Imperialist Dreamers

It is hard to read about Russian imperialism and without comparing it to what I readily know about western European imperialism.* My sense of European imperialisation is characterized by the exploitation of primarily natural resources and secondarily, the exploitation of a native labor force. In the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Caucus, Buskovitch says, “Commercial motives played some role in the planning, for trade with and through Iran was assumed to be a viable path to enormous profits….” and goes on to say the lack of infrastructure meant that motive was essentially fruitless (Buskovitch, 263). Bushkovitch sounds unconvinced that trade or resources played a major role in Crimean annexation, and certainly does not suggest any commercial motives in the Finnish, Jewish, or Manchurian (except maybe the railroad). I am also unconvinced that economy played a large role in these efforts. I think looking back at Potemkin’s letter to Catherine II (1780) reveals some of the spirit that guided the militaristic expansion in the late nineteenth century:

“It is your duty to exalt the glory of Russia. Look what others have acquired without opposition: France took Corsica; the Austrians, without war, took more from the Turks in Moldavia than we did. There are no powers in Europe that would not divide Asia, Africa, and America among themselves. The acquisition of the Crimea can neither strengthen nor enrich you, but it will give you security. It will be a heavy blow, to be sure, but to whom? To the Turks! a still more compelling reason for you to act. Believe me, you will acquire immortal fame ·such as no other sovereign of Russia ever had. This glory will open the way to still further and greater glory: with the Crimea will come domination of the Black Sea; it will be in your power to blockade the Turks, to feed them or to starve them.” (Cracraft, 250).

Russia’s imperial effort was social — its purpose was to pronounce dominance and superiority over people. Similar spirit is seen in the suppression of Jewish intellectual and administrative ambition. The Russian imperialism is characterized by its militant grip on the dominance of the state — the Romanov nobility.

It does not surprise me then that Bushkovitch can account for the rise of intelligentsia and populist movements brewing in the Caucus, Ukraine, and the Kazakh.


*I feel like comparing Russia’s political and militaristic moves to Europe in a very strict sense like this does some injustice to Russian history. However, the Russian ambition to emulate the showy power of western Europe complicates this, it is almost as if Russia was begging to be compared to Europe. I am still unsure if it is a decent way to assess the nature of their imperialism.

Also, for fun, here’s a painting I found that is by Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian serf that bought his freedom through his creative merit and became a vocal socialist. I found out that the painting is a direct replica of a painting by a Russian artist, Karl Bryullov, who was nearly a polar opposite of Shevchenko — of privileged birth and as an adult, an aristocrat and noble. I don’t know why Shevchenko produced this exact duplicate but I think the image is interesting.


Dream of a Grandmother and Granddaughter, ~1840. Image courtesy of the exhaustive Encyclopedia of Taras Shevchenko’s Works.

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1 Response to Imperialist Dreamers

  1. micguthr says:

    While Russia’s imperial designs were certainly propelled (at least, in part) by nationalistic fervor and a desire to emulate the activities of Western Europe, I think to characterize these ambitions as being undertaken solely for the sake of expressing dominance would be to ignore Russia’s more pragmatic motivations. I would posit that Russia’s imperial endeavors were influenced by geopolitical realities as well as by the sort of grandiose sentiment expressed by the likes of Potemkin.

    In respects to Russia’s European domains, I feel it is essential to recall that by the time of the ascension of Alexander II, Russia had gone to war with its European neighbors on numerous occasions (the Great Northern War, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, etc.). Consequently, Russia had come to understand the benefit of maintaining a ‘buffer zone’ comprised of its holdings in Poland, Finland, Ukraine, and the Baltic provinces. Although, as Bushkovitch notes on page 250, Russia’s alliance with Prussia (and later, Germany) helped to secure the western frontier, “the international and military position of Russia, weakened by defeat [in the Crimean War] and saddled with debts and an enormous deficit, rendered Russia’s European policy essentially passive…[Consequently, the] threatening noises from Britain and France during the Polish revolt in 1863-64 caused nightmares in St. Petersburg” (Bushkovitch, 250).

    Similar geopolitical realities prompted Russia’s imperial activities in Asia. The conquest of the Caucasus during the early 1800’s served primarily to secure Russia’s south-eastern border (Russia had gone to war with its southern neighbor, the Ottoman Empire, no less than nine times prior to the Crimean War), with the potential of economic exploitation of the region remaining a somewhat tertiary motivation. As Bushkovitch concludes, “the strategic value of the Caucasus and Transcaucasia as a southern frontier against Turkey was immense, and the Russians were not going to leave just because trade with Iran did not prove to be a bonanza” (263). Expansion into Central Asia similarly evidenced the strategic underpinnings of Russian imperialism. Planned and executed by the Ministry of War and the Russian Army, the conquest of the region was carried out “partly out of the need to control the frontier in Kazakhstan and partly out of fear of British expansion into and beyond Afghanistan” (266). Indeed, the strategic nature of the undertaking was reflected in Britain’s subsequent alarm, and the gradual deterioration of relations between the empires.

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