Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq

As events in North Africa and the Middle East are daily displaying, America’s global influence is rapidly waning. This is an apt time to return to Brian Landers’ Empires Apart, a hugely impressive comparative study of the imperial imperatives of America and Russia: one which stimulates reflective thoughts on other empires, not least our own here in Britain.
John Booth
3 March 2011

Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq, by Brian Landers, Picnic, £15, April 2009.

As events in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia are daily displaying, America’s global influence is rapidly waning, requiring its citizens and allies to seek a more refined and solid understanding of global reality. This is an apt time to return to Brian Landers’ Empires Apart, a hugely impressive comparative study of the imperial imperatives of America and Russia - one which stimulates reflective thoughts on other empires, not least our own here in Britain.

What role will Britain find after losing its empire, asked former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson more than 50 years ago. Landers, reflecting on Tony Blair’s part in the invasion of Iraq, answers: “British troops continued in their role as America’s ghurkas”. Empires Apart is loaded with such sharp perceptions, shaped may be by the author’s background, which is not that of a professional historian. Landers is widely read and ruminative, as are many whose livelihood is to study the past. But he’s spent a lifetime in the higher reaches of business and government, a good many of them away from Britain. This, and the accumulated wisdom of the years, brings a fresh, radical and witty edge to his work often lacking in the more narrowly bounded specialists of our time.

Empires Apart has an ambitious agenda: to tell the stories of Russian and American growth into superpowers, and, by teasing away the apparently irreconcilable ideologies of each, exposing the common elements they shared.

He journeys with the English settlers heading west in North America and the Russians heading east towards the same Pacific Ocean, revealing many strikingly similar events of conquest and oppression. Children of the Cold War know almost by heart the inhumanities of Tsarism and its Communist successors. I suspect fewer know some of the episodes of American imperialism Landers details. Does the Tulsa massacre of 1921 ring many bells, I wonder? 

Landers doesn’t see anything sinister is this process of misapprehension. He writes: “Nobody said to American teachers, ‘When you tell children about the Pilgrim Fathers tell them about the natives who helped them find food, but don’t tell them about the native shaman whose head the Pilgrims chopped off and mounted above Plymouth Fort to terrorise the locals.’ History develops informally.

“That the Pilgrim Fathers invited a group of natives to a meeting and then butchered seven of them contradicts everything we ‘know’ about the ideals of the men and women who inspired the American dream; it should not have happened and therefore as far as popular history is concerned it did not happen. The facts are not suppressed; they simply cease to be expressed.”

This a big book that combines detailed narrative and original analysis in a readable and provocative way. It is not just two histories for the price of one: it elevates the mind to explore important themes of history, perception and self-understanding.

Landers writes: “The outstanding feature of the American empire is one that was shared perhaps only by the Soviet empire: the denial of its own existence. Both empires hid from their own people. Russia installed an imperial puppet reign in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and America did the same in Iran a few years later. Both actions in any other age would not only have been regarded as 'imperial' by outsiders but would have been proudly proclaimed as such by the imperial power.

“In the twentieth century such proclamations were unthinkable, with the result that Russian soldiers sent to crush the 1968 uprising in Prague were genuinely taken aback by the public hostility they encountered, and most Americans were similarly unprepared when Iranians stormed the Iranian embassy in 1979 and held their diplomats hostage.

“The Soviet and American empires were unique in that their people stared uncomprehending at the realities of imperial power partly because they were shocked at the very idea of empire. Britons had been outraged by such imperial infamies as the Amritsar massacre, but they understood that theirs was an empire. For ideological reasons the new imperialists denied even that: the two sets of imperialists and their minions defined 'imperialism' so that it only covered the other side.”

Does this matter to those of us neither Russian nor American? Yes, partly because awareness is the prerequisite to appropriate action. That’s always true, but is especially important in these times of bewildering complexity and change. But it is also important because many who fell under the influence of the Soviet Union still are handicapped by its ideological blinkers: many more around the world have grown up sharing that upbeat American sense of manifest destiny. Both suffer from a reading of history that Landers describes as being learned through the “distorting prism that refracts the present”.

The fall of the Wall put an end to many misperceptions about the Soviet Empire. But events since 1989 have quickly brought many US cheerleaders buoyed by the triumphalism of the end-of-history brigade down to earth with a bump. As events unfold in Libya following weeks of turbulent change in North Africa and the Middle East, the same question keeps being posed: what part should America and Britain play in this changing world? To answer that question, we must reflect upon our histories. Empires Apart is a good place to start.

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