The Uses of History, 20 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 2 – 1825 to 1905

The Uses of History, 20 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 2 – 1825-1905

Everybody has always underrated the Russians. They keep their own secrets from foe and friends.

Winston Churchill, 1942

(Image credit – WIkipedia, Lenin at Tempere, 1905)

Churchill called himself a “friend of Russia”, but he was well known for his loathing of Communism. He recognized Stalin as a wily leader, but never trusted him. In that he was a far shrewder judge of the Soviet dictator than President Roosevelt of the USA, the third member of “The Big Three” of the “Grand Alliance” (both Churchillian monikers for the combination of Britain, Russia, and the USA against Hitler). Roosevelt believed in the Soviet leader’s sincere desire for peace and rapprochement once the Second World War was won and over. Nothing Churchill could show or tell him from British intelligence and diplomatic experience, or what Roosevelt’s own foreign policy advisers and intelligence experts could tell him, could sway Roosevelt from this naïve assessment.  As a result, he made serious mistakes in dealing with the Soviet Union while preventing Churchill from playing a greater role in framing the post-war European order.

Churchill admitted that he too had underrated the Russians. His expectation for the Soviet Union’s survival when the Nazi war machine launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 was not much different than Hitler’s. The Nazi Dictator had said to his top henchmen who were having some doubts, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come tumbling down.” Churchill’s military experts had told him that Russia would be beaten by the end of the year, and Churchill thought they were probably right. After all, a year before, the modern, much-vaunted French Army had been devastatingly beaten by the German Wehrmacht in a mere six weeks! And the Soviet war machine had looked miserably inept in the “Winter War” of November 1939-March 1940 against little Finland, even if they eventually forced Finland to cede what they demanded. Nevertheless, the British Prime Minister welcomed Stalin as a reluctant ally and pledged British support with all the means they could provide without sacrificing their own survival.

As we have seen before in this series on The Uses of History, Napoleon had seriously underrated the Russians in 1812. After all, he had already defeated them twice in campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe. And Napoleon was not the first. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) had also invaded Russia, won successive battles, but had then seen his forces dwindle away in the terrible winter only to be finally defeated in the Battle of Poltava on July 8, 1709.

The moral of these and other lessons of history regarding Russia seemed to be, “You may beat Russian armies and even win campaigns, but woe to anyone who invades Russia and thinks they can defeat her on her native soil.” In other words, “A limited war where national survival is not at stake may give you some victories, but a full-on invasion will be the end of you.”

(Maybe there is a lesson for NATO here?)

How has Russia come to be the sort of nation it is today? That is the question we are exploring now. As we watch its ineluctable march across northern and central Asia in the 17th-19th Centuries, it seems to represent the essence of an expansive imperialist state with the technology of a modern army and nation behind it. Yet it is riven with internal contradictions, remaining a largely agrarian and semi-feudal society whose popular culture is often dominated by semi-superstitious religious notions and whose ruling elite still invoke Divine Right (God’s mission for the Russian nation) and the anointing of the aristocracy (renamed now as “the Oligarchs”), but still living as they please and controlling and exploiting the vast peasantry (working masses) who work their vast estates (industrial, commercial, financial syndicates).

In the late 19th Century, a free-holding class of more prosperous, independent farmers willing to use modern methods of production was slowly growing, especially in the rich Ukraine and some areas of Western Russia. A still small industrial working class could be found in the largest cities, largely recruited from the landless rural labouring masses. Mass education had created a large, literate element now able to read literature advocating radical change. There was a gradually expanding middle class and a set of nouveaux-riches capitalists, but the old elites remain firmly anchored in the seats of power. An educated set of young idealists was emerging to restlessly question all the old ways and seek liberal, democratic reform, or, more radically, socialism and communism to replace the still semi-feudal society.

For a brief time after Tsar Alexander II took power in 1855, there was hope among the open-minded, pro-reform groups that the young new Tsar would undo many of the restrictions his severely autocratic father had instituted. In 1862, he emancipated the tens of millions of serfs bound to the land of their aristocratic masters by oppressive laws for generations. He promised them lands of their own to farm, but where were such lands to be found except by requiring the 100 000 landlords (mostly “gentry”) to renounce title to them and transfer land to the peasant-labourers?

