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Russia: Unmanifest Destiny


Foreigners have tended to see Russia as a state with an excessive appetite for land, whereas Russians have tended to see themselves as a naturally restless people. It is a matter of national pride to Russians, even of national identity, that their borders stretch for thousands of miles in every direction, enclosing a space far larger than they can settle or order. Between the middle of the sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century Russia added territory equal in size to the Netherlands, on average, every year.1 In the eighteenth century it continued to expand, pushing deeper into the southern “steppe”—the huge belt of largely treeless prairie running from the Volga region to the Black Sea—and partitioning Poland.

Western Europeans viewed Russia’s growth as a sign of fearful vigor, especially once Russia had defeated Napoleon’s armies in 1812. Some thought it only a matter of time before Russia overwhelmed all of Europe, much as the barbarians had done the ancient Roman Empire. The comparison was encouraged by the popularity of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776–1788. The Western Europeans did not quite see the Russians as barbarians, but they did see enough of the East in them to make them think of Russia as straddling the very edge of civilization.

Richard Pipes has suggested two main reasons for Russia’s seeming obsession with territorial gain. One has been the low productivity of Russian agriculture, meaning a constant search for new and better soil. The other has been the deep imprint supposedly left on Russia by the process of state formation in the fourteenth century, when the Muscovite princes established their power by defeating and annexing competing principalities. They and their successors, says Pipes, “instinctively identified sovereignty with the acquisition of territory.”2 To these factors we may venture to add a supplementary, if a rather self-evident, one. Russia took much of its land because the land was there for the taking, often ill-defended (save, notably, for parts of the Caucasus) and bordering on its existing domains.3 This pattern is a large factor in the colonization of the southern steppe, which is the story told in Willard Sunderland’s careful study Taming the Wild Field. The settlement of the steppe between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries came more as a matter of incremental opportunity than of foreign policy, once the key military victories were won over the Tatar (or Mongol) strongholds at Kazan and Astrakhan in the seventeenth century, and Crimea in the eighteenth. “There was no sense that the steppe, because it was a place filling with colonists, was itself a colony separated from the metropole. Instead, the prevailing view was that the steppe was simply Russian,” writes Sunderland. There is an obvious parallel here with America’s opening of the West, save that, for the Russians, the taking of the steppe is overshadowed in national mythology by the settling of Siberia—as if America, after taking the West, had set off to incorporate Canada up to the Arctic.

The special value of Sunderland’s book lies in its emphasis on the texture of steppe life in the period of colonization, with the actions and policies of the central government taking second place. Sunderland has drawn on archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also on those in the regional cities of the old steppe provinces, which were much less accessible to foreigners in Communist times. These additional sources, Sunderland says, have not provided “obvious documentary evidence that would lead to wholesale reinterpretations” of the period. But he comes away from his foraging in Orenburg and Ufa, Odessa and Simferopol, feeling that the effort has been essential to his book. He finds that

working from the vantage point of the old steppe provinces as opposed to the imperial centers of Petersburg and Moscow, one perceives the empire differently. The center seems far away; the region looks more like a world unto itself. One can still follow the lines of high imperial policy emanating from the capital, but one also sees more clearly the diversities and complexities of regional life and the frequent disconnect between regional realities and metropolitan expectations…. Governors writing to St Petersburg…created generalizations and discarded vignettes, aimed for clarity and smoothed over contradiction.

The imperial Russian government emerges from these pages as a thin presence on the steppe itself, where chaos often reigns as old and new arrivals jostle for land. The distant bureaucrats in St. Petersburg seem at times to view the advance into virgin lands less as a national triumph, and more as an inconvenience to their established routines. Their endless decrees and instructions, their elaborate codes of permits and paperwork, are intended to “move colonists at the pace bureaucratic exactitude required,” Sunderland notes. But “land hunger and simply hunger,” he finds, “determined a different pace.”

In the early years the government worried that if it spared too many peasants to settle the steppe, it would depopulate the interior and anger the landowners who wanted their serfs at home. Catherine the Great found one obvious partial solution. She invited foreigners to make up the numbers, and 100,000 came, one fifth of all the steppe settlers during her reign. She was encouraged by advisers such as Peter Simon Pallas, a German-born zoologist. “The Russian peasant is good only for [arable] farming,” Pallas told her, whereas the Black Sea region demanded “orchard planting, viticulture, silk farming…. To realize these possibilities, we will need instead Asiatic colonists or hard-working emigrants from France, Germany or Italy.” The advice was followed, and the Black Sea shores became a jollier and more cosmopolitan place. Odessa retains to this day, for all its post-Soviet fatigue, a blend of Mediterranean and Levantine charm.

