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6 December 2023

Joseph Roth’s lessons for Putin’s Russia

A century ago The Radetzky March captured the break-up of Austria-Hungary. Could it also predict the fall of Vladimir Putin’s Russian empire?

By Jeremy Cliffe

Early in Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March a scene plays out in a country orchard in Bohemia. The year is something close to 1870. Joseph von Trotta, a captain in the Austro-Hungarian army, is brandishing a school book belonging to his son, Franz. In it he has just read an account of the event for which he was decorated: the split second during the Battle of Solferino in 1859 in which he, then merely a lieutenant of Slovenian peasant stock, pushed the Emperor Franz Joseph I out of the path of a sniper’s bullet. Here in the school book, however, the tale has been grossly exaggerated. Trotta is depicted decimating the ranks of enemy soldiers around the young emperor, and taking a lance to the chest in the process. The deceit offends his sense of honour. He storms out to find his wife strolling under the fruit trees. Did she know of this fabrication?

Roth continues: “She nodded and smiled. ‘It’s a lie!’ yelled the captain, flinging the book onto the wet earth. ‘It’s for children,’ his wife mildly replied. The Captain turned on this heel. He was shaking with rage.” Trotta requests an audience with the emperor at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. “There’s a lot of lying goes on,” Franz Joseph concedes. Austria-Hungary, the reader realises early in the story, is an elaborate artifice. Or as the author Keiron Pim puts it in his 2022 biography of Roth: “A crumbling institution propped up by patriotic mythology and anachronistic codes of behaviour… Its rulers must hope that Austrians who realise they’ve been duped will agree the lies were worth telling to sustain the monarchy.”

The Radetzky March is the definitive novel of imperial decline. It traces the story of three generations of the fictional Trotta dynasty: Joseph, his son Franz and his grandson Carl Joseph, who is killed in the First World War in a foreshadowing of Austria-Hungary’s ultimate demise in 1918. The novel dramatises the reality that empires are not like nation-states or democratic federations. They are coercive, hierarchical structures, held together by tensions: myth vs truth, order vs violence, metropole vs periphery. To immerse oneself in Roth’s masterpiece is to understand those tensions, which do not simply vanish when an empire falls, but collapse in chaotic ways, releasing a form of lingering “dark energy”.

That makes the novel particularly relevant today. Often it is imagined that the age of European empire ended with the First World War, when the German, Austrian and Ottoman empires fell, or after the Second World War, when most of the last British, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies won independence. Those events unlocked destructive post-imperial forces – think of the bloodshed of the Indian Partition or the Algerian War – that in some cases have still not fully dissipated.

But one case stands apart from the rest: Russia. Technically, its empire has ended twice already: in 1917 with its formal dissolution, and in 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union. Yet as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown, Russian imperialism – both as an abstract ideal and a geopolitical reality – is not yet dead.

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At certain points over the past two years, however, that death has seemed closer than any time since those febrile moments in the early 1990s. Yes, Ukraine’s retaliatory offensive over the past summer and autumn fell short of expectations and the mood there has turned markedly gloomier. But Putin’s invasion remains a debacle. Its very conception underestimated Ukraine’s spirit and will, its ability to fight back, and the West’s willingness to support it. Last year, Russia’s president equated his invasion to Peter the Great’s Great Northern War against Sweden – which concluded in 1721 with the formal declaration of the Russian empire that Putin today is trying to shore up. It was a preposterous, bathetic comparison. This year the aborted quasi-coup attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin – an erstwhile chef, long-standing Putin crony and capo of the mercenary Wagner Group – exposed the fragility of Putin’s Russia. Its fractures are growing. Countries in its “near abroad” are peeling away from Russian influence.

Roth’s novel is rooted in its author’s outsider-turned-insider biography, which enabled him to view the Austro-Hungarian empire from all angles. He was born in 1894 on its periphery, both figuratively and geographically, as a Jew from Brody – the empire’s easternmost edge of Galicia, in today’s western Ukraine. Roth gravitated towards the centre, studying first in Lviv and then in Vienna itself, before volunteering for the Austro-Hungarian army. He attended Franz Joseph’s magnificent funeral in 1916 and later described the complex emotions it generated in him, as one intellectually at odds with empire but who had long looked to the Habsburg patriarch as a guarantor of its multi-ethnic, multi-faith patchwork: “I recognised clearly the senselessness of his last years, but it was undeniable that this senselessness was a piece of my childhood. The cold sun of the Habsburgs had been extinguished, but it was a sun.”

Roth mourned the empire’s dismemberment at the war’s conclusion; a sense of melancholy that accompanied him for the rest of his nomadic life. The Radetzky March appeared in 1932, a wistful epitaph for Austria-Hungary that did not shy away from the empire’s darker elements. Its English translation followed in 1933. Roth died a disconsolate drunk in Paris in May 1939.