Almost without fail the aristocrats refused to accept this change, and, generously given the responsibility to implement the reforms by the Tsarist administration, kept 2/3 of the best land for themselves and gave the poorest one third to their former serfs, who had no money to pay for the land as they were required to do. The Imperial Government further betrayed the peasants by generously compensating the rich nobles for their surrendered land. The peasants were loaned 80% of the cost by the government funded banks, and the other 20% was loaned by the gentry. The payment burdens were so onerous that there was small chance any peasant could pay it off in their lifetime and the debts were therefore passed on to their offspring who lived on the land. Thus the huge influx of landless rural labourers into the cities to seek work. Such work as there was unskilled and paid barely starvation wages.

As the 19th Century wore on, the internal restlessness and disillusionment in Russia grew apace, and revolutionary parties, underground societies, literature and publications emerged like weeds, sparking frequent mostly localized revolts. By the first decade of the 1900s, there were significant socialist parties of various stripes active, including the two largest – the Social Revolutionary Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The latter found itself split into two factions in 1903 after its convention in London: the Mensheviks (“the Minority”) and the Bolsheviks (“the Majority”). The Bolsheviks were led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who would become better known as Lenin, his chosen revolutionary name.

According to Wikipedia, citing scholarly sources, Bolshevik membership in 1905 consisted of 62% industrial labourers recruited largely from the ranks of the displaced rural population. In 1897, industry accounted for but 3% of employment in all of Russia. The Mensheviks had a more middle-class flavour. Both had a disproportion of Jewish adherents, which is perhaps not surprising given the endemic oppression and persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. Anti-Semitism was a deliberate policy of the nefarious Okhrana/MVD, the Imperial Secret State Police (various incarnations of this have existed in Russia/the Soviet Union for two hundred years under various acronyms, the KGB being the best known). Anti-Semitism was officially endorsed to divert blame for the misery of the mass of the population from the repeated utter failure of the national government to follow through on pledges to reform land-holding laws and economic inequality.

All through this period, imperialist Russian expansionism continued across northern Asia, once more as a diversion from the medieval living conditions in the rural areas and the very poorly regulated conditions of the new industrial towns and districts in the major cities. There was always a quasi-religious element in this expansionism, as a sort of crusade to bring the Russian Orthodox true Christian light to the benighted heathens of central and southern Asia.

By the 1890s, Russian encroachment was thrusting south from the newly annexed “guberniya” (government districts) of Turkestan and Uzbekistan and impinging on Afghanistan, edging ever closer to India, where the British were keeping a close and jealous eye on them. Farther East, Russian railway-building brought Manchuria within range.

In the Far East, a new power was rapidly rising and warily watching Russian intentions towards an area it too was eying as a coveted sphere of influence. The Empire of Japan had awakened and, from the 1870s on, was swiftly modernizing and adopting not only Western technology, but Western modes of popular education, commerce and industry, and militarization.

The Japanese had resolved that they would never become a mere vassal-state of any Western nation. Instead, they would be proactive in imitating and even improving upon Western techniques while preserving the essence of their national identity, and carve out for themselves a place among the Great Powers when they had sufficiently prepared. In 1894-5 the arrival of Japan as a major regional East Asian power was signaled in a short, sharp, victorious war with China in which Japan took over domination of Korea as a Protectorate, to be annexed to the Japanese Empire in 1910, and seized the Shantung Peninsula, planning to convert it into a Japanese bridgehead into China for future expansion.

Russian jealousy and the threat of Russian military action imposed on Japan forced the victorious Japanese to surrender Shantung and hand over their newly acquired naval base on the Chinese coast to Russia. Not yet ready for a showdown with Russia, the Japanese retired, but resolved that when the right time came, Russia would deeply regret this affront to Japan’s national honour.

That time would arrive in 1904.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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