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Russian Empire: between Historic Myth and Contemporary Reality

Article by Dr Kevork Oskanian

July 24, 2020

Russian Empire: between Historic Myth and Contemporary Reality

Little more than a century ago, one of Russia’s most famous painters – an active participant in the imperial army’s conquest of Central Asia – caused a scandal in London’s artistic and political circles. Vasily Vereshchagin’s paintings had up to then been exhibited to great general acclaim in various European galleries, but one particular work caused an outcry when shown in the capital of the world’s then most powerful Empire in the 1880s. ‘Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English’ was particularly brutal in its portrayal of one of the more violent episodes in the British subjugation of India; uniformed soldiers were – anachronistically – depicted assassinating Indian insurgents by ‘blowing them from a gun’. The painting was reportedly purchased by the British government, and made to disappear into the mists of colonial artistic history.[1]


Entangled in the ‘Great Game’, Britain and Russia had been engaged in a long-running power play in the Middle East and Central Asia; and both laid claim to the superior ability of handling, and bringing civilisation to the ‘Asiatic’. Instances of ‘uncivilised’ behaviour – like Vereshchagin’s painting – served to discredit that ability. Such propaganda worked two ways. In fact, in the run up to, and following the Crimean war, and Russia’s bloody forays into the North Caucasus, the British press was replete with accounts of Russia’s ‘oriental’ propensity towards a cruelty and corruption from which its brave noble savages deserved to be saved. A narrative driven in no small part by the rampant Russophobia of a section of British society exemplified by individuals like the 19th-century diplomat, publicist and politician, David Urquhart.[2]


Russia’s confrontation with the British was complicated by a civilisational factor; the Russians’ claim to be part of Western civilisation had always been ambiguous, at best. Since the 18th century’s Petrine reforms, its rulers had craved recognition as a part of an incipient modernity dominated by the West. Their late entry into European International Society made that claim to equal standing suspect, even into the early 20th century. Except during brief periods where interests coincided – for instance, during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars – Russians were always ‘imperfectly civilised’, always part-oriental, a Western perception perhaps best captured in Rudyard Kipling’s 1903 assertion that…


…the Russian is a delightful person until he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists on being treated as the most easterly of western peoples instead of the most westerly of Easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly most difficult to handle.[3]


The resulting ‘ressentiment’ resulted in the Russians doubling down on their, and their empire’s civilisational specificity;[4] always stuck in a never-ending debate on their identity, conscious of the vast structural impediments to their empire being accepted as a fully civilised equal to Britain’s, or France’s, its policymakers and intellectuals frequently spun this ambiguity into an asset. In fact, they turned this Western argument on their difference, and inferiority, on its head. From the late 19th century, its administrators and scientists claimed that Russia’s familiarity with the ‘Orient’ bolstered its claim to a superior ability to civilise his Eastern kin, a claim that would be voiced by none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky himself:


In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, whereas we shall go to Asia as masters. In Europe we were Tatars, whereas in Asia we, too, are Europeans.  Our mission, our civilising mission in Asia will bribe our spirit and drive us there.[5]


The imagining of a distinct civilisational space over a vast, culturally diverse territory thus became an indelible part of Russia’s imperial practice. And, after various permutations – not least in 1917 and 1991 – it would reach the 21st century’s, ostensibly post-imperial world. If Tsarist Russia placed itself, and its empire between the West and the East, the Soviet Union adopted a distinctly Russian variation on a Western Enlightenment ideology, Marxism-Leninism. Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia defines its civilising mission in terms of an ‘authentic’ conservatism that sets it apart from a Europe that has descended into decadence, but entitles it to culturally, politically and economically dominate a claimed sphere of influence with a shared history, and common values, seen as lying in an elusive space between East and West.


The Power of Imperial Myths


The world has moved on. Or has it? If empires competed ideologically and geopolitically in their day, their heirs often engage in the whitewashing of their imperial pasts today. In that sense, Britain and Russia are not that different: apologists of Empire in both societies tell themselves myths about their imperial pasts, myths that minimise their own Empires’ exploitative nature by creating and upholding selective, self-servingly distorted versions of history.


