Catriona Kelly. Rev.: In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History, by Dominic Lieven...







Catriona Kelly. Rev.: In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History, by Dominic Lieven, Allen Lane £35/ Viking $40, 528 pages


















Abstract: Dominic Lieven’s ambitious study of imperial leadership from its origins to its demise in the mid twentieth century covers a huge range of material, but is held together by a number of questions relating to the nature of monarchical rule and the specificity of empire. This review explores some creative contradictions in Lieven’s approach to history, for example, between his refusal to judge the past and reluctance to problematise concepts such as ‘modernity’ or ‘intelligence’, and between his interest in typologies of leadership that cut across historical periodisation on the one hand, and preoccupation with the details of individual biography on the other.

Key words: empire; leadership; Eurasia, history of; global history; comparative history; political anthropology

Catriona Kelly, Senior Research Fellow in Russian, Trinity College, Cambridge, UK

Honorary Professor of Russian, University of Cambridge, UK




Dominic Lieven, one of the most eminent historians of pre-revolutionary Russia, has never allowed himself to be constrained by parochialism. His work has always sought to relate the conditions and circumstances of Russian history to big questions (for example, the specificities of aristocratic identity, or transnational relations in and around wartime, or the issue of what ‘empire’ might be).[1] It characteristically employs a comparative framework, and in recent years has reached beyond Western (and indeed Central and Eastern) Europe, and into the history of Eurasia in the broad sense, particularly China and Japan. Professor Lieven’s latest book, In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History pushes even further than his 2002 study, Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals, given that it traces not just the competition between rival powers in the era when the Russian Empire existed, but an ambitious range of different types of rule and rulers over more than four millennia. Beginning with Sargon of Akkad (who took power circa 2279 BCE and ruled for at the next four to five decades), it moves on to Assyria, Persia, Ancient Greece and Rome and the origins of Chinese imperial rule, steppe emperors such as Chingiz, Timur the Lame, the Mughal rulers of north India, as well as Charles V and Philip II (‘the first global emperors’), the Ottomans, the Ming and Qing dynasties, and of course the Romanovs and later Habsburgs.


It is a dizzying progress – but never to the extent that the reader’s perceptions become blurred by detail, since this is also a book with a strong central concern, or rather, two interlinked concerns: the nature of governance and the nature of leadership. An introductory chapter, ‘Being an Emperor’, sets out four abiding characteristics of the type: his (much more rarely her, though Lieven gives due credit to women rulers when they appear) inalienable humanity (for Lieven, rulers may have aspired to godlike status, but their biographies could not escape the physical realities of hunger, thirst, sexual longing, sickness, and, of course, death); the fact of leadership itself; practice of one particular type of leadership, the dynastic monarchy; and domination of a large and multi-ethnic territory, i.e. an empire. The chapters that follow are in some respects, though not mechanically so, a typology of imperial leadership in different times and places, giving a sense of challenges that regularly occurred.


Challenge number one, in Lieven’s account, was how leaders might balance the need for support and the threat of competition, a task the more difficult for those who founded dynasties, rather than inheriting the apparatus of state. Followers could be bought off with money, property, or high office, but that also give them institutional leverage which could be used to organise plots against the emperor. Secondary challenges included the need to manipulate and pacify the inner circle: spouses, lovers, close friends, and other assorted relations, cronies, and hangers-on. By the time that Lieven reaches ‘Europe on the Eve of Modernity’, the title of his second-last chapter, relations with the populace and institutions of representation such as assemblies, or indeed parliaments, had added to the headaches for the monarch.


In the depiction of this historical transformation, two contradictory directions can be sensed. One is Lieven’s commitment to seeing history as something apart from the present. To quote from the Afterword (p. 428), ‘There is no point in reading this book in a mood of sustained indignation that the past world did not operate according to contemporary political principles. Indignation needs to be suspended and the past to be understood on its own terms.’ Many of the cases that Lieven analyses are indeed adrift of twenty-first century Anglophone ethical norms – including, prominently if not exclusively, the remorseless annihilation of opponents, among them friends and family members (this latter was, of course, institutionalised in the Ottoman Empire by the custom, in operation till the early seventeenth century, of murderous battles for succession among the deceased emperor’s surviving sons). While not fighting shy of terms such as ‘cruelty’, Lieven does not engage in moral strictures, and there is a certain anthropological detachment, too, in the way he handles the dilemmas of leadership. Autocratic rule, in his understanding, had a simplicity denied to American presidents of the twentieth and twenty-first century, where, as he puts, the ‘emperor’ was the American people itself, with the country’s elected leader resembling a dynastic emperor’s vizier or first minister.


In this history of half the world (if not exactly ‘world history’ of the kind promised by the title – the territory is Eurasia), it is often European norms that seem marginal or parochial. Lieven does not mount an explicitly anti-Marxian case, but one can intuit such from a comment in Chapter 10 about the Frankish kings: ‘“Feudalism” as it evolved under the Carolingians was in many ways the adaptation of the Frankish war-band to the realities of exploiting and governing a sedentary society.’ Thus, rather than using ‘feudalism’ to name a developmental phase in any human society, Lieven presents this as a local solution to the perennial problem of how the ruler manipulates support – and one with specific features because the employment of land as the bargaining counter, rather than war booty or tax revenue, was characteristic of Western Europe, and because ‘the feudal contract was conditional. Only a lord who carried out his side of the bargain could expect loyal service from his vassal’. (p. 184).


