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Builders of an Empire

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Builders of an Empire


Aleksandr Gorianin

How did the Russian Empire arise? What tied it together? Why were the Russians, rather than anyone else, able to create the most expansive state on Earth? Who else took active part in its formation? What was it like for individual nations within the empire—did they see it as a prison or a family? You can read about all of this in the latest work of the historian Aleksandr Gorianin.

Only people unacquainted with history could fault Russia for having an empire. There are dozens of empires in human memory. Any country that was able to become an empire became one. Ancient Rome first annexed neighboring lands and then, once they had crossed the seas, began annexing the lands beyond those seas. The states that inherited Rome acted in the same way. England annexed Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and then started annexing lands beyond the seas. In a similar way (speaking approximately, of course), the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Byzantium, the French colonial empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the German empire of the kaisers wereall formed. Other empiresthose of Karl the Great, the Great Mongols, the Incas, the Timurid dynasty, the Hapsburgs (it’s a long list)joined together neighboring lands, without crossing the sea.

Should Russia have been an exception to this rule? Certainly not. Differences in the characteristics of these empires are a whole other story. Not only can they overshadow typological similarities, but they are often more important than any similarity. What causes empires to expand?

Lets start with ways in which the Russian Empire was not much different from contemporary empires. There exist, for instance, clear parallels between the colonization of Siberia and the colonization of North America, between the Russian conquest of the Caucasus and the British conquest of the mountain regions of Scotland. The English historian Hugh Seton-Watson talks about this in his book The New Imperialism. The inclusion of the Finno-Ugric and Turkish nations of the Northern and Volga Regions reminds one of how France absorbed Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, and Provence.

Safety concerns have always occupied an important place among the reasons why empires expand. What was the primary motive for Austrias push to the south? The Austrians couldnt forget the Turkish invasions of Hungary and Transylvania, or the siege of Vienna by the forces of Mehmed IV in 1683, and as Turkey grew weak, they gradually annexed parts of the Balkans, thereby expanding their “safety cushion.”

A station on the Simbirsk line of fortification (reconstruction). Photo:

The Grand Duchy of Moscow (which took the name of the Tsardom of Russia in 1547) had similar reasons for advancing into the steppe. Over the centuries, Russians built fortification lines, ramparts, and fortress-cities in order to place pressure on their historical enemies, such as the Great Horde, the Nogai Horde, the Crimean Khanate, and its ally Astrakhan. After many dozens of attacks (which on more than one occasion reached Moscow) and countless burned and plundered cities and displaced persons, Russia was forced to radically eliminate the threat, and this was done, although it took more than one century.

In the eighteenth century, a no less important problem arose: Russia had to regain a section of Great Novgorod that had been seized by the Swedes in 1617, when Russia was weakened after the Time of Troubles. This section of seacoast with harbors was absolutely essential to a vast empire flexing its muscles. And this was also done.

Keeping the Promise

There was another reason for expanding southward. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 Russia saw itself as the last Orthodox power (not counting the minor Walachian prince Dracula). Russia saw itself as the only truly Christian realm in the world, whose duty consisted of liberating the Greeks, protecting Georgia, and defending all Orthodox believers living under infidels or Latinates. This moral promise by Russia remained in strength for 464 years.

Georgia was closer than Greece. The first Georgian embassy to swear allegiance to the Russian tsar came to Moscow back in 1491. Georgias dream of becoming Russian subjects came true only 310 years later, during which time they renewed their petitions and oaths many times. Georgian émigrés in Moscow and later Petersburg constantly lobbied this issue. It was not unusual for Georgian rulers and princes to join the number of émigrés, along with their courts. The devout Tsar Alexis I would cry over the fate of his Orthodox brethren, but what could he do? These petitions to be accepted as subjects meant little without a military presence in place. Later tsars were able to secure such a presence at the expense of a series of wars against Turkey and Persia. Several khanates in Azerbaijan entered the Russian Empire on account of their geographical position: at the time one could only get to Turkey via the coast of the Caspian Sea.

In its history, Russia waged several wars in defiance of the nations own interests to defend Orthodox believers in Moldavia, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. At the same time, up until the Bolshevik coup, Orthodox believers and nations close to them chose Russia when they had a chance.

