Russian Empire Research Paper

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With the Mongols in decline by 1480, Ivan III declared himself Sovereign of All the Russias. His successors became “czars” (from “Caesar”) and Moscow the “third Rome”—thus the Russian Empire was born. Continued territorial and economic growth generated counter pressures that led to the empire’s undoing by 1900—until the Communist era and the emergence of the USSR as a superpower in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Russian Empire has its origins in the rise of the Principality (kniazhestvo) of Moscow in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Muscovite Grand Princes successfully exploited their position as tax collectors for the Golden Horde, which ruled most of Russia in the wake of the Mongol conquest in 1240, to impose their authority over the successor states to Kievan Rus. By the early fifteenth century, Mongol power had begun to decline. At this time, Moscow emerged as the champion of Orthodox Christianity (the official religion of Kievan Rus since 988) and outmaneuvered Catholic Lithuania to legitimate itself as the “gatherer of Russian lands.” After 1480, Grand Prince Ivan III (reigned 1462–1505) ceased paying tribute to the Khan and proclaimed himself Sovereign of All the Russias. (Ivan had also seized upon the collapse of Constantinople in 1453 by marrying the last heiress to the Byzantine throne.) His successors were increasingly referred to as czars (derived from Caesar), while Moscow was proclaimed the “third Rome” and became the center of the Orthodox Christian world.

Henceforth, the czar would regard himself as a universal ruler, on a par with the Ottoman Sultan or the Holy Roman Emperor. After the conquest in the 1550s of Astrakhan and Kazan—successor states to the Golden Horde—the czars also began to claim the descent from the Chingizid Khans, the dynasty of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan. They used the popular image of Mongol rule as arbitrary and beyond divine sanction to great effect in the imposition of autocratic rule over the whole of Russian society, although the roots of their despotism lay largely in the difficulty of extracting a sizable surplus, given the country’s poor soil and difficult climate. Autocracy reached an apogee with the establishment of the Oprichnina (literally “setting apart”), a policy that imposed the Czar’s unbridled terroristic rule over a quarter of the country and (to Ivan’s mind) constituted a model for the whole of Muscovy. All these factors have led many writers to conclude that Russian rule was a classic example of “Oriental despotism,” whose fundamental essence would remain unchanged through the Soviet period.

Autocracy and Isolation

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Muscovite realm formed, by and large, a world unto itself—to some, a quintessentially Eurasian civilization. The disintegration of the Mongol-dominated system of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries resulted in a diminution of contacts and the growth of regional particularisms across Eurasia. Muscovy’s frontiers were not coterminous with those of any other core area, and its espousal of Orthodoxy greatly limited its exposure to the culture of proximate Muslim or Catholic powers. In the wake of Ivan the Terrible’s failure to push through to the Baltic Sea in the Livonian War (1558-1583), the economic and demographic dislocations of the Oprichnina, and the Polish invasion, revolts, and dynastic crises of the “Time of Troubles” (1600-1613), Muscovy contracted. Its detachment was further compounded by the closure of its borders and the restriction of external trade by the Romanov czars of the seventeenth century. Some judge the failure to integrate into Europe at this time as an unmitigated disaster, responsible for the perpetuation of Russian autocracy and backwardness, though others contend that the failed incorporation allowed Russia to preserve political and economic independence. In fact, despite autocracy, the seventeenth century saw the empire attain its fastest rate of growth. Russia took advantage of the collapse of Mongol power to colonize lightly populated Siberia by 1649, and benefited from the decline of Poland by incorporating the Ukraine in 1667. Expansion was stimulated by a crusading mentality that encompassed a desire to win converts for Orthodoxy, as well as recognition of the czar as a universal ruler. But it was driven even more by the fur trade and the desire of marginalized groups – runaway peasants, convicts, Cossacks, merchants, and religious schismatics – to flee autocratic control. Thus, the czars’ rule over the new Siberian towns, the Ukrainian Cossacks, and nomadic peoples such as the Oirats and the Nogais remained nominal.

