization.

Sanborn begins by outlining a new model of decolonization in the introduction.  In this model, he argues that there are four phases that an empire experiences in the process of decolonization: imperial challenge, state failure, social disaster, and state-building.  In the first phase, imperial challenge, anti-imperial movements develop in the colony (and often concurrently in the metropole) and pose a challenge to imperial authority.  In the second phase, state failure, the state loses its ability to govern at all levels of colonial authority.  In the third phase, social disaster, the power vacuum left by the second phase results in violence and chaos in virtually all aspects of life for the colonized peoples.  In the fourth and final phase, state-building, some form of legitimate state governance emerges to fill this power vacuum and restore social and political order.  In the process of narrating the Russian experience of war, Sanborn focuses on the first three phases of decolonization, which he contends are all visible over the course of the war.

First, Sanborn recognizes the imperial challenge in the nationalist movements of Eastern Europe: specifically in Poland, Finland, the Baltic States, the Caucasus, and Ukraine, but also amongst the various peoples of Central Asia under the imperial yoke.  Many in Poland in particular saw themselves as occupied by the Russians even prior to the outbreak of war, and their anti-imperial leanings were further intensified as the empire implemented martial law.  Sanborn argues that the implementation of martial law is the first glimpse of phase two: whereby governance was passed from the hands of capable administrators into the hands of military officers with little or no experience in economic or political administration.  Additionally, the flight of imperial administrators and imperial engagement in ethnopolitics further demonstrated the state’s inability to govern, which fueled instability in the social order of the colonies.

During the Great Retreat in 1915, refugees in mass numbers began flooding eastward, and as the war put strains on the economy, the third phase, social collapse, began to manifest.  Once it became apparent that the initially-successful Brusilov Offensive had ultimately failed to turn the tide of war, the Tsarist state, which had taken all responsibility for the war and governance upon itself with the takeover of Stavka and dissolution of the Duma, had virtually no remaining support at any level, and therefore no remaining legitimacy.  Central Asian peoples soon thereafter revolted against imperial rule, and the European borderlands were exposed to the violence of disobedient soldiers and the ravages of failed economies.  In the midst of this state failure in the colonies, revolution hit home in February/March 1917, and marked the end of the Tsarist state with the abdication of Nicholas II.  The colonies were left to fend for themselves as the front moved once again eastward, and social chaos erupted as various forces vied for regional power in the new vacuum of state authority.

Sanborn’s extension of the concept of decolonization to Eastern Europe (as well as to Central Asia) is particularly intriguing, and not just for the controversy it creates.  In doing so, Sanborn overturns the dominant historical narrative of Europe as the colonizer, and non-Europeans as the colonized.  Within this new framework, the oft-proclaimed “backwards” and least-European of the European powers is reframed as one of the most significant colonial empires in the late modern period, which problematizes pervious understandings of national self-determination among Eastern European nation states.  But rather than reject that idea of self-determination outright, Sanborn’s model recontextualizes it within the framework of decolonization.  While Sanborn’s model for decolonization is an intriguing, if not compelling, one, it falls wholly-untested outside of this particular case study, and even the fourth and final stage in this study goes almost-entirely unexplored, which Sanborn himself notes would be a massive, and perhaps necessary, undertaking, to complete the study.

Despite these shortcomings, the documentation of life in war across the Empire, from the soldier, doctor, and nurse at the front to the citizen at home, and from the administrator in Petrograd to the subject in the colonies, successfully outlines the changing state of society over the course of the war and gives valuable attention to the variety of forces responsible for the ensuing revolutions.  Additionally, his model may be of value to political scientists and post-colonial historians who are seeking to categorize the processes of decolonization.  To apply this model would undoubtedly-require significant investment in recontextualizing imperial and colonial history as we know it, but if successful, such an endeavor may help bring an end to the Eurocentric views many historians still hold with regard to the act of colonizing.

Luke Stanek is a second-year M.A. student in History at Miami.  His thesis explores history, memory, and tourism in modern China.


