The Russian Empire 171


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.


171 thoughts on “The Russian Empire

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  • Uzbek in the UK

    “A successful Russian invasion of India would have taken enormous resources and been a massive strain on the Russian state,”

    Had it ever stopped whoever in Kremlin/Winter Palace from acting? Russian eastwards expansion during Ivan, westwards during Peter, Napoleonic Wars, WWI, WWII have all put enormous financial and human burden on Russians. But at the end success (WWI would have also been if Lenin did not negotiate peace with Germans).

    Never, even underestimate Russians. What Europeans often think as constrain Russians think as necessary sacrifice in the name of Mother Russia. The idea of great Russian empire runs still deep in the blood of every Russians and they are prepared to sacrifice their freedom and well being to materialise this idea.

    You might be right that Russians did not have idea of conquering Britain (at that time) but they certainly had an idea (and even materialised it after 1945) to be European hegemon, by which they had to submit eastern and central Europe to their will. What Stalin did in 1945 was long time on the agenda on whoever was in Winter Palace and even after that both Lenin and Trotsky were keen to spread Communism (Russian hegemony) over Europe.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    You would not expect British to seat and wait until Russian imperial flag was waiving over Berlin (which it eventually did) and act only after they see Russian troops over the English Channel. Mind you that Russians still remember that Crimea was once part of their vast empire but completely forgotten that Kaliningrad was once birthplace of once greatest German philosopher and like Crimea was cleared off natives and inhabited by dominants.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Craig

    As that is a draft, perhaps you might take on board suggestions?

    “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.”

    1/. “this illusory threat”. That is a retrospective judgement/finding which can only be made with hindsight. You might want to make that clear(er).

    Moreover, one could claim that the threat remained illusory precisely because the US and Western Europe preserved a string military capacity to safeguard against the illusion becoming, in fact, reality.

    2/. (I see that Uzhbek has taken up this point as well). “Russian intention actually to attack the United Kingdom”. Nobody would claim that the Russian (Soviet) intention would have been to attack only the UK; we are talking, surely, of a possible European attack against Western Europe, including the UK?

    On that context, it is a fact that Soviet war plans existed to this effect, just as NATO devised counter-attack plans.

    And, going further back, is it not a fact that Russian troops (non-mechanised at the time and with primitive resources by today’s standards) got as far as Switzerland and paraded in Paris?

  • Uzbek in the UK

    And also, history proved that Russian imperial planning and administration long over lived British and other European. Where are all those great European empires? But Russia is still world’s largest nation where Russians and still quantitative and qualitative majority. Russian is the first language for all Russians (even those who are not of Russian ethnical origin) which helps Kremlin to disseminate its currently distractive propaganda, most of them (including Chechens) will die for mother Russia if necessary and most of them have long forgotten that their grandparents were executed in long running campaigns of russification and then sovetisation.

    Russia is more multiethical than any European nation and yet when it comes to the policy all this multiethnicity disappears and Russians stay behind their leader. Even when it comes at great cost to one or another Russian ethnic minority.

  • Doug Allanson

    I have read several biographies of Stalin, and several books analysing the causes of the cold war. I am yet to be totally convinced of the theory often stated by radicals that fears of Russian attempts to dominate Europe/the world after the war were illusory.

    Years ago I read a lot of Lenin and other Leninist texts. It was fundamental to Marxist-Leninism that communism’s success or failure was predicated on whether or not it was international, and in 1947 Stalin activated Cominform, whose objective was to support communist parties in Western Europe.

    I conjecture there may well have been on the one hand a kind of political realism on Stalin’s part and that most of his European motivation was defensive, but on the other hand, a kind of ‘you never know your luck’ idea that propogating communism internationally was the ideal, and in any case it would annoy the Americans.

  • fool

    I hope you persuade your publishers to include maps in your book and space for a chapter on freemasonry in various parts of Central Asia and its varied forms.

