Russia’s long imperial moment

  • Themes: Russia

Vladimir Putin is driven by an imperial ideology centuries in the making.

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov's painting, Conquest of Siberia.
Vasily Ivanovich Surikov's painting, Conquest of Siberia. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an imperial war fought to retain a province that had been absorbed centuries ago and which many, perhaps a majority of Russians, believe to be an integral part of their nation. The attachment is geographical and emotional. One is reminded of François Mitterrand’s declaration at the onset of the Algerian war in 1954: ‘Algeria is France and who among you… would hesitate to employ every means to preserve France.’  Replace Algeria with Ukraine and France with Russia and you have the mindset of Vladimir Putin.

According to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s ‘chief advisors’ are ‘Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great’. All waged wars and struck diplomatic bargains to enlarge Russia and, in the process, created a formidable empire, which, after 1815, included a large swathe of Poland. Appropriately, the logo for Lavrov’s ministry is the crowned double-headed eagle of the tsars, who were the successors in ambition and acquisitive spirit to the Byzantine emperors.

Russia’s imperialists were also driven by religious fervour. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Russia assumed the role of defender of Christianity’s frontline in Europe. In 2009 and 2016 Putin reminded the world of his country’s support for the region’s Orthodox churches by making pilgrimages to Mount Athos. He represents a country that believes itself sanctified: recently, Patriarch Kirill told the Ukrainians that they were ‘part of the holy united Rus’.

There were also pragmatic and selfish reasons for fighting wars against Turkey. Territory detached from the Ottoman Empire enlarged Russia and strengthened her grip on the Black Sea. The ultimate prize was always the occupation of the straits and Constantinople. Their possession would provide a warm sea route to the Mediterranean for Russian exports and imports, a capacity to challenge the Royal Navy, and opportunities for securing friends and influence in the Near East.

Russia’s regional ambitions were anathema to Britain. After 1815 it regarded the Mediterranean as her lake and the Ottoman Empire as a moribund polity that needed urgent repairs and protection. If it fell apart, strategic routes to India would be imperilled. Turkey had to be protected at any cost. In 1854 Britain and France fought a two-year war to destroy the key Russian base at Sebastopol and force Russia to remove her warships from the Black Sea. In 1878 Britain was prepared to fight Russia again after her forces had reached the northern shores of the straits in sight of Constantinople. A peace was made which denied Russia her prize.

St Petersburg never gave up. In June 1914, Russian diplomats saw the Sarajevo crisis as a chance to make another bid for Constantinople. After the war had broken out, Britain agreed that the city and the straits would be delivered to Russia in the event of the defeat of the Central Powers. The 1917 Revolution nullified this pledge.

‘Slavic honour’ had been one public reason for Russia going to war in 1914. It was a prime ingredient in Pan Slavism, a 19th-century ideology, which insisted that all the Slavic peoples are a brotherhood bonded by race, culture and language. This kinship was deeply felt: ‘Slavic honour and the Slavs’ were claimed as Russia’s reasons for coming to Serbia’s aid in 1914. When he visited Serbia in 2019, Putin praised ‘friendly, brotherly’ Serbia, a nation upon which Russia could ‘rely’ upon to thwart the aggressive meddling of the West.

Annexing territory and establishing spheres of influence in Europe was always a risky business for Russian statesmen and strategists, for it invited opposition from two other imperial powers: Britain and Austria. A safer path lay eastwards into Central Asia and towards the frontier with China. It was taken at the close of the 18th century, and would be followed into the next. Tolstoy, who briefly fought in one of the many wars of conquest, summed them up as ‘destroying the predatory and turbulent Asiatics’. Their descendants became Russian subjects and learned Russian as the language of obedience. Resistance was fiercest in Chechnya, which was among the first regions to break free of the imploding Russia in the 1990s. It was brought to heel by Putin in a campaign that would later be matched in sheer ferocity by the invasion of Ukraine.

The Trans Siberian Railway, constructed in the 1890s, presented a welcome opportunity to extend Russia’s land empire to the Far East at the expense of China’s fragile Qing empire. Manchuria was the goal, with its minerals and fertile land for Russian immigrants to grow food under the protection of Cossack garrisons. The Manchurian gambit failed with Russia’s defeat by another land-hungry power, Japan, in 1905. Japan’s surrender in 1945 triggered Stalin’s seizure of Manchuria. Yet, Russia was soon gone. In 1949 Stalin delivered Manchuria back to China in the mistaken belief that Mao’s new Communist regime would become a submissive ally in the Cold War. Ideological affinities outweighed imperial instincts.

Since the 1917 Revolution and the implosion of the tsarist imperium, the Soviet Union did all in its power to preserve and defend its predecessor’s gain. The Red Army fought to restore control of Central Asia during the Civil War. Poland was lost in 1918, was partially regained in 1940, and fully so in 1945. Finland, which had seceded in 1918, was also invaded in 1940 with limited success. Soviet wartime victory allowed it to create a cordon sanitaire of eastern European nations, which by 1990 had broken free of an imploding Russia.

Ukraine followed, a step too far for Putin, who had seen the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union as a national calamity. The great Russia of the tsars he so much admired was crumbling along with its pride and prestige. As his troops prepared to invade this wayward province he declared it ‘an inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space’. The empire was at last striking back.


Lawrence James