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The Longue Durée of Russian Imperialism

I have written on my old blog about the absurdity, from the perspective of a historian of early modern Russia, of the claims to eternal sovereignty used to justify the 2022 attack on Ukraine. As the war approaches its second anniversary with the two sides more or less at a stalemate and certain members of the US Congress delaying financial support to Ukraine despite claiming to support that country, I return to the question from another perspective. There are, after all, few people more aware of the longue durée of Russian imperialism than scholars steeped in the history of Muscovite Rus’ (1304–1682/89).


I was reminded of this point after reading a novel set during the reign of Ivan III, known as “the Great” (ruled 1452–1505). The novel is not yet published, and I will be discussing it more on the blog—and probably the New Books Network as well—after it appears in print. But what struck me particularly in this instance was the conjuncture between this author trying to find a literary agent for her work and being told that “no one wants to read about Russia at present.”


It’s true: Russia is conducting a vicious and unprovoked war on Ukraine. Most of us would not want to be seen as in any way supporting such blatant aggression. Even so, it seems to me that the US public—which in my experience knows far less about Russia than it should, if it hopes to understand a state that so often acts as an adversary—needs books that explore Russian attitudes toward identity, neighboring states, and power more than ever before. And since most people have full-time jobs and family commitments, they are more likely to read novels in their spare time than academic tomes, no matter how erudite. Is it not clear that Vladimir Putin is a product of the same state that persecuted hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of so-called class enemies and that his attitudes toward Russia and Russianness derive from centuries of imperial acquisition? Would it not be useful to understand where those attitudes come from and how they have been expressed?


What made Ivan III great in the eyes of his compatriots was that, more than any grand prince before him (Russian rulers didn’t become tsars until 1547), he subdued the many neighboring principalities that had formed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, leaving the country vulnerable to the forces of Genghis Khan in 1237. This process is known to historians as the “Gathering of the Russian Lands,” but those who experienced that gathering firsthand were much less supportive of the takeover than contemporary history students, who are understandably glad they no longer have to worry about multiple independent principalities and can focus on just one.


The “gathering” was at times deceptive, at other times brutal. Ivan outraged his own brothers (and drove a couple of them into revolt) by refusing to divide his property with them. He tricked neighboring princes into selling or bequeathing him their lands. He attacked the two great merchant cities of the North—Novgorod and Pskov, each of which had limited democratic government—subduing them in stages and by force.


A multistage hand-drawn image of mountains, buildings, and people. At bottom right, a large bell sits alone on a horse-drawn sleigh.

To justify those attacks, Ivan manufactured charges against the people of those cities that, if we modernize the vocabulary, sound oddly familiar. The cities were, he argued, western-oriented, likely to fall prey to the wiles of Poles and Lithuanians—and, worst of all in his mind, the Catholic Church. On the basis of these trumped-up charges, he declared war, forcing both cities to yield territory to Moscow and eventually to accept him as their sovereign. After the second war, he captured the bell used to summon Novgorod’s unruly popular assembly and had it carried back to Moscow, ending even that somewhat flawed democratic experiment. Putin uses the slurs “Nazis” and “fascists” in place of “Latinians,” but his fundamental beef is the same: Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and the European Union—that is, the West.


Ivan III also instituted a long-drawn-out attack on the independence of the Tatar Khanate of Kazan, which came into being a couple of years before his birth and was conquered in 1552 by his grandson: the first tsar, Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible” (an epithet also applied to Ivan III). The tactics used during that intervening century were eerily similar to those that Russia has used against Ukraine since 1991. That earlier Russia launched military attacks and siphoned off pieces of less well-defended territory; it also installed puppet khans who, because they were indebted to Russia for support, defended its interests. Remember Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who fled to Moscow in 2014? His ouster on the grounds that he was more supportive of Russia’s interests than Ukraine’s led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea that year, foreshadowing the current conflict. It also effectively split Ukraine into an eastern, Russian-affiliated portion (the Donetsk and Luhansk regions) and a western portion that is now under attack because it has refused assimilation.


A painting of an armored man on horseback, surrounded by Russian men in elaborate robes. A smaller group of men kneels in submission at the bottom left corner of the painting.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, too, the puppet khans tended to fall out of favor with the local population—especially the elite, which dared to think its interests might be more important than those of a neighboring state. The puppets rarely lasted long on their thrones before either being forced to make a run for it or suffering assassination. Then the process began again, until that final, massive attack at a moment when the reigning khan was already someone who had previously been in service to the Russian tsar. Here, too, there are modern parallels: Putin declared not long ago that Kazan, like Ukraine, had “always been part of Russia,” conveniently ignoring the history of conquest and resistance (referred to in Russian chronicles as “betrayal”).


To be sure, history is not set in stone, and much has changed since 1552. But cultural patterns and assumptions can have very long lives. When Putin says, “Ukraine has always been part of Russia,” even though it clearly has not, what he means is that Ukraine has long been included among the areas that, in the minds of Russian leaders, should be part of Russia, even if the citizens of those regions would prefer to remain independent and choose their own alliances.


Ivan III “the Great” and Ivan IV “the Terrible” would, I am sure, heartily agree.


Images: Page from the 16th-century Illustrated Chronicle Codex showing the transport of the Novgorod assembly (veche) bell to Moscow; Petr Korovin, Ivan IV under the Walls of Kazan (1890)—both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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