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Seymour Becker
Rutgers University (USA)
Russia and the concept of empire

When Peter the Great formally redefined Russia as a European state, giving it a new name, Rossiiskaia imperiia, and himself a new title, imperator, he claimed for his country imperial status in the eyes of Europe. Russia had in fact been an empire long before Peter - at least, from Ivan the Terrible's conquest of the Muslim khanates along the Volga. In fact, Geoffrey Hosking has recently placed the theme of empire at the very center of Russian history. His thesis is that in Russia, state-building obstructed nation-building; the needs of empire required the development of an autocratic regime and the subjection of the entire population to its service, thereby precluding the growth of a healthy civil society. According to Hosking, Russia's "autocracy and backwardness were symptoms and not causes: both were generated by the way in which the building and maintaining of empire obstructed the formation of a nation."

Hosking assigns Russia to a category of polities distinct from the European national states that crystallized around royal courts in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, integrating their subjects into nations by means of mass armies, statewide market economies, and standardized literary languages. Hosking also distinguishes Russia from the European overseas empires established during the same centuries. Russia belongs rather, according to him, to the category of "Asiatic" empires. In Asiatic empires a "supra-national elite with a strongly military ethos," into which local elites are coopted and culturally integrated, (1) rules over subject ethnic groups; (2) gradually incorporates them into the taxation, administrative, and legal structure of the empire; and (3) subordinates trade, economic, fiscal, and religious considerations to military and administrative ones, and primarily to the political survival and territorial integrity of the state. In Asiatic empires the ruling aristocracy demonstrates no sense of ethnic superiority toward the various subject peoples, who, being left to their own devices on condition of obedience to imperial authority, are allowed to retain their own distinct cultures.

Hosking's characterization of the Russian Empire as an Asiatic rather than a European type of state is open to serious objection. By his definition, not only Russia but its Austrian neighbor qualifies as an Asiatic empire. True, Metternich is alleged to have observed that "Asia begins on the Landstrasse," the main road leading east out of Vienna, thereby consigning to Asia the Habsburgs' Hungarian kingdom. It is not, however, a matter of defining where Europe ends and Asia begins, and to which Russia belongs. Asia, after all, is nothing but a European intellectual construct. More to the point is the very concept of empire and its several varieties, Asiatic or other.

A useful starting point is Michael Doyle's definition of empires: "relationships of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective political sovereignty of other political societies." Doyle, like many other scholars, e.g., David S. Landes, insists on political control, rather than economic dependence alone, as the defining characteristic of empire.

Alexander Motyl adds the factor of cultural differentiation between the elites and populations of an empire's peripheries, on the one hand, and those of its core territory. Should this cultural differentiation disappear through assimilation, forced or voluntary, the state in question would cease to be an empire. Solomon Wank supports the importance of internal differentiation, noting that, in an empire, the "formerly independent or potentially independent historical-political entities" remain distinct components, lacking the common cultural values and social interaction of an integrated community.

These definitions can usefully be supplemented by a dual one offered by the Oxford English Dictionary: "an extensive territory (esp. an aggregate of many separate states) under the sway of an emperor or supreme ruler; an aggregate of subject territories ruled over by a sovereign state." For an historian of European empires, the distinction drawn in the OED is important. An empire may be composed either a) of subject territories under the sway of an individual ruler, with no one of these territories having control over the others, or b) of a metropolitan state together with the territories subordinate to it. The European overseas empires of the modern era were examples of the latter type, the Romanov and Habsburg empires of the former variety.

In the minds of Westerners, the term empire with reference to their own history is associated almost exclusively with two distinct phases of overseas empire: (1) the old colonial empires established in the Americas by European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and largely lost in the period 1776-1825; and (2) the empires established in Africa, Asia, and Oceania by European powers and by the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Before the early modern period, all empires had been built out of proximate, if not contiguous, territories, and had often implied some degree of "absorption or assimilation." Europe's old colonial empires were quite similar to these predecessors, despite the lack of proximity between metropole and colonies. The colonies were perceived as "extensions of Europe herself... organic European societies, created by settlers who took with them as much of their own environment as could be transported." The nineteenth-century European overseas empires were different; in fact, they constituted a unique chapter in the long history of empires. Except for the colonies of settlement (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), peopled mostly by Europeans, these were the only empires that completely fit Landes's description of all European overseas empires as consisting of "far places and peoples...culturally, geographically, and physically distant...strange lands...viewed as prizes, as fields of opportunity - not as components, but as annexes."

