By Right of War: The Discipline and Practice of International Law in Imperial Russia, 1868–1917

Peter Holquist, History, University of Pennsylvania

Research Grant, 2008

This project addresses the emergence and consolidation of the international law of war. 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. My study traces the historical foundations of this international legal order and tests the methodological presumptions about its origin and functioning.

As historians and legal scholars have demonstrated, international law of war (now often termed “international humanitarian law”) took form and was codified in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It emerged from a series of conferences and agreements, most notably the 1874 Brussels Conference on Proposed Rules for Military Warfare and the two Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. In this period, the Russian empire played a preeminent role in codifying and extending the international law of war. By way of illustration, the Russian government in 1868 introduced the rationalization that it was the “laws of humanity” that justified the laws of war in the St. Petersburg Declaration banning explosive bullets. It was the Russian government that convened, and drafted the preparatory materials for, both the 1874 Brussels Conference and the 1899 Hague Conference, gatherings which hammered out the key principles of what became the “laws and customs of war.” And the first international use of the term “crimes against humanity” in a penal sense came in 1915, in an Allied note to the Ottoman Empire regarding the Armenian genocide; the Russian government was responsible for inserting that phrase. The concepts developed at that time, and which the Russian empire played a key role in crafting, continue to serve as the framework for international humanitarian law today.

The project, in other words, asks by what means, and to what degree, can one bring people's conduct, even in extremis, into line with normative and ethical prescriptions.

We are left, though, with a dilemma: Why did officials of the Russian empire, famously ungoverned by the rule of law at home, insistently press the case that all states, the Russian empire included, be brought under an emerging system of codified international law? My study encompasses two distinct areas of analysis. First, it traces how international law emerged as a discipline in Imperial Russia and came to flourish there. This is a story of intellectual and diplomatic history. The second half of the project measures the extent to which these normative principles shaped actual policy. It takes the form of military and political history, examining the Russian army in three cases of military occupation: Bulgaria and Anatolia in 1877–78; Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900–1901; and Galicia and Armenia during the First World War. The project, in other words, asks by what means, and to what degree, can one bring people’s conduct, even in extremis, into line with normative and ethical prescriptions.

  1. Holquist, Peter. "Forms of Violence during the Russian Occupation of Ottoman Territory and in Northern Persia (Urmia and Astrabad), October 1914-December 1917," in Borderlands, eds. Eric Weitz and Omer Bartov (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011).

  2. Holquist, Peter. "The Politics and Practice of the Russian Occupation of Armenia, 1915- Feb. 1917," in A Question of Genocide, 1915: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, eds. Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Muge Gocek, and Norman Naimark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 151-74.

  3. Holquist, Peter. "In accord with State Interests and the People's Wishes: The Technocratic Ideology of Imperial Russia's Resettlement Administration," Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010), 151-79.

  4. Holquist, Peter. "The Role of Personality in the First (1914-1915) Russian Occupation of Galicia and Bukovina" in John Klier, ed., Anti-Jewish Violence: Rethinking the Pogrom in European History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), pp. 52-73.

Welcome to the website of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

Sign up here for Foundation news and updates on our programs and research.