Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918

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Author: James Meyer
Date: Mar. 2013
From: Journal of World History(Vol. 24, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,115 words
Lexile Measure: 1770L

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Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918. By MICHAEL A. REYNOLDS. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 324 pp. $90.00 (cloth); $31.99 (paper); $26.00 (e-book).

In Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, Michael Reynolds has produced a first-rate study of the international state system, nationalism, and empire during the First World War. A broad and well-researched work, Shattering Empires is a must-read for historians working on issues pertaining to nationality, identity, and international relations in the early twentieth century.

At the heart of Shattering Empires lies Reynolds's focus upon empires and communities in an international context. "The historians," writes Reynolds, "routinely interpreted the break-up of the Ottoman, Russian, and Habsburg empires as a lesson in the irresistible potency and reach of nationalism" (p. 9). Arguing that historians must not attribute the break-up of these empires to a reified and autonomous "nationalism," Reynolds makes a convincing case for viewing nationalism in the borderlands of the Near East and Eurasia as "a form of geopolitics, not as a phenomenon that springs from some non-political base" (p. 18). Reynolds turns away from discussions looking specifically at nationalism by focusing on "the institutions and actors that prosecute conflict rather than on the identities and passions generated by conflict" (p. 266).

Shattering Empires displays many obvious strengths. Reynolds's research skills are particularly impressive, most noticeably with respect to his ability to thoroughly and systematically research in the archives of both Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Reynolds's mastery of the relevant secondary literature pertaining to the fields of both Russian and Ottoman history is also noteworthy, and enables him to punctuate his narrative with interesting and important details such as Ottoman support for Armenian dashnakiun fighters (p. 99), Kaiser Wilhelm's advocacy for Ottoman pan-Islamism (p. 122), and the undertakings of mysterious freelancers, like Ahmet Agaoglu and Ali Shahtahtinskii, who operated between the two states before and after the First World War (pp. 92-94).

Each chapter of Shattering Empires covers a different aspect relating to events linking trans-imperial communities to the Ottoman and Russian states. Chapter I examines the foreign relations of the Ottoman Empire and Russia between I908 and I9I4, introducing the reader to the fascinating intersection of issues and events linking Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the communities of the Ottoman-Russian borderlands. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Russian state policy making and examine Russia's policies toward eastern Anatolia and the efforts of Russian and Ottoman statesmen to exploit the mobile and cross-border nature of communities such as the Armenians and Kurds. Chapter 4, perhaps the strongest chapter in Shattering Empires, looks at Russian and Ottoman policies during the First World War and provides an excellent analysis of the war aims and strategies of the two empires as they related to the borderland regions between them. Chapter 5 discusses the Armenian deportations and massacres of 1915 alongside developments taking place with respect to other borderland communities, such as Greeks, Kurds, and Assyrians, during the war years. The final three chapters of Shattering Empires provide an account of developments taking place after the Bolshevik Revolution and the withdrawal of Russia from the war, including Ottoman-Bolshevik relations after Brest-Litovsk (chapter 6), the short-lived independence movements and governments of the postwar Transcaucasus (chapter 7), and the final, frantic geopolitical end game taking place between Bolsheviks, remnants of the Ottoman Army, and local fighting forces raised in the borderlands between the two collapsed empires in the immediate wake of the First World War's conclusion (chapter 8). An epilogue leads the reader through the immediate postimperial reconsolidation of the region into the Soviet Union and the Republic of Turkey.

The expansiveness of Shattering Empires is admirable, and the book's fluency in engaging the historiography of both states and communities is very impressive. At the same time, however, this very strength can, in some ways, make the center of gravity within Shattering Empires a bit difficult to locate. With narrative focus placed upon so many different aspects of a complicated set of relations involving numerous forces, communities, and personalities, the common element linking the various components of Shattering Empires is the concept of a "global order" that Reynolds first discusses in the book's introduction. Taking Charles Tilly's thesis of competitive violent interaction between states as his starting point, Reynolds argues that relations between states "cannot be grasped outside the systemic context in which they are created" (p. 6). While this may indeed be true, the "system" that brings together all of Shattering Empires' many important aspects is rarely discussed after the book's introduction, and the "global" nature of this system is difficult to perceive in a study that focuses almost exclusively upon developments taking place within the boundaries of just two states. Even as Reynolds is likely to find much sympathy for his argument that "rising nationalism" alone did not cause empires to fall, the "system" discussed in Shattering Empires in some ways resembles the nationalist narratives Reynolds is challenging in that it likewise seems to be attributing the actions of people and states to a reified, yet abstract, concept.

In some ways, it seems that a natural center of gravity for Shattering Empires would have been the Armenian massacres and deportations of 1915, as Reynolds's work provides an excellent forum for contextualizing these events in a manner that is unmatched within the existing historiography devoted to this topic. Indeed, for a study that is devoted to looking at the cross-section of nationalism, power politics, and the Ottoman-Russian frontier during the First World War, the events of 1915 would seem to demand a larger conceptual place in Shattering Empires. By tackling this issue more directly, moreover, Reynolds's critique of scholarship devoted to nationalist "awakening" would also make more sense. Indeed, outside of the Armenian genocide discussion there has, in fact, been an impressive array of studies produced in recent years that look at issues pertaining to identity and community-state relations in the Russian and Ottoman borderlands in a much more sophisticated way than in the works Reynolds takes on in his book's introduction (pp. 3-4), which tend not to be of recent vintage.

Shattering Empires shatters the predictable finger-pointing narratives that characterize many older (and some newer) studies focusing upon the Armenian genocide issue in particular and the "rise of nationalism" in the region more generally. Instead, Reynolds's work tells a much broader story of imperial competition and community-state relations during the final years of empire. For scholars working on the triangular sets of relations connecting Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the communities living between the two states in the late imperial age, Shattering Empires is essential reading.


Montana State University

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A337619941