In British apologias, what matters is not the transatlantic triangular trade; the looting of India; the drugs trade in China; or the genocidal extermination of native populations in North America and Australia. Instead, when talking about Empire, the formerly conquered are told they should thankfully remember the abolition of slavery, ‘gifts’ like parliamentary democracy, railways, free trade, the rule of law, and the creation of English-speaking former colonies as beacons of civilisation.[6] It is also often heard that other Empires – the French, the Dutch, and, of course, the Russians – were more exploitative, corrupt, and cruel in the administration of their ‘charges’, a narrative partly reflected in the belief of 32 per cent of the British population that the imperial experience is ‘more something to be proud of’.[7]


Russian apologists, for their part, frequently claim that they – unlike the British – had a greater affinity with ‘their’ subjects of empire, or that the USSR’s stated anti-colonial, emancipatory mission made it, and its leading ethnos – the Russians – fundamentally different from the Western overseas empires, which, following this logic, were more exploitative, more intrusive, more alien and therefore more malignant to their colonies. In fact, as some versions of the myth have it, Russia was a victim rather than perpetrator of empire, at once the driving force behind, and the main loser in the last manifestation of its imperial might: the Soviet Union.


This myth of Russian imperial benevolence and self-sacrifice was repeated in no uncertain terms within a recent report by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow – on the future of Russian foreign policy – where it was confidently stated that:


Support for cultural and civilizational diversity is also a deeply ingrained feature of Russian people who built their empire through integration, rather than conquest, by blending with the elites of component of Russian identity, namely the desire to make the world a better place, and to the best Soviet-era foreign policy tradition, that is, support for anti-colonialism.[8]


The same myth can be heard when Putin states that former Soviet republics left the USSR with gifted Russian lands in their luggage;[9] or when the Russian embassy to Estonia tweets that the Baltic states ‘were privileged’ within a USSR they freely joined (rather than the reality of being annexed after the carve up of Eastern Europe with Nazi Germany under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact);[10] and also when Russian politicians present Chechnya as a success story, having pacified its population through brutal war and by subjecting it to the arbitrary rule of Ramzan Kadyrov.[11]


Historic Myths and Realities


These claims are just as much the stuff of mythmaking as the more exculpatory versions of British imperial historiography. For while it is true that Russia’s multi-ethnic pre-modern empire frequently co-opted the elites of conquered peoples – most notably those of the Tatars, Ukrainians, and Baltic Germans – and also maintained a complex system of ethnically specific privileges, including for Muslim ethnic groups, Russia’s Tsarist empire remained intensely hierarchical, with Jews and indigenous peoples designated ‘inorodtsy’ – literally, ‘aliens’ – at the lowest rung of a complex ethno-cultural ladder.[12]


Tsarist Russia’s empire did display some measure of tolerance, and its territorial contiguity did provide for a more gradual transition from its metropole into its peripheries than in the case of Britain’s, or France’s overseas empires. However, as in any empire, this did not preclude sometimes violently enforced claims of hierarchical authority over often unwilling subalterns. If anything, the move away from purely monarchic legitimacy in the early 19th century, towards an environment increasingly marked by modern nationalism – including Russian nationalism – led to culturally more intrusive policies.


The latter half of the 19th century, therefore, saw a severely repressed revolution in Poland; the banning of the written Ukrainian language; and the genocidal relocation of the Circassians – judged unsuitable for continued incorporation into the Russian empire, all ironically under the rule of a Tsar best known for his freeing of the serfs.[13] The later Romanov empire was thus one that enforced linguistic and cultural Russification in many of its non-Russian regions, and – in contrast to previous periods – inserted an element of what Lenin would refer to as ‘Great Russian Chauvinism’ into its policies.[14]


The 1917 revolution did away with Tsarist Russia’s ‘official imperialism’, but kept Russia – now in its Soviet guise – in an ambiguous relationship to the West. On the one hand, its new ‘civilising mission’ – Marxism-Leninism – was based on a particular version of Western enlightenment thought, with its specific universal claims. On the other hand, it set the USSR apart – and, in fact, against – an imperialist, capitalist, fascist West. But when it comes to the Soviet Union, its characterisation as ‘anti-colonial’, and generous to its non-Russian minorities – eagerly taken over by some in contemporary Russia and beyond – also tells a half-truth.


