Motyl graduated from Regis High School in New York City in 1971. He studied at Columbia University, graduating with a BA in History in 1975 and a Ph.D. in Political Science in 1984. Motyl has taught at Columbia University, Lehigh University, and Harvard University and is currently professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.
Motyl has written extensively on the Soviet Union, Ukraine, revolutions, nations and nationalism, and empire. All his work is highly conceptual and theoretical, attempting to ground political science in a firm philosophical base, while simultaneously concluding that all theories are imperfect and that theoretical pluralism is inevitable. In 2001 in Imperial Ends he posited a theoretical framework for examining the structure of empires as a political structure. He makes use of the standard model that geographic and political areas are constituted by a core and a periphery. The empire's structure relates the core elite to the peripheral elite in a mutually beneficial fashion that can be established through any number of means: aggressive, coercive, or consensual. And while there is a vertical relationship between the core and periphery, there is a lack of substantive relations between periphery and periphery.
This relationship he describes as an incomplete wheel: there are hubs and spokes, but no rim. Empires, in this theoretical concept, depend on this relative absence of relationships in the periphery, the core's power partly dependent on its role as a neuralgic center.
Motyl describes three types of imperial structures: continuous, discontinuous, and hybrid. In a continuous empire, all the territories are adjacent to one another on land. The Mongol Empire, Russian Empire, Aztec Empire, and Akkadian Empire are examples of such continuous empires. A discontinuous empire is one in which the ruled territories are overseas or are exclaves far from the imperial core. Maritime empires, such as the European colonial empires, are examples of discontinuous empire. A hybrid empire had both adjacent ruled territories and far-flung ruled territories. An example might be the German Reich, which had imperial possessions in Europe as well as overseas in Africa. He discussed the Russian example also in his earlier book, The Post Soviet Nations.
Motyl also posits varying degrees of empire: formal, informal, and hegemonic. In a formal imperial relationship, the core can appoint and dismiss peripheral elites, obviate any external agenda or policies, and directly control the internal agenda and policies. In an informal imperial relationship, the core has influence but not control over appointing and dismissing peripheral elites, direct control over the external agenda and policies, and influence over the internal agenda and policies. Finally, in a hegemonic relationship, the core has no control over appointing or dismissing peripheral elites, control over the external agenda, influence over external policies, and no control over the internal agenda or policies.
Empire ends when significant peripheral interaction begins, not necessarily when the core ceases its domination of the peripheries. The core-periphery relationship can be as strong or weak as possible and remain an empire as long as there is only insignificant interaction between periphery and periphery. Many empire observers make the distinction that most of them end through some policies or strategies based on arrogance or national hubris, accounting for a popular opinion that empires implode on themselves as opposed to suffering defeat from an outside enemy.
Finally, Motyl warns that no theory of empire explains both rise and fall equally. Even if the rise and fall mirror each other, it does not follow that the introduction of elements that lead to the rise also lead to the fall upon their removal.
Motyl is also active as a poet, a writer of fiction, and a visual artist. His novels include "Vovochka" (in progress), "Ardor House" (forthcoming), Fall River (2014), Sweet Snow (2013), My Orchidia (2012), The Jew Who Was Ukrainian (2011), Flippancy (2009), Who Killed Andrei Warhol (2007), and Whiskey Priest (2005). His poems have appeared in Mayday, Counterexample Poetics, Istanbul Literary Review, Orion Headless, The Battered Suitcase, Red River Review, Green Door, and New York Quarterly. He has done readings of his fiction and poetry at New York's Cornelia Street Café and Bowery Poetry Club. He is represented by the Internet Gallery, www.artsicle.com; his artwork is available at artsicle. Motyl has had one-man shows of his art in New York, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Westport.
In a review of his novel The Jew Who Was Ukrainian, Michael Johnson wrote in The American Spectator: "Protagonist Volodymyr Frauenzimmer was born of a rape at the end of World War II when his mother was a Ukrainian Auschwitz guard who hates Jews and his father a Stalinist thug and Jew who hates Ukrainians. They married but lived in separate rooms and rarely spoke to each other... Alexander Motyl was clearly having great fun when he wrote his latest book, The Jew Who Was Ukrainian, a comic novel with half-serious historical underpinnings. It manages to amuse and challenge without losing its headlong momentum into the realm of absurdist literature."Author
The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919-1929 (1980)
Will the Non-Russians Rebel? State, Ethnicity, and Stability in the USSR (1987)
Sovietology, Rationality, Nationality: Coming to Grips with Nationalism in the USSR (1990)
Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993)
Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999)
Imperial Ends: The Decline, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001)
The Holodomor Reader: A Sourcebook on the Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine (2012), coedited with Bohdan Klid.
Russia’s Engagement with the West: Transformation and Integration in the Twenty-First Century (2004), coedited with Blair Ruble and Lilia Shevtsova.
The Encyclopedia of Nationalism, 2 vols. (2000)