The ongoing reality of Russian imperialism

People rationalising Russian military intervention are betraying their ignorance of Russian history

A scandal erupted in the Netherlands recently when the Head of the History Department at Utrecht University, Jolle Demmers, declared in a newspaper article that there was “no evidence of imperialist ambitions” on the part of Vladimir Putin. The article says nothing about the suffering of Ukrainians, but speaks at length about fears of Russian imperialism stemming from an “alarmism” driven by the interests of American “bullying”, “oil industry shareholders”, and “pension funds”; it also laments the ending of supplies of “cheap gas from Russia”. Professor Demmers has been beating the same drum for two years, portraying the Russian invasion as something heavily indebted to “Western” activities. “The escalation we’ve ended up in is a consequence of our own actions,” she wrote in 2022.

According to Demmers — who serves on the Peace and Security Committee of the Advisory Council on International Affairs, a body that advises the Dutch government — Ukraine’s desire to join NATO rendered the Russian invasion a “very rational” action. This strange form of “rationality” has since been belied by the subsequent entry of Sweden and Finland into the NATO fold. But for Demmers, opposition to her analysis stems from thinking shaped by the “simplistic… good versus evil narratives” as encountered in “Marvel films”. Support, meanwhile, has come from less than reputable quarters. Demmers has been congratulated for her “wise remarks” by Thierry Baudet, the far right Dutch politician who believes that the coronavirus was created by George Soros and who associates with Putin’s chief ideologue, the neofascist Aleksandr Dugin.

There have been calls for a response from others at Utrecht. The following is a response from a historian who speaks and reads Russian, and teaches Eastern European history. Russia’s imperialism is not some aberration caused by NATO expansionism, but a near-constant structural feature of Russia’s half-millennium existence.

Imperialism and the Nature of Russia

Any claim that Putin lacks imperialist ambitions is so easily rebutted that it feels almost embarrassing to do so. After all, as recently as his infamous interview with Tucker Carlson, Putin launched into a half-hour monologue about how Ukraine has no historical right to exist.

Putin’s talk of a continuous “Russia” stretching back to the 9th century is pure fantasy

Brilliant historians such as Serhii Plokhy have repeatedly debunked Putin’s pseudo-historical claims. Less has been said about the historical nature of Russian imperialism, which explains much about Putin’s mentality, but which is often misunderstood by Westerners, who tend to think of “empire” in rather different ways, taking their cues from British, Dutch, and Spanish examples. In fact, Russian imperialism has consistently shaped the very nature of Russia’s internal social and political structures.

Putin’s talk of a continuous “Russia” stretching back to the 9th century is pure fantasy. In reality, the story of modern Russia begins in the late 15th century, with the ending of Mongol rule over the Grand Duchy of Muscovy (which occupied a tiny proportion of the huge landmass of today’s Russian Federation) and the near-contemporary conquest and annihilation of the Novgorod Republic in the north. The geopolitical situation for the new community was dire. The land and climate rendered Muscovy poor in agricultural and mineral resources. Significant military threats seemed poised on all sides: in the west Lithuania, then the largest state in Europe; in the south and east, various post-Mongol khanates of the steppe. Geography and geology were not on Muscovy’s side: the flat and sparsely populated territory had no natural defensive boundaries. In this Hobbesian nightmare world, a “conquer or be conquered” mentality quickly set in.

Muscovy’s solution to this predicament was the creation of a caste-based autocratic state, unparalleled in Europe and perhaps the world. The land was parcelled out to cavalrymen, who received the rent from the inhabiting peasants in exchange for their lifetime military service to the ruler, who would wage expansionist wars nominally designed to “protect” the state. Historians call this arrangement a “service state”. The necessity of funding warfare through the service state became a constant of Russian political life, even if the perceived military threat periodically changed (Crimean Tatars; Poles and Swedes; Ottomans). Unlike European feudalism, land was granted not to an aristocracy but to those who rendered military service. The traditional right to inherit estates was removed in favour of a system of conditional tenure granted by the sovereign. In some senses, private property did not exist.

The system initially proved successful in accomplishing its aim: pre-emptive military strikes against all neighbours. In the 1550s, it allowed Muscovy to conquer two post-Mongol khanates: Kazan and Astrakhan. These conquests, unknown to all but specialists, are some of the most important geopolitical events in world history, since they split the Turkic world into two and opened the path to Siberia and its storehouse of natural resources. The major war with Poland-Lithuania of 1654–67 brought territorial gains, including much of modern Ukraine. It led to the steady influx into Muscovy of Ukrainian clerics, far better educated than their Muscovite counterparts. The beginnings of modern Russian culture can be fairly labelled as “Ukrainian”.

