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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  • fred

    “The fall in the oil price would have cost an independent Scotland about 5% of GDP. As the economy is growing, that would be a net recession of about -3%. Not pleasant, but not a “disaster.” The falling price of oil of course boosts the 90% plus of the Scottish economy that isn’t oil and that will work through over the next couple of years.
    You seem to have a highly exaggerated view of the position of oil in the Scottish economy.”

    The governor of the Bank of England certainly thinks we are better together and the Scottish government is speculating 15,500 jobs are at risk.

    http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/carney-scotland-will-take-hit-on-oil-price-slump-1-3660800

    We don’t have too much incentive to judge the Nationalists judgement on this. Before the referendum they were telling us how oil was a finite resource with a steadily increasing demand and wouldn’t suffer devastating price plunges.

  • Leviathan pukes Fred into his mouth, chews a little and swallows

    “Scots have their self determination”

    Fred, you cringing helot, clearly you are unable to apply the standards of CCPR Article 25 to the immersive state propaganda that queered your bullshit referendum. Furthermore, you evidently have no clue what the Kurds know: that peace is the sum of all rights and violence is violence, whether physical or institutional. For statist chumps like you, the swinish British threat to the livelihood of pensioners and savers is fine and dandy. That’s why you’re content to bend the knee to inbred mediocrities and pedophiles and City of London thieves.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Lysias

    When contrasting Lviv (or Lvov as you call it – why do you transliterate it from the Russian , I wonder?)with other Ukrainian cities you might do well to remember that it was a Polish city (Lwow) with a largely Polish population before the Soviet Union annexed large parts of eastern Poland at the end of the war.

  • John Goss

    “I’m sure Merkel often wishes that her NATO allies had found a more reasonable client state to antagonize Russia with.”

    Undoubtedly true Lycias. But the US does not normally do things according to a planned strategy so much as stick a pin in an atlas and say we need a base here. As Victoria Nuland said: “Fuck Europe”. The Yanks are only interested in maintaining superpower. Those days are numbered. I hope if the US capitulates now that vengeance is not taken upon the country. I think Obama has seen the light to some extent in closing (if he does) Guantanamo Bay. There are crimes but up to now they are not of German Nazi proportion.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Lysias

    You give the example of the Slovaks as a people which “has come to realise” that its behaviour in WW2 was wrong.

    Do you believe that the behaviour of the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians during WW2 was “wrong”, and if so, why and in which way?

    PM – the independent states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and re-annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of WW2.

  • Tony M

    It is clear to all except Ukraine, the Baltic countries and Poland, that Russia today, has no relation with the regime or policies of the Stalinist era USSR of sixty years ago and more, or even continuity in foreign policy from the days of the Tsars. Surely we too have moved on from the personality cults and politics of that era. Such ideas are not rational, the countries bordering Russia are seemingly damaged by years Soviet and of western-inspired and run propagandising messing with their heads, the result is developmental paralysis. Labels fascist, communist should all be dispensed with, and simply ask, who is killing or oppressing their own people, other peoples and who is pursuing aggressive military and regime change operations everwhere, always? It’s not Russia.

    The fact of a famine in Ukraine and in other areas of 1930s USSR, as in Ireland at one time, not due to absolute lack of food – though some aspects of Soviet plant genetics orthodoxy allegedly had an erroneous understanding that plants in a generation or two could adapt to wholly unsuitable soils and conditions, till experiment proved them wrong – but largely due to political and economic manipulation with extraction of all available food, does not ever excuse Ukraine’s illegal junta’s every or any murderous excess in the present day, even if a totally off the rails US and some of the EU mendaciously and cravenly side with the worst of them, it doesn’t make it right. Those who died by famine are probably more than outnumbered by up to 10 million the Soviet regime by the 1930s, simply killed, all over their territory, by more direct, immediate means. Surplus proletariat discarded, so depopulating the east that it practically encouraged and made the invasion by Germany when it came, almost a rout.

    If the Ukranian people could see it, the present Kiev junta have far more in common politically with the old-USSR regime, with the cia and mi6 reinforced folk-legend BogeyMan, that we also got an unhealthy dose of, more striking similarities with it, than has Russia.

