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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  • Tony M

    You’re never still trying to convince anyone Fred that Scotland having 60% of the EU’s conventional oil reserves, estimated worth £1.5 trillion without accounting for new fields, is some sort of terrible affliction, are you?

    The downturn, potential loss of jobs, the BBC claim ‘hundreds’ is said to be actually less than 200, more than accounted for natural wastage, retirement and so on and is only a relative fall from exceptionally high levels of employment due to new-technology investment in the last couple of years and infrastructure improvements still ongoing but now nearing completion, as accelerated during this price downturn as plant could be less costfully taken offline temporarily, will enable far greater efficiency in production than ever before which combined with certainty of greatly increased again barrel prices, will make even established fields attain unprecedented productivity and profitability.

    Here’s what the SNP actually said in the “Scotland’s Future” Summary.

    “Scotland is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. In terms of our total economic output per head we ranked eighth out of the 34 developed countries in the OECD in 2011. We raise more tax and our public finances have been stronger than those of the UK as a whole over the past 32 years.”

    Scotland’s economic output per head, even without oil and gas, is virtually the same as the UK as a whole. So oil and gas is a bonus. When we include the output of the North Sea, Scotland produces almost a fifth more per head that the UK average. Oil and gas revenues make up 15 per cent of Scotland’s overall public sector receipts, compared to 30 per cent for Norway and yet Norway has prospered and has a oil fund worth £470 billion.

    No dependence on oil, Norway is actually twice as dependent on oil revenues than Scotland would be and Norway has prospered and has developing its economy in every way it can to be less dependent on oil, but would have some way to go to reach an Independent Scotland’s levels of economic diversity and with it resilience and stability.

  • Jemand

    “In the last 2 days I’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting various commenters to post on appropriate threads.”

    You mean dead threads. Where is the one on Scottish oil? There have been more than 10 off topic comments on this thread regarding oil prices. And, of course, the usual spray of abuse directed at Fred with no hint of moderation.

    – – –

    For what it is worth, Fred et al, energy resources are something that should never (or rarely) be exported unless they are renewable. Why should a country want to export something at a low price only to have to import it later at a high price like in the case of Indonesia, Australia and the US?

    If an energy rich country has sufficient reserves to export, why not export it in the form of energy intensive manufactured goods? I would prefer to see a country like Australia use its massive energy resources for the manufacture of solar panels and other renewable energy producing manufactures. Whatever gas or coal is burnt in the course of producing a solar panel is returned several times over in the life of that panel.

    As for oil prices, the current fall is a temporary contrivance to undermine rival energy suppilers. When that matter settles, energy will shoot back up — as it should. But in any case, Scotland ought to exploit those resources for domestic consumption only for the purpose of preparing it for the day when her fossil fuels are depleted.

  • Mary

    Squonk posted this on his blog.

    ‘Casualties From Swiss Shock Spread From New York to New Zealand

    Casualties mounted from the Swiss currency shock as the largest U.S. retail foreign-exchange brokerage said client losses threatened its compliance with capital rules and a New Zealand-based dealer went out of business.’


    Mme Lagarde IMF. She knew nothing. LOL.

  • Calgacus

    Fred, your Westminster has pillaged Scotland for decades and has just voted with the help of Labour for a massive cut in spending. Hardly the stuff of “expensive rescue packages”

    The sooner we get away from the lying, cheating pedophiles the better.

    Have a nice day, see and keep warm with Scotland’s energy.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    Fool (re QE)

    “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.”

    Yes, I think that’s correct.