However, the system faced an obvious problem. In contrast to a tax-based arrangement, it required the continued residence of peasants on the same plot of land. But the pesky peasants were not always minded to stay, especially after the catastrophic period of oppression and famine during Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina (1565–72). From the late 16th century peasants were forbidden to move. This was the institution of serfdom. It was itself made possible — administratively and ideologically — by the long-term institution of indigenous slavery (i.e., natives selling themselves into bondage, rather than the enslavement of ostensive “outsiders”), not abolished until 1723. Russia is one of the few societies in history to have made slaves out of their own people in large numbers. Many of the norms of slavery were applied to the peasants upon their enserfment. Elites had little incentive to oppose the autocracy when they benefited so much from the service system, especially in times of peace.

But the system was not designed for peace, during which large-scale corruption and stagnation prevailed. Around 1700, military reversals against the Ottomans, the Crimean khanate, and the Swedes convinced the young Peter the Great that the entire service system needed to be reformed if Russia was to win more of its pre-emptive imperial wars. This second service state was paid for by ever-greater exploitation of the serfs. Prospectors were sent into the Ural Mountains to obtain iron and copper necessary for the military. The serfs were assigned to work the mines and factories. To achieve this, they were tied less to the land and more to the person of their master, foreshadowing their descent into near-slavery.

This may have been the first command economy in European history, in which all possible instruments of forced extraction were deployed to enhance the country’s imperial and military capabilities. The arrangement proved successful, at least on the definition of “success” that had by then characterised Russian history for 250 years: military victory at all costs combined with near-total disregard for the lives of most of the country’s population. Russia acquired the Baltic territories, and by 1721 it was the most powerful nation in Western Eurasia.

Since the 18th century was again a time of relative peace, the élites claimed more rights. These depended on ever-worsening conditions for the serfs, many of whom now descended into a condition of de facto slavery that historians have compared to those of sugar slaves in the contemporary Caribbean. But the paranoid mentality of pre-emptive “defensive” imperialism would not go away. Soon, Russian rulers were mobilising the only competitive advantage that the country’s economic backwardness had generated — its sheer size of land and population — to expand its empire into Central Asia, justifying their actions with talk of the need for a “firm state boundary” to ensure safety. These conquests were accompanied by the usual brutality, most spectacularly the Circassian genocide, which involved the mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of up to 97 per cent of the Circassian population (around 1.5 million people). Russia actively denies the genocide to this day, euphemistically calling it a “migration”.

Military defeat has been the only source of significant internal reform in half a millennium of Russian history. It was another such defeat, in the Crimean War (1853–6), that led to the emancipation of the serfs, who were blamed for the loss and made to pay emancipation via punitive taxation, so that they could in turn serve in a new, “professional” army. More devastation ensued: a famine in 1891–2 killed c.400,000. Not for the last time, relief consisted mostly of American aid. Nonetheless, the autocracy was able to maintain this second Russian service state until yet more spectacular defeats — to the Japanese in 1905 and in the First World War — led first to reform and then to the Revolution of 1917.

That Revolution is often portrayed as a great break in Russian history. In reality, it witnessed the development of a third service state, structurally similar to its predecessors. Private property was again abolished; the functional-ideological place of the tsar and Orthodox Christianity were taken by the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Marxism-Leninism. Continuity also prevailed in the social order. As Tomila Lankina has recently shown in meticulous detail, the educated elites of the tsarist period — doctors, engineers, etc. — largely retained their roles in the Soviet system, at least if they had not fled or been shot. Its leaders needed them for their modernisation drive, and thus rewarded them with the best Moscow apartments, food unavailable to the masses, holidays in Crimea, and preferential treatment for their children.

