America is the new Russia
The two continental powers have strong parallels throughout history
This is the first in a two-part series about Russian multiculturalism
There are many curious historical similarities between Russia and the United States, even if on one first glance they appear like each other’s antithesis: one is an ultra-democratic republic, the other an empire once ruled by a divinely-ordained autocrat; one is characterised by an almost naïve optimism about the human spirit and the arc of history, the other a caustic humour about the injustices of life.
Yet there is something to the similarities. Both were driven by expansion towards the Pacific and their own version of manifest destiny, and both united by a universalising religion that made them different to normal countries. As E.H. Carr put it: ‘the conception that Russia was not merely a nation among nations, but had a unique mission to transcend nationality by becoming the archetype of universal humanity, became a central tenet of the Slavophil creed.’ Today America sees itself explicitly as a ‘proposition nation’, a sort-of empire with no unifying ancestry but defined by values — a liberal caliphate, as one man put it.
This is one of many thoughts I came away with from reading Krishan Kumar’s fascinating Visions of Empire, a study of five empires and the guiding vision that drove them. Kumar looks at empires as systems that evolved in different contexts, with different purposes and justifications, and analyses them with a refreshing lack of moral absolutism. None of the empires he tracks — the Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian, British and French, as well as the Roman — were entirely malevolent or benevolent, because no successful, long-lasting empire can be; and there were few as long lasting as the Russian.
All empires develop a guiding ideology or mission, usually to civilise the world and spread their universal mission; this was a theme running through the Roman, British and French empires, the latter most of all with its la mission civilisatrice. As Kumar writes: ‘Whereas the Ottomans and the Habsburgs and even the British would accept and even promote difference, for the French it seemed inconceivable that, once exposed to French culture, everyone would not wish to share in that culture to the fullest extent possible, to become, in a word, French.’ They wouldn’t be French if they didn’t think that.
Alternatively, empires define themselves as defenders of a religion, one that is in theory universalising but in reality civilisational: Islam for the Ottomans, Catholicism for the Habsburgs and Orthodoxy for the Russian Empire. This was true even with the ‘fourth Russian Empire’, as Kumar calls the Soviet Union: just as Orthodox Christians across the Balkans and Near East might see Russia as their guiding light and protector, so true believers everywhere came to see the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as the leader of their spiritual empire.
As Russia was always an empire, so it was always multicultural, reflected in the different words for ethnic Russians – Russky – and for citizens of the Russian state, Rossiysky. Historian Geoffrey Hosking compares this to the difference between English and British, although one might also make the comparison between white Americans and Americans more generally; the dominant ethnic group, and the wider civic community.
Like the United States, Russia has historically been inclusive, at least in some ways; for as Kumar notes, it was very easy for members of other ethnic groups to join the Russian aristocracy and be accepted. They might have to convert to Orthodoxy, but in the case of the Baltic Germans, even this small barrier was usually not applied.
As historian Marc Raeff put it: ‘Anyone from the upper levels of the conquered societies, by taking up service, could acquire the rank (chin) which would put him on a footing of equality, or at least provide this opportunity for his children, with his Russian counterpart within the framework of the dominant “Establishment”’.
Russian imperialism has a bad press in the West, and it certainly hasn’t improved this past year, but, like all empires, it could be oppressive in one place, benevolent in another. The Poles suffered under Russian rule, conditions growing worse after two failed revolts, but the Finns enjoyed great autonomy and, from 1878, their own army, and as with many empires, imperial rule reduced the power of an existing ethnic elite, in this case the Swedes. This all began to change in the 1890s, however, with Nicholas II’s attempts to remove Finland’s autonomy, a characteristically foolish policy by the last tsar.
Empires could also favour ethnic minorities, offering protection and advancement. The Baltic Germans — a culture destroyed by Hitler’s mad empire — were extremely loyal to the tsar, right up until the end. German language memorials in what is now Estonia remember those who died for the vaterland against Napoleon, the fatherland in question being Russia.
Alexander III called the German areas of his domain ‘the most loyal, trustworthy, and civilized provinces of the Empire, which have provided the most able and trustworthy forces and men.’ Germans predominated at the top, so that among the highest echelons in the court, military and civil service during the last years of tsarist Russia, between 18 and 33 percent were Germans. Even in 1915, 16 of 53 top officials in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were German! In contrast Prince Louis of Battenberg had to stand down as Britain’s First Sea Lord in October 1914, and, like the royals themselves, had to change his name. And the Romanovs, of course, were themselves nine-tenths German,