Outside in, inside out: Russia as an empire on the periphery

Although comparisons between the fall of the USSR and other empires may be useful to a degree, they will eventually fall flat.

An English map of the Russian empire, 1562.
An English map of the Russian empire, 1562. Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Russia as empire and periphery’ in ‘On Russia: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess‘, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2008.

For many years my main guide to understanding Russian history has been a conception of Russia as both empire and periphery. I have spent much of my time either looking at Russia in terms of empire and periphery or of comparing Russia with other imperial and peripheral polities.

Empire is a simple enough idea. It implies enormous power, as well as a state ruling over wide territories and many peoples. Empire to me also implies the antithesis of popular sovereignty and nationalism, which are the two dominant ideologies of the contemporary world. Periphery means that Russia was on the edge of Europe and more broadly of Western civilisation, in terms both of power and values. Its elites often disagreed among themselves as regards whether Russia belonged to ‘the West’ or alternatively was a world unto itself. Much of modern Russian history was driven by the Russian state’s determination to compete with the ‘Western’ great powers. Historically this determination was owed above all to considerations of security and power but worries about Russia’s identity and status also played a role.

Obviously empire and periphery do not explain everything in Russian history. The core elements in Russian identity derive from the era before Russia became an empire and before Europe’s rise to global dominion made the concept of periphery useful. These elements include the natural environment – in other words the soil, climate and vast Eurasian forests and steppe in which Russian society grew up. They include too the Orthodox church, not only as regards its dogmas and practices but also the way in which Orthodoxy marked the Russians off from all their neighbours – Latin Christian, Muslim and pagan. Finally there was the monarchy, closer to Europe than to imperial monarchy in China or the Islamic world but nevertheless distinct in crucial ways from European traditions of feudalism with all that meant in terms of representative institutions and conceptions of rights and contract.

Just to list these three key elements in traditional Russian identity is to underline how much changed in 1917. Not only were the monarchy and church totally excluded from the new Russian identity which was to be rooted in successful socialist modernity. So too was the peasantry, which for so many pre-revolutionary populists had been the essence of Russia and the target for their loyalty. Of all the empire’s ethnic communities, the first to be deported en masse in Soviet times were the Cossacks, who formed another strand of the Russian identity. It is probably true to say that the Soviet regime uprooted more elements of traditional Russian identity than was the case with most of the non-Russian minorities. There was of course good reason for this. It was crucial for Soviet rulers to transform the loyalties and mentalities of the core ethnic group in their polity.

In time, some elements of the old Russia crept back into the Soviet canon, albeit in modified form. Mass literacy and the cultural counter-revolution of the 1930s made Pushkin a common bond for all Russians. Though the Romanov monarchy of the pre-revolutionary decades and the Soviet regime were based on very different conceptions, both rejected Western democracy. Some of the old attitude to vlast’ was not just preserved but even strengthened under Soviet rule. So too were ideas about Russia as a great power but also a polity under constant threat. The USSR inherited the same neighbours and many of the same geopolitical imperatives as the Romanovs. But the monarchy and its elites had seen themselves as part of the European Concert of Great Powers. With Bolshevism arrived a view that saw international relations as a zero-sum game between capitalism and socialism with Russia’s role being to end history by leading a great world movement to the triumph of communism. Even more than was the case with the monarchy, the Soviet Union’s power and goals were truly imperial in their scale.

To be a first-class power and an empire the Russian state required a formidable ability to mobilise resources from a population that was usually poorer and always much more scattered than was the case with its competitors. In the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, when tsarist foreign policy was most successful, the keys to Russian power were serfdom and the westernisation of Russia’s elites. Comparisons with the Ottoman empire are useful in this context. Like the Romanovs, the Ottomans ruled an empire on Europe’s periphery which in the eighteenth century faced the challenge of Europe’s growing power. Unlike the Romanovs, however, the Ottomans failed to create a European-style infantry army and the fiscal and administrative base on which such an army had to rest. To a considerable extent this failure was owed to its inability to discipline or westernise the empire’s elites. The price of failure was high, ultimately entailing the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from most of the empire’s northern borderlands (the Balkans and Caucasus) and European domination and even colonisation of part of the Muslim community’s heartlands. But for Russian society the price of tsarism’s success was also high. It included the revolution of 1917 which was fuelled to a great degree by hatred of a highly repressive and ruthless state run by an elite which was widely perceived as not just exploitative but also culturally alien by the Russian masses.

