Jan 20, 2006

Review: The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History

Left: Map with estimates of various ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union; images courtesy of the excellent Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas

Kappeler, Andreas. Essex, UK: Pearson Education Limited, 2001.

Kappeler sought to overturn the historiography of the Russian Empire, which has been dominated by imperial and Soviet historians who stressed a national homogeneity that belies the diverse ethnicities found in the empire. Far from being a unified nation of willing citizens, the Russian Empire was a complex conglomeration of peoples comprised of at least four major religions, dozens of language groups, and over 100 distinct ethnic identities. The author followed a chronological approach to the book, beginning with the conquest of the Khanate of Kazan in 1552 and continuing through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Kappeler chose the acquisition of Kazan to demark the beginning of the imperial period because the Khanate was the “first independent polity to come under Russian rule which possessed a historical tradition, dynastic legitimacy and an upper class that not only spoke a different language but also belonged to a different world religion and civilization, Islam.” The author noted, however, that the original Kievan Rus themselves were not a distinct, homogenous ethnic political entity, but contained a variety of eastern Slavs. Thus, from its earliest origins the Russian Empire was a multiethnic polity that lacked cultural unity.

The multiethnic character of the Russian Empire continued as the drive to expand came in to full force. Kappeler argued that the expansionist impulse was traced to two historical philosophies. The first of these was termed as the “gathering of the lands of the Rus,” in which those lands believed to have some historical or folkloric connection to the Novgorodian and Kievan monarchies were added to the duchy of Moscow.

The second of these philosophies centered on the “gathering of the lands of the Golden Horde,” and this drive owed much to the struggle between Muscovy and the Khanate of Kazan. Kappeler argued that the oaths of allegiance sworn by the steppe peoples to Ivan IV were interpreted by the Khanate as a temporary alliance, while the Russians viewed the oaths as “acts of eternal submission.” Regardless of either side’s true intentions, this became the foundation of Russian territorial acquisitions in southern and eastern Asia. Kappeler used these two themes of reclaiming ancient lands as a backdrop to his examination of Russian imperialism.

The author devoted a significant portion of his work to the study of resistance by peoples in the lands annexed by the Russians. Contrary to the traditional claims of imperial and Soviet historians, the acquisition of territories by the Empire did not occur in smooth, mutually agreeable fashions. Kappeler argued that the conventional view, for example, of the annexation of the Ukraine was that “it represented the liberation from the Polish yoke of eastern Slav brothers who had been separated from them after the decline of the Kievan state.” However, the Russians successfully co-opted the Ukrainian nobility by incorporating them into similar positions in Muscovy, and the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775 left the Ukrainians without a power base from which to mount effective resistance. While the appropriation of the Ukraine was less violent than many other Russian imperial acquisitions, it nonetheless cannot be summed up as a friendly, mutually desirable merger.
Left: Russian empire in 1820

As a rule, the annexation of territory by the Russian Empire rarely occurred without some bloodshed. The initial conquest of the Khanate of Kazan came about only after a protracted, 5-year war, and subsequent rebellions and uprisings continued to plague the imperial forces for the next century. While the acquisition of Poland in a series of partitions owed much to European politics, the rebellion led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1794 and the 1830 November revolution were among the most significant revolts in the western Empire. Campaigns against the Kirgiz, Uzbek, and Turkmen were particularly brutal; the Russian army suffered a bitter defeat in 1879 against the Tekke-Turkmen, and did not crush the resistance until 1881. The Avar leader Shamil developed a mountain imamate in the Caucasus that resisted Russian military expeditions for a quarter century, and the long-term effects of his successful resistance movement can still be witnessed in the nationalist movements of such groups as the modern day Chechens.

Kappeler argued that one of the reasons for the success of the Russians in building their colossal empire lay in the willingness of government to tolerate different religious faiths among the peoples of the acquired territories. Despite a few periods of attempts to conduct missionary activities on behalf of the Orthodox Church, for the most part the monarchy tried instead to put the different religious organizations under state control, with bureaucratic appointments of muftis and lamas. Islamic peoples such as the Tatars and Bashkirs were accorded some measure religious freedom, and operated their own schools in the territories. Kalmyk and southern Buriat regions were also given a degree of religious freedom to practice their Buddhist beliefs. Other religious groups given relative freedom by the imperial government included Jews, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. It must be added, however, that this policy of tolerance varied over time, and some groups were subjected to periods of intense repression. Finally, Russian religious benevolence did not extend to groups considered heretical by the Orthodox Church, such as the Uniates and the Old Believers.

