Russian imperialism

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Russian imperialism includes the policy and ideology of power exerted by Russia, as well as its antecedent states, over other countries and external territories. This includes the conquests of the Russian Empire, the imperial actions of the Soviet Union, as well as those of the modern Russian Federation. The Russian Empire at its peak was larger than the British Empire.[1] Some postcolonial scholars have noted the lack of attention given to Russian and Soviet imperialism in the discipline.[2]

Views on Russian imperialism

Montesquieu wrote that "The Moscovites cannot leave the empire" and they "are all slaves".[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau in turn argued that Poland was under Russian imperialism.[4] In 1836, Nikolai Gogol said that Saint Petersburg was "something similar to a European colony in America".[5] According to Aleksey Khomyakov, the Russian elite was a "a colony of eclectic Europeans, thrown into a country of savages" with a "colonial relationship" between the two.[6] A similar colonial aspect was identified by Konstantin Kavelin.[7]

Russian imperialism has been argued to be different from other European colonial empires due to its empire being overland rather than overseas, which meant that rebellions could be more easily put down, with some lands being reconquered soon after they were lost.[8] The terrestrial basis of the empire has also been seen as a factor which made it more divided than sea-based ones due to the difficulties of communication and transport over land at the time.[9]

The driving factor of Russian imperialism has been claimed to have been the labour-intensive and low productivity economic system based on serfdom, which required constant increase in the amount of land under cultivation for economic expansion.[10] The political system in turn depended on land as a resource to reward officeholder.[10] The political elite made territorial expansion an intentional project.[11] According to Claire Mouradian, in Russia "unlike Western Europe, the formation of the empire does not succeed the construction of the state, but accompanies it . . . The concept of the nation and imperial ambition merge".[12]

Internal colonization

According to Vasily Klyuchevsky, Russia has the "history of a country that colonizes itself".[13] Vladimir Lenin saw Russia's underdeveloped territories as internal colonialism.[14] This concept had first been introduced in the context of Russia by August von Haxthausen in 1843.[15] Sergey Solovyov argued that this was because Russia "was not a colony that was separated from the metropolitan land by oceans".[16] For Afanasy Shchapov, this process was primarily driven by ecological imperialism, whereby the fur trade and fishing were driving the conquest of Siberia and Alaska.[17] Other followers of Klyuchevsky identified the forms of colonization driven by military or monastic expansion, among others.[18] Pavel Milyukov meanwhile noted the violence of this self-colonizing process.[19] A similarity was later noted between Russian self-colonialism and the American frontier by Mark Bassin.[16]

Ideologies of Russian imperialism

The territorial expansion of the empire gave the autocratic rulers of Russia additional legitimacy, while also giving the subjugated population a source of national pride.[12] The legitimation of the empire was later done through different ideologies. After the Fall of Constantinople, Moscow named itself the third Rome, following the Roman and Byzantine Empires. In a panegyric letter to Grand Duke Vasili III composed in 1510, Russian monk Philotheus (Filofey) of Pskov proclaimed, "Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!".[20] This led to the concept of a messianic Orthodox Russian nation as the Holy Rus.[21] Russia claimed to be the protector of Orthodox Christians as it expanded into the territories of the Ottoman Empire during wars such as the Crimean War.[22] Under Nicholas I of Russia, Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality became the official state ideology.

In the 19th century, pan-Slavism became a new legitimation theory for the empire.[23] The idea of the Russian world became a key concept and the imperial nation-building of "All-Russian" nationality was embraced by many imperial subjects (including Jews and Germans) and served as the foundation of the Empire.[24] It had first gained in political importance near the end of the 18th century as a means of legitimizing Russian imperial claims to the eastern territories of the partitioned Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.[25] Following the January Uprising in 1863 the Russian government became extremely determined to eliminate all manifestations of separatism.[26] By the second half of the 19th century, Russian publicists adopted, and transformed, the ideology of Pan-Slavism; "convinced of their own political superiority [they] argued that all Slavs might as well merge with the Great Russians."[27]

Russian colonial expansion

From the 16th century onwards Russia conquered, on average, territory the size of the Netherlands every year for 150 years. [11] Russian expansionism has largely benefited from the proximity of the mostly uninhabited Siberia, which has been incrementally conquered by Russia since since the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584).[28] The Russian colonization of Siberia and conquest of its indigenous peoples has been compared to European colonization of the Americas and its natives, with similar negative impacts on the natives and the appropriation of their land.[29]

Eastwards expansion was followed by the Russian colonization of North America across the Pacific Ocean. Russian promyshlenniki (trappers and hunters) quickly developed the maritime fur trade, which instigated several conflicts between the Aleuts and Russians in the 1760s. By the late 1780s, trade relations had opened with the Tlingits, and in 1799 the Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed in order to monopolize the fur trade, also serving as an imperialist vehicle for the Russification of Alaska Natives. The southernmost settlement established in North America was at Fort Ross, California.

