World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Valerie A. Kivelson and Ronald Grigor Suny. Russia's Empires. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxv + 420.


     Working to understand the imperial, multiethnic nature of Russian history has been among historians' most central tasks since the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago. The authors of this excellent book, both professors of history at the University of Michigan, have been leading contributors to the historiography that has emerged, Kivelson on early-modern Russia, Suny on the Soviet Union and nationalism. In Russia's Empires they draw extensively on recent scholarship to provide an engaging survey of Russian history from its medieval origins to the present that places empire and its workings at the center of the narrative.

     Kivelson and Suny describe Russia's Empires as a "non-textbook," an attempt to "tell a particular story of the ways an empire makes itself, rules its peoples, and survives the treacherous threats to its existence" (xiv, 7). Focusing on empire, they claim, enables us to "escape the endlessly looping debate over whether Russians did or did not develop a sense of themselves as part of a nation, and if so, when." More interesting are "the ways that ordinary people imagined their position within a non-democratic polity. . . [and the] concessions that the rulers had to make, or appear to make, in order to establish their authority and preserve their rule." Placing these themes at the center of analysis, and doing so across the sweep of Russian history, brings into focus "forms of inclusion, displays of reciprocity, and manifestations of ideology that might otherwise go unnoted, overlooked under the bleak record of coercion and oppression that so often characterizes ideas about Russia" (xiv).

     Russia's Empires is noteworthy for its emphasis on continuity over time. Russian history is, after all, famous for its ruptures: Ivan IV's pivotal reign and the Time of Troubles that followed, Peter I's heavy-handed Westernization, the revolutions of 1917, Stalin's "revolution from above," the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dramatic as these may be, however, continuities are also of vital importance. It is in this respect that Russia's Empires is especially valuable, as it uses theme of empire as a heuristic device to show how the different facets of imperial rule have varied, or remained relatively constant, throughout Russian history. Adopting a flexible definition of empire, they argue that empires are defined by some or all of the following: rule by a sovereign claiming absolute authority; a large domain composed of diverse lands and peoples, typically acquired through conquest; hierarchical, unequal power relations between a privileged center and subordinated peripheries; and, most important, a form of rule "exercised through difference rather than through integration or assimilation" (4). These different aspects of empire ebbed and flowed in strength over the course of Russian history; in tracing their changing intensity, Kivelson and Suny reveal "both the elasticity of Russia's imperial formations and the limits beyond which the fiber of empire would not stretch" (15–16).

     Russia's Empires charts the five major Russian polities of the past millennium. The first, Kievan Rus, if indeed it can be considered a polity, was not an empire, but a realm that lacked a clearly developed state, its politics oriented around the personal and familial aims of its princes. The authors provide a helpful analysis of recent scholarship that has called into question the very notion of Kievan Rus itself, suggesting in its place a "shapeless constellation of princedoms." They apply S. J. Tambiah's concept of the "galactic polity," describing Kievan Rus as an entity with "multiple gravitational centers"—not only Kiev itself, but also towns like Novgorod, Chernigov, and Tmutorokhan—that over time increasingly became a "miscellany of separate lands" (29–33). Famously, these separate lands came over time to be "gathered" by the rising city of Moscow, which by the late fifteenth century had developed a recognizable state apparatus. In the 1550s, Moscow dramatically expanded its realm, conquering the Muslim khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. Incorporating peoples that were distinct in religion, language, and culture from the largely Slavic and Orthodox peoples it had previously ruled, Muscovy transformed itself into a multiethnic empire. Rule through differentiation and diversity characterized Muscovite rule, Kivelson and Suny explain: "Orthodoxy, autocratic tsar, and empire, with all its distinct constituted parts, were combined in an elaborate system of reinforcing legitimations. With a multiplicity of separate deals, diverse administrative formulas, tax and tribute arrangements, local exemptions and immunities, concessions and demands, the empire drew in its varied lands and peoples through responsive, locally specific policies of governance through distinction" (74).