  • fool

    There is a lot I don’t understand. Yesterday thinking about the Swiss move I didn’t take into account something so aptly put by Izabella Kaminska in the FT today “the SNB decided to withdraw because a bigger, fatter bearwhale – the European central Bank – was about to eat its lunch”. I hadn’t noticed that since the Swiss put the cap on in 2011 the amount of their francs printed has quintupled, but their foreign reserves hit record high and property prices, rents and bank lending have been rising. Anyway, now the ECB is taking over their game. I had only been thinking about this is negative terms i.e. Weimar money printing etc, but traders et al need cheap money and the ECB is going to offer it. Of course they will have learnt a lesson about trusting central banks yesterday. This remind me of a piece I read in the WSJ about 10 or so years ago complaining about how the ECB’s printing of the Euro 500 had stolen the market for drug money from the US$100 bill! Anyway this fool doesn’t know enough to join the dots. Another curious story in FT today about high speed super capitalised Chinese hedgies behind collaps in Copper etc one of them is actually called the Shanghai Chaos Co. Have a nice weekend all at the Dog & Duck …. talking of which is this true that Al Murray the Pub landlord is standing against Farage.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)


    “Perhaps you should bury the hatchet and call the place Lemberg ?”

    Why not.

    But seriously, the point I was making over a couple of posts was that using a previous name for a place is either (1) precious (and it seems that Lysias is a Literae Humaniores graduate of Oxford University (college still undisclosed)or (2) reveals a certain nostalgia for the status quo ante.

    In this case, calling a city which has a name in the language of a newly independent state such as Ukraine (Lviv) by the name it was known under when Ukraine was in essence a Russian vassal state (Lvov) seems to fall under the second category.

    But I’m sure it was unconscious on Lysias’s part and just a case of the mask slipping.

    U think the above should be the end of the matter but I shall of course continue to keep an eye on him for further lapses.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    energy resources are something that should never (or rarely) be exported unless they are renewable. Why should a country want to export something at a low price only to have to import it later at a high price like in the case of Indonesia, Australia and the US?

    100% agree. The market-driven short-termism of all parties runs counter to the most basic notion of good economic housekeeping, and demonstrates the extent to which politicians of all shades, on behalf of unaccountable financial conglomerates, ignore the security of the country they aspire to govern. Confirmed by the absence of any initiative, by any UK government, to invest oil revenues in any kind of contingency fund, or even, like all the Gulf states and Norway, a national sovereign wealth fund. Savings are anathema to global finance. It relies on universal debt. And, by god, it’s got it.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)


    “??but their foreign reserves hit record high and property prices, rents and bank lending have been rising.”

    The above is certainly correct – and I should say that property prices all over Switzerland have risen dramatically.

    The reason was the existence of very low interest rates both for savers and those taking out a mortgage – dirt cheap mortgages have lead to a (partly speculative) boom in land and property prices.

    And why did interest rates have to be kept so low? Because had they been allowed to go higher, there would have been greater inflows of deposits from abroad putting even greater pressure on the capped exchange rate of CHF 1,20.

    The rate today on the forex market is virtually parity.

    Unlike Fred with his oil price, I shall not come back to the CHF rate on here.. 🙂

  • North Munsterman

    Finland’s treatment when annexed by the Russian Empire in 1809 v Ireland’s treatment when annexed by Britain in 1800 is interesting. Finland had the kind of autonomy under Russian rule during the 19th Century that Irish Nationalists could only dream about. In fact, Britain did everything possible to stall even “Home Rule” , which was little more than a glorified county council, right up to 1912.

    Even more interesting is the fact that when Finland voted for independence in 1917, the Russian parliament granted Finland independence at the stroke of a pen. When the majority in Ireland voted for independence from Britain in 1918, London rejected the democratic wishes of the Irish people, resulting in the Irish War of Independence (1919-21).

    London would have saved everyone from the FUBAR of that is the North of Ireland if it had adhered to democracy in 1918 – and the undemocratic Partition of Ireland which has unnecessarily poisoned relations between Dublin and London during much of the 20th Century.
    The good news is that a Re-United independent Ireland is inevitable anyway – Scottish independence will hasten that and we look forward to Scotland claiming it’s rightful place among the independent nations of the world.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    Even more interesting is the fact that when Finland voted for independence in 1917, the Russian parliament granted Finland independence at the stroke of a pen.