Part Two:  Imperial Crisis

By Jacob Beard

Russia’s experience during the First World War has long been left in the shadow of coverage about the Western Front. Scarce few English-language analyses of the Eastern Front existed before 1991 and many of the experiences on the Eastern Front still remain unexplored. Imperial Apocalypse, written by Dr. Joshua Sanborn of Lafayette College, attempts to tap into the rich field of World War One studies from a uniquely Russian perspective. Sanborn does so by employing a unique methodology comprised of four separate parts, all centered on an unlikely theme – decolonization in the First World War. Decolonization, as a result of World War One, its causes, and how it unfurled as a phenomenon in war-time and post-war Europe, is explained by Sanborn by way an analysis of four crucial features of the war, particularly on the Eastern Front: 1) imperial challenge, 2) state failure, 3) social disaster, and 4) state-building. The culmination of these features, Sanborn argues, produced the imperial apocalypse of his title.

Each of these four traits are vital to the analyses provided by Sanborn and are in no way autonomous explanations or causes divorced from one another. Each of these four interact in an interwoven web of causation that resulted in the decolonization of the borderlands regions throughout Europe and, thusly, the collapse of many empires of the continent. The terminus a quo of the decolonization process, Sanborn posits, lies in the emergence of a challenge in both the periphery of an empire and the metropole of that empire against the effectiveness and legitimacy of imperial rule (5-6). Though Sanborn calls it the ‘imperial challenge’ phase of decolonization, the empire has not much capacity in the way of challenging anything so much as being challenged itself; however, the importance of the imperial challenge cannot be overstated with respect to its importance both to decolonization as well as to Sanborn’s argument.

The imperial challenge stage is the necessary starting point for Sanborn’s argument because before the subsequent phases of state failure, social disaster, and, particularly, state-building, can make sense to the reader, Imperial landholdings and the loyalty of Imperial subjects needs to become compromised. As was the case in Russia during World War I, the challenges against the Empire that emerged in Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Transcaucasian holding of Armenia and Georgia ultimately proved to be the trigger for collapse (11). Perhaps the clearest cases of a prominent challenge against the Empire during World War I came in the occupied Polish and Ukrainian fronts of the war.

In Poland, Sanborn identifies the imperial challenge even before the outbreak of the war with the development of national Polish political organizations. Russia was incapable of holding against the Germans for long in its Polish territories and in recalling the retreat of Russian military personnel from the Polish reaches of the Empire, Sanborn summarizes the severity within Russia’s Polish front by remarking that “by the end of August, the Russian Empire’s rule in Poland, present since the days of Catherine the Great, was over (74).” Already, this echoes Sanborn’s assertion that the imperial challenge is often demarcated by or aggravated by an imperial power’s inability to continue to physically maintain the peripheral spaces of its empire. Similarly, in the Galician provinces of what is today Western Ukraine, the need for temporary and, eventually, permanent retreat from the Germans and Austrians in the far reaches of the Russian Empire resulted in a loss of staying-power with respect to governance, a loss from which Russia never recovered. Already these territories were, at best, compromised and, in the worst case, lost. But the incapacity to reign over a physical space, according to Sanborn, is not enough to explain the imperial challenges apparent in Poland and Ukraine by itself and an intellectual shift present in both the ‘colony’ and the metropole must also be accounted for.

The shift in allegiance need not always be counter to an imperial government, as Sanborn recounts in the Ukrainian case, but in some way it must compromise the integrity of an empire as the sole legitimate force of governance and power. This occurrence is best encapsulated in Sanborn’s account of Ukraine after the February Revolution of 1917. He cites the move, on behalf of the Ukrainian politicians along the war-front, to develop national autonomy for Ukraine building from decades of nation-building in Ukraine on the behalf of both intellectuals and politicians in Ukraine as well as Russian bureaucrats and policy-makers in the Imperial capital (213-216). This move did not begin, however, in a staunchly anti-imperial vein as Sanborn quotes a statement from the Central Rada remarking, “let there be a free Ukraine. Without separating from all of Russia, without breaking away from the Russian State, let the Ukrainian people on their own territory have the right to manage their own life (214).”

Imperial challenges, such as the aforementioned challenge in Ukraine, are, according to Sanborn, the bedrock whence imperial collapse and decolonization are built and his methodology and overall argument are supported by powerful evidence such as the examples above. His framework, while at times as much of a political science one in its model for understanding collapse, is invaluable for historians and scholars of the Eastern Front of World War I and holds its ground throughout the entirety of the book as a valid one for the explanation of decolonization and imperial collapse during the First World War.