     The Russian Empire that followed Muscovy "both maintained and produced diversity and for much of its history did not seem particularly troubled by it" (133). Quite the contrary: though empire might carry a "distinctly malodorous taint in the contemporary world, its perfume smelled far sweeter in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" and Russia "worked hard to cast itself as an empire so it could keep up with its stylish neighbors" (75). While the rise of nationalism presented significant challenges to imperial ideology, Russia's Empires correctly emphasizes that the period that we often cast as an age of nationalism was simultaneously one of imperial expansion. Still, the growing volume of nationalist discourse—with its demands for homogeneity, equality, representation, and democracy—rubbed against the grain of imperial rule, based as it was on the maintenance and management of difference, distinction, and hierarchy. Particularly challenging was "the imperial dilemma": in educating its subjects, the Romanov Empire increasingly opened itself to challenge by them. It was, Kivelson and Suny provocatively suggest, "not so much the failures of the tsarist and Soviet empires that led to collapse but the success of their imperial mission" (228).

     Russia's Empires' emphasis on continuity is particularly helpful in contextualizing the Soviet experience. Despite the internationalism of their Marxist ideology, Bolshevik leaders made significant concessions in establishing and exercising their control over the peoples of Eurasia. Within months of taking power they found themselves building a federal system based on ethno-territorial units. This approach, Lenin claimed, had a prophylactic purpose. Bolshevik encouragement of national self-determination for non-Russians was intended to dissociate the new Soviet state from the "Great Russian chauvinism" of its tsarist predecessor. But ethno-territorial federal units and policies built around them actually served to foster the development of national identity, making the Soviet Union less a melting pot of communist citizens and more an "incubator of new nations" (281). Like its tsarist predecessor, the Soviet Union also vacillated in its approach to managing diversity. Lenin and Stalin famously disagreed on the national question, with Lenin prevailing in the creation of a loose federation, but ultimately losing out in practice to Stalin's more centralized vision. The result, in Kivelson and Suny's words, was a "self-denying empire." Such distinctive Soviet experiences as revolutionary slogans, trains that ran across eleven time zones on Moscow time, and observation of distinctive holidays (Day of the Soviet Tank Driver) could foster a certain sense of a Soviet identity. But distinctions of class and nation ultimately proved more decisive in shaping Soviet citizens' lives. Soviet citizens could not, for instance, identify as of "Soviet" nationality on their passports; instead, they had to choose, even when they were products of mixed marriages, from nationality categories that were ethno-territorially based. This was a fraught choice, particularly as, despite official rhetoric, some groups were deemed "loyal and reliable" and others "prone to treason and sabotage" (299). Formal distinctions between ethnic and non-ethnic federal units have carried over into today's Russian Federation, but citizens are equal under the law, a circumstance that leads Kivelson and Suny to suggest that the Russian Federation is more authoritarian state than empire. But the pull of empire remains strong. "The images and practices of autocracy and empire," they note, "continue to overwhelm the possible alternatives that Russia might choose in its ongoing search for what it could be" (402).

     Russia's Empires will satisfy many audiences. It is hard to imagine a better book to put into the hands of a student seeking to understand the impact of recent scholarship on Russian and Soviet history. Kivelson and Suny do a remarkably thorough job not only of integrating historiographical debates into their narrative, but of doing so in substantial detail in the text itself. Their accessible style and emphasis on the durability and flexibility of imperial practices also make Russia's Empires ideal for general readers whose images of Russia are so often shaped more by stereotypes than by careful analysis. In contributing to a growing body of scholarship that makes a compelling argument about the resilience and flexibility of empire—something often lost in a world that, despite its global realities, often tends to take discourses of the nation for granted—Russia's Empires has important lessons to offer.1 Stereotypes about Russia, as Kivelson and Suny aptly conclude, "are as much the product of one side's self-serving need for demons as they are overly simplified explanations of situations with complex and multiple causes. Russia has always been available for others to avoid looking inward into their own acts and intentions, to blame the 'enemy' for problems whose origins lie in more complicated competitive relationships" (394).

Mark A. Soderstrom is an associate professor of history at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois. His primary research area is Imperial Russian history, and he teaches a range of courses on Russian, Soviet, Environmental, East Asian, and World History. He can be contacted at



1 For two insightful surveys on this theme, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) and Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use