The bigger the worse

  • Russia's Empires
    by Philip Longworth, John Murray, 2005, 398pp

At the beginning of Russia’s Empires, Philip Longworth announces that his intention is to “examine the phoenix-like nature of Russian imperialism and to expand our understanding of it”. He points out that over the centuries, no less than four empires have risen and subsequently fallen on Russian soil, beginning with Kievan Rus in the Middle Ages, continuing on through the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the long era of the Romanov dynasty, and followed by the relatively short Soviet regime.
In between each one of these peaks, the Russians suffered notable troughs: economic and political collapse, Mongol or Polish invasion, chaos and disarray. He asks what it is that has made four successive Russian empires simultaneously aggressive and fragile, why Russian society alternates between torpor and manic energy, why the Russians have been able to withstand invasions and then spring back to exercise dominion over their neighbours.
All of these are excellent questions. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that Longworth has fully answered them, if, indeed, they are answerable within a single volume. For the most part Russia’s Empires is in fact a conventional history of Russia, which draws heavily on other conventional histories of Russia. Longworth seems particularly puzzled by, even disappointed by, the demise of the Soviet empire which, he claims, was a “beacon of hope for poorer countries”, despite the fact that Marxism was probably responsible for more economic damage in the developing world than in Russia itself. But while he doesn’t, in the end, come up with an overall theory, there are hints of what one might be in the text itself.
Very early on in the book, for example, Longworth focuses rightly on Russia’s unique geography. The difficult climate and short growing season encouraged the development of vast estates, since small farmers couldn’t earn a living. The poor land helped keep the population relatively low. As the American historian Richard Pipes pointed out long ago, the need to control people scattered over huge amounts of territory inclined Russian rulers to autocracy, and yet at the same time made that autocracy inherently unstable.
Partly thanks to the autocracy required by the landscape, but more importantly thanks to the limits Russia’s rulers placed on private property, Russia failed to develop political and economic institutions that were able to organise or connect people over this vast territory. Corporations, banks, stock exchanges and other capitalist institutions appeared relatively late in the Romanov dynasty – too late to save it – and were then destroyed by the Soviet Union. Because there were no native institutions, the country’s successive rulers relied on foreigners – Germans, Poles, even Scots – to invest and develop the country.
It is perhaps not coincidental that Russia’s first two empires fell while in the course of undergoing a succession crisis, or that the third fell because an unusually weak leader had succeeded to the monarchy, or that the Soviet empire fell after a long period of rule by very elderly, incapacitated men. Throughout Russia’s history, far too much power has been concentrated in the hands of a single, autocratic ruler whose bad decisions have far more impact than they should.
Longworth mentions, but does not dwell long on one fascinating subject, which is Russia’s development of an imperial mythology. Without a clear sense of manifest destiny, and without real commercial incentives, Russians, during the 19th century, began to enjoy the empire they had acquired simply for the sake of the power it brought them.
An insecure nation whose élites voluntarily spoke French instead of their native language, the Russians suddenly found themselves dominating dozens of other nations, and came to believe that territorial expansion for its own sake equals national strength. That belief carried through into the Soviet era. Even as it became clear that the Soviet empire was bankrupting Russia – indeed, the Soviet empire may be one of the few in history whose colonies drained the mother country of resources – the mythical link between expansion and power was rarely questioned.
Indeed, as Longworth points out at the end of the book, the Russian imperial myth persists to this day. The current president, Vladimir Putin, put Soviet imperialism on display as recently as last month, with his massive, militaristic celebration of Soviet victory in the Second World War, and with his refusal to acknowledge that Soviet victory meant captivity and oppression for many of Russia’s neighbours. Given the devastation which the Soviet system wreaked on Russia’s population, economy and environment, it is hard to see Russia re-emerging as a world power – but that doesn’t mean that the charm of empire has disappeared, or that the Russians won’t try again to become one.