Russia and the East

Russia’s military campaign in Syria is front page news at the moment, so it is perhaps appropriate that this week my class ‘Russia and the West’ will be taking a break from the history of Russian-Western relations to take a look at Russia’s interactions with the rest of the world. What such a look reveals is that the historical relationship between Russia and non-European/non-Christian peoples has been somewhat different than that between Western Europe (and later also North America) and most of the rest of the world.

While the Muslim world was more advanced than Western Europe, Europeans don’t seem to have looked up to it as something to emulate. Rather it was for many centuries a civilization to be feared, and then once it ceased to be feared (roughly from the relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683 onwards) it became something to look down upon. As European power spread around the world in the era of colonialism, the West acquired a belief in its own superiority and others’ inferiority, which to some extent persists to this day and is reflected in the foreign policy obsession with spreading Western liberal democratic norms around the world.

Russia, by contrast, rarely saw the East in quite such negative colours. Although the great philosopher Vladimir Solovyov pronounced his fears about the ‘yellow peril’ which he believed would destroy Russia, on the whole Russians worried more about dangers coming from the West. After all, most of the great invasions which have ravaged Russia have come from that direction. The one exception is the Mongols, but despite the myth of the ‘Mongol yoke’, contemporary accounts of Mongol rule depict it as actually rather mild. Furthermore, Russian rulers, far from despising Mongol administration as inferior, regarded it as a model of power and efficiency to be copied. It is notable that Alexander Nevskii in the mid-13th century chose to make peace with the Mongols, but to fight the Germans. The Mongols, after all, only wanted tribute; the Teutonic Knights sought to forcibly convert others to Catholicism. Given a choice between conquest from the east or conquest from the west, the east looked preferable.

As for Islam, it didn’t threaten Russian Orthodoxy in the way that it was seen to threaten Roman Catholicism. There were relatively few contacts between the Muslim world and pre-Romanov Russia, but the few Russians who ventured into Islamic regions tended to be impressed by what they saw. An example was Afanasii Nikitin, whose account of his trip to Persia in the 1460s convinced many that he had converted to Islam. Once Russia expanded into Muslim territory following the conquest of Kazan in 1552, it showed little interest in converting Muslims to Orthodoxy. Numerous wars followed against the Ottoman Empire, but they were not obviously different in nature from those which Russia fought against European states. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 was justified by a veneer of civilizational discourse about saving Christians from the barbaric Turks, but even in that case the Russians were concerned only with ‘rescuing’ Bulgarians, not with ‘civilizing’ the Ottomans.

As David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye has shown, Pre-revolutionary Russian ‘Orientalism’ differed from its Western counterpart in that for the most part Russians never fully endorsed European ideas of racial superiority. Academics such as Aleksandr Kazem-Bek, Jozef Kowalewski, and Vladimir Vasilev argued that Russian rule would benefit the relatively backward territories which Russia conquered in the nineteenth century in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but at the same time noted that the backwardness was a product of historical circumstances and not of any racial inferiority. Eastern peoples in their eyes were just as capable as Western ones. Europeans, meanwhile, were every bit as barbaric as Muslims and Asians, as shown in Vasilii Vereshchagin’s 1868 pictures ‘After Success’ and ‘After Failure’, which suggest a degree of moral equivalency between Central Asian and European soldiers, each equally nonchalant about those killed in battle.

Vasilii Vereshchagin, 'After Success', 1868
Vasilii Vereshchagin, ‘After Success’, 1868
Vasilii Vereshchagin, 'After Failure'
Vasilii Vereshchagin, ‘After Failure’

Having conquered a large amount of Muslim territory in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 1860s and 1870s, the Russian Empire was ambivalent towards its Muslim subjects. On the one hand, the Empire viewed them with some suspicion, and didn’t treat them exactly as equals. On the other hand, it wasn’t interested in converting them to Orthodoxy and was willing to allow them exemptions from some of the demands made on other subjects, such as being conscripted into the army. Some officials regarded Muslims as a potential fifth column; others viewed them as being very loyal. During the First World War, for instance, the wife of the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, rejected a request that her charitable foundation provide support for Azeri refugees on the grounds that, ‘I know no Tatar (i.e. Muslim) refugees. I know only Tatar traitors.’ In contrast, Vorontsov-Dashkov’s successor, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, made a point of visiting the Sunni and Shia mosques in Tbilisi on the day of his arrival, later rejected plans to settle European refugees on Muslim land, and subsequently declared that, ‘One cannot doubt the firm bonds between the Caucasus’s Muslims and Russia.’