Jacob Beard is a second-year M.A. student in History at Miami.  His thesis project investigates Petr Chaadaev and the role of madness in Russian history.


Part Three:  State Failure

By Adam Rodger

In Imperial Apocalypse: the Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, Dr. Joshua Sanborn proposes the recontextualization of scholarly understandings of the Great War. He argues that, rather than being seen as a conflict of great imperial powers, it should be viewed as a war of decolonization. Throughout the book, Sanborn pinpoints patterns and events from Russia’s experience with the war that directly resulted in the collapse of the empire.

Several other important themes pervade Sanborn’s book, however, and one of the most critical is that of state failure. This is the second phase in his model for imperial decolonization, and he argues that “decolonization necessarily includes state failure” (6). He depicts a state that is defined by its ability to legitimize and control violence, and so it must fail in order for a new state to take its place. At this point, other groups, generally through violence, legitimize themselves and begin the phase of state building.

In the Russian case, Sanborn argues, state failure began with the declaration of martial law before the Great War even began. State and military officials fully expected that the local populations would remain docile and obedient, but the military forces installed to administer “were utterly unprepared to actually govern in the zones of their authority” (41). Eventually, massive numbers of civilian government officials fled, abandoning positions that were quickly taken up by local nationalist groups. These jobs included customs officials, post carriers, and civil administrators, all symbols of state control. When these were filled by nationalists, that symbol of state control was broken, and a window for decolonization opened.

A perhaps more striking example of state failure came in the summer and early autumn of 1915. On 22 August/4 September, against the council of all his advisors, Nicholas II left Petrograd to assume control of the military at the front. At about the same time, under the deceitful advice of I. L. Goremykin, chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nicholas disbanded the Duma without warning (103). This was a terribly unpopular decision, and it absolutely led to state failure. It made certain that Nicholas would be responsible for any failings at the front, of which there were many, as he was no skilled commander. It also made certain that he would be responsible for any failings at the capital, because of his disbanding of the Duma. As the symbol of the state to the people, Sanborn shows, any failures attributed to Nicholas were also attributed to the state, and weakened its power. “At the ground level,” he writes, “this incompetence was evident and devastating” (190). Coupled with the nationalist groups stepping into positions of local governance, this was particularly damaging in the colonial regions of the empire, and helped open the door for decolonization.

Vicious pogroms, a refugee crisis, and lawless soldiers are among the other examples Sanborn gives of state failure, but he argues that it came to its peak with Nicholas’ abdication of the throne. World War I, Sanborn argues, had had caused this phase of decolonization to occur in Russia; he says that part of why the Romanov dynasty lasted so long was its control over its armed forces, but “the war destroyed the bond between army and monarch.” Nicholas’ twin terrible decisions, leading the war effort himself and disbanding the Duma, had destroyed the confidence of the people and the military in the tsar, and “the withdrawal of military support for the throne brought the whole system crashing down” (193). It was the failure of the state to fulfill the obligations of a state which destroyed it, opened up a vacuum for other groups to take its place, and gave nationalists a position from which to learn to govern and administer.

Sanborn’s multi-faceted work is rich in the words of people from the time, sharing their stories and weaving them into a convincing argument about World War I and its role in the Russian Empire’s decolonization process. It is a pleasure to read, and its proposed shift in how the Great War should be viewed will no doubt be debated for some time. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the book is an excellent contribution to the scholarship on Russian activity during the war and is highly recommended.


Adam Rodger is a second-year M.A. student in History at Miami.  His thesis project examines the so-called “bitches’ war” in the postwar Stalinist Gulag.


Part Four:  Social Collapse

By Isabelle Schenkel

Joshua Sanborn’s book, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, focuses on the effects of World War I and how it helped to shape and remold the European landscape, specifically through the process of decolonization. Sanborn argues that “just as shifting to the model of colonization and decolonization rather than great power imperialism allows us to see the events of the war in a new light, so too does this model give us new insights into developments normally classed as the ‘rise of nationalism’ in Eastern Europe” (4). One specific mode of analyzing the decolonization of Eastern Europe throughout Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire is to follow social collapse and rise of nationalism.

