Comparative Perspectives on Imperialism and Empire in Late Imperial Russia

Essay, 2009

11 Pages


Comparative Perspectives on Imperialism and Empire in Late Imperial Russia

A Soviet joke recounts how two Georgians fly from Moscow to Tiflis right after the break-up of the Soviet Union. “Look at that”, says one pointing out of the window to the Russian forests, “that was all ours!”

On the surface this joke mainly evokes Stalin's rise from a marginal Georgian nationalist to one of the most powerful dictators of the 20th century. However, it also presupposes a number of other perspectives on Russia's imperial history, ranging from anti-Russian nationalism in the Caucasus during the late 19th century over the contested status of the Soviet Union as an empire up to the latest conflicts in the post-Soviet period which give the episode yet another historical twist. It also alludes to a history of Russian difference: neither Algerians nor Indians could even jokingly speak of the empires they were part of as “their own”.

There are few topics that have been as present in post-Soviet histories as empire and its aftermath. Tales of century-long Russia oppression have become core elements of many historical narratives in the former Soviet republics. In Western European scholarship concepts from imperial history and post-colonial studies have had a big influence on the historiography of Russia and the Soviet Union. However, these are recent phenomena: in most histories of Russia, written in Russia or the Soviet Union itself as well as in the West before 1991, empire has been left out to an astonishing degree. Only for the Soviet Union the so-called “nationality question” was a larger topic, appearing in Soviet praise for the “friendship of the peoples” or condemnation of “anti-Soviet nationalism” and “Great-Russian chauvinism”.

One of the first books dealing systematically with the longer history of Russia as a multiethnic empire was Andreas Kappeler's account of the Russian Vielvölkerreich, which first appeared in 1992. He used certain concepts familiar to students of Western European imperial history, for example John Armstrong's work on mobile diaspora groups, and he also wanted to contribute to “the general history of multi-ethnic empires”.[1] Nevertheless Kappeler explicitly refused to commit himself to any theoretical model for his book, pointing to the difference between “the Russian agrarian autocracy” and the Western European imperial polities.[2] Due to the lack of secondary literature, he also considered it to be impossible to compare the Russian Empire explicitly to other multi-ethnic states.

This essay picks up on some of the issues raised by Kappeler and looks at how various scholars interested in the imperial aspects of Russian history have put them into a comparative perspective. Although the number of works is still limited, especially compared to the huge number of studies on different Western European empires, it is possible to draw some general conclusions.[3] This will also be helpful in considering to what extent Russian experiences could reflect back on more general theories of empire or post-colonial studies.

Dietrich Geyer: Imperialism without Empire

One of the rare pre-1991 contributions to the comparative history of the Russian Empire is an article by Dietrich Geyer from the early 1970s, which was in 1978 followed by a larger monograph on “Russian imperialism”.[4] Whereas the monograph deals solely with Russia, Geyer connects his work with a debate about imperialism in Germany in the 1970s, which was mainly concerned with British and German imperialism. Geyer used some of the hypotheses developed by social historians like Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Wolfgang Mommsen for Western Europe, and tried to apply them to the Russian situation.

One of the main concerns in this debate was to find a way to look at imperialist expansion that was different from diplomatic history, geopolitics, and the late 19th century tradition in German historiography. Social historians like Wehler strove to systematically integrate the history of foreign policy and social history. They wanted to explain imperialist expansion and foreign policy in late Imperial Germany as a result of domestic social conflicts. The main argument put forward by Wehler was that imperialist foreign policies in the late 19th century were an attempt by traditional military elites to maintain their legitimacy in spite of the social and political upheaval caused by industrialization and urbanisation.[5]

Geyer sees this framework as generally applicable to the Russian case and, like Wehler, he is mainly interested in the “inner aspects of external affairs”. He sees a communality of all forms of imperialism in the attempt to stabilize the social system (“innergesellschaftliche Systemstabilisierung”) through external expansion.[6] However, Geyer also hopes to broaden Wehler's paradigm by including the Russian case: for him, Russia demonstrates that imperialism was not exclusively a phenomenon of industrialized societies, but could also occur as a result of the “transformation crisis” brought about in a predominantly agrarian society by the advent of capitalist forms of land tenure and production.[7]

Geyer sets the beginning of this “transformation crisis” in the reform period after the Crimean War, emphasizing the abolition of serfdom as the central change in the social history of 19th century Russia. He differentiates three different periods: in the first, from the early 1860s until 1885, many members of the government advocated a defensive foreign policy, taking into account Russia's need for domestic reform and its financial weakness. However, they were increasingly challenged by political movements, most prominently the Panslavists, whose audience greatly increased due the expansion of literacy and the spread of mass media. Whereas Panslavism, which is seen by Geyer as part of a broader Russian-nationalist tendency, was mainly concerned with supporting anti-Ottoman nationalists in the Balkans, it also advocated the conquest of Central Asia. The connection between Panslavism and imperialism in Asia is exemplified by General Chernaev, the conqueror of Tashkent: he was not only an editor of the Panslavist newspaper “Russkij Mir”, but in 1876 even deserted from the Russian Army to support the Serbs in their fight against the Ottoman Empire – and he was celebrated in the nationalist press, much to the Tsar's distress.[8]


[1] Kappeler, Andreas: The Russian Empire. A Multiethnic History, New York 2001, p. 3. J. A. Armstrong, Mobilized and Proletarian Diasporas. The American Political Science Review 70, 1976, 393–408.

[2] Kappeler, The Russian Empire, p. 7.

[3] See recent suggestions in: J. Osterhammel, Russland und der Vergleich zwischen Imperien. Einige Anknüpfungspunkte. Comparativ 18, 2, 2008, 11–26 and A. Miller, The Value and the Limits of Comparative Approach to the History of Contiguous Empires. In: K. Matsuzato (Hrsg.), Imperiology. From empirical knowledge to discussing the Russian Empire (Sapporo, 2007) 19–33.

[4] D. Geyer, Russland als Problem der vergleichenden Imperialismusforschung. In: R. von Thadden/G. von Pistolkohrs/H. Weiss (Hrsg.), Das Vergangene und die Geschichte. Festschrift für Reinhard Wittram zum 70. Geburtstag (Göttingen 1973) 337–369 and Geyer, Dietrich: Der russische Imperialismus : Studien über den Zusammenhang von innerer und auswärtiger Politik 1860-1914, Göttingen 1977.

[5] See Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Imperialismus, Köln 1970.

[6] Geyer, Russland als Problem, p. 337.

[7] Ibid., p. 338.

[8] Geyer, Der russische Imperialismus, p. 60 and A. Marshall, The Russian General Staff and Asia. 1800 – 1917, London 2006, p. 35

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Comparative Perspectives on Imperialism and Empire in Late Imperial Russia
European University Institute  (Department of History, Florenz)
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Moritz Deutschmann (Author), 2009, Comparative Perspectives on Imperialism and Empire in Late Imperial Russia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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