The tales of torture, reckless bombing and murder of unarmed civilians in Iraq contained in the latest WikiLeaks documents led not to soul-searching in America, but to complaints about the comfort they may give to present and future enemies. Americans have never been good at self-criticism, a point illustrated by US censorship of a fascinating book I am currently reading, Empires Apart. The author, Brian Landers – hardly a loony lefty, but a former senior Home Office civil servant who has also worked for several multinationals, including Penguin Books – argues that America’s development has remarkably close parallels with Russia’s. Both built an internal empire, partly based on ethnic cleansing, before they created an external one, Russia’s being presented as an extension of socialism, America’s as an extension of freedom and democracy. Both opted to create client states rather than to rule directly in the conventional imperial manner.
Landers notes that Americans have a habit of wiping inconvenient events out of history. Bloody Sunday, 1905, when the Russian tsar’s troops fired on demonstrators in St Petersburg, killing about a hundred, is quite widely known. An equivalent event 16 years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the National Guard sprayed black protesters with machine-guns, killing (according to modern research) about 300, is almost forgotten. All this is succinctly explained in Landers’s introduction, which provides the framework for the book. Distributors of the recent US edition, published by Pegasus, initially refused to handle it because of its “anti-American sentiments”. They reluctantly agreed only when the introduction was deleted.
New Statesman 28.10.10
Brian Landers has written a piercing account of American history from its colonial beginnings to its present role as an unacknowledged empire that bestrides the world. Concerned as he is to expose the myths that nations create about themselves, he bases his analysis upon a revealing comparison of American and Russian expansion through the centuries. This technique forces the observer to recognise similarities, identity differences and question why both similarities and differences exist. In a sense, then, the reader gets two books for the price of one, Russian history as well as American.
The parallels are striking. In the very same decade, the 1860s, Russia emancipated its serfs and the US freed its slaves. The ideology of corporate capitalism emerged at the same time as Marxism. Both nations marched towards the Pacific from their ancestral lands, from the Thirteen Colonies in the one case and from Muscovy in the other. Both reached the ocean by conquest of nomadic tribes – or as Americans like to say, by ‘settlement’ or ‘colonisation’ or, occasionally, by ‘annexation’. And finally, to take a question, was there really any difference between the Monroe Doctrine that America used to justify its interventions in Latin America and in the Caribbean and the concept of ‘Pan-Slavism” that Russia prayed in aid when exercising its designs on the Balkans?
This approach leads to a major theme of Mr Landers’ work, that the US is and always has been an imperialist power. Americans act like imperialists, he writes, but don’t talk like imperialists. It isn’t even an established ‘fact’ that there is or ever has been an American Empire. What is a fact, however, is that since the US marines invaded Libya in 1805, American troops on average have intervened somewhere abroad more than once a year.
Mr Landers is not a conventional historian. His skills are derived from a business career as well as from the academy. This unusual combination produces rare insight. He also has a way with aphorisms. ‘Russia is an inferiority complex trying to find itself. America is a superiority complex trying to sell itself.’ That is what Empires Apart seeks to demonstrate.
Andreas Whittam Smith
Founder of The Independent
I hugely enjoyed Empires Apart. It’s a phenomenal piece of research apart from the many insights, which I wish were more widely understood.
Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman in the House of Lords
A most enjoyable and intelligent book. Brian Landers constructs a tightly argued analysis, and never loses a beguiling narrative drive.
Founder of Waterstone’s Bookshops
Empire is a concept that never truly goes away. Empires Apart: A History of American and Russian Imperialism looks at the concept of empire through the perspective of America and Russia. Through its birth, America has been part of an empire or building an empire of its own, so much so that one could say the country is built on empire. Russia, one of the most massive land-wise countries in the world, has also made its identity out of manifest destiny. Looking at these two countries, their history, and their futures as super powers, Empires Apart proves to be a remarkable, scholarly, and educational read for world history collections.
Midwest Book Review October 2010
This is a great book. Topical, thoroughly enjoyable, and packed with information and interpretative controversy. Like most historical studies it combines description, analysis, and narrative. In this case the analysis is largely sewn into and revealed through the narrative. The two nations are deemed by many as not comparable, even ‘poles apart’.
This book challenges such conventional historical wisdom by taking the existing historical record and rewriting it. No new bombshell discoveries are presented. Instead, the book aims at freeing history from the ‘distorting prism that refracts the present’. The real strength of this book lies in its quality as an extremely subtle, critical and bold interpretative thesis, not as a conventional textbook that covers dates and events. Full of startling historical content as it is, it’s the ideology critique that appeals most.
Lobster Issue 57
Simply staggering in vision, depth, development of ideas and detailed research. And it’s also very readable and approachable. The analysis along the way is very revealing and a challenge to accepted thinking.
Sir Roger Martin
Founder of Index Books and Quality Books Direct
The American and Russian Empires deserve a Rough Guide – and Brian Landers’ book is that, and more.
Founder of Rough Guides