The story of the Trotta family runs parallel with the now-vanished imperial realm that sprawled across central Europe: a collection of peoples, languages and creeds straining in the imperial centrifuge pulling it apart. The novel shows how Vienna employed the carrot of mythology and imperial pomp – evinced in the exaggeration of Joseph von Trotta’s bravery – and the stick of military force and hierarchy. The bombastic march of the book’s title by the composer Johann Strauss I serves as a symbol of both of those tools.

Joseph’s son Franz grows up to become an imperial district commander in provincial Moravia, today’s eastern Czechia. Every Sunday, the local military band plays a concert outside his house, always starting with “Radetzky March”: “The bitter drums rolled, the sweet flutes warbled, and the winsome cymbals pealed.” Franz’s own son Carl Joseph listens to it from the balcony as a boy, this third generation of the family brooding morosely on his father’s and grandfather’s service to the emperor: “Ideally, one would die for him to music, and preferably to the music of the Radetzky March. The swift bullets whistled in time about Carl Joseph’s head, his gleaming sabre flashed, and with heart and head filled with the gorgeous abruptness of the march, he would sink into its thrumming ecstasy.”

[See also: Dostoevsky: The dark prophet of our times]

Strauss’s tune shapes the memories and identities of imperial subjects. But it also speaks of the martial coercion used to prevent fragmentation on the empire’s fringes. Carl Joseph von Trotta gets to live out his fantasies of fighting for the emperor as a commander in a Galician town based on Roth’s native Brody. At a protest by workers in a brush factory there, the mayor urges him to give the order to fire on the workers, but he freezes: “A muddle of voices in his breast told him now to have sympathy, now to be ruthless, reminding him what his grandfather would have done in this situation.”

He hears himself shout “Fire!” and is knocked unconscious, so does not witness the subsequent bloodbath. The news reaches the emperor in Vienna, who decides to pay a visit to this fraught imperial fringe-land. Watching a field exercise close to the Russian border, the ageing Franz Joseph experiences premonitions of his empire’s fragmentation: “He could see the great golden sun of the Habsburgs sinking, smashing on the bottom of the universe, crumbling into various littler suns, which would shine as independent bodies to independent nations. They’ve just had enough of my rule, thought the old man.”

The episode anticipates Carl Joseph’s ultimate fate: the grandson of the hero of Solferino is killed in the early stages of the First World War, the final military attempt to hold the empire together. Had Carl Joseph survived the conflict he would have been one of the Heimkehrer, the homecomers, soldiers and other servants of empire who stumbled back to their homeland broken and empty after the 1918 armistice.

Before Carl Joseph von Trotta heads to his death on the eastern front, a memorable scene plays out on his Galician posting. It is June 1914. He is a guest at a hunting party of aristocrats from across Austria-Hungary, when the news reaches them of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the emperor’s heir, in Sarajevo. As a storm rages outside, an argument thunders inside the country house. The empire’s many nationalities suddenly take aim at each other: Austrian against Bohemian, Hungarian against Pole, Slovenian and Croat against Serb. Attitudes towards Bosnia tend towards the derogatory. The reader witnesses the long-contained centrifugal forces beginning to spin out of control.

The pre-1918 tensions described in The Radetzky March had a long afterlife. The old myths of Austria-Hungary continued to haunt the former empire in its civil war in 1934 and its 1938 Anschluss by Adolf Hitler, a former imperial Heimkehrer. Internecine hatreds that had been contained by empire played out in Austrian and Hungarian participation in Nazi crimes, the Croat Ustaše regime’s persecution of Serbs, the expulsion of Austrian Germans from Bohemia in 1945, and the Serb atrocities against Bosniaks, Croats and Kosovars in the 1990s. The dark energy released by the Austro-Hungarian collapse took generations to dissipate.

The man with qualities: Joseph Roth in Paris around 1925. Photo by Leo Baeck Institute/Bridgeman Images

This should be a warning of what to expect from any collapse of the Russian empire under Vladimir Putin. Russia’s president personifies the continuity between the old empire and today’s kleptocratic, nihilistic Russia: he owes his presidency to his past in the Soviet KGB, itself a descendent of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret service. As the liberal Russian thinker Anton Barbashin has argued: Putin believes “that this is the last stand of the Russian empire, an all-out war with the West”. If Putin’s gamble in Ukraine fails it could bring down not just his regime but the old memories and myths of empire that sustain it.

Keiron Pim, in his biography of Roth, goes on to say of the Habsburg empire’s myths that its rulers must hope their subjects agree “that the truth was sacrificed for a worthwhile cause, and that few react with revolutionary fervour”. Will Russians feel that way if their bloodied, demoralised troops trudge back from a Ukraine now on a fast track to European Union membership and wreathed in Western security guarantees? If further attempts are made on Putin’s rule from within his own power structures? If the assurances of stability and prosperity on which his autocratic rule rests stumble further? In an op-ed last year for the Washington Post, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny warned that his country’s dreams of empire will not end until it embraces parliamentary democracy: “That is the only way to stop the endless cycle of imperial authoritarianism.”