    If you come across anything on the apparently somewhat unconventional lodges formed by G I Gurdjieff prior to the revolution in St Petersberg I would be interested to know – although I appreciate this is not your period of interest. 1908 article on freemasonry in Russia here: http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/ruspol.html

    When you consider how little interest, knowledge or understanding we have of the history of Central Asia it is perhaps not surprising that we default into assuming Russia to have been a homogenous land mass. For example we have traditionally ignored the history of Christianity in its first millennia save in regard to its move West into Europe. We assume that the Roman Empire’s version of Christianity, with Eastern Orthodox and Protestant variations are the full extent of Christianity, but entirely forget how another apparently quite different model flourished in Central Asia and even in China.

    Your concluding point is what some Russians have told me.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    “Moreover, one could claim that the threat remained illusory precisely because the US and Western Europe preserved a string military capacity to safeguard against the illusion becoming, in fact, reality.”

    Exactly what I think. Russians did not go further (although they have gone very far) only because they felt that they will sacrifice more what they were prepared to if they move further. Kremlin archive (which was made public shortly during Eltcin) contain a paper when at the meeting with general staff Stalin looked at the map of Eurasia and noted his disappointment with how far Russians have moved. He wanted more of Japan, more of China and more of Europe (Austria, whole of Berlin, Greece). Blockade of Berlin is one of the proofs of how much Russians wanted to move forwards deeper and deeper into Europe. Accidentally current Kremlin’s inhabitant Vlad the Great started his supergrass career as the middle ranking officer in east Germany. Promoted to the colonel (no doubt for his ability to convert east Germans into informers) he has returned to mother Russia and witnessed what (he then called) the greatest catastrophe of XX century.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    “on Stalin’s part and that most of his European motivation was defensive”

    Tell this joke to 20.000 Polls who were shot dead at the back of their head. How far one need/prepared to go for defensive motivations? What bloody uncle Joe wanted was Communism all over Eurasia and then further and further (Latin America and Africa). NKVD has establish wide and sophisticated network all over the world, one that helped Russians to steal atomic bomb from Manhattan project. Right under those stupid CIA noses.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Fool

    It is very true that there is very little knowledge of history of Central Asia in the west. But how surprised you might be to realise that there is even less of it in Central Asia itself. Promotion of Tamerlane into national hero in Uzbekistan is one of the ironies (since he was the one who killed more locals than Genghis Khan did).

    During and after October revolution most of the archives have been destroyed and considering that it was very little written history in the first place, Central Asia lost most if not all of its history. Sovetisation was the most brutal in Central Asia since it was there where communists met the greatest challenge (traditions and Islam) which had to be destroyed.

  • jjb

    Uzbek,

    Stalin was Stalin, nor Russia. It has been long time since Russia did any expanding, while USA has not stoped. TEurope, and specially the UK, are part integral of the USA empire. The meddling in the Ukraine are part of the empire expansion. That Mr Murray seems unable to see that, though

  • Uzbek in the UK

    jjb

    “It has been long time since Russia did any expanding”

    Really? Have you not been watching any news in the last 11 months? Ooo please, I have forgotten, Crimea was Russian to start with and its people voted largely to join Russia. Right?

    I say give Russians a chance and you will see. It will be matter of time before you (or your children) will start speaking Russian, because this is the only true lingua franca.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    jjb

    “The meddling in the Ukraine are part of the empire expansion”

    Somehow I feel that you are trying to turn small fly into an elephant and at the same time turn blind eye onto another side. Meddling in Ukraine? What do you call meddling. Providing arms and sending disguised troops from Russia into Ukraine? Paying good money to impoverished women and elderly, so that they can stop Ukrainian army vehicles?

    Or do you believe what RT say and claim that meddling can occur only from US?

  • Dave

    Uzbek in the [email protected]:26 am
    “NKVD has establish wide and sophisticated network all over the world, one that helped Russians to steal atomic bomb from Manhattan project. Right under those stupid CIA noses.”

    You really don’t know what you are talking about do you. The CIA was not invented when the atomic bomb secrets were given to the Russians . Trust me I do know a little about the true history of the major atomic spy involved . as I worked at H.H.Wills Physics Lab Bristol University if that means anything to you. I have given you a clue, do your research.

  • OldMark

    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.

    Good points Craig; the West’s position on the sanctity of borders is also hypocritical. UNSC resolution 1244 on Kosovo only mandated the granting of ‘substantial autonomy’ to that province, and not the subsequent creation of the ‘independent state’ which was hypocritically ‘recognised’ in 2008 by most NATO members.

