Comparing the Tsarist Russian and Soviet Empires

By Magdalena Noga
2011, Vol. 3 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |

Compared to other empires throughout history, the USSR was an exception. The rulers of the viewed empire and imperialism in ideological terms as ‘the highest and final stage of capitalism’.1 By this Leninist definition, the Soviet Union did not identify itself as an empire, and instead, its leaders vehemently denounced imperialism that was carried out by its enemies and competitors: the capitalist states. Despite its own anguish over being identified as an empire, the Soviet Union indeed was one. While the meaning of ‘empire’ has shifted over time, for the purposes of this paper the definition of empire is in the sense of a great power, a polity, ruling over vast territories and people, leaving a significant impact on the history of world civilizations.2 As the characteristics of the Soviet Union are examined, support for viewing the USSR as an empire grows.

The Soviet Union emerged after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Tsarist Russian Empire’s government was overthrown by the local soviets, led by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks attempted to replace the Russian empire with a communist one, in which socialism would make obsolete and in place there would be a supra-national imperial ideology.3 Still, coming back to the issue of ‘empire’, the Soviet Union clearly maintained a commanding control over multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic societies that surpassed the extent of the preceding Imperial Empire. A question thus arises: was the USSR a Russian empire? The first aspect to consider is if the USSR was a continuation of Russian imperialist power or if an intrinsic distinction can be made between the two. What is notable to address is what is meant by ‘Russian’ identity and nationality, its formation, and reshaping through time. Once this will be accounted for, this paper will move on with an answer to the question: the USSR was indeed an essentially different empire from the one preceding it, and thus, the USSR was not a Russian empire.

A focal point will be the end of the Tsarist Russian Empire and the beginning of the Soviet Empire. Undoubtedly, empires change over time and the Russian Empire and the Soviet Empire both evolved throughout their existence. Thereby, in order to constitute a comparison, this paper will look at the two empires at the culmination of their power and influence. Because power is the most important element of an empire, the sources of power are of importance to this analysis of the two empires. The sources of power as defined by Mann (1992) are military, political, economic, cultural/ideological, geopolitical and demographic.4 The arguments of this paper continue as follows: First, the ideological/ aspects of the empires will be discussed in order to establish the imperial ethos. The issue of identity and nationality will also be given substantial attention. Next, the forms in which the empires exercised military, political, and economic power will be addressed to reinforce the distinction in motives and aspirations. Following this, the demographic make-up and the geopolitical sphere of influence will be tackled to show that the Soviet Empire, unlike the Tsarist Russia one, recruited ethnic cadres from its periphery and exercised geopolitical influence that far surpassed that of Imperial Russia. Finally, an overview of the mentioned points will be made to conclude that the USSR did indeed differ from a Russian Empire even though certain elements of the Imperial Russia Empire were present, especially after the USSR was altered throughout the years.

Cultural and Ideological aspects

Tsarist Russia began with the reign of the first tsar, Ivan IV “the Terrible” (1533-1584) until the reign of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II (1894-1917).5 What was meant to be ‘Russian’ went through changes during those years with prevailing complexes of cultural inferiority felt by the people. The triumphant success in the eighteenth century in war and diplomacy eased the cultural inferiority by providing a sense of security and self-confidence. However, the nineteenth century saw less success for the Russian state and vulnerability returned.6

Russian culture has been to a great extent attributed to its unique geographical location, somewhat of a middle ground between Europe and Asia. This awareness has led to a profound ambivalence in the national psychology, assuming the form of an existential indeterminacy between Asia and the West.7 The geopolitical entity of the Russian Empire was fully formed by the nineteenth century. A dominant portion was located in Asia, and Russia’s imperial identity was deeply permeated with the awareness of its position in the East.8

Since the establishment of Muscovy as the geographical he of a new political entity during Ivan the Terrible’s rule, the isolated and xenophobic Russians saw foreigners negatively as they failed to acknowledge the one true faith of Orthodoxy. The revolution brought on by Peter the Great (1682-1725) dramatically changed attitudes by the ‘Europeanization’ of Russian society, meaning Russia was or ought to be a European country. Russia’s self-image as European furthered the imperial mentality of intrinsic cultural superiority over the East. The rather indifferent Europe to Russia’s new status as a ‘European country’ led Russia to find its ‘Europeanness’ in Asia.9 The formation of a Russian identity became largely a process of depicting a European Other from the Russian self, and accordingly, an Otherness that Russia must be saved from.10 The reluctance of Europe to accept Russia as one of its own contributed to Russia’s search for its place and identity in Asia. However, Eurasianism failed to garner broad support in neither the international émigré community or with the Soviet Union. The movement, in its original form, failed to even survive the Second World War.11

