This book by Alex Marshall ― who after the Defence Studies Department at King’s College, London, presently teaches at the University of Glasgow ― is devoted to the role of the Tsarist General Staff in the study and administration of Russia’s Asian borderlands. As the author tells in his short introduction, his interest in Asian Russia sprang from an early fascination with the war Orientalist paintings of Vasilii Vereshchagin (1842-1904) who accompanied the Russian army on the latter’s expeditions to both the Balkans and Central Asia. This fascination continued by his reading of Lesley Blanch’ Sabres of Paradise, which popularised Shamil’s war with the Russians, and last but not least, by the encounter with his wife, and with the remote villages of Buryatia sheltering exiled Old Believers where she came from. This quite romantic first approach of the topic did not preclude an innovative scholarly conducted research based on a thorough exploration of archival sources mainly from RGVIA (Rossiiskii gosudartsvennyi voenno-istoricheskii arkhiv, Moscow), especially the files of general or regional military district staffs, of intelligence gathering travels in Eastern and Asian countries (from Turkey, Persia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Japan, etc.), as well as personal files, not to speak of a range of published primary sources, memoirs, and of all the major monographs on Russia’s wars and on the ‘Great Game’.
Thus, the author offers an authoritative and much detailed study of the role of the military, and especially of the general staff, in the formation and changing administration of Russia’s Asian empire in the nineteenth century. He examines the way intelligence on the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia and the Far East was gathered in order to prepare future war plans and support not only Tsarist expansion but also the consolidation of imperial rule in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The author sheds light on the emergence of a “colonial military élite” specialised in Asian issues and paving the path for informed decision making at the highest level, together with the increasing interest for oriental studies (vostokovedenie) in academic circles (starting from the Eastern Department of the Saint Petersburg University and the Armenian Lazarevskii Institute in Moscow), as well as in the Foreign Ministry where the Asiatic Department was granted autonomy in 1819, and in the Asiatic Department of the General Staff and the Military-Scientific Committee created in the framework of Miliutin’s post-Crimean military reforms. At the same time, this interest steered competition and tension, especially between the diplomats, who jealously guarded their prerogatives in foreign affairs, and the militaries with field and war-based experience.
According to A. Marshall, these tensions combined with the inefficiency of central bureaucratic institutions and economic restrictions prevented well reasoned advice and plans provided by the Asian specialists of the General Staff to determine policy and to convert knowledge into power. The author underlines that the focus on Asia, a part of the debate between slavophiles and westernists, made some of this Asian-centred military élites more involved in the defence of Asian borders than of the European ones, which would show fateful during WWI. A comparison of this narrow group of General Staff officers under his scrutiny with those in charge of European borders would have been interesting and helped contextualise the study in Russia’s broader conflicting strategy between the “Yellow Peril” and the threat from the Russian Empire’s European neighbouring competitors, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. However, with some other recent works devoted to the transformation of the military institutions and ideology together with the imperial expansion in the Caucasus or Central Asia ― like Vladimir V. Lapin’s Armiia Rossii v Kavkazskoi voine, xviii – xix vv., Sank-Petersburg: Evropeiskii dom, 2008 ― this book is a major contribution to the study of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century and of its legacy in the Soviet era.