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Response to Review of The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War

Simone Pelizza’s review rightly locates The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands in the recent scholarship on empire and proceeds to give an excellent summary of the main concepts that sustain the narrative. I appreciate the care with which he examines each chapter in sequence, providing comparative thematic links where appropriate. The opportunity to respond allows me to expand briefly on a few additional points. First, an important aspect of the narrative structure is the dual perspective on the struggle. At one level, the rivalry of the multicultural empires for territory, populations and resources plays out in recurrent military and cultural competition with one another and varied methods of domination and integration of the conquered people through colonization, conversion and cooptation of elites. At another level, from below, as it were, the reactions of the conquered peoples range along a broad spectrum from accommodation to armed rebellion. Second, the relationship between the two forms of struggle takes shape from an interaction between the imperial competition along the porous, shifting and contested frontiers – the ‘shatter zones’ of mixed populations divided by arbitrary military boundaries – and the movements of opposition to imperial rule in the borderlands adjacent to these frontiers. Foreign wars often sparked domestic rebellions and domestic rebellions often invited foreign intervention. External security and internal stability were closely intertwined. Third, this helps to explain the attempts of imperial rulers to fashion overarching ideologies and create bureaucracies that would knit together the disparate ethnic, religious and regional group within the borderlands of their empires. Fourth, because of the tenuous control over the borderlands, lost wars not only threatened the empires with dismemberment but also stimulated domestic reforms aimed at strengthening (modernizing) armies and administrative controls. So, in the 19th century, for example, the Great Reforms in Russia, the Tanzimat in the Ottoman Empire, the Ausgleich (Settlement) that created Austria-Hungary, the New Nationalism in China and even the feeble efforts at reform in Qajar Iran, were direct outgrowths of defeat in war and fears of further losses of borderlands. These reforms, inspired by western models often transferred through the medium of a neighboring empire gradually undermined the traditional ideologies and status of the hereditary elites creating major crises in the early 20h century and ultimately the demise of empires.

In his review Simone Pelizza also raises an interesting question concerning the place of Mughal India in The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands beyond the few pages devoted to it in the book. It is a point well taken. The Mughal dynasty shared many similar characteristics with the Safavid Iranians and Shaibanid Uzbeks in their state building aspirations and their relation to Turko-Mongol cultural traditions. Their three-cornered rivalry was played out mainly along a porous frontier with Qandahar often being the elusive prize. But there were several reasons for my having chosen to allot limited space to the Mughals. First, their involvement, while intensive in the 16th and 17h century rapidly tailed off after the turn of the 18th century and then ceased altogether, taking them out of the main narrative of the struggle. Second, to do full justice to the Mughal Empire as a Eurasian power would have involved an extensive foray into recent revisionist historiography like that which has characterized Qing and Ottoman scholarship. For example, Richard Folz in Mughal India and Central Asia (1a) argues that the Mughals, beginning with Babur, were obsessed with the idea of returning to their Central Asian homelands. He asserts that their claims to this legacy served to ideologically legitimate their empire in exile. But the extent of this link is not easy to document (aside from Babur’s diaries). And, it remains disputable how strong this tradition remained over time. Moreover, as Muzaffar Alam stresses in The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India. Awadh and the Punjab, 1707-1748 (2a), the Mughal Empire was breaking up into regional states with different lines of interest and development. For the Mughal emperor in Delhi and the regional elites the pull of south India proved the stronger. These are important works. But to have incorporated them and others would have involved further expanding an already large book. Nevertheless, I am indebted to Simone Pelizza for giving me this opportunity to acknowledge yet another dimension of the struggle for the Eurasian borderlands.


  1. Richard Folz, Mughal India and Central Asia (Oxford, 1988).Back to (1a)
  2. Muzaffar Alam, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India. Awadh and the Punjab, 1707-1748 (Delhi, 1986).Back to (2a)