The debate about Russian national identity had no real place in the uniform communist ideology of the Soviet Union. The relationship to the West no longer mattered geographically but rather in Marxist terms; it was the progressive workers’ state against the reactionary capitalist world.12 The soviets defined nation as a synonym for people and Stalin’s definition required the fulfillment of the following criteria: all members share common economic conditions, common , same territory, and similar frame of mind (culture and national character).13 , the reigning ideology of the USSR, was a departure from the ideology of the Russian Imperial Empire.

Non-Russian nationalism was principally a response to Tsarist oppression. The process of korenizatsiia (indigenization) addressed the positive psychological needs of nationalism. Native cadres would make Soviet power seem indigenous rather than an external Russian imperial position. Soviet policy did promote a distinctive national identity and national self-consciousness of its non-Russian population. The vision was of a peaceful coexistence of the distinct national identities from which an all-union socialist culture would emerge that would replace the pre-existing national cultures. 14 The Soviet central state did not identify as Russian, and Russians were driven to bear the burden of the empire by suppressing their national interests and to identify with a non-national empire. This stemmed from the Bolshevik task of promoting internationalism rather than separate national identities.15

Military, Economic, and Political Comparisons

Parallels are often made between Peter I and Stalin (for example—the use of despotic methods to mobilize people and resources in the cause of economic modernization and military power) but such comparisons are limited. While Russia was increasingly opened to Western ideas and immigrants during Peter’s reign, Stalin’s policy created an autarchic, monolithic and xenophobic society that was as closed to outside influences as was possible.16 Further parallels can be seen in the economic context in which Alexander II and Mikhail Gorbachev operated. Both rulers were liberal modernizers with a key element of liberating people’s economic potential from serfdom and the command economy. While both cases saw the a partial introduction of capitalist principles, liberal economic values were not given much interest and in place was a deep fear of the impact on political stability. The result was heavy constraints on the of a free market in land and labor.17

While both empires were economically agrarian empires, the USSR underwent an industrialization program that was a large component of its new status in the world as a ‘superpower’. The Russian empire was only characterized as an agrarian economy, but the USSR reached status of a major industrial power. The Brezhnev era saw rapid urbanization and the USSR was marked by universal signs of an industrialized society: shrinking low-status jobs and a sharp increase in high-status ones. This satisfaction of limited upward mobility was a main cause of the stability of the Soviet system.18

Political stability in both empires (before the 1860s and in the 1980s respectively) depended on the ability of an authoritarian regime to create a climate of fear, inertia, and public disinterest in . Further parallels can be drawn between the sixteenth-century Muscovite polity and Stalin’s USSR. Modernization and competition with the West required the opening up and thus, acquirement of Western values and mentalities. Looking at the political history of imperial Russia, the effort to merge Western liberal principles with authoritarian tsarist traditions can be seen. However, the Soviet regime’s denial of continuity with the tsarist past led to the not surprisingly quick collapse of the Soviet system of government after Gorbachev’s introduction of Western principles of law and .19

What can be said is that the Soviet Union was not so much a Russian Empire as a Moscow Empire.20 All decisions were determined by Moscow and this led to resentment against the old Moscow elite. The problem in the USSR was not a concentration of power at the top bur rather an obvious overgrowth of the intermediate link and the relative weakness of the lower and higher links. While economic reform raised the prestige and influence of the first and third levels, the second level was lowered.21 Although the core of the Soviet polity was the Communist Part, and thus, its ruling elite, Tsarist Russia did not have a similar type of a super-bureaucracy.

Peasant conscripts made up the core of Imperial Russian military power. The Russian army gained great prestige for itself and for Russia as a whole by playing a big role in the allied defeat of Napoleon in 1812-14.22 In contrast, the Soviet Union engaged in a mechanized military that greatly surpassed the one of Imperial Russia. During the Second World War, the soviets were able to experience high levels of industrialization and mechanization, which would further solidify the USSR’s superpower status. In military and economic terms, Tsarist Russia only experienced a fragment of the great power that the Soviet Union held.23