Well into the 19th Century, Russian society was still based on a system of serfdom. In this system, power rested with the serf owners who, “had encouraged agriculture far more than industry, and they had thwarted educational initiatives, civic development, and urban growth” (10).  Therefore, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 allowed for the development of, “primary schooling, mass media, industrial economies, and universal military conscription”(10) which fueled a rise of nationalism. Prior to World War I, a spike of nationalism occurred among the educated elites of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Armenia, and Russia.  This rising tide of nationhood was challenged by a state program of Russification, which attempted to unify everyone under a single Russian national identity rather than several regional identities. This policy attempted to unify language in the empire as well as through the banning of books in the Ukrainian language and a large religious campaign that focused on converting Catholics to Orthodoxy. According to Sanborn the Russification efforts succeeded in, “preventing nationalist intellectuals from reaching their nations through schools or the press undoubtedly hindered the activities of anti-colonial activists as they sought to build mass movements” but ultimately failed. The reason for this failure was because, “few lower-class people in the Russian Empire thought of their ethnicity as an important political fact” (12, Sanborn). Though prior to World War I the common people did not utilize nationalist groups, they became vital during the war.

Even before hostilities broke out, the changes within imperial society became clear.  On 16/29 July 1914, Nicholas II declared, “new rules [that] established a broadly defined front- line zone that came under direct control of the leaders of the active army, imposing martial law on all territories west of the Dnipro River and as far east as St. Petersburg itself”(39). This declaration did not mean that civilian ministries halted their duties, but that military officers held supreme in areas of governance. In the areas under martial law, through the use of decrees, “military men created regulations to enforce security in the zone of their authority, which they could do by imposing curfews, conducting searches of homes and businesses, and deporting undesirables” (40). A controlled economy was enforced by the creation of a list of fixed prices, prohibiting certain trade and requisition of labor. Political life was also enforced under martial law through the imposition of censorship and dismissal of local officials. These efforts to govern and control these regions ultimately failed. The under-equipped officials, who were meant to uphold the martial law declarations, became obsolete as the front approached closer to the western edge of the Russian Empire. The people caught in this warzone increasingly felt less secure because of the lack of military protection and the failing economy under military control, causing massive amounts of inflation and the rise of black markets.  As military aid, in the form of a governing body, disappeared and ultimately failed, it laid way for nationalist groups to step in and bring aid to the people inhabiting these war-stricken areas.

The resulting, dramatic change in social structure within the Russian Empire because of the failure of martial law in World War I highlighted the importance of and need for nationalist groups as crucial resources for individuals in terms of local governance, individual security, and economic stabilization. Imperial Apocalypse provides crucial evidence to demonstrate that the rise of nationalist groups to meet the demands of war gave rise to a form of “ethno-politics” in areas that were previously clumped into the large and expansive Russian empire. When looking at this region today, the story Sanborn traces can still be detected


Isabelle Schenkel is a senior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Miami.  She is also working on earning the Graduate Certificate in Russian Studies offered by the Havighurst Center.


Part Five:  Borderlands

By Leigh Winstead

Joshua Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire is a timely reexamination of the role the stressors of World War I played in the collapse of the Russian Empire. Sanborn argues that the end of the Russian Empire was the end of a colonial entity, and that the collapse can be examined through his “decolonization theory”. He argues for four distinct stages: Imperial Challenge, State Failure, Social Collapse, and Decolonization. This examination, of course, entails that he pays careful attention to the colonial spaces of the Empire—which, in the Russian Empire’s case, were its borderlands. These were spaces not only of fighting and war, but also of Russian occupation. Imperial Apocalypse illustrates the breakdown of Imperial power in these spaces, and how that spread to the rest of the Empire.

Sanborn’s theory of decolonization in the fall of the Russian Empire hinges on the idea that Russia is seen like other European powers, and that the regions it was involved in are to be seen as colonies. This picture is complicated, however, by the fact that Russians seldom ventured to colonize places such as Poland or Ukraine. There were some preexisting ethnic tensions, however, between some Russians and Jews, who had largely been restricted to living in the Pale of Settlement, which made up much of this region, while there was a long history of conflict with the Poles. Conversely, many Russians felt a sense of responsibility and brotherhood with the Ukrainians. Russia’s territories in Central Asia functioned more like traditional colonies through resource extraction and waves of settlers, had been more recently occupied, and experienced the most turmoil (175). Ultimately, however, firm Imperial governance had prevented the growth of much dissent in these spaces before the war began.

