Relapses of 19th-Century Imperialist Policies
No. 3 2015 July/September
Sultan Akimbekov

Sultan Akimbekov is Director of the Institute of World Economy and Politics under the Foundation of the First President of Kazakhstan.

Why Russia May Not Do What Others Do

This article was published in Russian in Tsentr Azii magazine, No. 3 (97), 2015.

Now that the conflict in Ukraine has entered a somewhat less acute phase, a major global conflict – between Russia and the West – is coming to the fore. The main question now is not how and when this conflict will end and who will be the winner, but what Russia will be like after its confrontation with the West is over. What policy will it conduct? Will it be able to use the energy of this crisis to power its own development? The latter is especially important since Russia is not satisfied with the overall results of its development over the last 25 years, when it has been following in the footsteps of the West, borrowing its models and concepts and trying to adapt them to its own realities.

It goes without saying that there will be no winners in the conflict between Russia and the West. And it is not a question of economic losses from mutual sanctions or general deterioration of relations between the two conflicting parties. It is essentially a clash between two parts of one whole that is important, because Russia is still part of one European civilization, no matter how ardently Russians may claim a “special” civilizational place for their country.

Different but Equal

Of course, Russia has always differed from Western Europe, above all, in the principles of state organization. Oriental despotism as a rigid hierarchical system of governance was never typical of Europe where relationships were built along horizontal lines. The Church, cities, princes and emperors for centuries were engaged in struggle for power with each other.

Russia has always positioned itself as heir of the Byzantine Empire, with its typically Oriental centralization of power, although it would be more logical to assume that in this respect Russia was much closer to the Mongol Empire which ruled over Russia for two centuries. But in either case – Byzantine or Mongol – Oriental despotism was the main method of state organization. In Byzantium, it was somewhat milder, but even there the Church, for example, was part of the system of government. In the Mongol Empire, the level of despotism was higher.

Hence the immense power of the centralized state in Russia, which became part of European politics during the rule of Peter the Great. A strong centralized state of the Oriental despotic type can concentrate most of society’s resources in its hands and then use them to implement large-scale construction projects, keep huge armies, conquer new territories or build rich art collections.

Yet this system significantly reduces opportunities for people who are viewed solely as a source of resources. This explains the low degree of individual independence of people in centralized Oriental despotic states. An illustrative example is the history of relations between the population of Italian merchant republics and the Byzantine Empire and its successor Ottoman Empire.

The small yet very active Republics of Venice and Genoa for hundreds of years pressured the sluggish Byzantine Greeks into concessions. Yet in 1453 they held most lines of defense against the Ottomans in Constantinople, and though not professional soldiers but merchants and sailors, they fought better than the local population. Later, Venice for centuries waged wars against the huge Ottoman Empire. Suffice it to mention the War of Candia on the Island of Crete, which lasted 22 years, with one small republic fighting a large empire.

Individual qualities are crucial for obtaining professional skills. An individually free person learns better and is much more motivated than unfree people in despotic empires. For example, Mikhail Lomonosov, the best-known scientist in the times of Catherine the Great, was born not far from Arkhangelsk into a family of the Pomors, a term referring to Russian settlers who lived on the White Sea coast. The Pomors were a sub-ethnic group who knew no serfdom and had strong individualistic values. This was why the Russian Empire for centuries imported from Europe doctors, teachers, engineers, generals and officers, and later managers. The Ottoman Empire did the same, but its efforts were limited naturally for religious reasons.

Russia attracted many foreigners with ample opportunities and lucrative payments. After all, it is always easier to hire a trained specialist than spend much time and effort to train local workers. The latter were trained in large numbers too, including abroad, but the “import of brains” was the main permanent distinction of the Russian Empire.

In any case, Russia took advantage of its position vis-à-vis large but disunited Europe. It had a huge army, which could be used at crucial moments in political battles on the European continent. Moreover, this army did not have to be paid as it consisted of forcibly recruited peasants. Europe might not like Russia for its “Asiatic” customs, and many travelers who visited Russia wrote critical stories about it, but many Europeans loved Russian money and could not ignore Russia’s military might.