While its foundational ideology, Marxism-Leninism, indeed rejected and resisted both biological racism and imperialism, that did not preclude a hierarchical world-view from shaping its interactions with what even the early Bolsheviks freely referred to as ‘backward peoples’.[15] The problem was three-fold: (1) a vanguard view of political activity, which reserved judgment on the finer points of ideology to a small, in-the-know party elite; (2) a progressive view of human historical development – which implied that some peoples were more ‘advanced’ than others; and (3) a rigid, essentialist approach to the issue of ethnicity, not least due to the great influence on nationalities issues during the defining first decades of Soviet rule by one Joseph Stalin.[16]


These three elements combined to pervert the Soviet national experiment into the very thing it had opposed at the outset: a hierarchical, at times coercive imposition on often unwilling subjects. Even at the very beginning, those minorities that did not behave according to the expectations of the Marxist-Leninist template were deemed to have been under the nefarious, distorting influence of their bourgeois or feudal overlords. Pliable ‘vanguard’ elites were installed in a manner not much different from what would have been seen in more traditional imperial practice, to legitimise a ‘gathering of the lands’ by the Bolsheviks from Ukraine to Central Asia.


While it is true that during the first decade or so of the Soviet experiment, these co-opted elites did have a major say in the development of ‘their’ particular territories, their autonomy did remain within the strict boundaries of a Marxist-Leninist civilising mission; and, with the advent to power of Stalin, it was curtailed in favour of a move towards centralisation. Before and during World War II, this combined with hierarchy and essentialism, into the at times genocidal mistreatment of minorities deemed – just like their hapless Circassian predecessors in the 19th century – collectively unreliable, or unreceptive to this particular iteration of civilisational progress.[17] A return to Russo-centrism rehabilitated the Russians at the top of a civilisational pyramid,  as the Union’s, and the world’s ‘progressive’ nation, whose earlier imperialism paved the way for the 1917 revolution and the ‘emancipation’ of its charges, a paternalistic vision expanded globally during the Cold War – first towards Central and Eastern Europe, then towards the ‘Third World’.


Russians therefore had a ‘special relationship’ with the USSR; in fact, by the final decades of the experiment, Russian and Soviet identities had largely amalgamated into one. In contrast to other ethnic groups – whose allegiance to the USSR was mediated through their identity as the titular ethnos of ‘their’ territorial sub-divisions – they identified most directly with the Union, and its precepts, as the most prototypical of homo sovieticus.[18] After the fall of the USSR, and the discrediting of liberalism during the tumultuous 1990s, for many Russians this identification, and the leading role in which they had exalted, turned into a resentment at having born a ‘white man’s burden’ in civilising and industrialising its neighbouring brethren, and defeating Nazism, while having nothing to show for it except a weak, corrupt state fraying at its seams.


It is a combination of this resentment, this broken pride, and the connected ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth, with the notion that Russians were ‘born to lead’, that Putin ultimately taps into when writing rather fantastical version of second world-war history, grabbing Crimea from Ukraine, or taking insult at the removal of statues representing Soviet ‘liberators’ of CEE states.[19] From the start of his presidency, Putin understood the importance of restoring Russia’s great power status, the one goal around which there was a broad consensus in the years following the Soviet collapse. Having failed to achieve that great power status by joining the West, he harked back to the patterns exhibited in Tsarist and Soviet times – eking out a distinct civilisational sphere of influence over which Moscow would retain a leading, civilising role.


Again, the smaller nations in that sphere would be shaped according to a template set by Russia, one that put them in a zone between Orient and Occident, within a regional hegemony distinct from the global order dominated by an elite of Western, liberal states. Myths of shared destiny, cultural affinity and Russian self-sacrifice turned any diversions from that template into a to-be-disciplined anomaly, an ungrateful or ignorant deviation. This ideological truth was loosely assembled in the Kremlin from disparate building blocks of Tsarist and Soviet history and identity: Christian Orthodoxy, Soviet Superpower status – but without the Marxist-Leninist aspect – with some old-fashioned nationalism increasingly mixed in as a consequence of a growing alienation between the regime and the West.