As in Austria-Hungary, grand imperial myths told in the Russian metropole have long contrasted with Putin’s brutal violence on the periphery. The use of mercenaries, such as Prigozhin’s Wagner Group in Ukraine, Belarus and further afield, and of cronies like Ramzan Kadyrov in Russian republics such as Chechnya, may seem to belong to a different world than the luxury boutiques of Moscow and St Petersburg, but they are all part of the same system.

The contrast is also evident in mobilisation patterns: the regime has disproportionately dispatched residents of its peripheral republics to the front in Ukraine. Early in the invasion, the independent Russian media outlet Mediazona studied details of 1,700 soldiers reported killed, and found more from Muslim Dagestan and Buddhist Buryatia than from any other region. Natives of Moscow and St Petersburg were “virtually absent”. As the historian Timothy Snyder has noted: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also, in a sense, a Russian imperial war on its own non-Russian minorities.”

[See also: Israelis and Palestinians have been taken back to the traumas of 1948]

We have already seen this violence rebound on to the capital, in the form of Prigozhin’s coup attempt. Eventually the war will end. Well over 100,000 angry Heimkehrer will return to the streets of Putin’s Russia. And what then? The Russian liberal Leonid Bershidsky has argued that the country’s break-up is a real possibility. Writing for Bloomberg he asked whether an internal republic like Tatarstan is “really part of core Russia in any more meaningful way than, say, Kazakhstan was?… Is Dagestan, conquered in the early 19th century, where fewer than 4 per cent of schoolchildren take Russian as native language classes?”

In Russia’s near abroad, the old imperial sphere of influence is already fading. Finland has joined Nato, soon to be followed by Sweden. Ukraine is being ushered towards the EU. In the Black Sea, Turkey has tilted back towards the West since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s humbling at the polls in May (though he is still seeking to act as a pivot between Nato and Russia). Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ensuing ethnic cleansing of Armenians, and border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all demonstrate Russia’s loosened grip on its own neighbourhood. On a visit to Kazakhstan on 9 November to shore up relations with those in his former backyard, Putin was met with a new reality: his host, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, opened his remarks at the press conference of the two leaders by speaking in Kazakh, not the usual Russian. It was a sign of how the relationship had shifted.

From Karelia to the Pacific, roads that once led to Moscow now radiate in new directions: to Washington and Ankara, Brussels and Beijing. The forces that kept Russia’s imperium together are slowly weakening. It is hard to watch this happening without thinking back not only to the fragmentation of the old Austro-Hungarian empire but also the feuding 1914 hunting party in The Radetzky March and the long-term bloodshed it augured.

As Joseph Roth sank into dipsomanic despair in Paris in the months before his death he wrote a companion novella to The Radetzky March. The Emperor’s Tomb ends with a cousin of Carl Joseph von Trotta, a Heimkehrer lost in the postwar Austrian republic, making his way to the Capuchin Crypt to visit the grave of the old emperor on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938. But the gate is locked and the passageway back to the past no longer open. “Where can I go now, a Trotta?” he asks in the novel’s elegiac final line.

Today, one can visit Franz Joseph in the Capuchin Crypt, a labyrinth of rooms lit by a half-light from high windows, cool even on the most scorching Viennese summer days. Many of the Habsburgs are there: 12 emperors and 18 empresses. In the surrounding streets stand the monuments and palaces of the old Austrian imperial quarter: the Albertina museum, the Imperial Treasury and the Hofburg, now home to the offices of the chancellor and the president of this peaceful, prosperous Alpine republic. From the Hofburg’s roofs fly the Austrian red-white-red flag but also the flag of the EU, 12 golden stars on a blue background.

It makes an apt image for Austria’s path, and those of most European post-imperial states, once the dark energy of its empire’s collapse faded. As Snyder has argued, the EU’s fundamental purpose is to be a “place to go”. The modern history of unintegrated nation-states in Europe was fleeting: first came empires, then ideas of nation, then imperial collapse and then continental integration. That, Snyder argues, is why Ukraine’s quest to free itself from Russia is inextricable from its bid for EU membership.

In the meantime Russia faces a grim prospect: a prolonged period of late-imperial failure and instability in a nuclear-armed state spanning 11 time zones. Sooner or later, however, the last “Radetzky March” will surely sound in Moscow just as it did in Vienna. The aftermath it heralds in Russia has the potential to be more violent and chaotic than any prior European imperial collapse. If it comes, myths will die, identities will crumble, and new ones will rise from the rubble. The fading tsarist sun will “smash on the bottom of the universe”. Dark energy will be unleashed.

[See also: When is an empire not an empire?]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special