How Russia Became an Empire
Dominic Lieven on the Rise of a Singularly Remote Global Economy
The founders of the Russian Empire were the rulers of Moscow, an initially small principality formed in the last decades of the 13th century. Moscow’s rulers were descendants of Rurik, the semi-mythical Viking chieftain who had ruled the area around Kiev towards the end of the 9th century. At a pinch one might describe these Vikings as riverborne nomadic war-bands.
In the following four centuries Rurik’s dynasty came to rule over much of today’s European Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Since the Rurikids divided their realms between their sons, by 1200 a maze of mostly tiny principalities covered this vast territory. The most powerful Rurikid by then was the Grand Prince of Vladimir, who dominated the north-eastern territories (“Great Russia”) which became the core of the Muscovite and then Russian state.
Moscow’s princes were a junior branch of the grand princes of Vladimir. For almost 250 years after the Mongol invasions of the 1240s most of the Rurikid lands were part of the empire of Chinggis Khan and his successors. The Chinggisids ruled their Slav subjects indirectly, using the Rurikid princes to extract tribute and transmit it to the ruling khan.
During the fourteenth century Moscow’s rulers emerged as the most powerful princes in “Great Russia.” Their position as “Grand Princes” was recognized both by the Tatar/Mongol khan and by the Orthodox Church, whose patriarch (originally located in Kiev) moved to Moscow for good in the first half of the fourteenth century.
A crucial factor in Moscow’s rise was the fact that whereas rival principalities were divided among many heirs, over four long generations biological chance kept the whole Muscovite inheritance united. This good fortune ended in 1425 when Vasily I died, leaving his adult younger brother and his ten-year-old son (Vasily II) as rival candidates for the throne. The vicious 20-year civil war that followed brought anarchy and the intervention of outside rulers, but Vasily II’s final victory established the inheritance of the undivided realm by male primogeniture as the unchallenged “law” of the realm.
In the century that followed Vasily II’s victory Moscow made the first steps towards empire. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 left Moscow’s rulers the only independent Orthodox monarchs and allowed them to claim the Byzantine imperial heritage. This included the title of tsar (a corruption of “caesar”) and Byzantine imperial rituals, symbols and ideology. All the other Rurikid principalities of Great Russia were absorbed by 1520, as was the vast and wealthy trading state of Novgorod. Ivan IV—”the Terrible” (r. 1547–84)—conquered the main successor states to the Mongol Empire in Europe, the Muslim khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, in the 1550s.
His subsequent attempt to conquer Livonia (today’s Latvia and Estonia) and plant Russian power on the shores of the Baltic Sea overstretched his realm’s resources and resulted in economic and political crisis. Ivan’s reaction to this crisis was massive purges of the ruling elite, including the killing of the junior branch of the Muscovite dynasty and—perhaps—of his eldest son and heir. One plausible explanation for his extreme and counter-productive cruelty is that his brain was increasingly affected by the mercury he took to counter a painful and debilitating disease of the spine.
Largely thanks to Ivan, in 1598 the Moscow dynasty died out, unleashing two decades of anarchy, civil war and foreign intervention known as the Time of Troubles, which culminated in an attempt to set up the Polish king’s son as ruler in Moscow. The Orthodox and proto-nationalist revolt that ensued drove out the Poles and elected as tsar Michael Romanov, a member of an aristocratic family prominent since Moscow’s creation and one which had intermarried with the reigning dynasty.
Memory of the Time of Troubles greatly strengthened the belief that only a powerful and legitimate monarchy could save the Russians from domestic anarchy and foreign domination. This memory was one of the foundation myths of the Romanov dynasty and empire.
Inevitably the political system and traditions of the Muscovite principality were deeply influenced by its geographical setting. No other great sedentary empire in history had a heartland in so northern a latitude, so far from the centers of international trade and culture. Moscow was some 1,300 miles north-east of Constantinople, which was at the center of trading routes that linked the Mediterranean region to Asia from ancient times. It was even further from the Atlantic, which became the center of the global economy from the 18th century.
In civilizational terms Moscow was perched on the furthest periphery of the Orthodox and Byzantine community, which itself by 1450 was much the junior partner in the European and Christian world. Distance from the great trade routes and cultural centers meant relative poverty, few towns and small numbers of merchants, professional men and skilled craftsmen. States able to tap into international trade could place smaller tax burdens on their people.
The overwhelming majority of the tsar’s subjects even in 1700 were peasants, whose “surplus” had to sustain the monarchy and its armies. In most of the world’s great “agrarian” empires peasant farmers lived in densely populated and fertile river valleys. In Russia by contrast the peasantry was thinly sprinkled across a vast but infertile zone. Even in 1750 the empire’s population was smaller than that of France. Distance and climate placed a high tax on all the operations of the Russian state, economy and people. Fixing the population to the soil—in other words serfdom—was the only way to sustain the state, its armed forces and the warrior-landholding elite.
There was nothing at all inevitable in the rise of a powerful state in the Muscovite heartland. If such a state did emerge, however, geography more or less determined how it would seek to expand its power and territory. One reason for the foundation of the city of Moscow was its good water communications with Russia’s greatest river, the Volga, and thereby its links to the Baltic and Caspian seas.