In addition, Russian elites were part of the elites of Greater Europe. They shared the same values and had the same tastes and habits. Europe saw that Russian elites with German roots ruled the masses of Slavic peasants in Russia’s “Asia” with the same German thoroughness as German noblemen from Austria and Germany did in Slavic Eastern Europe. This is why, for example, the partitioning of Poland in the 18th century was an internal affair of two German empires – Austria and Prussia – and the Russian Empire, with Germans holding most of the senior positions in governing bodies. They divided between themselves a weak state that had failed to fit its system of government into the Western system of coordinates, although Catholic Poland had been there for centuries.

The end of the 18th century was a time of powerful centralized empires. Although they differed from one another (for example, Austria and Prussia had Magdeburg Rights that granted self-government to towns, whereas Russia did not have such rights), they were mutually related at the imperial or dynastic levels. In those times, Russia was considered a very European country.

Among laggards

The 19th century was a time of colonial expansion, but Russia was  lagging behind in this process, along with other continental empires, Austria and Prussia. The latter became Germany in 1871. After the victorious conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Germany had no room for expansion to the neighboring countries, whereas Russia and Austria, which became Austria-Hungary soon after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, had such possibilities. The Austro-Hungarian Empire moved into the Balkans, while the Russian Empire advanced into neighboring Asian territories. And again, Russia was a European country, and many of its brightest representatives of that time shared the idea of promoting European culture in backward Asia.

However, technological progress in Europe in the 19th century, which was accompanied by dramatic social changes, brought to the fore the issue of government efficiency in old continental empires. This especially concerned Russia and Austria-Hungary. Russia lost the Crimean War (1853-1856) mainly due to ineffective state organization. Its military machine, which had been the basis of the empire’s power, proved to be cumbersome and inefficient. Earlier, in 1848, the Austrian Empire found itself in a very dangerous situation because of the Hungarian national movement, and it survived only due to Russia’s military assistance.

Although Austria had much in common with Germany, its complex ethnic composition (apart from ethnic Germans, the Austro-Hungarian population also included Slavs, Hungarians and Romanians) limited the country’s capabilities. Its ethnic heterogeneity, amid growing national movements, impeded the development of parliamentary institutions. For example, in the Hungarian part of the monarchy ethnic Hungarians fully prevailed over ethnic Romanians, Croats and Slovaks, who depended on them, and did not want any change.

Meanwhile, German states unified into a Prussian-dominated Germany after the revolutions of 1848-49. They made their conclusions and started major changes in their political system. The German parliamentary system became a very important element of government. But in fact, German, or any other Western European, parliamentarianism was a result of the development of the local government system, which had always existed in European cities. Suffice it to recall Hanseatic cities and the aforementioned Magdeburg Rights.

In the Russian Empire, things were much more difficult. Serfdom was abolished only in 1861, when its anachronism became all too obvious. After the Crimean War, Alexander II launched partial reforms to change the situation in the country. And again, the driving motive behind these efforts was Russia’s European identity.

Following its defeat in the Crimean War, Russia had big problems in relations with Europe. The European victors did not treat Russia as an equal European power and sought to restrain it militarily and politically. In addition, European democratic movements criticized Russia for its archaism, and the Western press wrote disapprovingly about the country. Karl Marx’s articles on the Crimean War would provide enough proof of that. This situation could not but worry the Russian elites. In response to the changes in Europe’s intellectual space, there emerged a Slavophile movement in Russia, pochvennichestvo,  which sought to reconcile Russia’s educated society and its peasantry. Russian intellectuals defended Russia’s originality and its “special path.” But for the aristocracy and the ruling dynasty, nothing had changed in their relations with Europe.

Taking advantage of changes in the international situation after the defeat of France in 1871, Russia denounced the terms of the unequal Treaty of Paris of 1856. Then its policy became aggressive again. In 1877, it defeated Turkey in another Balkan war, entered into rivalry with Britain (known as “The Great Game”), and actively advanced towards Afghanistan in the south and China in the east. But in 1905, Russia suffered a heavy defeat in the war with Japan, which again was caused by the inefficiency of Russian industry and government.

The defeat was a heavy blow to the Russian elites, impressed by Japan’s technological progress. Russia was the only European country to lose not just an individual battle (both the British and the French had had such embarrassments, too) but a full-blown war. Yet, Russia was still regarded as a European power and needed to do something to change its position, especially in view of the Revolution of 1905 triggered by the defeat from Japan.