At the same time, the book is not in the full sense ‘anthropological’ because the term ‘modern’ is used widely and uncritically. So, Lieven at one and the same time sees the hereditary monarchy from a relativistic point of view (possibly the most effective model in some circumstances), and as a totally irrational form of governance. How could the competence of a successor be guaranteed, after all? He duly gives many examples when competence certainly was not forthcoming, though it seldom had such epochal consequences as in the case of Louis XVI.


Another characteristic of the book that pushes it in a non-anthropological direction, or even an anti-anthropological direction, is that Lieven is splendidly opinionated, both in terms of personalities and of types. The Mughal ruler Akbar, Lieven approvingly notes, was ‘one of the most impressive emperors in history’ (p. 249). At the other end of the spectrum lay, for instance, Ibrahim Pasha in seventeenth-century Istanbul, staging ‘vast and expensive orgies in his palace’, till his ‘neglect of business and his waywardness reduced both the army and the fiscal system to chaos in the course of a few years’ (p. 231). If these relate to different personality features (the term ‘intelligence’ figures widely as a commendation), there are equally confident encapsulations of types of rule: the bureaucrat (as exemplified by Louis XIII, the Song dynasty emperors of China, and Frederick II), or, as Lieven puts it, the CEO, the warrior king, the scholar, and the mystic (among others).


One finds oneself reading through the book in delighted anticipation of what (if anything – some rulers, such as Empresses Anna and Elizabeth of Russia, fall by the wayside completely) Lieven will say about the figures whom he encounters in the long march through history. It is interesting to note, for instance, that far more attention is given to Alexander I or Joseph II, as would-be reformers whose ambitions were less than successful than to Nicholas I, whose reign figures in a couple of asides to the account of his predecessor and brother. From the point of view of English history, one notable detail is the respectful treatment of Philip II, who traditionally figures in his role as the husband for four years of Queen Mary I, and instigator of the disastrous attempted invasion of England in 1588. Lieven instead shifts attention to Philip’s successful expansion of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, making him the second example, after Charles V, of a ‘global emperor’.


Lieven’s book is a striking example of the recent refocus, in the discipline of history, on the role of personalities and elites. Possibly the turning point was the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, an illustration of the epochal changes that can emerge when personal authority, vision, and determination happen to coincide. Yet if Vladislav Strukov’s recent study of the Soviet endgame essentially represented a biography of Gorbachev by other means,[2] there is other work which suggests mounting dissatisfaction, not just in the so-called ‘alternative’ or ‘second’ culture, but Soviet culture more broadly. Glasnost was, after all, by intent a remobilisation of Soviet society that rapidly turned into a forum for widespread expression of discontent, as was the case, on a smaller and less radical scale, with the Khrushchev Thaw.[3] Obviously, there is simply no evidence of reactions to governance in many of the societies that Lieven surveys; emperors seem to have a richer humanity than the mass of the population because their personal reflections and ruminations happened to survive.[4] But at later periods, the opponents of imperial rule had more to say than In the Shadow of the Gods seems to suggest; in this respect, it is not so much the emperors themselves, as their subjects, who are in ‘shadow’.


Lieven breaks off his narrative in 1945, a date motivated, no doubt, by the fact that, in the years immediately after World War II, the dismantling of the British Empire began, accompanied by the assertion of Pax Americana, challenged only by the USSR. For him, Napoleon was an example of a new type of emperor, ‘a pragmatist and a man of order, not a Jacobin or an ideologue’, not an illustration of the type of ‘charismatic prophets […] inclined to preach “permanent revolution”’ (p. 373). At the same time, a passing comparison between Stalin and Trotsky, and the Mughal rulers Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb (pp. 265-6) suggests that ‘imperial’ leadership, as defined by Lieven, may have had an after-life in the twentieth century, and perhaps later. There is an entertaining remark (p. 434) on Donald Trump as a sort of Wilhelm II of Germany, sharing the latter’s ‘narcissism, bullying, bombast and the inability to keep his mouth shut […] but without William II’s periodic flashes of intelligence and the residual ethical constraints left over from a Victorian education’. Equally thought-provoking are Lieven’s comments, à propos the Mughals, about ‘the perennial problems of succession, territorial overstretch, and the impact of ageing monarchs who occupied the throne for too long.’


These passing observations suggest a tension between the study specifically of dynastic leadership that is the announced intent of In the Shadow of the Gods, and the book’s concern with the mechanics of authoritarian rule. Modern ‘emperors’ fit on the second count, but hardly on the first. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government argued that the prewar Soviet elite resembled less a political party than a religious sect, and hence were condemned to redundancy within a generation.[5] While the ‘cult’ analogy was reductive, Slezkine raised a vital issue: why authoritarian leaders of the last century have so signally failed to make their ideals and principles outlast their period in power. Instead, the death or fall from power of every successful emperor-dictator has been followed by significant regime change. It would be unfair to expect Lieven’s already rich and massive study of ‘emperors’ in the traditional sense to address these questions; but among the book’s merits is the stimulus to other historians to explore the forward territory towards which it only gestures.


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[1] See e.g. Dominic Lieven, Russia’s Rulers under the Old Regime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807-1814 (London: Allen Lane, 2011). [2] Vladislav Zubok, Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021). [3] See, for example, Общественная жизнь Ленинграда в годы перестройки, 1985-1991. Под общей редакцией А. Д. Марголиса. СПб.: Серебрянный век, 2011. [4] Cf. Lieven’s use of writings by, among others, Marcus Aurelius, Taizong, and Babur. [5] Слезкин Ю. Дом правительства. Сага о русской революции. М.: Corpus, 2019.


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