  • Abe Rene

    Good luck with the book.
    Proof-reading comments:
    Omit “pre-” before “received”
    colonised.1. -> colonies.1.
    it: -> it.

    In general, apart from shortening the passage and making the language as simple and readable as possible (cf. “Plain words” by Gowers and Gowers, ISBN 0141975539), you may want to concentrate more on Burnes’ own outlook.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Dave

    You might have noticed that I still call Vlad KGB spy and Russia KGB state, although KGB was officially dissolved in 1991. Does it make much difference which of the 3 letters words the organisation is called?

    The salt here is whether or not sophisticated spy network established by soviets helped them to get hold of atomic bomb secrets and to produce successful test in 1949.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Miss Castello

    By the time Russians have infrastructure to deliver gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine, Vlad the Gas Baron might become late Russian president or might even be called dictator. Or Europe might well find another sources and Russians might finally complete gasification of whole Russia (something promised by Lenin and still undelivered).

  • Uzbek in the UK

    OldMark

    can I please bother you on your views on the Chechnya, Tibet and Xinjiang? Can their long cried and well deserved referendum be also supervised by UN?

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    In the hope of helping your book if you still have much about this in it, I would add more about complaints, especially by Henry Brougham, about Britain trying to contain France without appreciating what Russia, the Dual Monarchy, and Prussia were attempting and achieving, from the time of Revolutionary France to the Anglo-Franco Crimean War.

  • Iain Orr

    Chekhov knew at first hand about Russian colonialism, not least from his investigatory visit to the prison regime on Sakhalin Island (see his “Ostrov Sakhalin”). He travelled via Hong Kong, from where he recorded this comparison:

    “The bay is wonderful: the sea traffic is such as I haven’t seen the like of even in pictures; there are splendid roads, horse-drawn streetcars, a railway going up the mountain, museums, botanical gardens; no matter where you look you see the Englishmen’s tender solicitude for the men in their service; there is even a club for sailors. I…waxed indignant as I listened to my Russian fellow travellers upbraiding the English for their exploitation of the natives. Yes, thought I, the Englishmen exploits Chinese, sepoys, Hindus, but then he gives them roads, aqueducts, museums, Christianity; you too exploit, but what do you give?
    Anton Chekhov Letter to AS Suvorin 9 December 1890

  • Calgacus

    Looking forward to reading your new book Craig.

    IMHO Russia and China help to counterbalance the globalist tendencies of our elites in the west.

    Vive la difference

  • Evgueni

    On the ‘equality’ of Soviet Republics – in 1990 when I arrived in London with my family, there were around 300 Soviet families here. Ours was the only Ukrainian family, the rest were all ethnic Russians. Moreover this situation was exceptional – some help from the British side had been needed to ensure that my father was chosen over a Russian candidate. The equality was a myth which Russians were and still are happy to believe – it helps them feel good about their ‘civilising mission’.

    To add to Uzbek’s thoughts – the people who are the most ignorant of their history are Russians themselves, they are fed to this day the myths created by Ekaterina II who was motivated by the desire to erase from historical narrative Moscow’s true roots as the Western outpost of the Golden Horde. A central part of that mythology is that Russians originate from Kievan Rus, i.e. what is now Ukraine, and that Moscow formed a defensive bulwark between Genghis Khan’s armies and Western Civilisation (you all owe them a debt of gratitude!). Get this into your heads – the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is nothing like the relationship between England and Scotland or even England and Wales. The Russian historical narrative and a sovereign Ukraine are mutually exclusive things.

  • Leviathan emetic

    Sorry to get temporarily off the subject, but this story is very relevant to Scottish independence.

    The Kurds, like the Scots, have been denied their right to self-determination. So what did they do? They found a way to make themselves foreign to the state that holds them. They adapted the UNESCO Culture of Peace. They set it up internally as a parallel government, even as they fought a war. The Culture of Peace is one of the reasons the US government loathes UNESCO. As a unifying force for civil society, it’s extremely subversive. It’s grounded in law as a straightforward application of human rights, which it uses as a wrecking ball against a lawless state.

    In the Culture of Peace the Kurds found an ingenious oblique path to self-determination. It can make the state irrelevant.