In the Soviet era Islam was, from a Marxist perspective, an oppressive ideology which required elimination. The Soviets therefore carried out a vigorous strategy of secularization. But they were equally hostile towards Christianity and all other religions. They did not single out Islam or portray it in a uniquely negative light. It is true that the top stratum of Soviet rulers came almost exclusively from the European parts of the USSR, and Soviet economic practices in Central Asia could in some respects be viewed as colonial in nature. In Soviet eyes, the relationship between Russians and Central Asians was something like that between a mother and her children – nurturing, but decidedly unequal. Nevertheless, from Khrushchev onwards, under the doctrine of korenizatsiia (which dictated that the national republics of the USSR should be governed by members of the nationality in question), the Communist Party did attempt to educate and promote local elites and allow for a degree of autonomy. The colonial model is not entirely appropriate.

In short, when one reviews the history of Russia’s relationship with the East in general, and with Islam in particular, it isn’t as negative as that of the West. There has been a little less hostility and fearfulness, a little less of a sense of superiority, and also a little more tolerance. This fits with the Slavophile view that I have described elsewhere, which contends that cultural diversity is desirable. It may help to explain why Russia, despite having conquered and to a degree exploited Muslim peoples in the past, today enjoys somewhat better (if far from perfect) relations with parts of the Muslim world than does the West.


47 thoughts on “Russia and the East”

  1. What is the connection between the desirability of diversity and the Orthodox worldview? In other words, do you see a possible correlation of the Slavophile view you mention, that diversity is desirable, to the Orthodox worldview that, for instance, resulted in the practice of readily translating the Liturgy into the local languages? We see this for instance in the work of Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs as well as in the work of the Valaam Mission in Alaska. On the other hand, in the Western Church, the Latin mass was always standard regardless of the local languages spoken, for many, many centuries, until Vatican II.


    1. As I understand it, the Slavophile view about the desirability of diversity derives not from Orthodoxy but from German Romanticism, although it could be that Romanticism was attractive because it fitted some existing preconceptions.


  2. Wow! Excellent post, Paul! Balanced, well-researched (you even mention Afanasiy Nikitin – a rather obscure figure for the Westerners). Once again – great job!

    But… a couple of comments:

    ” Furthermore, Russian rulers, far from despising Mongol administration as inferior, regarded it as a model of power and efficiency to be copied. It is notable that Alexander Nevskii in the mid-13th century chose to make peace with the Mongols, but to fight the Germans.”

    This is a common “trap” for which fell a lot of people – in the West and Russia alike. This notion, that the insitute of power in Russia was somehow “tainted” by the “Asiatic tyranny” of mongols.

    So I have to ask – “And what did Russian princes “copied” from Mongols?”. In fact, only one thing comes to mind – the postal system. The feudal system didn’t change at all.

    Besides – Alexander Nevskiy didn’t make peace “with the Mongols, to fight the Germans.”. He first had to fight with the Teutonic knights (as he had to fight off Swedish raid of Birger), and only then when he succeeded his father Yaroslav as the Great Prince of Rus he had to establish “working relationship” with the Horde.

    “There were relatively few contacts between the Muslim world and pre-Romanov Russia…”

    This is not entirely correct. First of all, the ancient Rus served as a trade hub through which territory run (along rivers) 2 of the most vital trade routes of that time: “From Varangians into Greeks” and “From Varangians into Persians”. Besides, one of the neighbouring states of Rus’ principalities was the Volga’s Bulgaria – the northenmost muslim country in the world.