The success or failure of Russian foreign policy also, however, depended greatly on the international context in any given era. Russia’s advance in 1700–1815 owed much to the fact that of the five great powers, she was the only one that lacked a permanent, inveterate enemy and could therefore play her rivals off against each other. In the nineteenth century this changed, much to Russia’s disadvantage. The British and French ganged up to defeat Russia in the Crimean War of 1854–6. Prussia and Austria, age-old rivals, began the consolidation of a Germanic bloc in Central Europe in 1879. For the next century international politics in large part revolved around a struggle between three blocs which were united by geopolitical interests and ideology, but also to an extent by ethnicity. At huge cost Russia defeated the Germanic bloc in 1945. She then shattered herself in a struggle for global dominion with the Anglo-American bloc that formed the core and defined the meaning of the ‘West’.

The victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917-21 owed much to the international context. In peace-time the other European powers would never have permitted Russia to set itself up as the headquarters of international socialist revolution and repudiate its vast international debt. Only in the context of a European war which exhausted the other powers and set them at each other’s throats could the Bolshevik revolution have survived. Lenin recognised this. His theory of imperialism argued that the capitalist powers were doomed to fight each other for markets and cheap resources, and that socialism would triumph as a result. When the Second World War resulted in first eastern Europe and then China falling to communism the theory looked good. Subsequently, however, it was invalidated when the entire capitalist world united under American leadership and the international communist movement split between Russia and China, putting a huge additional strain on Soviet military and economic resources.

During the last years of the USSR I tended to explain contemporary events as following the pattern established by previous cycles of modernisation launched from above by the state and designed to ensure Russia’s survival as a great power in a harshly competitive and Western-dominated world. The first such cycle, which I called ‘catching up with Louis XIV’, was the struggle to become a European great military-fiscal power. Alexander I’s defeat of Napoleon signalled success in this venture but was overtaken by the impact of the industrial revolution, which by the mid-nineteenth century was transforming the European balance of power. In the Crimean war of 1854–6 Russia fought with the technology of the pre-industrial era whereas her enemies used rifled weapons, railways, steamships and the telegraph.

Alexander II therefore launched the second great cycle of modernisation in order to ensure that Russia survived as a great power in the industrial era. This second cycle spanned the revolution of 1917. Stalin’s defeat of Germany signalled Russian success (above all in the crude terms that meant survival and mattered most to ruling elites) in this second wave. Once again, however, the global capitalist economy played tricks on victorious Russia, moving into the post-industrial era by the 1970s and threatening the Soviet Union with backwardness, humiliation and insecurity if it failed to catch up. Here lay the most basic reason for Perestroika.

The parallels between Gorbachev and Alexander II worked because both operated in eras when liberal ideas were in the ascendant. In the time of both Gladstone and Reagan, liberal capitalism and liberal politics seemed the route to successful, and therefore powerful, modernity. To anyone with any knowledge of the dilemmas faced by Alexander II it was not hard to predict many of Gorbachev’s problems. An authoritarian, multi-national, imperial polity sustained by force and inertia risked many dangers as it introduced liberal reforms. The Soviet elite’s ignorance about pre-revolutionary Russian history made them much more blind to these dangers than ought to have been the case.

Not everything that has happened in Russia since 1991 can be explained as a legacy of empire. Globalisation has many enemies even in societies whose wealth, institutions and history provide some defences against it. Between 1914 and 1945 these enemies triumphed almost everywhere in Europe as the first wave of liberal globalisation disintegrated. In the second wave of globalisation, Russia in the 1990s faced a liberal-capitalist hurricane without any effective defences— legal, welfare or psychological.

The impact of empire’s loss came on top of this. To put the collapse of the USSR into a British context one would have to imagine the British empire disintegrating overnight in the 1930s when it had already lost part of its shine but was nevertheless still regarded by most British people as both part of nature and fundamentally benign. To empire’s collapse one would have to add the secession of Scotland (Ukraine) and Wales (Belarus), and the overthrow of the monarchy and the parliamentary system of government. An economic depression worse than the 1930s would also have to be taken into account. Even the phlegmatic English of that era would have got excited by this combination. In many ways what surprises me is how relatively limited the Russian backlash has been thus far. The population’s current acceptance of stable authoritarian rule therefore comes as no surprise. Given Russian history, it is also not at all surprising that many symbols and arguments can be mobilised by nationalist elites committed to restoring an authoritarian system of rule and re-asserting Russian pride and influence.

