The Empire’s New Clothes

In 1914 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding for over four centuries at an average daily rate of fifty-five square miles, or more than 20,000 square miles a year.

At first this seems an absurd statistic, the sort of mistake made by people who can’t remember how many zeros make a million. How could any country, over a period of four hundred years, annually absorb territory almost twice the size of Belgium? But Nobel Prize winners understand about zeros—Nansen won his in 1922 for relief work in Russia—and a glance at a pre-Yeltsin atlas makes the calculation comprehensible. As Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac point out in their estimable book Tournament of Shadows, Siberia alone is much larger than the continental United States.

In the eighteenth century, after absorbing Siberia, tsarist Russia concentrated on the west and the south, collecting territories stretching in a long arc from the Baltic to the Black Sea. During the subsequent hundred years Russia’s forces moved southeast, from the Caspian to the Aral Sea, from the Aral to the borders of Afghanistan and the Chinese Empire.

Samarkand, Bokhara, and Tashkent fell as the independent khanates of Central Asia were overthrown. In 1800, two thousand miles separated the tsarist realms from the frontier of British India; by 1876 the distance had been halved, and before the century was over the outposts of the world’s two largest empires were barely a dozen miles apart in the mountains on India’s northwest frontier.

Perhaps these Russian conquests were inspired by historic memories of ancestral humiliation, the desire to avenge the Mongol invasions, the exhilaration of colonizing the heartland of the Golden Horde. Perhaps too there was a vague belief that occupation of the empty steppe was the strategic key to the domination of Asia. But the circumstances of the age were surely more vital—the excitement of military adventure, the restlessness of officers with nothing much to do after losing the Crimean War. Why shouldn’t Russians use Asia as Europeans were using the American continent? If the North Americans hadn’t stopped until they hit the Pacific, why should Russia hold back before it reached China and India? In any case, what was wrong with aspiring to invade India when Britain was tiresomely thwarting Russia’s aim of dismembering Turkey and grabbing Constantinople?

This expansionism was explained in terms similar to those used by other colonial powers: trade, security, the imperative of “civilizing” savage tribes—though the Russian mission civilisatrice was expounded a little more brutally than was usual in Western Europe. As Nikolai Przhevalsky, a brilliant explorer, argued, the Asian conquests were not only glorious for Russia but were victories for mankind: “Carbine bullets and rifled cannon bear those elements of civilization which would otherwise be very long in coming to the petrified realms of the Inner Asian khans.”

The Western ambassadors in St. Petersburg remained baffled by the number of distinct and often contradictory policies emanating simultaneously from different corners of…

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