  • John Goss

    “When contrasting Lviv (or Lvov as you call it – why do you transliterate it from the Russian , I wonder?)with other Ukrainian cities you might do well to remember that it was a Polish city (Lwow) with a largely Polish population before the Soviet Union annexed large parts of eastern Poland at the end of the war.”

    That, if I recall, was the Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill carve-up of Europe.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Lysias

    Your use of the Russian word (transliterated) for a Ukrainian city is a bit of a give away, isn’t it?

    One would have expected a former student of Literae Humaniores* at Oxford (college undisclosed)to have been a little more concerned to use the correct word (and transliteration).

    It seems to me that you are part of that sad band of Useful Idiots for Russia which infests this blog.

    * aka Classics to the masses

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Mr Goss

    “That, if I recall, was the Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill carve-up of Europe.”
    _____________

    Indeed: Roosevelt and Churchill took the lead in pressing for the borders of Poland to be shifted westwards by a couple of hundred miles. Stalin, on the other hand, was MOST reluctant. 🙂

    BTW, could you also confirm that it was Roosevelt and Churchill who were pressing the Soviet Union to re-annex the three Baltic states?

  • John Goss

    As to the pronunciation in Russia they do say Lvov. In Polish there is a two-dot sign which reduces it to Lviv or probably better Lvough, pronounced as in enough with a v at the end instead of gh.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Still waiting for an answer from the usually present and vociferous “Lysias” to my questions wrt the three Baltic states and their annexation (twice) by the Soviet Union…..

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Mr Goss

    “As to the pronunciation in Russia they do say Lvov. In Polish there is a two-dot sign which reduces it to Lviv or probably better Lvough, pronounced as in enough with a v at the end instead of gh.”
    ________________

    1/. I know that. What is interesting is that Lysias, that classical scholar (Oxford, college undisclosed)choses to call a Ukrainian city by its Russian rather than its Ukrainian name. Wouldn’t you agree? It reminds me a little of those unregenerate Germans who used to talk about “Breslau” and “Pressburg” in the 1950s (and later).

    2/. In the Polish spelling there is no “two dot sign” in that word and this non-existent sign does not reduce the pronunciation to “Lviv”.

    It is spelled Lwow, with the “o” having the same sign as a French acute accent over it (I cannot reproduce it on my keyboard).

    But your pronunciation

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Lysias

    And you’ll be a long time waiting before I answer.

    Don’t feed the trolls.”
    ______________

    I shall translate that to mean that you are either too embarrassed or unable to answer. Rather transparent.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Mr Goss

    I wanted to say “But your second proposal for the pronunciation in Polish is correct”.

  • Daniel

    Craig to Fred:

    “You seem to have a highly exaggerated view of the position of oil in the Scottish economy.”

    Fred to Craig:

    “We don’t have too much incentive to judge the Nationalists judgement on this. Before the referendum they were telling us how oil was a finite resource with a steadily increasing demand and wouldn’t suffer devastating price plunges.”

    I think Fred’s got a point here. Weren’t the nationalists almost constantly emphasising the significance of oil to Scotland’s economy?

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Given some bits of the above discussion, I feel it useful to draw everyone’s attention to an excellent book by the historian Hugh Thomas called “Armed Truce – the beginnings of the Cold War 1945-46” (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1986).

    Also available in second-hand paperback for the financially challenged, it is an excellent work.

    I recommend it.

  • Fool

    ‘any sensible person holding rubles would have sold them months ago. It’s all a question of foresight!’

    but could JP Morgan’s Russian Investment Trust have bottomed out? *

    The Swiss move does suggest: 1) money is very nervous and anxious for a safe home; 2) ECBs proposed QE is going to seriously weaken the Euro; 3) some financial institutions / hedge funds may have been stopped out of some big positions if they have been borrowing the Swiss Franc to leverage up their long bets; 4) Trust in Central Banks is going to be tested, but is it also part of whatever is going on, and surely something is going on……what is it though?

    (* maybe not)

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Daniel

    “I think Fred’s got a point here. Weren’t the nationalists almost constantly emphasising the significance of oil to Scotland’s economy?”
    ______________

    As indeed was Craig himself in that he often stressed the importance of Scotland being able to keep oil revenues for itself.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Fool

    Listen good.