    Russian empiral “ambivalence” about its subjects faith goes way back to 14th-15th century. Since the Golden Horde began to desintegrate a number of its aristocrats (murza’s) chose to became Moscow’s vassals. Thus began the history of sluzhilikh tatars in Russia (which was hardly something unique in itself – the same happened at that time in Poland and Lithuania). This “princes” were given fiefs just like any other nobles. No one required for them and their retinue to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. Well, they were slightly “encouraged” to do by promises of becoming fully integrated into the feudal and governmental services of Moscow’s princedom. Quite a lot of them did exatly that – the most well known example beight the princes Yusupov’s.

    Not only did Russian “empirial ambivalence” covered a rather tolerant attitude towards Muslims – it was also applied to the newly aquired subjects of Siberia. There were attempts to forcefully convert en-masse all those Siberian tribes. Moscow’s rulers were content only with a fact that they were paying them yasak and not revolting.

    Did the reason for this “Tolerance” lay in Russian Orthodoxy? I can’t say that I agree with that. Nearly any successful empire practices this sort of “Tolerance” and “Multiculturalism” most often in the form of not giving a damn about the smallest details of their subject’s day to day life. Romans didn’t care what gods were venerated by their subjects – if they liked it, they sometimes adopted them into their patheon, not forgeting although to build temples to honour their own gods. Despite their demonization (in the popular culture) Persians were tolerant to many of its subjects even allowing some form of self-rule to Ionian Greeks. Early Ottoman Empire was a paragon of inclusiveness and tolerance (compared to the Europen powers of that time) and it was here where a lot of Sepharadic Jews expelled from Spain found a new home.


    1. Good points, Lyttenburgh. My thesis could do with some refinement. In particular, you are right that many empires have practiced tolerance of varying cultural practices. This is probably as much a pragmatic as an ideologically-based approach.


    2. Typo!
      “There were NO attempts to forcefully convert en-masse all those Siberian tribes”.

      Even when starovery began to run away to Siberia and establish their communities here they were keeping to themselves, not trying to proselythise among the natives and generally avoiding any contact with other settlers.


    3. Dear Paul:
      I concur with Lyttenburgh’s excellent remark, and also very much like your post. It is well balanced, well researched, and very interesting.

      I would only refine the point (being a Marxist myself) that it is impossible for a Marxist government to be “colonial” in nature, since the essence of colonialism is the economic exploitation which occurs under capitalism, namely the export of finance capital. The Soviet economic system was a completely different breed of animal, as we all know. It did not export capital.

      Thus, “colonialism” was impossible, under such a system; although certain ethnic power relationships (in the political elite) might still be construed as bombastic and unfair; but still not the same animal as colonialism.


      1. Actually, the Soviets were accused of colonialism in their Cold War relations with the Third World, as Soviet aid consisted of loans not grants. The loans were then repaid not in cash but in kind, but the Soviets were accused of undervaluing the goods they got in payment. So in effect, they were exporting capital (the loans) and using this to establish an exploitative economic relationship. Or that was the claim. I argue in my book ‘Aiding Afghanistan’ that it wasn’t actually true (at least in Afghanistan’s case). But it was theoretically possible.


  3. Paul, here I have some sources in connection with the topic at hand. Check them out if you have a time.

    – A review on Robert D. Crews’s For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia monograph.

    ”From the early eighteenth century and the time of Catherine the Great, Russian administrators professed tolerance of all the regime’s subjects, loosely defined. This strategy, as the title of the first chapter suggests (“A Church for Islam”), was intended to make Muslim populations a corollary to Orthodox Christians. Overtures were made to make the Muslims part of the larger state body, separate but equal from their Orthodox brethren. The underlying strategy of this was to establish the legitimacy of the tsar alongside God, both for Orthodox and Muslim believers. This first chapter also describes in interesting detail the popular Russian understanding of Islamic beliefs of the time, which were often viewed as a kin of Orthodoxy, with its similar conceptions of sin, punishment, and the like.”