Revolutions and reforms

The Revolution of 1905-1907 brought about drastic changes in Russia. The country started reforms, stopped its rivalry with Britain and divided their spheres of influence in Asia, established an alliance with Britain and France, and focused on its own economic development. The latter largely relied on French and British loans which ensured the rapid growth of the Russian economy on the eve of the First World War. But foreign funding tied up St. Petersburg with political commitments. Russia entered the First World War in the hope that the allies would reward it with territories in the Ottoman Empire, including the Black Sea straits.

World War I exposed many of Russia’s problems. These included not only archaic industry, which could not produce enough arms and ammunition, but also difficulties in governing the vast territory in wartime. In many ways it was the latter factor that paralyzed the transport system, creating supply shortages in the capital and provoking mass protests in February 1917. These transport problems also prevented the government from bringing more troops into St. Petersburg to suppress the protests. The war put an end to the isolation of peasant communes in Russia.  Peasants began to leave their communes, and this played a fatal role in the history of the empire.

There were essential differences between the revolutions that led to the demise of four empires after World War I. The situation in the Austro-Hungarian and German empires quickly stabilized after the collapse of their ruling dynasties simply because they were a kind of superstructure over a broad system of self-governing societies. The disappearance of the ruling dynasties was a personal tragedy for the aristocracy and the small top-level segments of society, but not for the majority of people. However, the fall of the dynasties and the formation of nation-states only occasionally affected the property of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and the living standard of people. Although there happened some ethnic excesses, for example, the expulsion of Austrian Germans from Marburg, now Maribor, or the exodus of ethnic Germans and Hungarians from Bratislava, formerly known as Pressburg, things did not change much in everyday life

In contrast, the fall of the superstructures in the Russian and Ottoman empires had a devastating effect. This was not because of the dynasties, represented by weak rulers who were only shadows of the once mighty imperial families. This was because of the state organization. Unlike Germany, Austria-Hungary and other European states, Russia did not have effective local government institutions. They were established formally during the reforms of the 1860s-70s but proved unstable. This is why the revolution shook the whole society and the entire system of social relations.

The turmoil of the Civil War in Russia created public chaos. There emerged various forms of people’s self-organization, ranging from archaic ones, like “Cossack communal self-government” and peasant’s republics in Siberia, the Volga region and Ukraine, to military dictatorships and attempts to establish parliamentary rule (Komuch in the Volga region). The variety of forms of self-organization during the Civil War not only attested to the crisis of the social model that existed in the former Russian Empire but also showed that this model did not correspond to European standards.

Russian Bolsheviks formally relied on the idea of public self-government through the so-called Councils of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. But in the end, they built a classical Oriental bureaucratic state with a strong vertical power system. Perhaps, it was in the Soviet period that the territory of the former Russian Empire separated from the European space. Paradoxically, the ideology of Marxism, borrowed from Europe, which viewed socialism as a post-capitalist stage, transformed in Russia into the ideology of a bureaucratic state, which abolished not only capitalism but also self-government.

It was the same Oriental despotic society where the communist bureaucracy acted as a collective despot. But this system provided the state and the ruling bureaucracy with enormous resources, which Russian monarchs could not even dream of. The Soviet Union used these resources to create an alternative to Europe and the European path of development. For the first time in Russia’s history, it did not have to catch up with Europe in terms of development. For the first time it became an independent center of attraction for many countries in the world. For the first time it could shape the agenda and be a real leader in technology. The Soviet Union was not a European periphery.

Lagging behind again

But the resources did not last long, and the system’s overstrain proved to be too great. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, things returned to the old situation. The post-Soviet countries, primarily Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, have become European peripheries again, however disappointing this may be to them. Naturally, this annoys their elites and the biggest part society.

However, some countries feel different about it. In Ukraine, for example, a significant part of society and elites are willing to follow in the footsteps of other East European countries, which have become European peripheries. The New Europe has drawn many countries that do not meet its basic standards into its orbit, and now it is not as homogeneous as it wanted to be after the settlement of all disagreements among its major powers – France, Britain and Germany. These disagreements caused many conflicts and two world wars. Today there is no room for conflict. Europe seeks to become homogeneous, but this is a thorny path, as proved by Greece’s experience.