In its history, Russia waged several wars in defiance of the nations own interests to defend Orthodox believers in Moldavia, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. At the same time, up until the Bolshevik coup, Orthodox believers and nations close to them chose Russia when they had a chance. Thus, in 1617, several peoples inhabiting the region of Novgorod fled for Russian territories from those lands given to Sweden after the Treaty of Stolbovo, which separated Russia from the Baltics. In 1914-1917, hundreds of thousands of Armenians and tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire fled across Persia to Russia.

Of c ourse, it would be unrealistic to believe that the Russian Empire came together totally voluntarily (as people sometimes think). Like any empire of its timewhich was before the emergence of ideas about rights and freedoms anywhere in the worldRussia ran roughshod over the fates of many smaller nations. The most famous example is the Caucasian War. After Georgia became part of Russia, the northern Caucasus was flanked by Russian forces, i.e., basically absorbed. Some mountain peoples (though not all) saw this as a threat to their existence and raised a battle that lasted for up to 60 years (depending on how one counts it).

Nonetheless, Russia was able to make peace with the conquered. As the historian Dmitry Likhachov reminds us, The Russian state brought the realms of Kazan and Astrakhan under its rule on equal terms, recognizing their princes and nobles. This was the custom since before Russia was unified and had become the common practice of the empire. The high number of Georgian and Polish nobles also led to a disproportionate rise in their representation among the government and Russian nobility. In the Muslim lands of the Caucasus, the leaders were on equal footing with the Russian nobility and mixed into their ranks.

The Members of His Imperial Highnesss Personal Convoy, 1911. Photo:

Interestingly, by the 1870s the personal guard of the Russian Tsars consisted not only of Cossacks, but also of Caucasians, most often Chechens. (Remember: The Caucasian War ended only in 1864.) They didnt end this practice even after an event during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), when Turkish agents enlisted one of these guards kill the Tsar. They punished the traitor but this didnt affect the status of the others.

The Desire to Move

State politics were not the only factor influencing territorial expansion. The lands in the Volga Region, beyond the Kama river, to the south from the fortification lines, and even beyond the Urals were settled primarily in spite of prohibitions from the Russian government, which had concerns about depopulating the main regions. Frontier posts for catching runaways didnt help much. The Council Code of 1649 included a continuous demand to return runaways, but the government knew well how it was enacted in reality. Those who governed the country were no more foolish than we, and they understood that the most venturous would bypass all prohibitions, and whats more, people like this were needed in the dangerous lands of the steppe.

Interestingly, these attempts to flee the government offer peaceful models of Russian expansion in directions that have been traditionally violent. Nearly three centuries before the Caucasian War, between 1530 and 1549, Cossacks began to settle in the foothills of the Caucasus. Their villages appeared on the Sunzha River near present-day Gudermes, on the Aktach River near present-day Khasavyurt, and on the Terek in the region of the present-day Grebenskaya Cossack village.

Back then, in the 16th century, the rulers of Kabardia (who ruled the entire territor from central Kuban to Dagestan) declared the Cossacks to be tegachi (guests of the people). The Cossacks enjoyed this privilege for almost two hundred years. They took wives from Kabardia, adopted local dress and weaponry, and learned horseback stunts. The Cossack women adopted the clothing and jewelry of Kabardian women. Instead of cottages, the Cossacks started to live in unas (huts) of the Kabardian type with an open loft, but with a Russian stove. Instead of a horse-drawn cart, they used a Kabardian cart with bulls. And so forth. The Kabardians could become Cossacks if they were baptized, and many did become Cossacks, and the local notables left for Moscow, entering the Russian service. Many well-known Russian noble families appeared at this time. Ivan the Terribles second wife was the daughter of the Kabardian prince Temriuk, who was Ivans ally in Russias wars with the Crimean khanate.

Tersky City (Terki) Photo:

In 1588 Don Cossacks began to settle in the Terek Delta near the Caspian Sea. Here they built the Cossack city of Terki, which became an international settlement and a quite important center of trade with Persia. Witnesses wrote that in this city there were caravan sheds, lines of markets, bazaars, luxurious gardens, public baths, customs houses, taverns, a hostage house, a business palace, a cathedral, parish churches, a monastery where foreigners were christened. And all of this was many centuries before the 19th-century Caucasian War!