From Mythmaking to Policymaking


What makes Russia’s contemporary myths of empire fundamentally different in their contemporary salience from their British counterparts is not their moral inferiority, or relative inaccuracy; after all, imperial apologia is not a Russian monopoly. Instead, it is their full-throated embrace by an authoritarian government and geography that make Russia’s forms of imperial mythmaking and nostalgia more immediately challenging in the present, not least to Moscow’s former imperial subalterns, and, rather counter-intuitively, Russians themselves.


One first crucial difference between the Russian and British post-imperial experiences lies in the possibilities for critique: British imperial myths have long been subject to an open, and increasingly frank, intellectual and broader public debate. The more sinister legacies of Empire can be, and are, actively questioned and challenged, as the latest Black Lives Matter protests clearly show. Such debates existed in Russia during the tumultuous 1990s, but the space for them has now narrowed considerably and perhaps even closed – and not just at the level of stated government policy.


For not only does the Putin regime now engage in propaganda masquerading as historiography, it has inserted a ‘patriotic education’ into its recent constitutional changes as well, and made the upholding of a ‘correct’ view of history the business of the state.[20] That same constitution’s elevation of Russian into the ‘language of Russia’s state-forming people’ moreover uncomfortably harks back to the more ancient Russian imperialist claims as to the Russians’ superior political abilities, a claim repeated both during the Tsarist and Soviet eras, often in arguments against nations deemed incapable of independent statehood – like the Ukrainians.[21] In Russia, imperial apologia has thus been elevated to the level of constitutionally sanctioned orthodoxy.


As an overseas empire, Britain moreover had the advantage of definitively withdrawing from its colonies and dominions, and the option of forgetting about them, at least in terms of existential geopolitics. With its territorial empire, Russia did not have this advantage: it could not simply pack up its archives, lower its flag, withdraw its navies and forget, stuck merely with a post-imperial hangover. In that sense, the claim that its empire, by gist of being territorial, was more ‘organically constituted’ is a double-edged sword. Alongside the dubious claim that a ‘civilisational affinity’ somehow made the mostly forced incorporation of peoples into its territory somehow more acceptable, the territorial nature of its empire also makes its imperial nostalgia much more geopolitically salient.


Former Soviet republics thus cannot be as relaxed as Commonwealth members about memberships in Russian-dominated organisations like the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization; and Russia itself cannot be as aloof and distant from what happens in Tajikistan, or Georgia, as the UK could be about Sri Lanka, or Ghana. And this may very well be part of the reason for Russia clinging onto its imperial nostalgia in the way described above: Russia’s imperial nostalgia will likely maintain a direct, geopolitical relevance long after the formal dissolution of Soviet Empire.




How is this problem to be approached? Many would point to NATO membership, and gradual European integration, as one way out of this post-imperial conundrum for Russia’s neighbours. However, even if these propositions were realistic in the short- to medium-term – given Russia’s willingness to act as a spoiler – they would not change attitudes where they matter most: in Moscow. The problem is precisely that Russian elites are perfectly comfortable playing the geopolitical game; to talk in terms of spheres of influence – even in terms of their denial – arguably validates their status as participants in the business of great power statecraft. It does not question their fundamental precepts. After all, the push and pull of alliances and allegiances was part of the imperial condition to begin with.


NATO and all that can easily be seen as its continuation, are not truly challenging the attitudes underlying claims to hierarchy. Its infringement on Russia’s claimed sphere of influence may actually have hardened attitudes in Moscow towards the maintenance of a great power status cast in distinctly imperious terms, as the maintenance of influence – however imperfect – over a distinct civilisational-geopolitical space. And the West’s current crisis has merely reinforced this belief in a coming ‘polycentric’ world order, however unreasonable that might seem to some Western observers.


