In this introductory chapter to the excellent second volume of the Cambridge History of Russia, D. Lieven reflects on the nature of Russia as an imperial polity, and in doing so provides a potted history of power and diplomacy across eighteenth and nineteenth-century Eurasia. Many of the points are familiar from his earlier Empire (London, 2000), but presented here in more concentrated form. With remarkable clarity D. Lieven explains the geographical peculiarities of Russia’s position on the margins of Europe, which provided her with both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand her vast (and constantly expanding) territory was sparsely populated, poor in resources and difficult to control, whilst lengthy land frontiers, long lines of communication and widely dispersed naval strongpoints rendered her vulnerable to attack and imposed a crippling military burden on her population. On the other hand, as with Britain, being on the margins of Europe gave her room to expand, taking advantage of the relative lack of military resistance after the destruction of the Golden Horde. This lengthened her frontiers still further, but also provided greater resources (in particular the mineral deposits of the Urals, and later the agricultural riches of Ukraine and Western Siberia). D. Lieven illustrates his points with apposite comparisons: The Ottoman Empire, another peripheral European power, was far more formidable than Muscovy in the early seventeenth century, but one hundred years later had clearly declined in relative terms when compared with Russia. The Habsburg Empire was richer and more closely governed, but failed to expand, and was only able to manage (but not solve) the new challenges of ethnic nationalism by weakening the state internally to a far greater degree than Russia. Spain’s maritime empire benefitted from far greater wealth and more rapid and secure communications than Russia, but its dependence on the sea became a source of vulnerability once naval supremacy was lost to the British, and its decline after 1700 was more rapid and catastrophic than that of any other European power.
Judged in terms of pure realpolitik, D. Lieven argues, Imperial Russia, so often thought of as a ‘failure’ because of the long shadow cast by 1917, was in fact remarkably successful in creating and projecting power across Eurasia and Eastern Europe, although it was brought up short in the Far East in 1904-5. Even compared with the supposed archetypes of European success ― the French and British Empires ― it left a more durable legacy than either. The price paid by its subjects, however, was a ruthless extraction of surplus value by the state for military purposes, and the absence of the legal, political and civil liberties which were gradually gaining ground in the rest of Europe. Whilst I would agree with D. Lieven’s thesis on the strengths and weaknesses of Russian foreign policy in this period, his account of the internal structures of the empire is largely derived from Geoffrey Hosking’s work, and as such perhaps exaggerates the extent to which the Russians were ‘victims’ of their own state. The co-option of non-Russian aristocratic élites, which D. Lieven identifies as a key tactic of Imperial rule, was much more important in the first half of the nineteenth century than the second, and whilst it makes sense when applied to Baltic Germans or Georgians, was never applied in the same way to Central Asian Muslims. Most non-Russian peoples were excluded from the fledgling civic and legal community which began to emerge in the ‘core’ areas of Russia after the Great Reforms. The rise of state-sponsored Russian nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had profoundly unpleasant consequences for many non-Russian nationalities which D. Lieven rather ignores. These tendencies represented a loss of faith in older techniques of ‘imperial management’ in the face of growing minority nationalism: Russia’s attempted solutions to these problems were less enlightened and humane than those of the Habsburgs, and equally ineffective. As D. Lieven says, such problems were probably insoluble within a traditional imperial framework: Even the British had to admit defeat in their one attempt to build empire within Europe, and leave Ireland in 1922.
Overall then, ‘Russia as empire and periphery’ is the best short introduction to the geopolitics of the empire one could wish for, one which firmly rejects narratives of ‘failure’, but also old clichés about Russian exceptionalism, and instead sees the empire for what it was: namely one of a number of powerful multi-ethnic polities struggling to cope with the external demands of military competition and the internal challenge of nationalism, in which it was certainly not the least successful. Indeed, if one looks forward to the Soviet period (which D. Lieven, understandably, does not) one sees the emergence of new ways of managing diversity which allowed the empire to survive territorially far longer than any of its erstwhile rivals.