Josh Sanborn, professor and head of history, recently published his third book, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire. In order to provide a unique perspective on the book, Andrea Smith, associate professor of anthropology and sociology, read the volume and compiled the questions below.
1. Did the idea for this book emerge while you were researching either of your previous books? If not, when did it come to you that this was your next project?
An earlier vision of this project did emerge while I was finishing my first book, Drafting the Russian Nation, which was about the political relationship between military conscription and nationhood in early twentieth century Russia. I felt that this “nation-based” approach, while important, still left out a good deal. I argued in that book that the political language of the nation was rapidly adopted in the Russian Empire during World War I, but I knew that political languages and lived experiences were quite different. So I conceived of this book originally as a study of daily life in front line zones during World War I. There were sufficient archival resources to write this sort of book, and that’s how I began. I found a lot of good material, but the results were not fitting into a book-shaped narrative in my mind. This would have been fine, as I then contemplated writing a series of articles and essays instead, but then I had the great fortune to get a fellowship at the Davis Center at Princeton on the theme of “migration.” This spurred me to write one of those early articles on the question of what I came to call “violent migrations” during the war. That article was published by the Journal of Modern History, but more importantly, the work for that article did point the way to a book-shaped narrative, one focused not only on lived experience but on the devastating consequences of state collapse.
2. This book moves beyond Russia’s boundaries to look at the war’s influence on empire and decolonization more broadly. What encouraged such a wide scope? Do you think it was shaped by larger intellectual currents, the courses you have been teaching, or did it emerge from what you found in the archives?
This direction was certainly shaped by larger intellectual currents, but it also had a specific genesis in my career at Lafayette. Back in the olden days, when we were both untenured assistant professors, Andrea, you and I and several other young folks put together a reading group on colonialism and postcolonialism. Our group led me to think in broad and new ways about the nature of empire. This in turn influenced the choices I made as a teacher, in particular when teaching HIS 105 – History of the Modern World. So these issues were very much on my mind when I was thinking about the war experience in Russia. I was already inclined to think about the “end of empire” in comparative terms, and that led me rather naturally to “decolonization.”
3. You illuminate the war through fascinating portrayals of its effects on individual actors. Are you tempted to follow any of the people you discuss here in a subsequent project? Did you ever wonder what happened to them after the war?
The individuals who are featured in the book are a varied lot. We know what happened to many of them because they wrote memoirs after the war had ended. A great many more, however, would be very difficult to follow, as they appear in archival documents such as court cases or complaints to the military authorities, and the documentation on them ends when those specific cases wrap up. There is a quite common pattern in historical writing, which is to follow a handful of individuals (or a single one) through a series of dramatic historical events, but I didn’t want to go down that path. Perhaps as a result, I admit that I never really contemplated following their stories in a new project. There are a few more things I may write on this period, including possibly a co-authored book, but I’ll likely be moving on to a different historical period before too long.
4. This book contains grim details of some of the most horrible moments in human history. Was it ever difficult to research or write? Are there moments that gave you particular pause?
Oh yes, this was an emotionally draining project. Ironically, one of the aspects that made this emotional strain more acute was the oftentimes detached nature of the sources themselves. One of the ways that participants in these murderous events psychologically survived the conflict was to deaden themselves, and they were aware of this at the time. Doctors, soldiers, and aid workers alike all commented on how in the first days of the war the sight of a dead body would upset them, but within a few weeks they would become indifferent to corpses and in some respects to the violence that produced those casualties. This coolness characterized much of the contemporary writing on the war as well. I took it as one my jobs, however, to keep some of that pathos in the text while still avoiding cheap sentimentality, not just for humane reasons but also because some of my arguments only really make full sense if we understand the theme of catastrophe, or “apocalypse,” that historical actors felt. Many believed, rightly, that their world was falling apart all around them, and this sense of crisis deeply affected their social, political, military, and cultural choices. So part of my job was to invest myself and readers in these events emotionally while still maintaining space for other forms of historical engagement. As for particular moments, one could pick many, but one of the most poignant, for me, was the story of a nurse and her doctor husband who went to the Caucasian Front to serve the military there. They encountered not only the torn bodies of Russian soldiers, but towns vacated and destroyed during the Armenian Genocide as well. After weeks of tending to the victims of the war, including orphaned children hiding in the wilderness, the husband slipped into heavy drinking and ultimately shot himself on Easter Day. I use this in the book to talk about mental illness in the war, but it serves also to remind us of the devastating cost of this conflict.
5. Your blend of military and social history is quite compelling here. Are there other scholars whose work inspired you in this regard?
Sure. There is, unfortunately, a sort of mutual distrust, even hostility, that has arisen between many military historians and social/cultural historians, and I really wanted to bridge that gap in my own work. It’s hard to do, not only due to this conflict between different historical subfields, but because it’s difficult to suture these fields together for narrative reasons as well. How much space should I spend at a given time discussing combat? How do I talk about large social structures in a dynamic chronology? These were the kinds of questions I had to answer to put this together, and I’m sure my choices will prove unsatisfying to some readers who want a “pure” military or a “pure” social history, but I hope that it works for many readers. I should stress that I am not alone in trying to do this. In fact, the field of World War I studies is chock full of excellent historians who are real experts in a number of historical subfields. I hesitate to pick names, but I will mention three authors whom I’ve used in my own courses. First, I just had the opportunity to teach Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a forty-year old book that I hadn’t read in about ten years, and I was struck again by how great it is. More recently, Hew Strachan has written very graceful and socially aware military history, and Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction was a model of integrating new historiographical arguments with a broad argument about the nature of violence during the war.
6. The year 1916 seems particularly significant not only for the direction of the war, but also the shape of anti-war and anti-colonial protests. Why do you think that is? Could this be a future topic of study?
It really was an important year, in which the tumult produced by the war was generating new forms of pressure upon the empires fighting in the conflict. I discuss a very large rebellion in Russian Central Asia that occurred in the summer of that year in response to a botched conscription of local (mostly Kazakh) residents for military labor service. The empire lost control of certain areas for a while and unleashed a savage punitive campaign to restore “order.” In my view, these events mark the real beginning of revolution and civil war in the Russian empire. But they are also important in a global framework. Similar anti-colonial rebellions took place elsewhere. The Arab Revolt peaked in that year, and the Easter Uprising roiled Ireland. There were, additionally, anti-colonial revolts in French West Africa. I do think that this is a global moment worth further study.
7. Could you be interested in writing a comparative decolonization book next?
If I were to write a comparative decolonization book, it would likely be something like a book on 1916 that we just discussed, but I think that instead I will likely be moving out of this time period. I’m excited to tackle a new literature and set of archival sources and will be reading broadly over the next few months as I consider what that topic might be. That said, I do think that it might be useful to write a more sustained comparative and theoretical scholarly article on decolonization with the Russian experience in mind, and I may do that if my schedule permits.