Russia's empire differed in three basic ways from those of the other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century members of the European state-system. The difference most often noted is that, while the peripheries of the other empires (excluding the Austrian), in almost all cases, consisted of lands and peoples separated from their respective metropoles by thousands of miles of ocean. Russia's empire, by contrast, was physically uninterrupted by salt water, if the short-lived outposts on the Alaskan and Californian coasts are excluded. Of at least equal importance was a second difference. With the exception again of what would become Britain's self-governing dominions, the other European powers regarded their imperial possessions as unassimilable dependencies suitable only for exploitation and for paternalistic guidance toward "civilized" ways. In contrast, Russia regarded her possessions, with the possible exception of Turkestan, as extensions of the metropole - integral members, if only after a transition period, of the political community and open to permanent settlement, where feasible, by Russians.

Thirdly, while all the others were empires in which a nation-state ruled over subject lands and peoples, the empire of the Romanovs, like that of the Habsburgs, was an older type of polity, a dynastic state, defined by subjection to a common ruler. The ruler in each of these cases belonged to a dynasty which had its roots in a particular one of the territories under its sway (the Austrian duchies in the case of the Habsburgs, Muscovy in its early sixteenth-century boundaries in the case of the Romanovs). This was a situation not at all comparable with the rule of a state over dependent territories. A crucial difference, of course, between the Romanov and Habsburg monarchies at the end of the nineteenth century was that in the former, over two thirds of the population - Great Russians, Little Russians, and White Russians - were officially defined as sharing the ethnic identity of the dynasty. This provided a plausible base for those wishing to conceive of the state in Russian national terms. In the Habsburg monarchy, fewer than one quarter shared the German identity of the dynasty - and only slightly over one third even in the "Austrian" half of Austria-Hungary.

In its consisting of contiguous dominions, in its goal of at least partial absorption or integration of its peripheries, and in its dynastic nature, the Russian Empire was similar to the great majority of empires in history. In these respects, it was the modern European overseas empires, not Russia, that departed from the norm.

A nation-state, as an ideal type, is defined by its inhabitants' membership in a single nation, i.e., a cultural community with political aspirations. Nationalism's central theme is the right of a nation to self-determination, the exercise of which right is expected to lead to the formation of a nation-state. The age of nationalism, starting from the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, has indeed witnessed the triumph of the nation-state and the end of empires. As ideal types, nation-state and empire are polar opposites - the first embodying, the second denying, the right of national self-determination. This right, of course, is a recent invention, a fact which helps to explain the acceptance of empire as a quite normal type of polity throughout the many centuries preceding the age of nationalism.

Before the rise of nationalism, a state was defined not by its population but by the land or lands subject to a common ruler or ruling group. As long as this definition of the state prevailed, the cultural identity or identities of its inhabitants was of secondary importance, at best. If a state extended over a large territory, it was likely to include peoples of diverse cultures. Such states qualify as empires, whether or not they conceived of themselves as such or formally called themselves empires.

In Europe throughout the Middle Ages, the concept of empire had a unique meaning, that of a universal monarchy coextensive with the civilized, i.e., Christian, world. The empire paralleled and complemented the universal church and was indissolubly linked to it until the end of days. Such was the Christian perception of the Roman Empire from its adoption of the faith in the fourth century, and such was the reason Latin Christendom could long give up neither the idea nor the name of Roman Empire, a name preceded by "Holy" from the mid-twelfth century.

The existence of more than one emperor at any one time was as unthinkable as the existence of more than one pope. Greek Christendom, as the schism between it and the West widened and deepened, came to occupy a very minor place in the mind of the latter; the death of the last Roman emperor in Constantinople in 1453 eliminated a problem which had long ceased to cause much concern. Over the centuries, however, the political rivalry between popes and emperors, the use of the office to promote the dynastic interests of its occupants, and the Protestant Reformation radically affected the Holy Roman emperor's role. By 1648 he was merely a figurehead presiding over a loose confederation of sovereign dynastic polities and city-states. Nevertheless, the resounding title of emperor of the Romans and his precedence in diplomatic and ceremonial matters survived.