An Expanding Empire

The character of the empire was partially transformed during tl1e reign of Peter I (the Great, 1682-1725) and that of his successors. The thrust of the Petrine reforms was making Russia militarily competitive with European powers. but in order for t his to be achieved the social and cultural foundations of the autocratic regime had to be altered. Peter introduced a standing army, a civil service, and a European-style technical-scientific infrastructure. On this basis, he eventually won the Great Northern War (1700- 1721) against Sweden and gave Russia an outlet to the Baltic coast, where he established his “window on the West” the new capital of Saint Petersburg. With Russia’s arrival as a European power, the czar now styled himself lmperator, while the cow1try was renamed from Rus to the Latinized Rossiia. A weakened Orthodox Church no longer constituted the empire’s main source of legitimacy, which would now emanate from the manifest destiny to expand and the specifically Russian mission civilisatrice of the state itself. But Peter’s reforms continued to rely on autocratic means—tributary extraction, mass population transfers, and a newly constituted political police. Subsequent rulers, though they may have freed the nobility (1762), granted the right for the free establishment of industries (1767), liberated the serfs (1861), and permitted the creation of a legislature (the Duma, in 1905), never relinquished their monopoly on political power.

Unlike the empires of western Europe, the Russian Empire was a contiguous and continental power that lacked easily defensible boundaries and therefore pursued a predominately territorialist rather than a maritime strategy. As a result, it pursued expansion in all directions and had to devote an overwhelming part of its state budget to its military. At the same time, Russia remained economically underdeveloped, and some of its colonies—notably Poland (dismembered between 1772 and 1815) and Finland (acquired in 1808)—exhibited greater economic and social sophistication than the Russian core area itself. New Russian territories in the east and south—Crimea (conquered by 1790), the region of Caucasia (subdued by the mid-nineteenth century), and Turkestan (subjugated between 1850 and 1900)—did resemble European colonies, being administered through a mixture of economic extraction and development, civilizing paternalism, and the cooptation of local elites. Unlike Western possessions, however, they had relatively low populations, relatively more colonial settlers, and displayed far fewer differences in terrain, climate and ecology relative to the metropolitan power.

Because of its greater proximity to Europe, Russia was forced to respond to European military, economic, scientific, and technological innovations earlier, but this in turn accounted for its greater dynamism vis-a-vis other tributary and contiguous empires. The Russian Empire expanded at the expense of the Ottomans in the Black Sea region and the Persians in Central Asia, and, by the nineteenth century, established hegemony over Chinese Manchuria. Still, its effort to extend its control by incorporating expanding Ukrainian and Belarussian populations— both Orthodox and both heirs of Kievan Rus—into its ethnic core proved less successful than similar efforts by China. The late-nineteenth-century policies of cultural Russification, which affirmed nationality as the third pillar of the regime alongside autocracy and orthodoxy, fared no better than the attempted federalism of the Habsburgs.

Continued territorial and economic growth generated increasing counter pressures that eventually led to the empire’s undoing. Externally, its early successes contributed to the rise of more powerful rivals along its perimeter. In the west, Poland and Sweden were replaced by a united German Empire—an industrial powerhouse with a much larger population. In the south, France and Britain propped up the declining Ottoman and Persian empires, while in the east, a vibrant Japan filled the vacuum created by a retreating China. Victory against Napoleon in 1812–1815 established Russia as the main guardian of political reaction in Europe, but exposure to the ideas of the French Revolution infected its own elite with a dissident spirit. The humiliating defeats of the Crimean War (1855) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905) exacerbated social discontent, as did the rapid industrialization program pursued under Nicholas II at the turn of the twentieth century. The paradox of Russia as both backward and a colonial power widened its identity crisis. The Westernizer–Slavophile debate ultimately resulted in what some regard as a revolutionary synthesis and others as a dead end.

Communist Rule

Czarism succumbed to the combined pressures of World War I and urban unrest in 1917, but the Bolshevik Party, which came to power in the October Revolution later that year, reconstituted the empire. As Marxists, the Bolsheviks were dedicated to the replacement of the world capitalist system with proletarian democracy, but the practice of “democratic centralism” favored by their leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924) promoted the Party’s control over and above that of the workers’ councils (soviets) in whose name they governed. During the ensuing Civil War (1918–1921), the Bolshevik base corresponded to the old Muscovite core (with the capital reestablished in Moscow), and their eventual victory resulted not in worldwide revolution but in the reconquest of the czarist empire (minus Finland, Poland, and the Baltic states). Subsequently, the Bolsheviks focused their attention on Asia and proclaimed Soviet Russia as the global leader of the anticolonialist struggle. In the same spirit, in 1922, they established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which recognized the formal sovereignty of the non-Russian republics (including the Ukraine, Belorussia, Transcaucasia, and Turkestan), and promoted their cultural autonomy by suppressing overt Russian nationalism. At the same time, central control was cemented by reconfiguring the Bolsheviks as the All-Union Communist Party, and the world’s first “affirmative action empire” came into being (Martin 2001).