Soviet “equality” was therefore a myth from day one. Where the first two service states had been created in the face of threat from Lithuanians, Mongols, Swedes, and Ottomans, the third was developed against an (imagined) Western military plot in the 1920s. In 1927, the Russian zero-sum mentality, weighed down by 450 years of ideological baggage and long primed to perceive every “threat” as existential, went into paranoid overdrive. The country was gripped by another of its periodic “war scares”, with the entire political class convinced that invasion was imminent. Stalin shored up autocracy, and, having decided that lightbulbs don’t win wars, shifted the basis of Russian industrialisation from electrification to heavy metallurgy. As usual, the policy was pursued at the expense of the peasants, again forbidden to move under collectivisation, which they appropriately labelled “the second enserfment”. The enterprise was a tragedy, its most significant consequence being the deaths of 2.5 to 4 million people in the Terror-Famine in Ukraine.

Industrialisation did contribute to victory in the Second World War, albeit with significant help from Generals Mud and Snow, and at the cost of another 20 million people (including 1 million abandoned in the GULAGs). Standard political science expects victorious states to use periods of post-war stability to row back on military expenditure and to focus on restoring the living standards of its population. Such models do not apply in Russia. After 1945, when every other country downsized their war machines, the USSR essentially retained a war economy, with military production accounting for around 30 per cent of GDP. The point is not that this was a clinically “paranoid” or “irrational” reaction. To the Russian mindset as it had been historically conditioned, it was entirely rational. At numerous points between 1945 and 1985, the leadership of the Communist Party was convinced that a US attack was imminent. The rest of the world was in their minds divided into two: either unquestioningly loyal subjects, or American lackeys over whom imperial ambitions were thus fully justified.

Autocracy; borderline poverty; paranoia: even children’s stories reflected the key elements of Russian culture

Yet again, military “preparedness” came at the expense of the people, except from the tiny élite of party apparatchiks, above all members of the KGB. The crop failure of 1963 almost led to full-out famine, the situation saved only by accepting the need to import massive quantities of grain from the USA. As in all slave or near-slave societies, productivity was minimal. Even oil revenues, which should have been able to sustain the USSR, stood at only 40 per cent of potential. By the 1980s, the economic crisis was self-evident to everyone. One’s egalitarian salary was largely worthless, since there was nothing to buy. The staple food for a child — which I shudder to recall — was mannaya kasha: a disgusting, non-nutritious form of semolina porridge. One of the most popular children’s stories was about a boy whose mother tries to convince him to eat his kasha by promising to take him to the Kremlin; finally, he throws it out of the window when she is not looking, only for it to land on the head of a passing man, who turns up at the family’s door, inevitably accompanied by a policeman. Autocracy; borderline poverty; paranoia: even children’s stories reflected the key elements of Russian culture.

Nonetheless, the party leadership repeated the old pattern of believing that “the West” was about to launch a preemptive strike, building up the military at the expense of everything else, and then launching their own “defensive” expedition, this time on Afghanistan. When that invasion proved a catastrophic failure and economic growth fell to nil, Gorbachev tried to reform the system, to no avail. Russian regimes had survived worse, usually by quashing protest at the earliest stage. Ultimately, the fate of the USSR came down to the lack of Robespierrian will on the part of the Communist Party reactionaries who had the energy to block many of Gorbachev’s reforms, but not the stomach to order their troops to fire on the people during the attempted coup of August 1991.

It seemed that Russia might finally break free of its imperialist-service state structure. Alas, deep continuities prevailed. The new class of oligarchs were often members of the old Soviet nomenklatura. They performed one of the greatest episodes of internal (i.e., non-imperial) looting in world history, not only of the energy sector, but also of the massive Soviet military-industrial complex, which had been built in accord with a military doctrine expecting simultaneous invasion by the combined forces of the rest of the world. All these assets were stripped and dumped on to global markets (older Western traders will remember the dramatic price drops of certain commodities).

The oligarchs retained the old mentality that property rights were non-existent (time and Putin proved them right). Money flowed out of the country at an extraordinary rate, not least into Britain. Putin’s propaganda presents him as a ‘saviour’ who corrected this disastrous situation. This is mythology: he simply got lucky that a global boom in hydrocarbon prices, caused primarily by increasing demand from China, coincided with his presidency. His one real contribution was to make his “grand bargain” with the oligarchs: they could keep their loot and power in exchange for support for Putin, and for not moving too much of their money out of the country. Those who refused or campaigned for more political liberty, such as the Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were imprisoned and had their companies broken up.