Thus, when Peter the Great restyled himself as imperator in 1721 after forcing Russia's way into the European state system by defeating Sweden, his challenge to almost a millennium of Western diplomatic usage was at first rejected out of hand. The major powers (Austria, Britain, France, and Spain), would recognize the title only in the 1740s. Muscovy's rulers had formally borne the imperial title of tsar' from the mid-sixteenth century, but before Peter's reign neither they nor their European neighbors had regarded Muscovy as part of Western society. Titles with imperial significance (tsar, sultan, shah) could be acknowledged by Europeans safe in the knowledge that the holders of such titles belonged to the exotic world beyond Europe.

Despite the Holy Roman emperors' centuries-long monopoly of the title of imperator, medieval England, for one, was a de facto empire by virtue of its holdings on the French mainland and in Ireland and Wales. So too was medieval France by virtue of its possession of Brittany and the lands of the langue d'oc; early modern France added Flanders and Alsace to its empire. In fact, by the early modern period in England and France, "empire" was used in the sense of any extended or sufficiently great kingdom, in particular, one formed by "the more or less forcible unification of different lands, or 'crowns.'"

Although it has been argued above that empire and nation-state are polar opposites, it is important to note that these are ideal types, and that in the real world there have been many polities characterized by aspects of each during their history. In contrasting the "Asiatic" Russian Empire to the European nation-state model, Hosking overlooks the fact that in Europe's past there have been states that, with respect to their imperial nature, resembled nineteenth-century Russia more closely than they did their own nineteenth-century successors.

Like nineteenth-century Russia, medieval and early modern England and France embraced lands with diverse historical experiences (albeit within the larger community of Latin Christendom) and containing diverse ethnic groups. Although England and France were in every meaningful sense empires long before they expanded across the oceans, they had already begun to evolve into the archetypal European national states. Both states were defined by allegiance to a single ruling dynasty which belonged to, or identified with, the dominant ethnic group. Both pursued policies of administrative, legal, and fiscal unification of their populations and used the high culture and language of the court to integrate those elites of the ethnic borderlands who had been coopted. Decades ago Frederick Hertz noted, quite accurately, that today's nation-states "are former empires which have been successful in welding different peoples together into a nation."

Like Hosking, Richard Pipes draws a misleading distinction between Russia and the West by ignoring the imperial nature of many medieval European states:

The classic empires of the West came into being after the construction of national states had been completed. ...European imperial expansion directed itself across the seas and into other continents....In sum, Western empire-building - that is, the acquisition of masses of other ethnic groups - was always chronologically and territorially distinct from the process involved in building the national state.

Russia's empire, according to Pipes, "had a very different character" from those of the West; it was built out of contiguous territories, and its creation coincided chronologically as well as geographically with Russia's building of a nation and a nation-state. In fact the dichotomy between Russia and the West in this regard is far less sharp than Pipes asserts.

With respect to its nationalities problem, i.e., molding its diverse peoples into a political and, on some level, a cultural community, nineteenth-century Russia faced the same general challenge that England and France had faced centuries earlier - and that nineteenth-century Britain and France had by no means completely resolved. Modern Russia's distinctiveness from medieval and early modern England and France lies in the much larger extent of the Russian state; in the much greater cultural disparity among its ethnic groups; in the recentness of many of its territorial acquisitions; in its different historical experience and cultural heritage; and in the zeitgeist of the age of nationalism, which affected both the tsar's Russian and his non-Russian subjects.

The empire created by Russian territorial expansion from the pre-Muscovite period to the late nineteenth century comprised several quite different types of relationships between metropole and periphery. The western borderlands and the Transcaucasus were similar to the diverse dominions acquired by Western rulers on the European continent in the medieval and early modern periods. These were well populated areas with long histories of civilized life and Christian populations (except for Azerbaijan). In the case of Little and White Russia, there was also an element of reconquista - of Orthodox lands recovered from the control of schismatic Catholics. This element was an even stronger factor with respect to Bessarabia, Georgia, and Armenia - Christian lands (the first two also Orthodox) liberated from rule and oppression by infidel Muslims.