    “Chapter three examines another target of Russian imperial control: the family unit. In theory, the state was a pyramid of sorts, of which “the most basic building block” was the family. (143) The individual family was analogous to the children who were ultimately answerable to their tsarist patriarch. Russians in the nineteenth century gradually came to accept that Muslim populations had different moral beliefs than those of Christians (polygamy and the overall status of women being a particular point of perceived difference), but this became inconsequential so long as the family pledged its collective allegiance to the state. Crews further finds that women often utilized the new bureaucratic structures in matters involving adultery or property disputes. The system of appeal to local and regional authorities on disputes brought another key benefit to the tsarist regime by linking many individuals inextricably to the state’s functions, making “Muslim subjects more dependent upon the regime than ever before.” (189)”

    – The article Toleration in the World History of Religions. It discuss at length the concept of “toleration” which goes beyond the modern “Western” or “liberal” definition of the term. The author lists his own categorization of the “Tolerance” types:

    1) functional toleration, includes both the “pragmatics of diversity” and reason of state or empire;

    2) conflicting canonical interpretations/understandings, within religions, law, literature, etc, where orthodoxy and heresy are intermeshed;

    3) the pluralization of views and interests involving the acceptance of factions and parties;

    4) tolerance within clearly defined limits/areas;

    5) the use of shared or mixed sanctuaries—sacred places where several religious groups perform devotional practices within the same space and at the same time, often with an open and tolerant understanding of the holy;

    6) the use of dialogue as common practice, though with differing goals, but containing a degree of mutual respect and openness.

    7) the ecumenical or cosmopolitan worldview where there is some degree of understanding that all people are in some aspect equal, as for example, the theory of natural law;

    8) “Liberal Tolerance” an ideology, developed in the western Enlightenment, emphasizing democracy and individual conscience; and

    9) an underlying “metaphysical toleration” developed in civilizations with a pluralist understanding of the universe as found, for instance in China and India.


  4. Far as I can tell, Europeans are much more barbaric than all the rest, which explains their geopolitical success, which is, of course, the source of their feeling of superiority.

    As for Russia, yes, there’s something unusual going on in there. Their rulers have been, more often than not, foreigners. But these foreigners would quickly assimilate and become Russians. Every time they conquered a territory, they would accept its nobility as equals and assimilate them too. Yes, this is odd. No supremacist streak there, at least among the elites. Just take the story of Abram Petrovich Gannibal: that was the 18th c. – Europe still had auto da fe.

    Yeah, perhaps that’s what the secret is, the combination of elements of European brutality and eastern fatalism and tolerance. Oh, I dunno, you smart people should be able to figure it out.


    1. My personal interpretation is that, having been on the receiving end of slavery, and the proceeding to decively overthrow their would be enslavers, the Russians were both at the racial “top” and at the racial “bottom”, and got pretty resistant to ideas of racial supremacy.

      Racial supremacy of Russians over the Asiatics was empirically disproven by repeated battlefield losses, and subjugation by them, and racial supremacy of Asiatics over Russians likewise was empirically disproven by Russias later resurgence.


  5. Russians were sold as Slaves at Crimean ports well into the 18th century, while both Serfdom and the Stalinist system could be described as highly slavelike conditions. Although in both cases, plenty of Russians were at the bottom too.


    1. “Russians were sold as Slaves at Crimean ports well into the 18th century”

      As well as anyone whom Crimean Tatars managed to capture – Malorussian, Lithuanians, Poles, North Caucasus tribes, etc. So what?

      ” while both Serfdom and the Stalinist system could be described as highly slavelike conditions”

      I agree about the serfdom. But what was “slavelike” in the so-called Stalinist system?

      In your original post you write:

      “My personal interpretation is that, having been on the receiving end of slavery, and the proceeding to decively overthrow their would be enslavers, the Russians were both at the racial “top” and at the racial “bottom”, and got pretty resistant to ideas of racial supremacy.

      Irish monks were sold as slaves in Scandinavia since 9th century. Ireland had rarely experienced a respite from either invasions of occupation. Occupiers all too often put them at the “racial bottom” which often lasted for centuries.

      Now, remind me – what was their general attitude to other races when they began emigrating to the US?

