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In Parallel Trajectories

Neha Kohli

By Brian Landers
Penguin, Delhi, 2011, pp.604, Rs. 499.00


For most of the twentieth century, two countries dominated the scene: the United States and Russia (till 1991 as the erstwhile Soviet Union). Students of mod-ern history, political science and international relations, and indeed people more generally, are well aware of the ideological rivalry bet-ween communism and liberal capitalism which the Soviet Union and the US represented, and its manifold effects on the rest of the world. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan are some exam-ples of the latter that come to mind, where overtly or covertly, both played out their rival-ry. In effect, one would think that these two countries, representing two extreme poles of ideology, were as chalk and cheese. However, that might not be the case. In an interesting take on the two behemoths, Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq seeks to dispel this notion. The author, Brian Landers, works with an interes-ting premise that there is much in common in the way the US and Russia evolved over the last five-odd centuries. That both were 'impe-rial' in the way they perceived themselves. And that if one compares the histories of both, one will find not only a parallel trajectory, but also significant similarities in how they took up the agenda of nation and identity creation. In both cases, revolutions defined their identities as modern nations. Yet Landers finds similarities stretching further back. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the first English settlers landed on the North American continent. Being part of the Eurasian landmass, Russia did not see any such settlement. However, one gets to know from reading the book that as English (and other European settlements) expanded across the eastern part of the North American continent, vast stretches of Siberia and further East of the Asian land mass were conquered and settled beginning around the same time. The author discusses the 'imperial' agenda of both countries. He finds that in Russia's case, since it viewed itself as an empire (espe-cially since the 15th century), and sought to build one, the 'imperial' agenda was a more or less explicit one, which continued under Com-munist  rule. However, in the case of the US, the author finds that the imperial agenda was much more implicit-Washington and others sought not to build an empire, rather they sought to disassociate themselves from 'imperial' Britain. And the ideology that they adopted was that of democracy. Yet, the American 'imperial' agenda manifested ...

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