Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Deep Roots of the Great War, Part 6: The Interests of Russia

How Its Neighbors Viewed Russia Before the War

Russia simply has hypnotic power. This was especially evident in its dynamic 19th-century history, when its population tripled. Russian military power, critical in defeating Napoleon, cowed the empire's neighbors and allowed the tsar to expand wherever he could get away with it. Even Europe's master statesman, Otto von Bismarck, accepted that Germany's well-being depended on peaceful relations with the Russian bear. Wilhelm II forgot this and started down the the
road to doom. 

Russia's centralized and militarized state has distinguished the country for centuries, although whether its militarization was offensive or defensive has been a matter of considerable historical debate. Nonetheless, starting from the beginning of the 16th century Russia eventually and uniquely came to control major portions of two continents. Historian George Vernadsky embraced the argument of geographical determinism—that the peculiar geography of Eurasia encouraged a dynamic national grouping (i.e. Russia) to extend its domination as far as possible for security reasons. Richard Pipes suggests, however, that the Russians, and later the Soviets, adopted an ideology—be it "Moscow as the Third Rome" or Marxism-Leninism—that promoted and encouraged the government to be inherently aggressive and expansionist.

From the beginning of the 16th-century through the middle of the 17th, Russia on  average annually added territory equivalent to the size of the Netherlands, and it continued expanding until World War I. No other state in world history has expanded so persistently.
Historian  Richard Pipes

The Kremlin in the 15th Century

Beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, Russia's imperial ambitions brought it into conflict with other nations and empires similarly ambitious or anxious about their declining fortunes. Throughout the 19th century, Russian rebuffs or defeats in Europe were repeatedly followed by greater attention and expansions to the east. For example, the defeat of Russia in the 1853–56 Crimean War at the hands of a coalition of France, Sardinia, the Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire was followed by extensive Russian conquests in the east. In the Caucasus, Russia had been fighting for decades, but pacification was nearly complete when in 1859 legendary Chechen leader Shamil was captured. In a series of successful military expeditions from 1865 to 1876 in Central Asia, Russia conquered the khanates of Kokand, Bokhara, and Khiva. The far eastern boundary of Russia had remained unchanged from the Treaty of Nerchinsk with China in 1689, but in 1858 China gave up the left bank of the Amur River to Russia through the Treaty of Aigun, and in the 1860 Treaty of Beijing, China ceded the Ussuri River region.

In the 19th century—to borrow a phrase from Churchill—plague bacilli were evolving and mutating in Russia. Despite suppressing the first post-Napoleonic revolt against the old order, the Decembrist revolt of reformist military officers in 1825, Russia then continually disconcerted the rest of world by serving as an incubator for more extreme forms of radicalism, nihilism, anarchism, and Marxism, as well as for innovations in terrorism and assassination. Regardless of the oppressive measures taken by the tsars' agents, secretive groups of Russians relentlessly borrowed or invented, then tested, perfected, and propagated the revolutionary and nationalistic ideologies that would make the next century one of the most violent in history, all of this going on while innumerable Russian writers and musicians—like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—were enchanting the world with their creativity.

Bakunin, Father of Anarchism

Further the Russian traditions of messianism and expansionism took on racial overtones in the 19th century, adding another frightening aspect to the world's perceptions of autocratic Russia. As with some of the revolutionary theories, this racialized thinking developed abroad, having Czech and German roots. But Russia embraced it, applied it more diligently, and passed it on to the rest of the world and posterity, in particular, on to Germany's National Socialist Party.

In large empires, such as Austria-Hungary or tsarist Russia, this emerging form of nationalism initially led to a heightened self-awareness by minorities and conquered people. But in Russia, the now-alarmed establishment's response was to turn this around with an insistence on "one, indivisible Russia," believing that non-Russians could be turned into Russians. This policy, of course, would never appeal to the non-Russian population, but the overall approach had some other flaws. What about the non-Russian Slavic peoples, who had been absorbed into the empire? Furthermore, this Russia indivisible policy was too inwardly focused for an empire still interested in outward expansion. 

The solution found for these complications by influential Russians was to adapt something called "Pan-Slavism." It was never official state policy, but would periodically dominate state policy. Not just Russians but their fellow Slavs were united in their messianic mission. Other Slavs were also divinely "chosen” and thus superior to all other nationalities.

This anchored the empire politically with a Slavic core and supplied a rationale for international adventurism ranging from dabbling in the affairs of other countries with Slavic minorities (like the Balkans) to acquiring territory for Slavic population expansion from inferiors (like the Ottomans) to simple conquest of other Slavs (like the Poles).

Nicholas and Alexandra Before Things Went South

This new form of Russian nationalism was a clear threat to all its neighbors. Pan-Slavs claimed as early as 1870 that the best possible starting point for an  enlarged Pan-Slav empire would be the disintegration of the Hapsburg empire. Later in that decade, Pan-Slavists in the tsar's government maneuvered the country into a war with the Ottomans for the purpose of capturing Constantinople. Later, after Russia's expansionist aims in the East were defeated by the Japanese, the Pan-Slavists next steered the nation to focus on the Balkans. The Pan-Slav movement had set the table for World War I. It embroiled Russia in the Balkans where crisis piled on crisis and one was sure to become unmanageable and lead to war. The July Crisis after the Archduke's assassination also provided—albeit with considerable risk—the double opportunity of swallowing a chunk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and capturing the Dardanelles and Constantinople from the Ottomans. Behind the tsar's decision to mobilize and go to war was the Russian version of neo-nationalism, Pan-Slavism.

Source: Over the Top, March 2014

1 comment:

  1. George F. Kennan recognized the power of the Pan-Slav movement and puts it into a broad perspective on Russian foreign policy motivators. See, e.g., Kennan's THE DECLINE OF BISMARCK'S EUROPEAN ORDER and THE FATEFUL ALLIANCE.