Kappeler argued that, much like their imperial counterparts in Western Europe, the Russians began to develop a distinct sense of cultural superiority in the 19th century in relation to non-Russians in the Empire. These ethnocentric tendencies also became a justification for imperial expansion, as ethnic minorities in the annexed and soon-to-be annexed lands were often seen as backward, inferior peoples in need of being “civilized.” Kappeler contended that Russians viewed the Transcaucasian territories as lands “inhabited by uncivilized Asiatics.” Peoples in the Caucasus, according to the author, were generally not seen as distinct ethnic groups, but as barbaric savages lumped together under the pejorative “gortsy.” The imperial government used the Tatars to “civilize” the backward Kazakhs, whose economy in the 19th century was one based on pastoralism and barter. Typical of mainstream Russian cultural supremacy were the views of foreign minister Alexander Gorchakov:
The situation of Russia in Middle Asia is that of all civilized states which come into contact with semi-savage and itinerant ethnic groups without a structured social organization. In such a case the interest in the security of one’s borders and in trade relations always makes it imperative that the civilized state should have a certain authority over its neighbours, who as a result of their wild and impetuous customs are very disconcerting.
There are striking parallels between the civilizing mission of 19th century imperial powers like the Russians and the modern American obsession with “bringing” democracy and freedom to countries like Iraq and Iran. Indigenous peoples and sovereign nations that do not fit the imperialist concept of “civilized” are subject to intervention by the imperialist power under paternalistic rationalizations. Concomitant with this civilizing urge is the demonization of resistance movements; ipso facto, persons not wholeheartedly embracing the imperialist intervention are characterized as barbarous or terrorists.

Kappeler noted that two of Russia’s most revered liberal leaders – Alexander I and Alexander II – were also among the most brutal repressors of non-Russian resistance movements. As the tsar best known for his continental diplomacy, liberal reforms, and mystical tendencies, Alexander I also led the drive to annex and subjugate Transcaucasia. Similarly, the tsar who liberated the serfs, embarked on the great railway movement, and made sweeping changes in the Russian economy was also on the throne during the vicious suppression of the gortsy. Finally, Russian expansion into the Middle and Far East heightened during the reign of Alexander II, and violent uprisings in Warsaw in 1861 were met with swift retaliation.

One of the book's strongest points is in its examination of the Soviet era. The Soviet historiography, in general, tended to minimize both the extent of ethnic diversity as well as problems associated with the multiethnic character of the Empire. Kappeler argued that nationalist movements received a tremendous boost during the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Soviet Union lost such important provinces as Finland, Bessarabia, and Georgia after 1918. The Stalin era brought both modernization and repression, helping reclaim much of the lost territory, but nationalist movements merely took a less visible form during the height of Soviet power. The Gorbachev reforms gave new life to nationalist movements, and Kappeler argued that these movements were an important component in the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The author presented a much more complete picture of the ethnic diversity present throughout the imperial and Soviet history of the Empire than those found in the traditional historiography. The depth of analysis and breadth of subject matter necessitate some prior familiarity with European, Asian, and especially Russian history. This text would make an excellent addition to a graduate-level seminar, or perhaps a very advanced undergraduate Russian history course. While Kappeler’s style is accessible, a good grasp of geography is crucial to fully appreciate the book, as there are no maps included. The author did provide a number of tables devoted to population data, and included a very useful glossary.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post


Stephanie said...

I have a question that's almost kind of related to this, I think:

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tokien (both English authors) tended to represent their human villians in a very Turkish manner. Written around the WWs.

Was this because of the unstable relation with the Soviet power, or were the Turks a separate entity at that time?

Hooda Thunkit said...

A very scholarly post Mike.

And, I don't mind admitting that I had a second browser tab opened to Dictionary.com.

I ahd to access it many times while reading it ;-)

I learned a lot though, thanks!