      “Racial supremacy of Russians over the Asiatics was empirically disproven by repeated battlefield losses, and subjugation by them, and racial supremacy of Asiatics over Russians likewise was empirically disproven by Russias later resurgence.””

      Sorry, but when a German talks about “racial supremacy” (no matter what context) this sends a chill down my spine. Once again – I’m really sorry.

      What about the Balkans region in 15-16 cc.? Did the racial supremacy of Hungarians and Austrian Hpbsburgs was “empirically disproven by repeated battlefield losses, and subjugation by them”?

      How can we talk about a concpet of “race” when discussing the people who had at that time no idea what it was all about?


      1. There may be things lost in translation here, but ideas of “racial supremacy”, nearly always with your “race” on top, are actually pretty old (it is easy to define someone as the other because he looks and speaks differently), and are quite common in Europe among “whites”, as they offer a great excuse to go conquering other people and take their things.

        Russia is one exception here, because the unique features of Russian history (being “whites” who were temporarily subjugated by non-whites) empirically disproved these evil concepts and made the Russians vastly less “racist” (well, France was an outlier too, because they defined being French culturaly and not by blood) then some of their contemporary Empires.

        The Habsburgs btw. prove my point. In practice, the Habsburgs were pretty enlightened, while it was no multicultural paradise, non Austrian subjects could rise to high positions, Imperial rule was pretty impartial, and the Habsburgs also enjoyed pretty good relations with several non western powers whom they treated as “fellow powers” (f.e. Persia), as opposed to “barbarians”.

        No doubt, having suffered recent defeats at the hands of “non whites”, the Habsburgs, just like the Russians, were quite a bit less likely to buy into any ideas of ingrained racial supremacy, and thus stayed off this evil path.

        To make that clear, my point is that racial supremacy of any kind is simply bullshit, but because it provided easy excuses to go to war and conquer, it was (and, in a somewhat different mantle, still is) an important concept because certain powerfull states legitimize their antics with it. The only way to be permanently cured of any “Ubermensch”, “White Mans burden” or other pretensions is to get your ass kicked by those that your oh so scientific “Racial idea” deemed inferior.

        Russia never really bought into that idea, because their history already proved it to be bullshit at the time that idea became a theory, and thus had a markedly different relation with the “non west” then most other western powers.


      2. According to Dugin, this is the difference between ‘tellurocratic’ (land-based) and ‘thalassocratic’ (sea-based) empires.

        The latter tend to invade, rob, and leave. Sort of like pirates. Psychologically, it makes sense for them to view their victims as inferior, savages.

        And the former, as they expand, they tend to incorporate, integrate, assimilate. Because they are not separated from their provinces by sea, and they’re constantly in contact with them.

        Obviously, this seems like a bit of a stretch, but perhaps there’s something to it…


    2. Russian serfdom was very much like American slavery, in that the serfs could be sold as commodities apart from the land they farmed.

      Stalinism, on the other hand – come on, get serious! Even under the height of Stalin’s political repressions (mostly directed against the Old Bolshevik elite, Trotskyites, and other political enemies), ordinary people were little affected. Workers had the right to quit their jobs, accept a new job, there was a free labor market. Workers and even peasants were not sold at slave auctions.

      Anybody who believes that life under Stalin was the same as slavery, has been reading too much either Robert Conquest or Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

      Did Uncle Tom have the right to tell his boss Simon Legree to take this job and shove it? Not so much. But any Russian streetsweeper in Stalin’s time had a trade union to go to, if he had a beef, and he could quit his job any time he liked.


      1. The GULAG was slave labour – and at its peak on quite a large scale. Collective farming also was in some respects a return to serfdom in that the peasants didn’t have the right to leave the collective farm. The Soviet passport system was designed to keep workers and peasants where they were, again sort of enserfing them. In reality, of course, the demand for labour in the big cities was such that ways were found to get around the movement restrictions. It wasn’t a ‘free labour market’, as the central planners tried to control it, but they didn’t succeed, so it wasn’t exactly an ‘unfree labour market’ either. Or at least, that it is my understanding of it.


