Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms; The Rise and Fall of States and Nations (New York: Viking, 2011), 830pp.
In September 1991, my family moved to Moscow State University, where I began a four-year stint as a visiting professor in what was then called the Department of Scientific Atheism. Three months later, we were in the American Embassy celebrating Christmas Eve, December 24, when Gorbachev went on national television and resigned. One week later, we stood in Red Square as the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time and the flag of the new Russian Federation was raised. After a short life that lasted from 1924 to 1991, but which nevertheless encompassed the largest territory on earth, one of the world's two superpowers vanished.
Norman Davies's sweeping history considers fifteen case studies of "State Death." Not just revolution or regime change, but "the more dramatic phenomenon of states that cease to exist" (732). His massive study is only the tiny tip of a enormous iceberg — in a footnote he directs readers to a website that lists 207 extinct states, a number which he says is "a definite underestimate." Davies begins with Alaric the Visigoth ("Ruler of All") in the fifth century, then ends with the "ultimate vanishing act" of the Soviet Union. How do states die? A final chapter suggests a pattern or typology: implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation, and "infant mortality."
The examples of the Soviet Union and Rome remind us that even the mightiest states die. The Bible laments the destruction of Israel by Assyria and Babylon, and celebrates the downfall of Rome The prophecy of Daniel considers the rise and fall of global powers. All political power is transient, says Davies. "All states and nations, however great, bloom for a season and are replaced." To imagine that your own state is an exception, says Davies, is "whistling in the dark." In addition to Davies's meticulous research, this handsome volume contains nearly 200 illustrations, maps, figures, and plates, along with 50 pages of footnotes.