Book Review: ‘The Military History of Tsarist Russia’, edited by F.W. Kagan and R. Higham (New York & Basingstoke, 2002)

This book review achieved a mid-2:2 in the first year of my undergraduate.

Book Review on The Military History of Tsarist Russia, F.W. Kagan and R. Higham (eds.), (New York & Basingstoke, 2002)

The Military History of Tsarist Russia contains in-depth looks at the campaigns and the development of the Russian (originally Muscovite) army from 1453 and Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’) up until 1917 and the eve of the Russian revolution. There is also the recurring theme of Russian exceptionalism; that of how to categorise Russia, both geographically and politically. In straddling two continents, Russia managed to fall into neither Europe nor Asia, and so it was considered neither a western power nor an eastern one. Most of the essays (particularly as the timeline progresses) also address one of the main issues faced by the rulers of Moscow throughout; that of the sheer size of Russia (and by extension, its army) overburdening the economy.

Although it is possible to argue that because the book is a collection of essays, there is no ‘main argument,’ there are certainly many recurring themes present between the various essays. The two main themes present throughout the book are those of the “geopolitical dilemma” (pp.249-57) and that of the army overburdening the already fragile economy. The essays all mention and assess the strain which the upkeep of the military placed on the economy, and most of them also address the issues of in what way (European or not) the military (and wider society) was to advance and modernise.

The issue of the “geopolitical dilemma” (pp.249-57) is also addressed in an almost summative chapter at the end of the book. The direction which is argued is that Russia struggled with the problem, and that it depended a lot, at least in the ‘early Modern’ period (between the 15th and early 18th centuries) on the contemporary monarch. However it emerges as the period advances that the authors begin to consistently come down on the side of the West (or perhaps more specifically Prussia); that the Russian military began to westernise, and follow Prussian military values. As is argued through many of the essays, this is shown convincingly by the development of the structure of the Russian army, as well as the wars which the Russian Empire became involved in (primarily in Poland and Eastern Europe).

In regards to the problem of the overburdening of the economy by the military, the authors unanimously argue that it was certainly a problem, although they do not really give a real idea as to how it could have been addressed. The main problem which is argued is that the economy simply was not strong enough to support the size of the army which was required to defend the whole of the emergent Russian Empire’s interests. The reasons for this are examined and in the process, as is the structure of the Russian society, and the institution of serfdom.  The conclusions drawn are that the process of serfdom effectively crippled the mobility and mobilisation of the early Russian army, while simultaneously meaning that the economy was in no state to support a large enough army to defend the Empire’s borders.

The authors do present convincing arguments on both of these issues, and this is one way in which the essays work well together. When reading the book there are only subtle changes in the style of writing between chapters (essays), while the argument remains the same throughout. The fact that the book is a collection of essays means that there is potential for it to be somewhat disjointed, but this does not happen, mainly due to the continuity of the arguments, and the fact that they are mutually supportive. The arguments for the westernisation of Russia (both militarily and as a result socially) are convincing mainly because a lot of the focus of the Russian military seems to be on Europe, mainly in wars with Sweden, Poland, or the Baltic elements of the Ottoman Empire (though Prussia and France can also be included). The fact that they were fighting wars against European armies means that westernisation was essential to their successes. The problems facing the rulers of Moscow in relation to the economy are clearly laid out as well, and the arguments for why they were present (much like the other main point) have a lot of good points. The social structure of Russia throughout the period (the system of Serfdom) was the difference between the ‘traditional’ European nations (the more western ones) and Russia, and it showed in the strength of their respective economies.

Word Count: 750



All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Knowledge of topic: Good

Independence of thought: Good

Clarity of structure: Competent


Convincing development of argument: Good

Clarity of language: Competent

Accuracy of references and bibliography: Excellent

General Comments and Advice: Good job bringing out some of the unifying themes of the essays; however, a review of this type of book would normally give some details as to the topics and approaches of the individual contributors – whereas you do not even mention how many essays are included, not to speak of titles and names of contributors. Were any specific chapters better done (or more appropriate for the overall theme) than others? What is the precise role of the editors (e.g. did they write an introduction)? What readership is the book addressing, and to what extent does it succeed? All these questions would be helpful to at least touch upon. In general your analysis would benefit from the inclusion of a few more concrete examples of the arguments being advanced. Style needs polishing to make your text clearer.



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