      2. “The GULAG was slave labour” – that’s true, but by the same token, the American prison system IS slave labour. Especially the privatised jails, where the corporate owners make big profits on the suffering of prisoners. Not so much the actual work the prisoners do, the big money comes from the ancillary services provided and paid for by tax-payers (laundry, cafeteria, etc.).

        Solzhenitsyn and others exagerrated the scale of the Soviet GULAG prison system, in order to make their fanciful claim that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a totalitarian system whose entire economy was based on slave labour. In reality, the GULAG system had very little economic weight in the Soviet economy. The repressive Stalinist political system was separate from the economic/class basis of the system (котлеты отдельно).

        The collective farms on the other hand – now, that is a more intelligent anti-Soviet debating point, since there WERE aspects which reminded of the old serfdom.
        But again, if it was a form of serfdom, then at least it was more like European serfdom (where the peasants were tied to the land) than the old Russian serfdom, where the peasants could be sold separately from the land (мухи отдельно).


  6. 2A.I.Schmelzer

    Thank you for clarifying a bit. Now I can breath much freely 😉

    Yes, probably there is something lost in translation between us. I’ve never considered the “race” to be applied so… broadly. Are you sure you are not mixing it up with ethno-cultural supremacism and nationalism? When Swedes and Danes, or French and English were fighting each other through the better part of the Middle ages – did they
    saw their opponents as members of some other “race”? I don’t think so.

    But here you write:

    “Russia is one exception here, because the unique features of Russian history (being “whites” who were temporarily subjugated by non-whites) empirically disproved these evil concepts and made the Russians vastly less “racist”

    Uhm – and what about Spain? Nearly whole of Iberian peninsula was indeed subjugated – i.e. it became a part of another country ruled by a radically different national and cultural elite. While Russian principalities were not part of the Golden Horde per se. While the Reconquista was indeed a liberation movement with sieges and battles, the process of Rus unification under Moscow was more like fending off invasions and raids.

    Nowadays people tend to forget it, but in 15th century, after the collapse of the Golden Horde the Eastern Europe had a great many number of countries. Moscow’s principality had to deal with different newly formed khanates whom it view not as some “untermenchen” but as neighbours. With some (like Crimea) they had at first excellent relationships, but then they decided to become Ottoman vassals which lead to rise to centuries-long antagonism. With others (like Astrakhan) relations were friendly and more like alliance. And Kazan was regarded as the “Sick Man” of this part of post Golden Horde region, and various political forces within it and major foreign players (Moscow, Astrakhan, Crimea) tried to get their “candidate” the ruler of this khanate.

    Russians understood perfectly well differences between these Muslim countries and didn’t regard them as “primitive heathen” and/or “barbarian”. While the Spanish right after the finish of Reconquista began the expulsion of marranos and morriskos and threw themselves into extermination of the native cultures with abandon.

    And, as an aftethought – earlier somewhere here on Irrusianality, Paul mentioned that the Orthodox Church doesn’t have the concept of the “Holy War” – in the meaning, that “God is on our side, so anything is permissible to do with this ungodly enemies”. Maybe here lies (part) of the solution to the puzzle of Russian attitude to non-ethnically Russian non-Orthodox people who became part of its population.

    And the final after-afterthough – about “cuddly” Habsburgs. The less is said about their treatment of Hungarian Calvinists – the better!


    1. The Spaniars were pretty openminded in racial terms,massively intermarring with whomever they conquered (the Portugese even more so), but they were quite incredibly dickish towards other religions.

      One could perhaps state that all polities throughout history defined an “us”, that they had an “other” and that some had a considerable spectrum of “in betweens” too.

      From my pov. Russia defines the “us” pretty broadly (meaning that Russianness is a cultural, not just an ethnic concept, something they share with at least the French and arguably the USA), and perhaps uniquely does not view the “other” as automatically inferior (which is were they differ hugely from the French, the Americans and probably every other Empire other then perhaps the Habsburgs).


    2. Dear Lyttenburgh:
      Maybe Orthodox Church doesn’t have the concept of “Holy War”, but they did have the concept of “Destiny”, aka “Third Rome” and all that. For example, the Повесть о белом клобуке and so on. I remember this story, because I had to read it in school. I remember there is a really gross part of the story, where the Roman Pope is consumed by worms, they come crawling out of his brain.


