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A nation must think before it acts.
Access the Winter 2022 issue of Orbis here.
IN REVIEW, John P. LeDonne, Forging a Unitary State: Russia’s Management of the Eurasian Space 1650-1850 (University of Toronto Press, 2020).
From the seventeenth century on, Russia has been a potentate that has participated in the geopolitics of Europe, the Levant, Asia, and, in the last hundred years, in even more distant continents. Despite tragic political upheavals and often equally dramatic economic problems, Russia always presents a challenge, if not an outright threat, to the nations and powers around it. The question is why? What makes Russia such an enduring geopolitical actor?
One answer may be provided by a recent work by John LeDonne, a historian of Russia who has written several books, including the only study of Russia’s grand strategy, The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831, (Oxford University Press, 2004). Like this older book, his latest tome, Forging a Unitary State, is history at its best: sweeping yet detailed, provocative yet grounded, unafraid to ask the big questions but careful. The central question is how Russia managed to unify a vast swath of land, establishing a potentate that had—and continues to have—influence over Europe, the Levant, Central Asia, and East Asia.
Before examining the answer that this book provides, it is useful to consider the author’s general approach—visible across his intellectual output. LeDonne is a research associate in the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University with a long academic pedigree. Strikingly, he is in academia, but not of it, giving him the freedom to explore Russian history in ways that are unpopular in modern academic circles. A recurrent theme in his previous books, as well as in the recent one, is the need to take geography and geopolitics into consideration. Political dynamics develop in particular geographic contexts, and statesmen and strategists think of a map when they both devise plans of action and project power. Hence, LeDonne studies Russia’s political development in its three main geographic theaters—western, southern, eastern—because each theater presented different challenges and required specific adjustments to Russian strategy or administrative methods. The appeal of such an intellectual approach is that it is simple, commonsensical, and persuasive; ultimately, it reflects how most political leaders think. And yet many current academics discount a geographic approach because it is not sufficiently abstract, veers away from grand theoretical generalizations, and demands a return to the study of the particolare. Thus, reading history that is not ashamed of old-fashioned descriptions of geography, presenting the layout of rivers, seas, and mountain ranges, is an intellectual pleasure and a useful exercise for anyone interested in strategy.