Standing starkly before his mirror, does Vladimir Putin imagine himself an emperor? The Russian leader’s rambling and pretentious essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, written to justify Russia swallowing Ukraine, certainly evokes tsarist ambitions. The enormous power Putin has amassed over the Russian state is also redolent of the imperial supremacy and sway of his royal predecessors. Right to the end, the Russian emperors sought to preserve their sacred and autocratic rule, which, crucially, most Russians expected them to exercise. Indeed, one of the official titles of the tsar was ‘Autocrat of all the Russias’, a mantle that Putin seems eager to assume. The past, when emperors ruled the earth, is not as distant as we might think.
Dominic Lieven’s unique, captivating and dazzling global history explains the historical significance of emperors across the world. In the post-1945 nation-state age, it is easy to forget how most people’s ancestors lived as part of polyglot, trans-regional and multicultural empires under the rule of an imperial dynasty. Lieven’s skill is to bring that age to life by drawing out the personalities and peccadilloes of the emperors themselves, using them as a window onto the policies, ambitions, failures, spectacles and incredible durability of hereditary and imperial governments.+
As Lieven concedes in his introduction, it is difficult both to define an emperor and to say what it is that distinguishes an emperor from a king. The Latin word for emperor, imperator, was the same as the term for ‘victorious general’. The Chinese, meanwhile, used the word