    Yes, while the fledgeling Soviet had also withdrawn from WW1 and was in no position to insist otherwise. But that wasn’t quite the end of the matter, was it? Stalin later decided to re-establish the borders of Imperial Russia, ostensibly to give Leningrad greater security.
    Supporting Uzbek’s thesis that Russia is inherently expansionist, then.

    I wish Ireland luck with the Protestant North, though. They’re a bloody embarrassment.

  • fred


    I do try not to use too much in the form of finite resources myself but society as a whole has become accustomed to their consumer society. People in developing countries think it would be unfair for us to deny them the benefits our society has derived from petroleum products.

    The oil we use has to come from somewhere, all countries can’t decide to stop exporting oil. If Russia adopted a policy of keeping all their oil and gas to themselves and letting Europe freeze we wouldn’t see that as a good thing.

  • John Goss

    I am still not so sure about whether Russia has cut off gas to Ukraine. I have tried to find articles in the Russian press and failed. Russia Today has said nothing about it. The only East European source I can find which definitely states it has been cut off is Ukrainian Pravda. I am beginning to think this is the source for a story which may not be true.

    I notice that Global Research has republished the Zero Hedge report. Can anybody clarify please?

  • John Goss

    Further to my last comment I have tried to contact the writer of the Zero Hedge article which meant setting up an account with Zero Hedge. It says it can take up to 7 days before approval is given. The Zero Hedge site looks legitimate but in a message from the site in my inbox there was a warning:

    “Be careful! This sender has failed our fraud detection checks.”

  • Silvio

    Gail Tverberg is a U.S. based insurance industry actuary who has spent the last 10 years or so researching and writing about the interactions between the energy industry, rising resource extraction costs and world economies. Here is the latest post from her blog putting forth her views on the reasons for and economic consequences of falling oil prices:

    Oil and the Economy: Where are We Headed in 2015-16?,
    by Gail Tverberg

    The price of oil is down. How should we expect the economy to perform in 2015 and 2016?

    Newspapers in the United States seem to emphasize the positive aspects of the drop in prices. I have written Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem. If our only problem were high oil prices, then low oil prices would seem to be a solution. Unfortunately, the problem we are encountering now is extremely low prices. If prices continue at this low level, or go even lower, we are in deep trouble with respect to future oil extraction.

    It seems to me that the situation is much more worrisome than most people would expect. Even if there are some temporary good effects, they will be more than offset by bad effects, some of which could be very bad indeed. We may be reaching limits of a finite world.

    The Nature of Our Problem with Oil Prices

    The low oil prices we are seeing are a symptom of serious problems within the economy–what I have called “increased inefficiency” (really diminishing returns) leading to low wages. See my post How increased inefficiency explains falling oil prices. While wages have been stagnating, the cost of oil extraction has been increasing by about ten percent a year, described in my post Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

    Needless to say, stagnating wages together with rapidly rising costs of oil production leads to a mismatch between:

    The amount consumers can afford for oil
    The cost of oil, if oil price matches the cost of production

    The fact that oil prices were not rising enough to support the higher extraction costs was already a problem back in February 2014, at the time the article Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending was written. (The drop in oil prices did not start until June 2014.)

    Continued at:

  • nevermind

    Why should it be suspicious John? Why should Russia be partial to snactions and then ask for some more, without countering such malice?

    I don’t trust the oil graph as its incomplete, it does not show the activities that are being taken.

  • John Goss

    Nevermind, it’s suspicious because none of the mainstream news outlets either in Russia or here are running the story. The act itself would be laudable if it has taken place. I’m not sure it has taken place. If that’s the case it could discredit reputable outlets like Global Research and InfoWars who have both re-run the article.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    “If that’s the case it could discredit reputable outlets like Global Research”

    Globalresearch is already totally discredited and this is just one example of how it lets its strange agenda and kneejerk reactions overcome the need to check facts and not re-run canards.