Comparison with the end of empire elsewhere does help to put contemporary Russian problems in perspective. It is easier in all respects to shed an overseas empire than a contiguous land one. The British, French and Dutch had empires: the Russians, Austrians and Turks were empires. Not just geography but also British constitutional tradition made a sharp distinction between the United Kingdom and even the white overseas colonies. It is true that in both the British and French empires grey areas existed. Ireland and Algeria were in many ways quintessential colonies but were in institutional and legal terms part of the metropolis. That helps to explain why dealing with these two territories proved far more painful than shedding overseas colonies. In the French case, for example, the escape from Algeria brought with it the fall of the Fourth Republic and even briefly the possibility of a military putsch in the metropolis.

In some respects the distinction between shedding overseas and contiguous territories is simple. Ever since the British left Burma, for instance, a civil war of varying degrees of intensity has continued in parts of that country. Since Burma is rather far from Kent, however, this has not impinged on the British. Only now, because of post-imperial immigration, is the disintegration of Pakistan becoming almost the main threat to the domestic security of the British population. Inevitably it is far more difficult for the former imperial metropole to escape the consequences of chaos in its ex-colonies if they are its neighbours. That for instance applies to Chechnya, which since 1991 has been a base for terrorist activity in Russia and a source of potential chaos throughout the north Caucasus.

It is true that one reason why this has been the case is the brutal and ham-fisted response of Moscow to Chechen resistance. Again, this should surprise no one familiar with counter-insurgency operations in the last years of the British and French empires. Algeria or the savage British tactics used to suppress the Mau-Mau in Kenya are cases in point. Partly because they occurred outside Europe, British and French counter-insurgencies were subject to less criticism by European public opinion and institutions. Memories can also be conveniently short, however. The French high-jacked an international flight in order to catch the Algerian leader, Ben Bella. Together the British and French staged the Suez operation in 1956 in order to prop up their crumbling hegemony in the Middle East.

When the British, French, Spanish and Dutch lost their overseas empires they became, as states, of very limited international significance. The collapse of international communism and of the USSR also greatly reduced Russia’s power. But the Russians did hang on to the jewel in their imperial crown, namely Siberia. With oil and gas prices seemingly set to remain very high, this means that unlike the other former empires Russia remains potentially a great power, though not a superpower.

Empire, however, always entails burdens as well as resources. Part of the logic of de-colonisation was to shed these burdens. Harold Wilson could declare that henceforth Britain would play no security role east of Suez. Given its possession of Siberia and the Maritime Region no Russian leader could unilaterally cut defence commitments in this way. In the twenty-first century the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be much more dynamic but also much more unstable than Europe. Russia has a huge frontier with China and a tiny and declining population in Siberia and the Far East. Anyone familiar with past Australian paranoia about the Asian demographic ‘threat’ can easily imagine Russian concerns about growing Chinese power on the other side of a land frontier.

The Austrian comparison provides some insights into contemporary Russian dilemmas, possibilities and temptations. Constructing a post-imperial Austrian identity after 1918 was much more difficult than re-building a Russian identity after 1991. All Russians lived in one state for many centuries before 1991. No one doubts that Pushkin was a Russian. Was Mozart an Austrian and what did being an Austrian mean anyway before 1918? It might mean identification with the House of Austria (ie the Habsburgs) and their empire. It might entail loyalty to one’s province or to German Catholicism. The one thing it was very unlikely to entail was identification with all the ethnic German populations of the Austrian empire. In any case, the victorious allies did not allow all these peoples to join post-imperial Austria. Self-determination was denied to the Sudeten Germans, who were incorporated into Czechoslovakia against their will. Given the choice, the people of the Voralburg would probably have opted to join Switzerland. The over-riding priority for the Tyroleans seems to have been to keep their province together. To achieve this, very many Germans from North Tyrol preferred even to be incorporated into despised Italy. Meanwhile most of the population of the core Austrian provinces wanted to join Germany but were forbidden to do so.