Whatever problems Europeans may face at home, no one in Eastern Europe speaks of a special civilizational path. Moreover, even Serbia, which has always emphasized its close ties with Russia and which survived two wars with united Europe in the 1990s, is still eager to join the EU. Serbs are ready to support Russia mentally, but no more than that. Even Greece, where the radical left have come to power, supported anti-Russian sanctions.

By and large, Russia does not have much influence among Orthodox countries in the Balkans, as it did in the 19th century. But most important is that no one in Eastern Europe, even among Moscow’s old historical allies, believes that Russia’s current revolt against its status of European periphery will produce any concrete result.
The issue of result is crucial. Russia is again lagging behind the West. It has to import specialists again, while its own talents find no use at home. Russian products lose competition to foreign ones, and Russia again depends on Western loans. It looks like things have returned to where they were before World War I.

In this situation, the current conflict between Russia and the West stems from Russian society’s protest against being a European periphery. But can Russia offer an alternative to the European path of development? This is a very interesting question, because the first reaction of the Russian elites to the conflict with the West was an idea to turn towards the East. In other words, the East is now viewed as an alternative to the West or, to be more precise, to the European civilization.

Naturally, Russia is also a great Asian country not only because it lies in two continents, and its eastern regions are adjacent to the leading Asian centers – China, Japan and South Korea. Russia used to be a part of Asia mainly due to the principles of its state organization, which were partly borrowed from the Mongol empire. But it would be more accurate to say that Russia always had a dual identity: Asian and European at the same time. In Asia, it looked like a natural part of Europe, while Europeans always spoke about Asian features in the organization and life of the Russian state and society.

However, whereas Russia’s presence in Asia as a first-rate European power looked quite logical before WWI, now it seeks to play on the contrast between fast-developing Asia and old imperial Europe. But Russia cannot be placed among the leading Asian countries like China, as there is too much difference between their objectives, economic potentials and interests, and there is a high probability that Russia may become dependent on them. For the new Asia, Russia is the “prodigal son” of Europe or Western civilization, and many people in Asia understand that Moscow’s return to its former relations with the West is only a matter of time.

So we can assume that Russia’s present turn to the East is only an attempt to defend its former status. In fact, Moscow is ready to play the role of one more empire among other European or Western empires, as it did before the 1917 revolution. In other words, it is ready to participate, along with British, French, German, and American troops, in a certain operation, like the one that took place in the early 20th century when the Great Powers suppressed the Boxer (Yihetuan) Rebellion aimed against the presence of Europeans in China, and captured Beijing. This is why Moscow and the West are ready for dialogue to settle various conflicts.

For Russia, the problem is that there are no more competing empires in the West. There is the collective West. For all possible differences between Western countries, such as the spying scandal with the U.S. eavesdropping on Germans, they still act together. All decisions they make, even controversial ones, like the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, are made together.

*  *  *

The current conflict between Russia and the West largely stems from Moscow’s belief that it not only deserves to be part of a unified decision-making system but also has the right to a special role in the Western orchestra. Meanwhile, the West believes that it has given Russia enough room within its space and does not want it to play a special role. And, of course, the West wants Russia to observe the rules of the game if it wants to be part of one system.

Now there is mutual misunderstanding, almost a split, between Russia and the West, which many experts believe may evolve into a new Cold War. But it may be, on the contrary, the last rearguard action of a declining great empire and its last attempt to retain its former status. If this attempt fails, which is quite possible given Russia’s economic problems, it will have to return to the Western civilization but on worse terms than it had before 2014.

Centuries ago, the once great Byzantine Empire found itself on the periphery of the Christian world, where formerly it used to be the center. The empire declined for a long time, occasionally trying to change the situation. In the last centuries of its existence, the ailing centralized empire slowly but surely lost out not only to the whole of the West but even to just two Italian merchant republics – Venice and Genoa. On top of that, there emerged one more threat – formidable Asia with its rising Ottoman Empire.

If you cannot shape the agenda, you will find yourself on the periphery, where everything is very unstable. You can conduct an independent imperial policy, but only if you have enough resources of your own and if such a policy is more common in the world. A nineteenth-century imperial policy is an anachronism in the modern world. Objectively speaking, post-Soviet Russia has returned to the nineteenth century, and it thinks that Western powers conduct the same policy. It is not able to understand why it may not do what others do.