The Inevitability of Empire

And now for what may be the most important thing. Twelve centuries ago, there was no indication that a small, young, and unknown nation, who had settled in the remote backwoods of Europe, in a land of forests and swamps far from the seas and from civilizations that had already existed for thousands of yearsthat this belated nation, unremarkable among dozes of others, would go on to play a leading role in the world, constituting a superpower and the largest state in territory and resources. It would also have a great culture, deserving to stand alongside the other great cultures of the world. The main factor in Russias historical success and its transformation into an empire was geography. It is much more ancient than the other factors and hasnt faded after they appeared.

Lets imagine Russia at the beginning of its history. Lets imagine the outskirts that would become its points of growth. One could enter deeper and deeper into the dense forests, inhabit the valleys of countless rivers where (in the words of Georgy Fedotov) it was easier to burn down and till an unclaimed piece of neighboring forest than fertilize a wasted field. This is called slash-and-burn agriculture. For three to four years, but no longer, this kind of field would provide bountiful harvests, but then one would have to prepare a new field.

Certainly there were conflicts with various ethnic groupsthis is a page of history that cant be glossed over. The classic of Russian ethnography, Dmitry Zelenin emphasizes: The peaceful and idyllic Russian colonization of Northeast Europe, populated previously by Finnic tribes, is one of the legends invented by historians. Russian resettlement took place primarily along the rivers and of course, the Finno-Ugric peoples, who were fishers, didnt leave the riverbanks out of good will. But the same Zelenin also observes: All of the Finnic tribes mentioned in old Russian chronicles survive to this day. One could add that this stands in contrast to the Picts, for example, who disappeared from the face of Britannia, and others as well. English archaeologists are always coming upon depressing mass burials of people from previous centuries with signs of a violent death.

Non-antagonistic relations could finally be realized only after the Christianization of the Finno-Ugric people, which took centuries. Peaceful coexistence in the Russian plains was possible not because of some incredible tolerance between the two sides, but because the space, for the most part, was big enough for everyone. The territory allowed it.

Slash-and-burn agriculture, which went on at a noticeable scale until the 15th century, disposed Russians to being on the move. It gave birth to the extensive psychology and eagerness to travel that has allowed Russians to inhabit vast spaces. V. O. Kliuchevsky calls the colonization and settlement of these spaces the main factor of our history, with which all other facts stand in close or distant connection. But wouldnt any nation (regardless of language and race) have acted the same way if they had found themselves in this part of the world, at the edge of an endless forest that was wonderfully abundant and also less hostile than the tropics? Or is this an illusion, and another nation would have acted differently?

The Children of Empire

The imperial feeling was not only present among Russians (a category which, in the imperial understanding, included Ukrainians and Belorussians), but over the course of two centuries after Peter the Great it became increasingly natural for the people belong to the majority of ethnicities in the Russian Empire. In Ufa, the author of these lines has heard Bashkir folk songs with eloquent names: Kutozov, Fort Perovsky, Syr Darya, Port Arthur.

Sure, youll say, Kutuzov is wholly understandable: the Bashkir calvary took part in defeating Napoleon, going all the way to Paris. And the songs Fort Pervosky and Syr Darya commemorate the role of Bashkir units in the imperial campaigns of the Russian army to annex Turkestan. The Bashkirs certainly count among the Russian peoples who build the empire. Even before Peter the Great, they took part in campaigns in the Crimea and Lithuania. They took part in annexing new lands and then in settling them.

Bashkirs in Paris. Aquarelle, 1814. Photo:

Lets not simplify. If we were hasty in our discussion the Bashkirs, lets take a closer look at that example. The Bashkirs are one of the peoples who suffered the most after being united with Russia. This unification happened back in 1552-1557 and the work to fit them into the empire went on for a long time. Of course, the Bashkirs were not only passive in this. They actively attacked infidels on their lands. In the 18th century, the lands between Kama and Samara (about 400 km on the left bank of the Volga) were subject to constant Bashkir attacks.

But the Russian government didnt infringe on the main thing: on the Bashkirs patrimonial rights to their land. (A number of government acts between 1694 and 1882 were dedicated to these rights.) At times, the government even fought against unlawful purchases and unauthorized seizures of their lands. When suppressing rebellions in the region, Russian authorities sought cooperation from the eldest Bashkir families and the Bashkir spiritual leaders. In 1788, a Muslim spiritual government was founded with the functions of a sharia court.

