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

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

What Pre-Revolutionary Russia Can Tell Us About Russia Today: Part II – Imperial Russia

19th-Century Europe's View of Russia:
Huge, Barbarous, and Blind

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. 

Richard Pipes

Looking at a map of the world, one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer vastness of Russia. . . Russia grew as a multinational and multicultural empire along with the Western European empires, but there was an  important difference between them—the colonies of  the Western European empires (those of Great Britain,  France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain) were overseas,  physically separated from their capitals. Russia,  however, was a continental empire without a clear  differentiation between the ruling core and its colonies, more like the Ottoman Empire. Although the Western European states  developed national identities  separate from their colonial possessions, Russia did  not. Many historians have argued that Russia never  was a nation-state but developed as an empire from the beginning. Its need for expansion was self-perpetuating: It was constantly conquering or  acquiring territory populated by non-Russian ethnic and nationalist groups. 

The Muscovite principality marked the geographic center of the territory settled by ethnic Russians in  medieval times, and the Muscovite court formed an  efficient capital with a monolithic, militarized political  organization. Neighboring political-military groupings  were comparatively weak and vulnerable to invasion.  However, these acquisitions formed a belt of regions  of dubious political loyalty, arousing permanent  insecurity in the core state, which responded with  repression and further expansion of boundaries to create buffer zones. Because the Russians' deeply  ingrained sense of territorial security created the need  for both large and expensive state bureaucracy and  military, Russia's commerce, economic growth, and  technological development consistently lagged behind those of its European neighbors. 

Yet Russia's vast natural resources, large territory and  population and ability to mobilize a large army made  the country a formidable player in European  politics.  After the defeat of Charles XII and Sweden at Poltava  in 1709 and the relocation of the capital from Moscow  to the newly built St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea in  1713, Russia continued to expand in the Baltic region.  Later in the century, under Catherine the Great, Russia  expanded in the west through the three partitions of Poland (in 1772, 1793, and 1795) and to the south at  the expense of the Ottoman Empire. 

In the 19th-century expansion continued to the south  into the Caucasus and to the southwest into Central  Asia. Historians have argued that the geography of  Eurasia was as conducive for the Russians as it had  been for the Golden Horde and Tamerlane, enabling  the creation of a huge continental empire. Professor  Edward Keenan has suggested that the tsars were  pragmatic opportunists—in other words Russia  expanded because it could.

Guarding the Muscovite State Border, Sergey Ivanov, 1907

The Cossacks were an interesting aspect of Russian imperialism. They were originally refugees from the Turkic states of Central Asia, who preferred a nomadic life on the steppes to serfdom. Their cultural inclinations made them perfect for fighting along the rough borderlands. After a centuries-long  process they were co-opted into Russian service,  becoming the vanguards of expansion and the  protectors of the frontier. 


Beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, however, 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 United Kingdom, 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. 


To bring readers up to the current crisis in Ukraine I'm including (what appears to be) a balanced explanation of the Russian historic involvement in Ukraine from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Different parts of the area that is today Ukraine were invaded and occupied in the 1st millennium BCE by the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians and in the 1st millennium CE by the Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Khazars, and Magyars (Hungarians). Slavic tribes settled there after the 4th century. Kyiv was the chief town. The Mongol conquest in the mid-13th century decisively ended Kyivan power.

From the 14th to the 18th century, portions of Ukraine were ruled by Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. In addition, Cossacks controlled a largely self-governing territory known as the Hetmanate. Most of Ukraine fell to Russian rule in the 18th century.

In the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, most of the Ukrainian region became a republic of the Soviet Union, though parts of western Ukraine were divided between Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Ukraine suffered a severe famine, called Holodomor [The Starvation], in 1932–33 under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Overrun by Axis armies in 1941 during World War II, Ukraine was further devastated before being retaken by the Soviets in 1944. By the end of the war, the borders of the Ukrainian S.S.R. had been redrawn to include the western Ukrainian territories.

Ukraine was the site of the 1986 Chernobyl accident at a Soviet-built nuclear power plant. In 1991 Ukraine declared independence. The turmoil it experienced in the 1990s as it attempted to implement economic and political reforms culminated in the disputed presidential election of 2004. The mass protests in Ukraine over its results came to be known as the Orange Revolution. The effects of the revolution were short-lived, however, and the country remained divided along regional and ethnic lines.

Another mass protest movement—this one centered on Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square)—toppled the government in 2014. As the interim government struggled to resolve the country’s dire economic situation, Russian troops occupied the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, in March 2014, Crimea declared independence from Ukraine and was annexed by Russia. Fighting between pro-Russian separatist militias and Ukrainian government forces remained ongoing in eastern Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in 2019. In late 2021 Russia began a military buildup along its border with Ukraine, and in February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian forces successfully defended Kyiv and soon launched a counteroffensive, but by 2023 the front lines had largely stagnated, and the conflict became a war of attrition as it continued into 2024.

Sources: “Russia’s Early Identity Questions” from the chapter "Russia's Historical Roots" in the book The Russia Balance Sheet by Anders Åslund and Andrew Kuchins. Copyright: Peterson Institute for International Economics. Reprinted with permission; and the Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

No comments:

Post a Comment