At least as important, many Austrian-Germans did not accept the hegemony of liberal democracy and liberal capitalism even after the defeat of Austria and Germany in 1918 and the collapse of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern empires. Before 1914 the Germans of Central Europe had created what was in many ways the world’s most dynamic economy and culture. They had the world’s best universities and its most advanced social welfare systems. The capitalism they offered to the world was more corporatist and less individualist than its Anglo-American equivalent. Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yu’s Asian capitalism before its time, presided over by still semi-authoritarian states (the Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies) which denied the principle of popular sovereignty. The Germans also led the international socialist movement, itself collectivist and democratic but by no means necessarily liberal. In 1914 it was perfectly possible to believe that the twentieth-century in Europe would belong to the Germans. This Germanic version of modernity was not out-competed by the Franco-Anglo-Americans but defeated in war. When liberal capitalism self-destructed in 1929 it is not surprising that German Central Europe was attracted to indigenous alternatives.

Nor did Germans need to believe that the current geopolitical realities which buttressed liberal democracy and liberal capitalism after 1918 were immutable. On the contrary it was only too easy to see the fragility of the Versailles order. The basic point was that in the twentieth century only the Russians or the Germans had the resources – economic and demographic – to dominate Europe. In 1917–8, 1945, and 1988–91 the decline of one was necessarily accompanied by the rise of the other. The two world wars in Europe were more than anything else struggles between Germany and Russia to defeat their great rival and thereby dominate central Europe. This would inevitably endow them with control over resources on such a scale that they would be hegemons over the whole continent, unless an outside power (ie the Americans) stepped in to stop them.

In a way that no one could have predicted, the First World War ended with the defeat of both Russia and Germany. The Versailles order was constructed against both countries. This virtually doomed it from the start, unless the Americans had been willing to provide a permanent military guarantee of this settlement in peacetime. In their absence it was not possible to sustain a European order to which neither of the continent’s most powerful polities was committed. This was particularly true since the British were simultaneously attempting to maintain a global empire on (relatively speaking) shrinking resources. France alone could never uphold the Versailles order. It was always likely that some version of German hegemony would re-emerge in central Europe though it did not necessarily need to take the form of Hitler’s version of empire.

As is often the case, comparisons challenge assumptions and open up unexpected perspectives but they seldom provide answers to contemporary dilemmas. Contexts change, societies differ and contingency matters hugely. Judged by the fall of previous empires we should have expected much worse trouble than has actually occurred since 1991. If, for example, one thinks of the roles of the Protestants in Northern Ireland or of the Pieds Noirs one might have predicted far greater problems from the 25 million Russians in the non-Russian former republics of the USSR than have actually occurred. The decline and fall of the British Empire occurred over three generations and its British elites were strongly influenced by Whig assumptions about legality, political compromise and consent. It nevertheless bequeathed to the world the Indian-Pakistani confrontation, Israel’s conflict with the Arab world and many lesser problems. The decline and fall of the Austrian empire was a key cause of two world wars, since Russia and Germany fought to control the territory it covered. Again, by these standards, the impact on international relations of the Soviet Union’s collapse has thus far been relatively benign. Of course, the words ‘thus far’ are to the point: the results of empire’s fall can take decades to come to full fruition.

To a great extent, now as in the past, Russia’s fate will depend on the international context. That context is very different now to what it was in previous eras, not least because the existence of nuclear weapons makes it immensely dangerous to press quarrels between great powers to the extreme of war. In general, however, it seems to me that if the United States and its allies continue to be the richest and most powerful countries in the world and if their version of liberal capitalism remains dominant then the chances are that ultimately this model will prevail in Russia too. Having wrecked itself in one attempt to lead the world under the banner of a Russian version of socialism, it is hard to imagine any other home-grown ideology generating anything like the dynamism of Nazism. In any case, Russia will remain too weak itself to lead an attack on the West, though it might exploit and even join such an assault if led by other powers. As Admiral Mahan put things rather prematurely in 1899, the key to the future is likely to be whether ‘the West’ converts the Asian middle classes to its values.

My interpretation of Russian history as the tale of empire and periphery is therefore a misleading way to think about the country’s future fate. In the first place, Russia is no longer powerful enough to be counted as a true empire. In the second, the international system may be reverting to a traditional pattern of Asian equality or even pre-eminence vis-à-vis the West. Therefore the two factors which in my opinion have determined much of modern Russian history have lost much of their force. To imagine where Russia might fit into the future global system requires an understanding of her history and of the instincts, hopes and resentments it has encouraged. But it would be foolish to imagine that patterns of behaviour evident during the last three hundred years of Western hegemony will necessarily be replicated in a very different global context. And this is before one adds in the possible implications of ecological crisis.


Dominic Lieven