Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute




Russia’s Worlds: The Russian Empire and International Law

This event was held virtually as a Zoom webinar and streamed via YouTube Live.

Please join us for a the inaugural event of the “Russia’s Worlds” lecture series. Peter Holquist (Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania) will discuss his forthcoming book project “‘By Right of War’: The Discipline and Practice of International Law of War in Imperial Russia, 1868-1917” alongside Will Smiley (Assistant Professor of the Humanities, University of New Hampshire), who will present his work on “Slaves, Prisoners, and International Law between the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1739-1878.” The two presentations will be followed by a roundtable discussion and a brief Q&A.

“By Right of War” addresses the emergence and consolidation of the law of war as codified, positive treaty law. The intellectual lineage for the law of war dates back at least to Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). But it was only from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century that the law of war as we know it today, such as the criteria for distinguishing “legal combatants” from “illegal combatants,” crystallized into formal codes defining the “laws of war.” And Imperial Russia plays a surprisingly prominent, indeed precocious role in this story. “By Right of War” traces the historical foundations of this international legal order and tests the methodological assumptions about its origin and functioning. It examines the factors leading Imperial Russia to articulate fundamental principles of international law that continue to hold today. At the same time, this study measures the actual application of these principles in concrete cases of military occupation from 1877 to 1917. In so doing, “By Right of War” tests the degree to which these emerging norms shaped actual military conduct.

The Ottoman-Russian wars of the eighteenth century reshaped the map of Eurasia and the Middle East, but they also birthed a novel concept–the prisoner of war. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of captives, civilians and soldiers alike, crossed the legal and social boundaries of these empires, destined for either ransom or enslavement. But in the eighteenth century, the Ottoman state and its Russian rival, through conflict and diplomacy, worked out a new system of regional international law. Ransom was abolished; soldiers became prisoners of war; and some slaves gained new paths to release, while others were left entirely unprotected. These rules delineated sovereignty, redefined individuals’ relationships to states, and prioritized political identity over economic value. In the process, the Ottomans marked out a parallel, non-Western path toward elements of modern international law. This story offers new perspectives on the histories of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, of slavery, and of international law.

Russia’s Worlds Lecture Series:

In the last two decades historians have consistently challenged the center-periphery approach to the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, at the same time establishing the inadequacy of state boundaries to encompass imperial and Soviet experience. “Russia’s Worlds” brings together innovative work on connections between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the outside world, looking at how these states, their cultures, and their subjects interacted with the wider world, other states, and the international scene based on religion, ethnicity, ideology and professional affiliations. In this series of six talks, twelve speakers working at the intersection of several fields will share new perspectives on how international law, migration, environment, traveling ideas, individuals and commodities tied Russia to a larger world and the other way around.

All events at 12:00pm Eastern unless noted otherwise.

October 28, 2020: The Russian Empire and International Law

Peter Holquist (University of Pennsylvania)
Will Smiley (University of New Hampshire)

November 19, 2020: Soviet Union and East Asia

Tatiana Linkhoeva (NYU)
Elizabeth McGuire (California State University, East Bay)

January 21, 2021: Russian Empire and the Ottoman World

Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky (UC Santa Barbara)
Eileen Kane (Connecticut College)

February 18, 2021: Soviet Union and the Middle East

Sam Hirst (Bilkent University, Ankara)
Masha Kirasirova (NYU Abu Dhabi)

March 18, 2021: The Russian and Soviet North Pacific

Bathsheba Demuth (Brown University)
Ilya Vinkovetsky (Simon Fraser University)

May 13, 2021: The Second World War and the Postwar Settlement

2:00pm ET
Michael David-Fox (Georgetown University
Francine Hirsch (University of Wisconsin-Madison)