Although nationalist movements had begun in the borderlands of the Russian Empire, the state was adequately able to control what Sanborn terms the “imperial challenge” before the war through their strong central authority and Imperial power. However, to Sanborn, “no single act did more to lay the conditions for comprehensive state failure in the borderlands than the edict of martial law (40).” In addition to facing the threat of German invasion, many of these regions suffered at the hands of their supposed protectors—the Russian military. The military often accused local merchants of treason for having warehouses that would be completely normal during peacetime. Many of these conflicts were drawn along ethnic lines, with Jewish merchants particularly vulnerable.  There was little protection, of course, since most of the civilian administrators from the Imperial government had fled, or were, like the local nationalists who stepped into their places, inadequate. The failure for the military to regulate the wartime economy, and the absence of anyone else to do so, lead to increasing destabilization in the borderlands.

Interethnic conflict had begun early on in the war, and was also accompanied by episodes of violence throughout the war. The situation worsened because of “paranoia regarding espionage,” which spread amongst the government and ethnic Russians, in turn leading to the deportation of massive numbers of Baltic Germans, Jews, Poles, and even Chinese and Korean immigrant laborers in the East (140). Deportations caused huge rifts within the Empire—ranging from the inability to grow or harvest food due to removal from fertile land, labor shortages, the spread of illness and diseases, and a growing refugee problem in the heart of the Empire, where these people were often sent. The general idea was that if these “suspect” groups within the Russian borders couldn’t be trusted, they had to be moved to neutralize the potential threat they faced. Even when deportees were allowed to return, they were often not allowed to return only to the region from which they came, or were conscripted.

The turmoil of local government and economic collapse and the massive poverty and homelessness caused by deportation had greatly destabilized the borderlands. The continued failure of the Russian war strategy had also added to this destabilization, and increased tensions as the Russians began looking at ethnic minorities for conscription. These fears in particular led to increased anti-colonial demonstrations and rebellion in the Caucasus region. Peoples in Russia’s Baltic and European territories had also begun calling for independence from colonial rule. Even after Nicholas II abdicated, these tensions did not abate. Finally, the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government, Aleksandr Kerenskii, and his fellow officials ensured the collapse of the Empire. Sanborn illustrated that it was the Provisional Government’s June Offensive and their refusal to work with Ukrainian and Finnish nationalists, despite the fact that Kerenskii “had argued on the floor of the Duma just months earlier that Russian society had a duty to question its moral authority to govern the borderlands” that the he “still appeared to be a Russian imperialist after all (216).” The Provisional Government, now discredited, made room for the Bolsheviks, who were willing to at least offer a partial ear to nationalist concerns if unwilling to grant Ukraine complete independence, were able to capitalize on this betrayal. The “Imperial Challenge” represented by the unrest in Russia’s borderlands, continued well into the Civil War, culminating in a temporary loss of Russian control over any non-Russian area.

In Imperial Apocalypse Sanborn has presented an accessible work of scholarship for any layperson or scholar interested studying the history of the Russian Empire’s borderlands and their role in World War I and the collapse of the Empire. His engaging narrative is informative and even enthralling, which is no small feat for a book so full of archival research. Although the applicability of Sanborn’s decolonization theory still remains to be tested in other regions, he has provided ample evidence to be convincing in the Russian case.


Leigh Winstead is a second-year M.A. student in History at Miami.  Her thesis project looks at the Paris-based Russian émigré community in the late 1920s and the consolidation of an émigré Russianness at that time.


Part Six:  Power, Politics, and Change

By Jacob Hensh

Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire by Joshua Sanborn chronicles the First World War from the Russian perspective in an inimitable fashion. Sanborn explores the process of decolonization within wartime Russia, a novel approach to understanding the Russian Empire and a process that Sanborn argues occurred first during the Great War. The purpose of Sanborn’s monograph is to portray the large-scale implications of the outbreak of war, and the final outcome of the decolonization of the Russian Empire. The series of processes by which this cataclysmic event would occur yield a variety of themes that resonate throughout the book. For the sake of this review, the general theme of the ‘shifting of political power’ will be analyzed by looking at several key events that Sanborn illustrates. These events would change the political landscape of Russia, and ultimately lead to the consolidation of power by the Bolsheviks.