    “The Swiss move does suggest: 1) money is very nervous and anxious for a safe home; 2) ECBs proposed QE is going to seriously weaken the Euro;”
    ______________

    First point : correct.

    Second point : not necessarily correct. It is not QE per se which weakens a currency, it is the use to which the wider economy puts the QE. The use the US has made of QE has served to cause the USD to appreciate against the Euro; and conversely, the use to which QE has been put in the Eurozone (there HAS already been QE in the Eurozone, you know..)has caused the Euro to weaken not only agaionst the USD and GBP but also against sezveral other major currencies.

  • Fred paddling happily in Leviathan's bile and chyme and chunks of ambergris

    Ah, yes, Fred, eating shit, that’s a commonwealth vice, isn’t it? Walter Pigeon, a Canadian – one of the more slavish races you Brits have colonized – he was observed to eat a shit sandwich, at a Hollywood rent-boy franchise. Never acquired a taste for it myself, not being subject to the pedophiles and inbred perverts that rule your motley degenerate nation. Oh well, more for you!

  • Ba'al Zevul

    We don’t have too much incentive to judge the Nationalists judgement on this. Before the referendum they were telling us how oil was a finite resource with a steadily increasing demand and wouldn’t suffer devastating price plunges.

    Coincidentally, this is what the OECD was telling us in 2012…

    ‘Non-OPEC supply plays the major role in meeting net oil demand growth this decade, but OPEC
    plays a far greater role after 2020. Technology unlocks new types of oil resources and improves
    recovery rates in existing fields, pushing up estimates of the amount of oil that remains to be
    produced. But this does not mean that the world is on the cusp of a new era of oil abundance. An
    oil price that rises steadily to $128 per barrel (in year-2012 dollars) in 2035 supports the
    development of these new resources.’

    The SNP got it wrong, Goldman Sachs got it wrong, the OECD got it wrong. The last two are specialists. The No campaign read its tealeaves and uttered a caution. What do you want, Fred, the Order of Lenin? OK, there you go. We’ll book Red Square for the parade and lay on a cheering crowd. (obligatory reference to the topic, there.)

    Now, where does that get you? BP and others are laying people off. Think that’s just in Aberdeen, do you? Think again. Think UKplc is going to give any more of an actual toss than an independent Holyrood? Why would it? UKplc runs on trading funny money. Oil’s just a detail. It might support its global oil companies’ profitable global activities, but they’ll shut down the North Sea fields just the same if they don’t pay, and with the tacit agreement of Osborne et al. ‘No’ didn’t affect that scenario a jot, except that UKplc will feel freer to piss on Scotland.

    Now FOAD, decompose, get eroded, washed into the ocean, deposited on the seabed, buried, converted into petroleum, and since no-one will be around to be interested in oil by that time, subducted and erupted in an arc volcano. Thank you.

  • fred

    “The SNP got it wrong,”

    I seem to remember you saying how high oil prices would make the Argyle field profitable again.

  • Fool

    Habba: you may be right on the second point. I have never understood how Japan has managed to handle such extensive QE for such a long time – I suppose deflation in Japan might be some comfort to the Germans as they contemplate QE in europe. It is curious that the market may be spooked by the ECB QE, but not to the same extent by US, UK or Japanese QE (nor Chinese although I am not sure how much is known or understood about QE in China – certainly not much by me) and this might suggest that you are right, or at least that if you print money you can either make a complete hash of it or you can do something clever with it. In any event I find QE to be essentially an unconvincing remedy unless it is temporary. You take the medicine for too long and you get hooked.

  • 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?’

    Uzbek in UK- To those conflicts whose resolution could be assisted by properly supervised referenda I’d add Kashmir.

    Habba/Lysias

    Perhaps you should bury the hatchet and call the place Lemberg ? I’m told that the Habsburg inheritance, as exhibited in its pre 1914 architecture, is the most satisfying aspect of the place to a western visitor.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    I seem to remember you saying how high oil prices would make the Argyle field profitable again.

    Me personally? Or the SNP? Are you saying they wouldn’t? Figures please.

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