Two very different types of empire were represented by Siberia and Turkestan. In the former, Russia in the seventeenth century built what the historical geographer D. W. Meinig terms a "boreal riverine" empire. This was an empire like those the French were building at the same time in the St. Lawrence and Mississippi basins and the Dutch along the Hudson, and like those the Americans and British would later build in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. The motive was profit in the form of furs obtained as tribute or in trade from the sparse, mostly non-sedentary indigenous peoples. Vast territories were annexed, controlled by small numbers of Russians stationed in forts at strategic river junctions and portages. As in North America, fur-collection posts located in fertile forest clearings served as nuclei for colonization by emigrants from the metropole. By the eighteenth century Russians in Siberia outnumbered the natives three to one, by the mid-nineteenth century almost four to one, and by the early twentieth century almost eight to one. Like those of North America, the natives of Siberia were decimated by prolonged armed resistance to their more powerful conquerors, by unfamiliar diseases brought by their new masters, by the latter's seizure of their lands, and by the undermining of their traditional way of life under the often irresistible influence of their masters' culture. As Siberia was gradually integrated, demographically, culturally, and administratively, into the metropole, the line between core and periphery was becoming erased. By the nineteenth century, Russia with respect to Siberia was in a state of transition from an imperial to a national state.

With time, the Russian settlers in Siberia developed some of the same tense relationships with the metropole as did the English settlers in continental North America's thirteen colonies and the Spanish settlers in Latin America. The reasons for this were spatial separation, the difficulty of communication over great distances, different perceptions of problems peculiar to the newly settled region, and a steadily growing Creole population with ever-weakening ties to its ancestral home. In Russia's case, geographical contiguity has prevented the severance of the political bond that the English and Spanish experienced. The Siberian federalist movement of the late nineteenth century, however, was a response to the kind of problems that led to the break in those earlier instances.

In the nineteenth century Russian colonization spread into the northern reaches of the steppes adjacent to the zone of earlier settlement in Siberia. Farther south, in Turkestan and the protected khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, Russia acquired territories which Meinig cites as an example of "nationalistic empire," the type that characterized Europe's late nineteenth-century "New Imperialism." This type consisted of possessions acquired by national states conscious, as never before, of their superior power vis-a-vis the non-European world and driven at least as much by competition with each other as by the needs of their industrial economies for raw materials and/or markets. Such possessions attracted not settlers but entrepreneurs and administrators, highly sensitive of their cultural superiority to the natives, on the basis of which sharp social segregation was maintained between masters and subjects. In the case of Turkestan, the age-old Christian antipathy to Islam accentuated this segregation.

This huge and still growing empire was administered in the nineteenth century as it always had been - in as centralized a fashion as the vast distances would permit, but, of necessity, with as much tolerance for the diversity of local customs as the maintenance of law and order and collection of taxes and military recruits would allow. Russia's expansion to the east and south at the expense of non-European peoples had in many ways been a natural continuation of the earlier unification of the East Slavic ethnic core territory. Expansion in this direction was accompanied in Siberia and the northern Kazakh Steppe by Russian peasant colonization of sparsely settled lands and the rapid extension of Russian political institutions and practices into the newly acquired lands.

The western borderlands acquired in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, were lands with "old, established social and political structures of a western European type." In these, Russia at first refrained from imposing its administrative and judicial norms out of respect for the traditional rights and privileges of the local ruling elites. The latter, after all, were exemplary representatives of the Western culture whose absorption by the higher strata of Russian society the autocracy had been assiduously promoting since the reign of Peter the Great.

These differences between the European and Asian peripheries notwithstanding, every borderland, including Turkestan, was regarded as an integral part of a unitary state, no less so than the provinces of the ethnic Russian core; for that reason no colonial ministry was ever established. This perception of her borderlands distinguished Russia from nineteenth-century European states with overseas empires. In the early modern era, however, European states had held similar attitudes toward their colonies in the Americas, perceiving them as realms and dominions much like those in Europe that were subject to the same monarch. The American colonies were governed in much the same manner as the European realms, insofar as vast distances from the metropole and slow travel permitted.