Any state rooted in Moscow would seek to control these waterways and their outlets to the sea, in order to stop its trade being constrained, taxed and interdicted by rival powers. Even more elemental was the drive to expand out of the poor soils of the Muscovite heartland towards the much more fertile land of the steppe.
Still, the geographical location of the Russian heartland did offer some advantages. Its dense network of rivers flowed slowly across a flat landscape and were in most cases easily managed and navigated by the standards even of the Nile, let alone the Yellow River. The remote and densely forested terrain offered some security against nomadic armies. It was even better security against early modern European infantry and artillery-based armies which found it hard to feed themselves on Russian soil and even harder to move across Russia’s vast distances, especially in spring and autumn when all roads dissolved into mud.
Above all, Russia benefited after 1500 from its peripheral location in the European state system, which facilitated its expansion across the whole of northern Asia. Russia would gain enormous wealth from Siberia’s fur, silver and gold, and other minerals. The Russian military and metallurgical industry was created in the Urals in the reign of Peter I “the Great” (r. 1682–1725) and was based on the region’s vast resources of iron and timber. In comparative imperial terms the native forest peoples of Siberia offered weak opposition to Russian expansion.
Already by the end of the 17th century the Russians had reached the Pacific Ocean and had achieved a stable compromise with the Qing Empire, which contributed among other things to the rapid demise of Mongol military nomadism. Not until the emergence of Japan at the end of the nineteenth century did Russia face a serious military threat to its Asian territories. Essentially the Russians had moved into the geopolitical void created by the collapse of the Mongol Empire. Comparisons with the Ottoman experience are illuminating. When the Chinggisid Ilkhanate disintegrated in Iran it was in time replaced by the Safavid dynasty, which quickly became a formidable enemy on the Ottomans’ eastern frontier.
The basic geopolitical imperatives of the Muscovite and then Russian state—in other words control of river-borne trade routes and expansion on to the rich soils of the steppe—were far harder to achieve and faced major opposition. Expansion southwards ran head-on into nomadic warrior communities, above all the Crimean Tatars. Scores of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians were netted by the Crimean slave raids that occurred regularly between 1500 and 1650.
Europe’s first slave-based sugar plantations were in Cyprus with captured Russians and Ukrainians providing the labour. Most of Moscow was burned down in a Crimean Tatar raid as late as 1571. Building and manning the fortified lines that protected Russian colonization as it advanced across the steppe from the 16th to the 18th centuries could only be achieved by a state capable of mobilizing resources and manpower on a considerable scale. Behind the Crimean Tartars stood their overlord, the Ottoman sultan. In military terms the Ottoman Empire was more powerful than Russia until the eighteenth century.
In 1711 the Ottomans came close to destroying Peter the Great and his army and forced the tsar to make a humiliating peace. Even later in the 18th century it took enormous military and logistical efforts to secure Russia’s hold on the northern shore of the Black Sea and thereby make possible the economic development of southern Russia and Ukraine.
For a state rooted in the Moscow region, access to the Baltic was always likely to be an earlier and more credible priority than advancing across the steppe to challenge Ottoman dominance of the distant Black Sea coastline. From early days Russia’s rulers fought on two fronts—northern and southern. Managing diplomatic relations in order to exploit opportunities as they arose in one of these theaters and avoid simultaneous two-front wars required diplomatic skill and experience.
In the early 18th century Russia fulfilled its long-held goal of establishing its control over the south-eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Opening up the trade routes to the booming economies of western and central Europe led to enormous economic gains but it also embroiled Russia in direct competition with the European great powers.
Right down to 1917 the single greatest priority for Russian tsars was to maintain the empire’s security and status in competition with the economically and culturally more advanced great powers to its west. This continued to be true for the tsars’ communist successors. Any state whose roots lay in the bare Muscovite heartland and which evolved through surmounting these geopolitical challenges was unlikely to be a model of liberty and benevolence.
Once again, comparisons with the Ottomans are to the point. The Russian and Ottoman empires were located on the immediate periphery of Latin Europe in an era (1500–1918) when European power grew enormously and came to dominate the world. The Russian people paid a high price for the creation of an often ruthlessly exploitative state and its military machine.
On the other hand, as we have seen, Ottoman failure to sustain the state’s military power led in time to the killing or ethnic cleansing of millions of Muslims in the empire’s northern borderlands and European domination and even colonization of the Islamic heartlands. By the traditional measure of empire—in other words military power and glory—Russia did much better than the Ottomans in the 18th century.
Leadership was a major factor in Russian success and Ottoman failure in this geopolitical competition. Two longer-term structural factors were also vital to Russian success: first, the creation of an effective but ruthless system to control and mobilize Russian manpower through serfdom and conscription into the armed forces: and, second, the rapid westernization of Russian elites.
In long-term historical perspective it is easy to see the awful hatreds and brutality of the Russian Revolution as in part a belated revenge against exploitative but also culturally alien rulers. There were no easy or cheap answers to the geopolitical challenges faced by the Russians or Ottomans in the early modern and modern eras.
From IN THE SHADOW OF THE GODS by Dominic Lieven, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.