Instead, much will depend on measured, long-term pushback on the part of Russia’s former imperial possessions: a dogged insistence on their independent statehood, combined with a realistic assessment of both the possibilities inherent in Western assistance, and the genuine security concerns that keep Russia within its geopolitical mindset. Russia’s rose-tinted imperial narrative – where subalterns are implicitly denied an inherent right to independent political existence, and a myth of a distinct contemporary civilisation based on ‘shared historical experience’ is upheld – can only be fundamentally disrupted through its contradiction by those onto whom it is, first and foremost, projected: Russia’s former subalterns throughout the former Soviet Union.


While myths tend to have a remarkable staying power even in the most open of societies, nothing should be seen as permanent. Russian history in particular has been full of the unexpected, of occasional openings that might have provided openings for such redefinitions in the past – notably in the 1990s – if not for hubris and impatience. At some point, they are bound to recur. In the meantime, such a long-term approach to tackling its ideological detritus of empire will necessitate commodities that have become as rare as they are desirable in the tumultuous early 21st century: prudence, and strategic patience.


No known copyright restrictions on cover photo.

[1] The Culture Trip, An Introduction to Vasily Vereshchagin in 10 Paintings, updated 20 April, 2018,; Natasha Medvedev, The Contradictions in Vereshchagin’s Turkestan Series: Visualising the Russian Empire and Its Others (University of California, 2009).

[2] John Salt, Local Manifestations of the Urquhartite Movement, International Review of Social History 13, no. 3 (1968),,; Charles King, Imagining Circassia: David Urquhart and the Making of North Caucasus Nationalism, The Russian Review 66, no. 2 (2007),

[3] As cited in Alexander Morrison, Russian Rule in Turkestan and the Example of British India, c. 1860-1917 The Slavonic and East European Review 84, no. 4 (2006): 666,,

[4] Ayse Zaraköl, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 201-39.

[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary: Volume Two 1877 – 1881 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1994), 1374.

[6] e.g. Stephen Glover, If the Left and its BBC cheerleaders have their way, Britain will be forced to renounce its past. So why is no one fighting back, not least our supposedly Tory government?, Daily Mail (London), 11 June 2020,; Imogen Braddick, David Starkey facing backlash over slavery comments as he’s slammed as ‘racist’ by Sajid Javid, Evening Standard (London), 2 July 2020,

[7] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 294-95.;

Robert Booth, UK more nostalgic for empire than other ex-colonial powers, The Guardian, 11 March 2020,

[8] Sergei Karaganov, Protecting Peace, Earth and Freedom of Choice for All Countries. New Ideas for Russia’s Foreign Policy: Report of the HSE University (Moscow: Higher School of Economics National Research University, 2020), 34-45.

[9] Marko Mikhelson, Putin’s Plan Is A Threat To The Baltic States, UpNorth: the Northern European, 1 July 2020,

[10] EU vs Disinfo, Being Occupied as a Privilege, updated 24 June, 2020,

[11] AFP, Ramzan Kadyrov: Putin’s feared Chechen strongman, Al Jazeera, 21 May 2020,

[12] Eli Weinerman, Racism, Racial Prejudice and Jews in Late Imperial Russia, Ethnic and Racial Studies 17, no. 3 (1994).

[13] Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013).

[14] Alexander Semyonov and Jeremy Smith, Nationalism and Empire Before and After 1917, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 17, no. 3 (2017).

[15] E.g. Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions For The Second Congress Of The Communist International, 1920,; “Minutes of the Congress of the Peoples of the East,  Baku, September 1920,” s.d., 2016,

[16] Not least because of his highly influential definition of a nation as ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture’; see Marxism and the National Question, 1913,

[17] Terry Martin, The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing, The Journal of Modern History 70, no. 4 (1998).

[18] L. D. Gudkov, “Soviet Man” in the Sociology of Iurii Levada, Sociological Research 47, no. 6 (2008).

[19] Pavel Baev, Three Controversial Articles by Top Officials Distort Russia’s Past, Present and Future, Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 89 (22 June 2020).

[20] Polnyi Tekst Popravok v Konstitutsiyu: Za Chto Myi Golosuem?, updated 14 March 2020,

[21] Katarzyna Kaczmarska, ‘But in Asia We Too Are Europeans’: Russia’s Multifaceted Engagement with the Standard of Civilisation, International Relations 30, no. 4 (2016).

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