    To be noted that globalresearch is much quoted on this blog. I can see why.

  • John Goss

    “Globalresearch is already totally discredited and this is just one example of how it lets its strange agenda and kneejerk reactions overcome the need to check facts and not re-run canards.”

    They re-ran my creditable article that has not been questioned by the wider media.

    Anybody can make a mistake. Well, there a few who think they don’t. And I think this is a genuine mistake. Unless it’s true.

  • nevermind

    An interview with a very ill Mr. Perestroika, Sergeyivych Gorbatschov in which he describes what changes have occurred during the last 20 years.

    SPIEGEL: Who carries the greater responsibility for the Ukraine conflict?

    Gorbachev: Casting blame isn’t helpful in this highly dangerous crisis. But I do want to be clear about a few things. In November 1990, at the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Paris, the talk was of a new peaceful world order. George Bush, Sr. and I were especially active in promoting this. But nothing came of it — a demilitarization of politics didn’t happen. Instead, a dangerous winner’s mentality became widespread in America. I criticize this attitude every time I visit the United States. I remind people of how John F. Kennedy took a stand against the demonization of people in the Soviet Union and said that a true peace could not be a Pax americana, that peace could not be dictated by America. There is either peace for all or there is no peace.

    SPIEGEL: Did America not emerge as the victor of the Cold War?

    Gorbachev: Would America have been able to achieve these massive changes without Moscow, without us? No! We showed at the time what is possible if we work together: We solved regional conflicts, we achieved German reunification, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, America then started building a global empire, a mega empire.

    SPIEGEL: When did America begin down that path?

    Gorbachev: You know yourselves. When the Soviet Union fell, those who didn’t wish us well shed crocodile tears as they rubbed their hands together beneath the table. The Americans began by surrounding Russia with so-called rings of defense — NATO’s eastward expansion. NATO intervened militarily in the Yugoslavian civil war without the consent of the United Nations. That was a precedent-setting case. All that triggered a backlash in Russia. No Kremlin leader can ignore something like that.

  • Republicofscotland

    “Globalresearch is already totally discredited”

    “To be noted that globalresearch is much quoted on this blog”



    I’ve never laughed so much at a comment on Craig’s blog than reading your above comments.

    Why well you wouldn’t know what a link was, if it jumped up and bit you on the arse.

    And here you are spewing your establishment dross about links.
    As the Mods said, recently, their really are tossers in here.

  • Mary

    Ukrainian crisis news. Epic Ukrainian victories. War in Ukraine.

    Published on 16 Jan 2015

    1) Donetsk Airport was taken by DPR military
    2) DPR Leader invites Ukrainian President for talks
    3) No videos – No epic Ukrainian victories
    4) Don’t be upset, Ukrainian military!

  • Republicofscotland

    The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, wants President Obama to pressure social media to cooperate with GCHQ, the British intelligence service that works closely with the NSA in the United States to surveil the internet and private electronic communication.

    Intelligence services are increasingly critical of encryption methods used by Facebook and Twitter to secure the communications of users.

    MI5 boss Andrew Parker took the tech giants to task for encryption and warned the “dark places from where those who wish us harm can plot and plan are increasing.”

    Parker said tech companies must offer “greater co-operation” in the fight against terrorism and added that “privacy has never been an absolute right.”

    Cameron’s request follows an earlier suggestion that the United Kingdom may outlaw online messaging services that use encryption.

    Cameron, in a meeting scheduled for Friday in Washington, will ask Obama to support an effort to deny people the government considers terrorists and terrorist sympathizers a “safe place” on the internet.

    Obama and Cameron want to infiltrate social media, and eventually control it, under the guise, of democracy and freedom from terrorism.

    Another step towards an Orwellian Society.

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