In 1858, during the Second Opium War, Russia strengthened and eventually annexed the north bank of the Amur River and the coast down to the Korean border from China in the "Unequal Treaties" of Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860). Russia also gained control of Sakhalin Island. Furthermore, the empire at times controlled concession territories, notably the Kwantung Leased Territory and the Chinese Eastern Railway, both conceded by Qing China, as well as concessions in Tianjin and Dalian.

In the south, the Great Game was a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire over Central and South Asia as Britain feared that Russia planned to invade India and that this was the goal of Russia's expansion in Central Asia, while Russia continued its conquest of Central Asia.[30] Indeed, multiple 19th-century Russian invasion plans of India are attested, including the Duhamel and Khrulev plans of the Crimean War (1853–1856), among later plans that never materialized.[31]

The furthest Russian colonies were in Fort Elizavety and Fort Alexander, Russian forts on the Hawaiian islands, built in the early 19th century by the Russian-American Company as the result of an alliance with High Chief Kaumualiʻi, as well as in Sagallo , a short-lived Russian settlement established in 1889 on the Gulf of Tadjoura in French Somaliland (modern-day Djibouti).

Soviet imperialism

Although the Soviet Union declared itself anti-imperialist, it is argued that it exhibited tendencies common to historic empires.[32][33] This argument is traditionally held to have originated in Richard Pipes's book The Formation of the Soviet Union (1954).[34] Several scholars, such as Seweryn Bialer hold that the Soviet Union was a hybrid entity containing elements common to both multinational empires and nation states.[32][35] It has also been argued that the Soviet Union practiced colonialism similar to conventional imperial powers.[33][36][37] The Soviets pursued internal colonialism in Central Asia. For example, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Joseph Stalin ordered population transfers in the Soviet Union, deporting people (often entire nationalities) to underpopulated remote areas. Maoists argued that the Soviet Union had itself become an imperialist power while maintaining a socialist façade, or social imperialism.[38][39] Another dimension of Soviet imperialism is cultural imperialism, the Sovietization of culture and education at the expense of local traditions.[40] Leonid Brezhnev continued a policy of cultural Russification as part of Developed Socialism, which sought to assert more central control.[41] This and the interventionist Brezhnev doctrine, permitting the invasion of other socialist countries, led to characterisation of the USSR as an empire.[42]

Contemporary Russian imperialism

Russia is the primary recognized successor state to the Soviet Union and it has been accused of trying to bring back post-Soviet states under its rule.[43] Almost all the states initially formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and most later also joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Union State with Belarus was an even stronger form of integration with Russia. Other forms of integration included the economic initiatives of the Eurasian Economic Union and Eurasian Customs Union.

In the political language of Russia and some other post-Soviet states, the term near abroad refers to the independent republics that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Increasing usage of the term in English is connected to assertions of Russia's right to maintain significant influence in the region.[44][45][46] Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the region to be a component of Russia's "sphere of influence", and strategically vital to Russian interests.[46] The concept has been compared to the Monroe Doctrine.[44]

The annexation of Crimea led to a new wave of Russian nationalism, with large parts of the Russian far right movement aspiring to annex even more land from Ukraine, including the unrecognized Novorossiya.[47] Analyst Vladimir Socor proposed that Russian president Vladimir Putin's speech after the annexation of Crimea was a de facto "manifesto of Greater-Russia Irredentism".[48] After the event in Crimea, the Transnistrian authorities requested Russia to annex Transnistria.[49]

On 24 February, Russia formally invaded Ukraine,[50] which is seen as a continuation of Russia's irredentism at the expense of Ukraine.[51] On 27 March 2022, Leonid Pasechnik leader of the LPR said that the Luhansk People's Republic may hold a referendum to join Russia in the near future.[52] On 29 March, Denis Pushilin leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic talked about a similar possibility.[53] On 30 March 2022, South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov announced his intention to begin legal proceedings in the near future for annexation by the Russian Federation.[54]

Contemporary Russian imperialist ideologies

The contemporary Eurasianist ideology was influenced by political theorist Aleksandr Dugin's 1997 Foundations of Geopolitics and the Eurasia Party he later founded on the Russian political scene. Political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov defines Dugin's version of Neo-Eurasianism as "a form of a fascist ideology centred on the idea of revolutionising the Russian society and building a totalitarian, Russia-dominated Eurasian Empire that would challenge and eventually defeat its eternal adversary represented by the United States and its Atlanticist allies, thus bringing about a new ‘golden age’ of global political and cultural illiberalism".[55] This ideology was used to justify Russian imperialist aggression against Ukraine.[56]


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  2. ^ Etkind 2013, p. 26.
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  7. ^ Etkind 2013, p. 19.
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