  • Muscleguy

    In terms of sums invested you have to include those in the colonies. In the heart of Taiaroa Head at the head of the Otago harbour in Dunedin, New Zealand is a disappearing gun, now a tourist attraction that can be combined with a visit to the Royal Albatross colony that surrounds it. The site was also a major Maori Pa (fortified hill top). The gun was installed to protect the city from Russian naval incursions that of course never eventuated. It has never been fired in anger. It cost a pretty penny to ship to NZ and install too.

    Here in Dundee Broughty castle had a revamp with a barracks and modern star gun emplacements installed to guard the entrance to the Tay during the 19thC. A local militia artillery company was raised to man this installation. Who was it defending against? Why the Russians essaying out of the Baltic of course.

    On the opposite shore of the Tay at Tentsmuir the beach is still liberally littered with serried ranks of concrete tank traps installed during WWII should the Germans be silly enough to invade Scotland only to entrap themselves in the Fife Peninsula.

  • nevermind

    Thanks for that link Ms. Castello, leaves to say that the Nord Stream pipelines will carry on to receive Russia’s gas.
    For Poland to not invite those who liberated it, is self punishment. Not only are they deprived of a huge market for their food, Poland’ is itself riveted by fascists who, no doubt are in with Ukraine’s Svoboda and right sector.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nord_Stream

    Now that Russia is countering the western sanctions, which hurt EU exporters considerably, with its own diversion of gas sales, due to the instabilities caused by Ukraine’s failure to appease and get on with its eastern regions and the Crimea, people start screaming foul.

    What do they expect Russia to do, say thank you sir, yes sir, two bags full sir? Russia has some considerable reserves and these will put an end to the chocolate money that calls itself the petrodollar.

    Expect more brown matter to fly soon.
    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-01-14/russia-just-pulled-itself-out-petrodollar

    @Craig. I hope ten weeks is the final final date, otherwise it might not get published before this big fracas erupts.

  • bevin

    The “threat” from the USSR after 1945 was entirely illusory. Uzbek in UK appears like so many russophobes today, to belong to the Yatsenyuk school of historiography which sees the presence of Russian troops in Berlin in 1945 as a bad thing. It was a very good thing, and welcomed by the vast majority of, inter alia, British people.
    It is a sad indication of the current popularity of neo-nazi revisionism that the Polish government’s inexcusable and churlish failure to invite Russia to the Auschwitz liberation anniversary this month has been seen as reasonable. And this despite the fact that among those who will be present are not a few regimes which include open adherents to the parties which kept the ovens in Poland in business: the Baltic states, for example, and the current Banderista regime in Kiev.
    The USSR’s real attitude, conservative and pacific, in 1945 was well understood at the time. The beginning of the Cold War was very unpopular, and Churchill was seen as a stalking horse for the extreme right in the USA. His Iron Curtain speech, largely based on one of Goebbels’ productions, was regarded at the time as provocative and he was seen as an inveterate, incorrigible warmonger.
    GDH Cole wrote a book, a sequel to his 1933 Intelligent Mans Guide Through World Chaos, in which he wrote something to the effect that while Soviet influence in Europe was a potential threat to British freedom the real danger was that the US would overwhelm Britain and the continent. That it did so is the real story of modern Europe, which is, even now, being driven towards war with Russia by an aggressive, though, happily, rapidly declining, US centred Imperialism.

  • David

    Typically good writing Craig. I think your right that Putin is going to need an escape route over the Ukraine, which the west seem very reluctant to supply him. Maybe they are hoping it will damage him and lead to some form of change at the top. I think in that assessment the West has got it very wrong. Putin can hold his ground so long as he has massive home support, which he seems to have.

    Whether Russia ever had aspirations to invade the UK or not didn’t alter the fact that both sides entered a massively expensive arms race, it is known that both sides had plans and counter plans, I suspect however that the UK was not a specific takeover interest, probably more total domination of western Europe.

    Opposing Ideology’s never want to find the common ground, just to exaggerate the differences.

  • jjb

    Uzbek,
    Rusia is meddling, certainly. It would be surprising if it was not: family ties, historical ties, next by. But their meddling is prety much reactive to the USA push

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