Daily Archives: January 15, 2015


The Russian Empire

I am working very hard on getting Sikunder Burnes into shape for publication. Just ten weeks left to achieve that. Still hacking a lot of draft material out of the text. This passage on the Russian Empire was written before the tragic events in Ukraine.

I still reckon the solution for Ukraine is a series of internationally supervised referenda, in the Eastern districts and also in Crimea, with UN peacekeepers in charge of security. Putin needs a ladder to climb down. For the West to base its position solely on the sanctity of arbitrary borders is unimaginative and fruitless.

I would point out that what follows was a draft, not finished writing:

British people, myself included, have to concentrate their intellectual resources to get a clear conceptualisation of the Russian Empire, which can be obscured from our view by a number of factors.

Firstly, from British history and geography, we British tend to think of colonies as something reached exclusively by ship. The idea that colonies can be a contiguous land mass with the metropolitan is not a pre-received idea for us. Russia’s absorption of the entirely alien cultures of vast areas of Asia was undoubtedly a massive colonial expansion. In Central Asia today, political societal and economic developments can only be understood as a post-colonial situation. Crucially, the broad mass of people are themselves entirely of the view that they are former colonised.1. But I found in the FCO a great many western and particularly British officials had much trouble with the concept.

Secondly, the transmutation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union confused the issue, in bringing a spurious equality to the different Soviet Socialist Republics. In particular, this brought members of the political elite from the Asian areas within reach of holding political power at the centre. But that is not at all unusual for the history of Empires in general, particularly as they mature. The economic relationships within the Soviet Union, with the Asian regions very much operating as suppliers of raw commodity or goods with little value added, followed a well-worn colonial pattern even if operated by central planning rather than overt capitalism. But many did not realise the Soviet Union in itself was an Empire incorporating colonial structures.

Thirdly, particularly for those brought up like myself during the Cold War, the Russians were distant and feared figures and not perceived as altogether European. In fact, the Russian conquest of the the North and heart of Asia was a major part of a complete encirclement of Asia by Europeans from the late eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. This included the occupation by United States Europeans of the American Pacific Rim, and of Australia, New Zealand, East Africa, much of South East Asia and India by the British and occasionally others. Russian and British expansion into Asia were part of the exact same process, except the British often did not see it:

A long liberal tradition took a sceptical view of Russia’s European credentials, seeing Tsarist Russia as as “Asiatic despotism” too crude and too poor to be “one of us”…A more realistic view would see Russia, like Spain or the Hapsburg Empire, as one of the frontier states that played a vanguard role in Europe’s expansion…behind Russia’s expansion was in fact its European identity…the economic energy that flowed from Russia’s integration into the European economy; and the intellectual access that Russians enjoyed, from the sixteenth century onward, to the general pool of European ideas and culture. Russians, like other Europeans, claimed their conquests as a “civilizing mission.”2

Britain’s claim that Russia was excluded from the “civilizing mission” of Empire because it was a despotism, when British officials were arbitrarily blowing Indians from the muzzles of cannon while practising unabashed despotism, is something those of my age were educated not to question. The notion that the culture of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tchaikovsky is not European is self-evidently wrong. I found that walking around the 19th century Russian cantonments of Margilan in the Ferghana Valley, with its beautiful little theatre for amateur dramatics, its racecourse and mess hall, the architecture could have been a British hill station. It even has its Freemasons’ Lodge.

So Russia and Britain were expanding their colonial possessions in Asia, and their boundaries were pushing ever closer.

The Russophobes therefore were not talking absolute nonsense. Nobody knew how far North-west the British might push and how far South-east the Russians. Nor was it physically impossible for a Russian army to invade India through Afghanistan or Persia. Alexander, Mahmood, Tamerlane, Babur, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah had all done that. The logistics were difficult, but not impossible. The British were very aware that historically India was vulnerable to attack from the North West. In the marvellous prose of an end of Empire administrator, Kerr Fraser-Tytler:

“For upwards of 2,000 years the tide of conquest rose and fell, pouring in great cascades over the breakwater of these most vital mountains, seeping through the passes, or flowing round the exposed Western flank, to surge onwards to the south where it spread out, stayed and finally was absorbed in the great open spaces of India.”3

Where the Russophobes got it seriously wrong was their political analysis. A successful Russian invasion of India would have taken enormous resources and been a massive strain on the Russian state, and would certainly have precipitated a major European war. Russia’s economy was still recovering from Napoleonic devastation. Her foreign policy priorities were focused on the richer and more central lands of the Mediterranean and Caspian. Russia’s desire to divest Persia and Ottoman Turkey of vast provinces and to become a Mediterranean power was the consuming passion of the Tsar’s ministers, and Nesselrode in particular. Bringing Central Asia into play may occasionally be a useful bargaining chip with Britain, but was never more than that.

It is a peculiar fact that for two hundred years, fear of an attack by Russia has been a major factor in British foreign and above all defence policy, and was for much of my lifetime the factor that outweighed all others. Vast sums of the nation’s money have been squandered on guarding against this illusory threat, and that is still the unacknowledged purpose of the ruinously expensive and entirely redundant Trident missile system today. Yet on any rational analysis, Russia has never had any incentive to attack the United Kingdom, and historical research has never uncovered even a remote Russian intention actually to attack the United Kingdom. However an awful lot of arms manufacturers have become exceedingly wealthy, as have an awful lot of politicians, while the military have had enhanced careers.

View with comments