Friday, 13 November 2020

Book review: The Four Horsemen: Riding to Liberty in Post-Napoleonic Europe, Richard Stites (2014)

I bought this at a reduced price at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD one Friday in early November. I had needed a walk and something to read.

The author died of cancer just before the book was passed to editors, Stites having specialised in Russian history. He was born in 1931. Rather than concentrating exclusively on Russia, Stites in his final work turns his gaze also to other parts of Europe that underwent revolutions but as his focus returns to Russia at the end of this book, he didn’t have to venture too far from home. In the early part of the 19th century Italy, Spain, Greece, and Russia all experienced armed uprisings and this is the subject matter he talks about in his engrossing narrative.

As any good historian will be tempted to do, Stites attempts to reframe the narrative most of us grew up with, linking the October Revolution with the French Revolution and, to their precursor, the American Revolution. The book is therefore topical but beyond this you have to marvel at the level of erudition Stites displays, in addition to a dogged determination to find answers in the records of many countries, a task complicated by the fact that a number of different languages were used to make them. 

There are some commonalities between each of the events described, including the existence in each country of secret societies, the draughting of constitutions, armed struggle and war, and reaction which, except for the case of Greece, resulted in aborted revolutions.

The title for this stunning book draws on both fact and fiction. On the one hand you have the precursor artefact of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, which is a popular trope exploited by commentators – especially artists and cartoonists – from time immemorial. On the other hand you have four mounted revolutionaries who led bands of citizens against the forces of the Establishment in the countries under examination in the 1820s.

The 19th century was a globalised era, with the American and French revolutions inspiring men and women in Spain to demand the writing and introduction of a constitution. In turn, their success (though temporary) sparked similar aspirations in Naples (what is today southern Italy), as well as in Greece and in Russia.

A Russian specialist must be particularly attracted to such stories of struggle among people subject to arbitrary rule who, following America’s successful attempt to go it alone, wanted to be their own masters or, at least, to improve their lives. Property law was one area which desperately needed fixing, and (what we call) human relations as well. 

Stites makes a cogent observation toward the end of the book that liberalism and nationalism were, at the time in question, intimately linked. Making the puzzle more intricate was also the issue of religion. In the minds of priests and some parts of the relevant communities, a constitution didn’t just diminish the power of the king, it also threatened (based on the French experience) the viability of the Church, and Spain was a heavily Catholic country, but on the other hand catechisms were a way for the revolutionaries in all cases to communicate their aims to subalterns. For liberals at the time, therefore, popular ideas surrounding God and country made reaching their goals more difficult.

The book serves to locate the October Revolution in 20th century Russia within the context of a longer and larger struggle for self-determination, and ties the Cold War to America’s 18th century shift to self-government. Stites shows, if nothing else that, despite the ardent wishes of those who want to maintain the status quo, patches laid over underlying problems didn’t make them just go away. If there is discord you can’t just fix it with a Band-Aid; if you wish for long-term peace more attention must be given to solving the causes of problems to which discord is linked. Nowadays, governments in such places as Egypt and Thailand would do well to think on Stites’ conclusions. 

Personally, I do think that the kinds of liberalisation that Stites writes about in his book certainly have links to patriotism despite the fact that they derive their inspiration from global phenomena. It’s a clear paradox: if you want to become more global in outlook you must do it in a way that satisfies the desire to belong to a nation. 

Just as every journalist wants to break a big story and win acclaim, every historian must wish to have his or her most cherished insight turned into a full-length study that can then be read and celebrated by the broader community. It is in the grip of such ambition that volumes like this seek an entrance into the world. I received with enthusiasm the result of Stites’ labours, but noted to myself that better proofing might’ve eradicated some unfortunate errors in the text. Repeated sentences, missing conjunctions, and misspellings (“gage” instead of “gauge”, for example) dot the text and suggest that nobody read the thing through after the historian’s death with an eye to catching infelicities. 

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