The appointment of governors-general, in a few cases viceroys, was St. Petersburg's concession to the special administrative problems posed by its borderlands. Three borderlands were at various times in the nineteenth century governed by a viceroy (namestnik) - Poland, Bessarabia, and the Caucasus - and thirteen others by a governor-general - Finland, the Baltic, the Northwestern and Southwestern regions, White Russia, Little Russia, New Russia, Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia, the Amur, Orenburg, the Steppe, and Turkestan. At the outbreak of World War I, only one viceroyalty and seven governments-general still existed in the borderlands; the others had outlived the reasons for their establishment and had been dissolved. There was little, besides the title, to distinguish a viceroy from a governor-general; both were appointed directly by the emperor and normally combined broad military and civil authority, which they exercised over an area usually composed of several provinces.

The reasons for creating such powerful positions varied in the nineteenth century by area and period, but fall into four categories: (1) respect, for contrasting lengths of time and for diverse reasons in different cases, for a borderland's distinctive political institutions and laws (Finland, the Baltic region, White Russia, Poland, Little Russia, Bessarabia); (2) the maintenance or reestablishment of security, either internal or external, in a threatened borderland (Poland, the Northwestern and Southwestern regions, Orenburg, the Caucasus, Turkestan); (3) the control of a region with few sedentary inhabitants until it was sufficiently colonized (West and East Siberia, the Amur, New Russia, Orenburg, the Steppe); and (4) the necessity to grant to distant administrators, at the ends of very long and slow lines of communication, sufficient authority effectively to govern their regions (a determining factor in West and East Siberia, the Amur, and Turkestan, a contributing factor in Orenburg, the Steppe, and the Caucasus).

Although the establishment of a government-general often provided the framework within which the work of integrating a borderland into the administrative structure of the empire was to be accomplished, that work proceeded at varying rates in different regions.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the general statute on provincial administration still applied only to the forty-nine gubernii of European Russia. The eight gubernii of the Grand Duchy of Finland, the ten of the former Kingdom of Poland, and the seven Caucasian and four Siberian gubernii were governed under special statutes, as were the Steppe oblasti and those of Turkestan. By 1870 zemstvo institutions had been introduced in thirty-four of the forty-nine with normal provincial administration; excluded were the three Baltic gubernii, the nine gubernii of the Northwestern, Southwestern, and former White Russian (except for Smolensk guberniia) governments-general, and Astrakhan', Orenburg, and Arkhangel'sk. In 1911 zemstva were established in the six White Russian and Southwestern gubernii, in a form designed to minimize the possibility of their being dominated by Polish noble landowners. The new judicial institutions prescribed by the 1864 reform were introduced over the next thirty-five years in all the gubernii with zemstva, plus Astrakhan' and Orenburg.

The 1870 statute establishing municipal self-government was applied only within the forty-nine gubernii of European Russia, with minor modifications in the Baltic provinces to accomodate existing municipal institutions. But the statute's 1892 replacement was applied throughout the empire, except in Finland, which had long had its own system of municipal self-government, and Poland, which had none.

Thus the thrust of Russian imperial policy in the nineteenth century continued in its long established direction - the administrative integration of the periphery with the core. Russia's state-building, however, was precluded from following to its end the path trod by Western states centuries before. It was impossible for Russia's dynastic empire to develop into a nation-state, not because its rulers gave preference to empire-building over nation-building, but because the path taken earlier by the West was no longer open in the age of nationalism. In the nineteenth century, dynastic states had rapidly to transform themselves into, or else be undermined and replaced by, nation-states. For empires, there was no time for significant ethnic homogenization, which would have taken generations.

A possible, albeit very difficult, choice for an empire faced with the growing force of nationalism is an ethnically based federation. The Habsburgs experimented most unsuccessfully with a very limited and imperfect model of such a polity from 1867. A more thoroughly conceived ethnically based federation was created by the Bolsheviks, but it served primarily to disguise their resurrection of Russia's centrally directed empire. The Soviet Union's structure and Soviet policy, however, did strengthen national identities. When the power and legitimacy of the center eroded, the empire's periphery dissolved into nation-states. It is left for the Russian Federation to demonstrate whether its remnant of empire can avoid a similar fate by making a success of a system, 32 of whose 89 component units are ethnically based.

Ab Imperio, 3-4 (2000), 329-342

Оригинал: http://history.knet.ru/papers.html


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