      1. I was reading recently Stefan Hedlund’s book ‘Russian Path Dependence’. In it he says that the Tsarist system actually didn’t like the Third Rome concept and after the phrase was first coined, it pretty much disappeared out of use until the late 19th century. Interesting if true.


      2. I can see why the Tsar wouldn’t like it, because it would force him to commit his army and come to the aid of undeserving Christians, such as the Bulgarians.


  7. One point that’s interesting to consider in this connection is the difference between the way that Muslim Central Asians and Chinese in the Russian Far East were treated. I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese were treated much worse than the Muslims of Central Asia, and that conditions in the Far East were comparable to those in the colonies of other countries in many respects.
    It seems to me that there was a gradual change in official Russian attitudes to non-Russian populations over the course of the nineteenth century, that’s also reflected in the introduction of Russification policies at this time. It seems that a pattern of interaction established in earlier times was somewhat “locked in” in Muslim territories, protecting the Muslim populations from the worst of the nineteenth-century tendency toward more “Western”-style policies. The Chinese, who were, for the most part, colonized later than the Muslims, had no such established pattern of co-existence to fall back on.


  8. As a point of clarification, I’m aware that both Central Asia and the Far East were colonized in the nineteenth century. When I mention an “earlier pattern” of co-existence in the Muslim case, I’m referring to the earlier presence of Muslims in other regions (for example, Tatarstan)


    1. There was a chinese expedition to Russia during the time of Peter the great which was treated very very respectfully though.


      1. Ok, but sporadic contacts, such as embassies, occasional trade, etc. don’t constitute intensive enough contact to lead to a real modus vivendi. It’s certainly nowhere near the level of contact involved in actually ruling over Muslim communities in Tatarstan.


  9. Poul, I have to disagree with most of the points you are making here:

    “The GULAG was slave labour – and at its peak on quite a large scale.”

    It was NOT a slave labour – it was a prison labour. There is a huge difference right here. The people engaged in it were not slaves – they were criminals. You might not agree with reasons due to which they were arrested and then sentenced, or with the fact that they were forced to perform a hard labour – but you can’t call them slaves.

    “Collective farming also was in some respects a return to serfdom in that the peasants didn’t have the right to leave the collective farm.”

    So, just one aspect of a larger phenomenon apperas to you to be enough to damn the entire system? And then proceed from here and claim that “Stalinism = slavery”? That’s a little bit of a stretch.

    Why then not claim using the same extrapolation of data, that the Granger movement was too collectivist, ergo – proto-kolkhozian, ergo – oppressive and serf-like?

    “The Soviet passport system was designed to keep workers and peasants where they were, again sort of enserfing them. In reality, of course, the demand for labour in the big cities was such that ways were found to get around the movement restrictions.”

    Paul, here you are just repeating common misconceptions. You are saying it yourself – how was it possible during the massive industrialization to “root” a huge pool of potential new workers in one place when they were needed elsewhere? Besides – what do you know exactly about Soviet passpost sistem of the time?

    ” It wasn’t a ‘free labour market’, as the central planners tried to control it, but they didn’t succeed, so it wasn’t exactly an ‘unfree labour market’ either. Or at least, that it is my understanding of it.”

    So if it wasn’t a “free labour market” then it must be a slavery/serfdom? No shades of grey ;)?


    1. Paul, I’m going to make it easier for in regards of the “new serfdom – passport system” claim.

      I refer you to “Постановление СовНарКома от 28 апреля 1933 года № 861” (“SovNarCom’s decree №861 of April 28, 1933”) – “On the issuing of passports on the territory of the USSR”, p. 3:

      3. In cases where persons living in rural areas, leave for an extended time period or for a permanent residence in the area, where we have introduced the passport system, they get a passport in the district or city administration’s worker-peasant militzia at their place of former residence for a period of 1 year.

      After a one-year time period the person who came to reside permanently, get the new residence of the passport on the official grounds.