The Russian rubber ball had rebounded into its historically moulded natural shape, via the institutionalisation of the fourth Russian service state. As in its first three versions, property rights were made conditional upon service to the autocratic ruler, who undertakes “preemptive” wars. The oligarchs, alongside the intelligence services, loyal military leaders, and other government apparatchiks formed the new service élite. Most recently, Yevgeny Prigozhin personified with remarkable fidelity the service elite of the 16th century. Supplying a personal army — deployed not only in Ukraine but also in a massive colonial operation across Africa — in exchange for virtually unlimited opportunities for self-enrichment, he was liquidated upon overplaying his hand, and failing to secure the support of the other service elites in his attempted coup.

The seemingly eternal Russian arrangement of a garrison state and a foreign policy of preemptive imperialism has been restored. Georgia in 2008; Ukraine in 2014; Ukraine today: these are the natural and predictable actions of a state that has been waging so-called “defensive” wars since the 15th century. The mentality behind them is the product of a historically generated presupposition that the world is a zero-sum game, and that the only “real” states are empires trying to destroy each other. Small countries are a nettlesome irrelevance; anyone claiming to stand up for them or asserting their sovereignty is either an imbecile or a nefarious hypocrite who is really seeking to impose their own imperial will.

This should send shivers down the spine of every European

Putin has said exactly this on numerous occasions. In early June 2022, he finished one of his tirades with the point that “I am not going to give any examples so as not to offend anyone, but if a country or a group of countries is not able to make sovereign decisions, then it is already a colony to a certain extent. But a colony has no historical prospects, no chance for survival in today’s tough geopolitical struggle”.

This should send shivers down the spine of every European, since the tactfully unnamed “examples” refer not to Ukraine (which Putin openly describes as a Western satrapy) but to the countries of Europe, which Putin takes to be extensions of American sovereign will, and thus little more than staging bases for the US’s imperial ambitions over Russia. This view justifies any pre-emptive measures that Russia might wish to take against these American “satellites” no less than those taken against Ukraine. Meanwhile, the soldiers serving on the Ukrainian front — many are young conscripts from dilapidated towns in Asia — are the new serfs deployed at the behest of a service elite, comprised of oligarchs and government functionaries, who have themselves made a devil’s pact with the autocratic ruler. Insecurity and imperial expansion — and autocratic exploitation of its own people to achieve the latter — are the repeat hallmarks of Russian history.

History is not physics; societies do not proceed by rigid, deterministic laws. There have been points in Russian history when an alternative seems to have been possible: the “Time of Troubles” (Smuta) that followed soon after the death of Ivan the Terrible; the period of liberalisation of the early 20th century; the 1990s. In the first of these, the pretender known as the First False Dmitri, in tandem with his Polish allies, promised political and cultural reform. Polish dominance over the lands of Western Russia would have saved the world a great deal of trouble — and very many lives — over the next 400 years. But the service élites wanted none of it, favouring a return to tsarist autocracy.

Something similar happened when the new breed of élites threw in their lot with Putin. As early as 2005, the historian Richard Hellie, a pioneer of the idea that Russian history was that of a series of service states, observed that Putin was “the heir of the Soviet service state”, and predicted that there would be a “fourth service-class revolution” where putative NATO expansionism would provide the pretext to justify mobilisation. Hellie’s prediction has proved sadly prescient: a very rare case of a historian correctly forecasting the future.

The idea that Russia would not have sought to subjugate Ukraine had it not been for NATO expansion is absurd

Western commentators who blame the current situation on NATO, America, or “the West”, or who think some kind of “compromise peace” is possible, would do well to familiarise themselves with this history. They might also start listening to Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, Russian dissidents, and the many other Eastern Europeans who have been warning about Russian imperialism for decades. The idea that Russia would not have sought to subjugate Ukraine had it not been for NATO expansion is absurd and ignores the facts of half a millennium of history. Russian tanks could be on the Champs-Élysées, and the country’s leaders would still be demanding “guarantees” of their “sovereignty” and “security”, backed up with threats of preemptive military action.

Westerners on both extreme Left and Right have long held a twisted reverence for Russia, almost always stemming from displeasure with their own societies. I too dislike many things about America: its mistreatment of black people; its refusal to implement a welfare state; high-fructose corn syrup; the music of Justin Bieber. But none of these have anything to do with Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. To claim that the latter is somehow a “rational” response to Western actions is not only implausible, but also implies a failure to recognise that Eastern Europe has its own history, separate from that of America or the West. The tribal antipathies that are today so prevalent in both Europe and America should have no bearing on our attitude towards Russia’s criminal, imperialist invasion of Ukraine; defending the Ukrainians can be one of the rare causes that unites us all.