The Communist Party’s monopoly on power, coupled with the country’s economic collapse following seven years of war, its international isolation as a socialist state, and the Marxist antipathy to market economics contributed to the USSR turning into a continuation of the Russian Empire. Under Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), who emerged as Lenin’s successor by the late 1920s, the pursuit of “socialism in one country” denoted gaining complete control of the domestic economy following the collectivization of the peasant land holdings, establishing Marxism- Leninism as the guiding ideology of all social and cultural life, constructing a cult of personality, and prosecuting mass purges and population transfers. The autarkic imperative of Stalin’s USSR resembled that of seventeenth-century Muscovy, and authors who characterize the former as a totalitarian state explicitly establish its links with earlier autocracy. Moreover, under conditions of monolithic rule, the heightened international insecurity of the 1930s, and especially the Great Patriotic War (the Russian struggle against the World War II Nazi offensive of 1941–1945), non-Russian elites and, in the case of the Crimean Tartars and Kalmucks, whole peoples were regarded as unreliable, and viciously persecuted, while Great Russian culture and Russification were promoted as important mobilizing forces.

Postwar Superpower and Beyond

The emergence of the USSR as a superpower in the second half of the twentieth century has led some scholars to regard the Soviet Empire as the culmination of a singularly successful and uniquely Russian alternative modernity. In the 1930s, Stalin oversaw the mobilization of the USSR’s vast resources in the construction of a modern industrial base, and in achieving spectacular rates of economic growth. These factors enabled the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II and subsequently to become a nuclear power and the main strategic competitor of the United States (though a de facto junior partner in the American-led world order). In the wake of the war, the USSR reincorporated the Baltics, the western parts of Ukraine and Belorussia, and Bessarabia, and conquered East Prussia. Its newly acquired string of satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe, organized on the Soviet model, paralleled the more successful East Asian single-party regimes—Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea— constructed at the same time by the United States. Because it had now emerged as a predominately urban country, its development model likewise proved attractive to many emerging states of the Third World, especially those ruled by native revolutionary movements (Yugoslavia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam). The Soviet Union also supported non-Communist clients in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Soviet leaders attempted to develop a socialist division of labor within its sphere of influence, although in practice, exchanges often amounted to colonialist underdevelopment (as in cotton-growing Uzbekistan) and transfers of military technology.

Nevertheless, the realities of being an empire in the twentieth century weighed upon the Soviet Union to a much greater degree than its leaders or totalitarian theorists realized. Its success during the Cold War was largely conjunctural—a product of the temporary vacuum created by the wartime destruction in Europe and Japan. The Soviet “command-administrative” system proved incapable of long-term competition with Western and Asian economies under the conditions of “peaceful coexistence” promoted by Stalin’s successors. The stagnation of “socialist development,” partial cultural liberalization, the exposing of Stalinist crimes, and increased contacts with the outside world had the effect of demoralizing Soviet elites and undermining revolutionary legitimacy. By the mid- 1980s, military overextension and economic contraction convinced sections of the governing elite that the empire had become prohibitively expensive.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the nation from 1985 to 1991, an attempt at structural reform (perestroika), intended to regenerate economic growth, end the Cold War, and restore faith in the Soviet system instead fully exposed the incompatibility of socialism and empire and transformed the USSR’s composition as a union of nominally sovereign republics into a liability. Gorbachev’s refusal to prop up and subsidize the unpopular Communist governments in Eastern Europe resulted in the revolutions of 1989, which, together with the erosion of Party power and economic chaos in the Soviet Union itself, prompted the rise of powerful secessionist movements in the individual republics, including the Russian Federation itself. In 1991, the new republican presidents dissolved the Union, but the collapse of the Soviet Empire was not welcome everywhere, and, by 2004, new imperial rumblings were evident.


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