      Chairman of the SNK of the USSR

      Molotov (Scriabin)

      Manager of the affairs of the SNK of the USSR


      Now – looks straightforward, right? If you are a peasant – then you are free to go to the city, get a temporarily passport here, and if you plan to reside here permanently – you’ll get a permanent one just like everyone else. What’s the problem with that?

      Here is another SNK’s decree that’s important, March 16 1930, “об устранении препятствий к свободному отходу крестьян на отхожие промысла и сезонные работы” (“On the elimination of obstacles to the free exit of the peasants on seasonal work and temporary works”):


      1. Strongly prohibit local authorities and collective farm organizations in any way to impede the departure of the peasants, including kolkhozniks on seasonal work and temporarily work (construction work, logging, fishing, and so on.).

      2. Local and district executive committees, under the personal responsibility of their chairmen, must immediately establish a strict monitoring of the implementation of the present resolution, bringing its perpetrators to justice.

      Chairman of the SNK of the USSR A.I. Rykov.

      Manager of the affairs of the SNK and the STO N. Gorbunov.

      Yes, that’s right – “kolkhozniks”, these “new serf” could (and did) come to cities and local authorities were banned from “rooting” them to the land.

      And, finally, we have a decree from the Central Executive Committee and SNK from 17.03.1933 “О порядке отходничества из колхозов” (“On the exit from kolkhozes”), which clearly states, that if kolkhoznik on his own volition, without using his kolkhoz’s higher ups to negotiate a contract with his new working lace somewhere, leaves his village for work, then he must be “fired” from kolkhoz and… that’s it. No repressions, no GULAG for him – he is free to go to work where he plans to.

      Now, once more – maybe it’s time to reconsider of apply the label of “slavery/serfdom of Stalinism” too liberally?


      1. Capitalist wage slavery is horrible, but is not as bad as, say, Roman slavery. For example, sometimes I feel like a slave at work, but at least, at the end of my shift, I can go home and lock my door, and my boss is not allowed inside my house!


  10. “I can go home and lock my door”

    Why, Uncle Tom had a cabin. And the difference between his and his master’s lifestyles was probably nowhere near that of yours and the average fortune 500 CEO.


    1. “Everything is slavery.”
      Ha ha! I call this “codger logic” aka “Andy Rooney logic:

      “I don’t like pickles.
      And do you know what else I don’t like?
      I don’t like olives.
      Therefore, pickles and olives are exactly the same thing.”

      I am sure that is some kind of logical fallacy, I just don’t know the name for it. Therefore, I call it “grumpy codger logic”.


      1. Indeed, pickles and olives are the same thing, albeit not exactly. But you’ll have to look pretty close to see the difference.

        No fallacy, systemic approach.

        If we want to use the word ‘slavery’ to describe exploitation through coercion, then, indeed, we can apply it to all kinds of socioeconomic systems. And to get rid of it, I imagine, we’ll need an anarchist paradise.


  11. This blog has the best posts and best discussions, I swear. A few small conceptual points: cultural diversity as such is not incompatible with racism as a sociopolitical system. More important are ideas of mobility and hierarchy. So, the Habsburg empire was diverse, but deeply racialized, even by the “best available” contemporary standards. Related, meanings of race are heterogeneous, intersectional, and variable, which is why Franz Ferdinand, a major racist, could profess love for his racially unlucky wife Sophie.

    This is also why I am unconvinced by claims that “Russians were historically less racist than X or Y”. This claim depends on so many moving parts (your concept of race, your idea of ‘Russians,’ your notion of historical comparison etc) that renders it unhelpful for the discussion underway (a propos: I bet “Where Caucasian Means Black”: “Race,” Nation, and the Chechen Wars by Bruce Baum would get a good response on this blog).

    Last, race is historically variable, yes, but I still doubt you can talk about it in the era of Alexander Nevskii. The majority view among scholars is that the concept of race and racism as a sociopolitical phenomenon emerge in modernity not before (indeed, only a handful of scholars argues that racism begins in antiquity). And all of this has implications for how we understand slavery, too.


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