Imperial Expansion, Russia

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IMPERIAL EXPANSION, RUSSIA. The transformation of the tiny principality of Moscow into a Eurasian empire took place over several centuries, but by the end of the seventeenth century Russia had become the largest country in the world. No single motivation ("urge to the sea," fear of foreign invasion or domination, control of trade routes, unbridled expansionism) explains all Russian territorial acquisitions in the early modern period, and the process is best viewed as a series of ad hoc decisions, opportunities, and actions. Recent commentators have concluded that no messianic ("theory of the Third Rome") or programmatic (the spurious "testament of Peter I") texts guided Russian expansion.

Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Grand Principality of Moscow (called Muscovy by European observers) expanded primarily at the expense of other Rus' principalities by conquering, inheriting, purchasing, and annexing the lands of other Rurikid princes. The rise of Moscow was marked by cooperation with Tatars rather than struggle against them. Monasteries (which doubled as forts and centers of economic activity) played a considerable role in advancing Russian settlement into areas originally inhabited by Finno-Ugric peoples.

The conquests of Novgorod (1478) and Kazan' (1552) were central to the course of Russian expansion. While the former signified Moscow's triumph over the other Rus' principalities, the latter solidified its position vis-à-vis the Chingissid successor states and the steppe. In both cases Russian diplomats advanced historic claims to neighboring territories, but strong economic interests and rivalries over trade routes played key roles. Conquest was preceded by decades of diplomatic maneuvering, Muscovite intervention, and struggles between factions within those political structures. Novgorod gave Muscovy a trading emporium in proximity to the Baltic basin and control over vast northern hinterlands. The conquest of Kazan' facilitated an advance into the middle and lower Volga regions, the North Caucasus, and Siberia. In both cases lands were confiscated and redistributed to Muscovite military men, but this was a policy of selective, rather than wholesale, displacement of traditional elites.

In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries the principal methods of state expansion included military conquest, frontier settlement, and expansion into territories not under effective jurisdiction by other states, and alliances and diplomatic deals with local ruling elites, who became clients or subjects of Russia. Throughout the earlymodern period, decisions about western strategy had to be carefully correlated with developments in the south to avoid coordinated actions by Russia's rivals. Along its open southern and eastern frontiers the Russian state pursued a strategy of annexing lands, building settlements, constructing fortified lines to impede nomadic attacks, and concluding flexible alliances with groups in the outer zones of the frontier (Cossacks and/or pastoralist groups such as the Nogays, Kalmyks, etc.) to further interests in the steppe. Fortified lines expanded steadily into the steppe, Siberia, and the Northern Caucasus from the second half of the sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth. They incorporated forts, wooden and earthen ramparts, ditches, watchtowers, and steppe patrols.

The conquest of Siberia (15811649) was clearly one of the largest, swiftest, and most durable imperial conquests in global history. After establishing themselves in Western Siberia, Cossacks and government forces advanced along the course of major river systems (Ob-Irtysh by 1605, Yenisey by 1628, Lena by 1640, and Amur in the 1640s) until all of Siberia was under Russian control. By 1689, in spite of the fact that Russia maintained only a few thousand armed men in eastern Siberia, the Chinese state recognized the bulk of Russia's eastern conquests in the Treaty of Nerchinsk.

In the west, protracted wars and treaty negotiations defined the process of Russian expansion. In contrast to other expansion into other regions, western expansion primarily involved the introduction of Russian garrisons, administrators, and merchants to towns in the Baltic region and Dnieper basin, but it did not result in the migration of Russian agriculturalists. Struggles over adjacent lands served as a constant source of cross-border conflict between Moscow and its western neighbors. Traditional rivalries with Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth escalated into a major international conflict when Russia attempted to contest control of the Baltic coast during the Livonian Wars (15581583). The conflict failed to give Russia a foothold on the Baltic, and during the Time of Troubles (16031613) Polish and Swedish borders expanded at the expense of Russia. The alliance between Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich and Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1654 initiated a long struggle for domination of Ukraine that raged intermittently until the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century. As a result of its deepening military commitments in Ukraine, Russia abandoned its longstanding policy of friendship toward the Ottoman Empire and concluded its first anti-Ottoman alliance (1667). During the Great Northern War (17001721) Tsar Peter I established a permanent Russian presence on the Baltic coast and succeeded in annexing much of modern-day Latvia and Estonia. In a series of agreements negotiated between local elites and Russian administrators, the Baltic Germans were confirmed in their rights and privileges over local populations.

Outside the predominantly Russian central provinces of the empire (in which serfdom, the old Muscovite service class, and the Law Code of 1649 predominated) a mosaic of local arrangements characterized Russian rule. While the peoples of the Volga region were incorporated into the Russian landholding and legal systems, several regions were administered under separate deals with the tsar and retained their own legal traditions and considerable local autonomy: the Hetmanate (Ukraine), the Baltic Provinces, and the Cossack Hosts. Siberian peoples came under differing levels of government control: groups such as the Yakuts came under intense pressure to convert and acculturate while groups living in the far north continued their traditional ways and sporadically provided tribute. Russian rulers claimed sovereignty over certain peoples of the North Caucasus, but the state had little effective authority over the region in the early modern period. Nomadic groups in the steppe often received subsidies and provided occasional services to the tsar but were not under direct control. Although conversion to Orthodoxy was encouraged, few resources were actively committed to the goal of Christianization. Orthodox Christians were prohibited from converting to other religions. Although the term Rus' continued to be employed to refer to the Orthodox heartland of the empire, in the seventeenth century the term Rossiia (Russia) was increasingly employed to designate the diverse territories under Romanov jurisdiction.

See also Andrusovo, Truce of (1667) ; Black Sea Steppe ; Cossacks ; Fur Trade: Russia ; Khmelnytsky, Bohdan ; Livonian War (15581583) ; Northern Wars ; Russia ; Time of Troubles (Russia) ; Ukraine .


Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Translated by Alfred Layton. Harlow, U.K., 2001.

Liubavskii, Matvei Kuz'mich. Obzor istorii russkoi kolonizatsii s drevneishikh vremen i do XX veka. Moscow, 1996.

Rieber, Alfred J. "Persistent Factors in Russian Foreign Policy: An Interpretive Essay." In Imperial Russian Foreign Policy. Edited by Hugh Ragsdale. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993.

Brian Boeck