As mentioned above, Sanborn articulates his argument by suggesting that the rise of the independent states within the borders of the Russian Empire was not a byproduct of diplomacy, but rather the result of a distinct pattern of events. These processes, which Sanborn terms military, social, and state failures, provide the framework of the power shift throughout the war. The first significant event appears in the beginning chapters of the book, in which the failure of the military leads to drastic changes in the political dynamics of the borderlands. As Sanborn notes, “Russia’s move to a war footing affected political structures just as it did social life (39).” The effects he refers to are government interventionism in managing the civic life of the bordering territories. This intervention and implementation of martial law economics would lead to the rise of nationalism in these areas, as the military was largely unprepared to actually govern the territory (41). With the military managing the borderlands, Sanborn argues that the framework for the downfall of the empire in fact became imminent. He writes, “Behind the scenes, the Russian Empire had laid the basis for its own self-destruction. The imposition of martial law severed the links between governance and authority throughout the entire western empire (41).” Sanborn puts emphasis on the establishment of martial law being a decisive factor in the beginning of the end for the empire, and his argument for its prominence is warranted.  The loss of control over the borderlands created a cascading effect: as the state began to fail there, the loss of political authority would reach the heart of the empire as well.

The years 1915 and 1916 would bear witness to increasing opposition against the Tsar, clearly due to his obvious inadequacies as a wartime leader. The backlash against the Tsar would take the form of not only political opposition, but from the general society as well. As Sanborn notes, “In 1916, this ‘battle’ between the public organizations and the tsar’s bureaucracy intensified. A wave of congresses held by these various organizations in the first months of the year testified to the fact that the center of the political opposition had been transferred from the Duma to the non-governmental organizations (169).” These NGO’s would find their way to political prominence because of Nicholas’s continued blunders in 1915. His dissolution of the Duma and Progressive Bloc, in an attempt to undermine their authority, led to widespread crises. Thus, the Tsar’s attempts at consolidating power would in fact yield the opposite. The growing dissent among the citizenry, including the most prominent political opposition, would give way to mass rioting and revolution in the heart of the empire, and Nicholas would ultimately lose all legitimacy as tsar. As Sanborn states, “Imperial state power, authority, and legitimacy had been declining rapidly over the course of the war. On 2/15 March 1917, this decline crossed the point of no return (193).” It was on this date that one of the most decisive power shifts would take place: the tsar’s abdication. A dynasty that had survived three centuries would ultimately be brought down by the severance of the army and the monarch, and in the course of this occurrence, a tremendous power vacuum was created: that only question that remained would be of who would fill the void (193).

It was in this power vacuum that, potentially, the most unlikely of successors would find their way to prominence, and find support across the nation. Sanborn states, “In this context of a strong anti-imperial mood, radicalized and anarchic soldiers, and rapid decentralization that the Bolsheviks quickly grew in influence… The party experienced wild swings of fortune (224).” The Bolsheviks would gain support due to several of the characteristics of their party ideology. However, Sanborn is not quick to say that they enjoyed widespread, uncritical support. The party’s ties to Germans and their general incapability of working well with others nearly defeated their efforts outright (224-225). However, as the popularity of the war had increasingly declined since 1915, the Bolsheviks gained support due to their consistent anti-imperial and anti-war sentiment.

Therefore, along with myriad other themes that resonate in his work, Sanborn promotes a fascinating examination of politics and power by providing in-depth analyses of the power shift that took place from 1914 to 1917. His perspective is compelling, and promotes deep thought about the way that wars precipitate political crises. His larger point about the outbreak of war causing the collapse of the empire in turn created crisis of legitimate power within the Russian Empire and paved the way for the Bolsheviks to begin their own empire.


Jacob Hensh is a first-year M.A. student in Political Science at Miami.  He graduated from Miami in 2016 with a B.A. in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.


Part Seven:  Experience

By Courtney Misich

Joshua Sanborn’s book challenges the framework for Russia during the First World War by suggesting that the war caused the first example of decolonization. He argues that the Russian Empire decolonized during the war due to the crises cause by the conflict, the rise of nationalism within the empire, and the new states that formed after the end of war. In framing his book around the process of decolonization, Sanborn provides a brief history of imperial Russia and the early twentieth-century while still focusing primarily on 1914 to 1918. In this period, he aims to describe the wide variety of actors and analyze Russia’s decolonization. The decolonization process is further broken down into four stages: imperial challenge, state failure social disaster, and state-building. These stages aid Sanborn in describing the experiences of the war and decolonization for those living in the Russian Empire. Ultimately, however, Sanborn utilizes human experiences to explain why this was a war of decolonization.

