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. 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.” 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 …

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