It was not uncommon for nobles from among the Caucasian Muslims to become officers and even generals in the Russian army. An outstanding example of loyalty to the throne was the General Huseyn Khan Nakhchivanski, who was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1919. The sons and grandsons of the Murid Shamil became Russian Generals. Let alone the Christians of the Caucasus (Georgians, Armenians, Ossetians)! Let alone the Polish and Baltic German generals!

One may hear sometimes that Muslims were oppressed in prerevolutionary Russia. A symbol stronger than any reasoning eloquently tells us that this was not the case. Its immediately visible from the Winter Palace on the opposite bank of the Neva. To the right of the Peter-Paul fortress, one can see well the cupola and minarets of an exceptionally beautiful mosque. Its impossible to miss it. Its location isnt just symbolicit is also one the sweetest architectural sites in the capital of the Russian Empire. The Tsar saw this mosque from his office. In what other Christian world capital at the turn of the past century would it have been possible to erect such a mosque? In the very center of the city, visible from all angles? The appearance of this mosque in Petersburg was not a contribution of the liberal times of Nicholas II. Back in 1773, Catherine the Great gave an order called On the Tolerance of All Religions. Whats more, in the 18th and 19th centuries mosques were most often constructed at the states expense.

It was not uncommon for nobles from among the Caucasian Muslims to become officers and even generals in the Russian army. An outstanding example of loyalty to the throne was the General Huseyn Khan Nakhchivanski, who was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1919. The sons and grandsons of the Murid Shamil became Russian Generals. Let alone the Christians of the Caucasus (Georgians, Armenians, Ossetians)! Let alone the Polish and Baltic German generals!

The Tatars, Mordovians, Chuvash, Udmurt, Poles, Russified Germans, Moldavians, Armenians, Georgians, Karelians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Jewsthat is, almost every nation in the Russia of that timeplayed an active role in populating the outskirts of the empire. This means these people didnt separate themselves from the empire, nor did the empire separate itself from them.

Interestingly, at the beginning of the century, some of the most active builders of the empire were Poles. The history of the Russian railroad and the acquisition of Siberia beginning in the second half other 19th century is studded with Polish namesand these are certainly not all the descendants of exiled prisoners.

An Asymmetrical Construction

This empire was an asymmetrical construction. Besides the separately formed Finland and Russian part of Poland, or the protectorates of Bukhara, Khorezma, and Uriankhai, there were areas of popular self-rule. After the end of the Caucasian war, provisions were put in place titled On Local Rule in the Caucasus (1865) and On military popular rule in the Caucasus (1880). Military popular rule was founded on the preservation of the long-standing social structure and offered the population the opportunity to handle all internal matters according to custom. The nonagricultural peoples on the territory of present-day Kazakhstan lived according to their Provision of the Steppe of 1891. The Buryats, Khakas, and Yakuts had steppe councils, which were introduced in 1822.

Especially serious crimes were subject to Russia-wide laws. Measures were taken to anticipate collisions between Russians and Muslims, Buddhist Kalmyks, subjects of the laws of the steppe, Lezgian Muslims, and so forth. All of this was painstakingly worked out. In addition, many nations were freed from being drafted into the army.

Miri Arab Madrassa in Bukhara. Photo:

There were diverse systems of education. I myself was born in Tashkent and encountered local elders who remembered the so-called Russian indigenous, or simply indigenous, schools. There were madrassas for those who wanted to receive an advanced Muslim education. The empire had no ambition to unify everything. Nor of course, did they want to support further fractioning. So for instance, it did not found Ukrainian state schools, though private ones were allowed.

* * *

Although the policy of defending and saving Orthodox Christiansand more generally eastern Christiansremained in place up until 1917, it lost is generic purity in the 19th century. Alexander I added Lutheran Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809, and in 1815 he added a large part of the Catholic Duchy of Warsaw. In the second half of the 19th century, Russia followed the example of England and France, who were racing to acquire colonies all over the world, and acquired all of Turkestan.

See also:Rivalry and the Art of Compromise: The Great Game Between Russia and Great Britain

As a result of the two coups of 1917, several nations living in the Russian Empire left its number. History repeated itself in 1991, when the USSR disbanded. In total, over the course of 74 years, sixteen nations departed from the metropolis, and each of them created its own state. Six of them did so twice. In nearly every one of these countriesincluding both the authoritarian and democratic onesa negative view of the time they spent under the cover of the Russian state has taken hold to one degree or another.

But this is another storyfor another article dedicated to the Russian Empire.


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