Sanborn acknowledges several groups within Russian imperial society such as soldiers, civilians, and ethnic groups. Soldiers are one of the most prominent groups for explaining his decolonization thesis and their voices appear in every chapter of the book. One of his most vivid voices comes from Aleksandr Uspenskii, a commander in the army. Sanborn describes how “Uspenskii spent one awful night in a barn, watching his soldiers screaming and thrashing in their dreams as they slept, producing an unwelcome feeling that their lodging had become a mental hospital” (35). This “shock of combat” that Sanborn articulates helps us recover the mental state of soldiers fighting in a war and how they often felt inadequately prepared to fight it. This inadequacy in part stemmed from the incompetency of command as well as the state’s failures to provide soldiers with enough weapons.  The sentiment Uspenskii spoke about also fueled the cascading crises that would destabilize the empire itself.

In describing the Great Retreat, remobilization, and the revolution (Chapters 2, 3, and 5); Sanborn demonstrates how the soldiers began to resent the leadership that could not provide enough supplies. The experiences of soldiers that Sanborn recounts help us see clearly how their discontent from the start of the war grew to such a state that they participated in the February Revolution. While Sanborn mostly focuses on officers, ordinary soldiers’ dissatisfaction with the army and government also appear on his pages and together, these experiences created the circumstances for the first three stages of decolonization through the soldiers’ participation in widespread violence, oftentimes directed against fellow imperial subjects, and the ensuing social insecurity caused by their actions.

Sanborn also pays attention to the ways that civilians, particularly those living within the war zones, also experienced these disruptions. He argues that the beginning of both the phases of social disaster and state failure for civilians started with the martial law zones at the front. As the armies massed at the front, Sanborn illustrates civilians had to deal with shortages, black markets, and looting. Sanborn describes a typical case, “the residents of an estate…returned to the premises they had fled…to find Russian soldiers milling about, eating vegetables, and pointlessly destroying furniture, When one of the bailiffs complained, a soldier struck him, threatened him with a bayonet, and told him to shut up” (50). As the war progressed, Sanborn provides us with accounts of civilians being threatened by violence and looting, in turn showing us the breakdown of society. Moreover, as the army retreated and refugees moved east from German military advances, civilians experienced increased violence due to institutions collapsing, goods shortages, and increased insecurity within their regions. Sanborn also tackles the responses within imperial society to these events in his chapter on “Remobilizing Society,” where he recounts how medical staffs experienced the war and how they worked with limited numbers and supplies to treat the staggering number of injured. In this and other episodes, Sanborn uses the experiences of civilians to reveal the lack of planning for war by the tsarist government and to show the growing importance of non-governmental institutions that provided a level of stability for civilians as the state and society began to collapse.

Sanborn effectively builds upon the civilians and soldiers’ experiences to provide another layer in examining the decolonization of the Russian Empire. The violence, societal collapse, and state failure are revealed through the numerous examples of ethnic groups being targeted. By describing how the military used a lens of “ethno-politics” to determine friends and foes and by discussing how refugees were deported based upon their ethnicity, Sanborn reveals how many minorities experienced the war as one of forced migration and ethnic violence. Sanborn also shows that the experiences of some ethnic groups directly led to state-building efforts in Poland and, to a certain extent, in Ukraine. The argument for decolonization is strongest when examining the experiences of various ethnic groups because their experiences reveal the process of state failure and social collapse.

Sanborn successfully alters the narrative surrounding the First World War and the collapse of the Russian Empire to one that includes decolonization. Throughout his work, Sanborn provides examples and experiences of how the imperial government failed, which in turn created the turn toward revolution and decolonization. The experiences of numerous people within the war provides Sanborn with the necessary evidence to support his view of decolonization unfolding through the phases of societal and state collapse. These experiences, as Sanborn notes, are the ones that led the masses to participate in revolution and the creation of new states.


Courtney Misich is a second-year M.A. student in History at Miami University.  Her thesis project examines 1790s British travel accounts and descriptions of social and financial relationships to understand how lower class individuals utilized the growing British Empire to expand their societal status and travel opportunities.

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