But resentment of the cost of importing foreigners, coupled with anxiety over having too many of them in the country, encouraged Catherine’s successors to close the door soon after 1800. By then Russia’s new lands and crops were encouraging a demographic boom which made the foreigners much less needed. The population of Russia rose from fewer than 18 million in 1750 to 69 million in 1850, and would almost double again in the half- century that followed. The steppe swelled and prospered. By the late 1880s there were steamers running down the Volga, an opera house opening in Odessa as grand as that of Vienna, and Petersburgers wallowing in mud spas at Astrakhan. To Russian historians of the nineteenth century who evaluated this congenial outcome, Sunderland writes, “it was not clear in every instance whether [the Russians] had colonized their own country or someone else’s.”


That formulation, and variants upon it, have been something of a favorite among scholars of Russia. Sunderland cites the nineteenth-century historian Vasily Kliuchevsky, who famously asserted as “the basic fact of Russian history” that Russia was “a country that colonizes itself.” This practice would not preclude colonizing other countries as well, but Russians saw the steppe as so handsome and so integral a part of their own country that they quickly persuaded themselves that it must always have been theirs. The eighteenth-century polymath Vasily Tatishchev—to whom we owe the idea of the Urals as the boundary between Europe and Asia—supplied a revised history of the steppe which fitted the Russian mood. He declared that the Slavs had resided “from time immemorial in the environs of the Black and Caspian Seas,” before they had migrated westward, meaning that the steppe was the Russians’ most ancient home. As for the touches of exoticism which the steppe had brought with it—such as the Buddhist Kalmyks who had arrived there from Xinjiang in 1608, and the Turkic Bashkirs noted by travelers down the Volga as far back as 922—they served as a pleasing reminder to Russians that their country was, if European by disposition, something much greater and stranger by geography.

The idea that any wrong might have been done to the tribes and peoples, of Mongol and other descent, that were colonized along with the steppe did not strike Russians forcefully at the time, nor has it done so since. After notions of anthropology took hold in the eighteenth century, and the loss of older cultures became a matter for scholarly regret, the Russian rulers tempered that regret with the belief that they were “natural” and “tolerant” in their treatment of conquered people, and certainly more so than their European counterparts. They also believed that they had been much more sinned against than sinning in their dealings down the centuries with the Tatars (as they called the Mongols). They chafed still, five hundred years later, at the Mongols’ harassment of the Russian principalities in the thirteenth century, which they called the “Tatar yoke.” They saw the Tatars, Sunderland observes, not as the Russians’ victims, but as their “primordial victimizers.”

Viewed from the other side, of course, colonization is rarely the enlightened process that it will appear later from the records of the colonizers. We cannot hope now to know how the steppe tribes evaluated their experience of the Russians. But an abundant literature is available, and growing rapidly, on the experiences of those who lived under the Russian Empire in its most recent incarnation, as the Soviet Union. Sigrid Rausing has made an intriguing addition to this literature with her History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, an anthropological study which takes as its subject a collective farm in the west of Estonia, on a peninsula inhabited before the Communist period by a Swedish-speaking minority. Most of the Swedish speakers fled before the Soviet occupation began in 1944, but the sentimental ties were strong enough to encourage a flow of Swedish aid and Swedish visitors to the peninsula after the occupation ended in 1991. Rausing bases her book on fieldwork done in 1993, and adds an epilogue written in 2002. Much of it is given over to a striking and subtle analysis of the interplay between Swedish and Estonian cultures; but of central interest here are the relations of the Estonians with the Russians (or Soviets).

Many of the views of the Russians which Rausing collects will be immediately recognizable, in their tone and preoccupation, to anyone who has visited the Baltic countries since. She finds that

the idea of the Russians, or rather the idea of the working-class Russians, was a national obsession in Estonia. There was a constructed opposition between the two cultures, so that what the Estonians were, the Russians were not…. The dirt and disorder of the Russians were described as disturbing the order and cleanliness of the Estonians. Like the Turks, the Russians in Estonia were seen as only borderline Europeans…. They were described as pushy, cruel, rootless, dangerous, powerful, deceitful and sentimental. At the same time they were seen as intelligent, hospitable, and impulsive. They were regarded as followers of leaders, lacking proper individuality as well as thrift and forethought. They hovered in between the roles of colonizers and natives; happy-go-lucky and hospitable, lacking industry, application and predictability, drinking and letting themselves down.

  1. 1

    Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime (Scribner, 1974), p. 83.

  2. 2

    Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime, pp. 118–119.

  3. 3

    Russian troops did encounter some fierce popular resistance, notably in the Caucasus region, which it suppressed brutally. Chechnya’s fight against Russian rule has continued, through Soviet times, to this day, giving rise most recently to the hostage-taking and massacre in Beslan, North Ossetia.

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