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The aim of this chapter is to study Russian perceptions of Britain in the years before the First World War. Its focus will be on Russian elites – meaning the press, the legislature and naval, diplomatic and political leaders within the government – and it will confine itself to politics rather than to questions of culture. Particularly where policymakers were concerned, it is mistaken to look at their perceptions of Britain as if they were static and independent. On the contrary, context was crucial. This context was sometimes created by Russia’s own decisions, such as the shift in foreign policy focus back from East Asia to Europe in 1907. On other occasions it was decisions by other countries that mattered: the Anglo-French entente cordiale is an important example. In an international system widely perceived to be dominated by Britain and Germany, Russian perceptions of Britain were often above all else a reflection of Russian views of Germany. About the one point on which all Russian observers agreed in these years was that Britain was of vital importance.
This comment is partly rooted in reflections on two chapters written by John Darwin and Michael Mann for this collection. It uses their chapters as a springboard for thoughts about empire, ethnicity, and power in the modern age. John Darwin's paper is about ethnicity and empire. It argues that although ethnic consciousness is usually taken to be the enemy of empire it can actually be the opposite. He roots his argument in a discussion of British imperial ethnicity in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Michael Mann's chapter looks at the role of nationalism in the causes and the outcomes of the two world wars of the twentieth century. He argues that nationalism's impact was less than is often assumed.
The two chapters by Darwin and Mann cover different but overlapping themes. What unites them is a concern for the impact of geopolitics and political identity on the twentieth-century competition between the great imperial powers. This is a vast and complex theme but some of its core elements are relatively simple. For a polity to survive it needs to meet the requirements of the era in which it lives and the society over which it rules. By 1900, the nation in one form or another seemed best able to meet the domestic requirements of most modern European societies. But in the world of international relations the future seemed to belong to empires of continental scale and resources. Much of twentieth-century history therefore witnessed efforts to square the circle by creating imperial nations and national empires. Though societies and the nature of global power have to some extent evolved over recent decades, many of the realities that underpinned these efforts to merge empire and nation are still very relevant.
No definition of empire fits all empires which have existed in history, or even all the most important ones. Since most great empires evolve over time and differ greatly between regions, one definition of empire is often hard pressed to encompass the key elements of even a single actual empire. For example, what definition of empire adequately encapsulates London's relationship with the seventeenth-century West Indies, eighteenth- century India, nineteenth-century Ireland and Africa and the early twentieth-century White Dominions?
When one moves beyond the domestic constitution of empire to empire's place in international relations, similar problems of definition occur. Empire is often seen, for example, as the antithesis of multi-polarity. Post-Westphalian Europe is contrasted to the regional hegemony exercised by Rome in western Eurasia or the Chinese empire in the east. But in reality Rome had to negotiate with the massive power of imperial Persia, and Chinese dynasties conducted two millennia of diplomacy with their northern neighbors, often very consciously from a position of weakness. Moreover, in nineteenth-century Europe when Westphalian principles ruled supreme, most of the key players in the European concert called themselves, and by most definitions were, empires. From this I draw the conclusion that there are no correct definitions of empire, merely more or less useful ones. A definition will depend on what aspects of empire interest a scholar and its usefulness will be disputed by other scholars in part because they may or may not share an interest in these aspects.
The second volume of the Cambridge History of Russia covers the ‘imperial era’, in other words the years between Peter I’s assumption of power and the revolution of 1917.
As is true of almost all attempts at periodisation in history, this division has its problems. For example, peasants were the overwhelming majority of the empire’s population in 1917, as in 1689. The history of the Russian peasantry obviously neither began in 1689 nor ended in 1917. The enserfment of the peasantry was largely concluded in the century before Peter’s accession. The destruction of the peasant world as it had existed in the imperial era came less in the revolution of 1917 than during Stalin’s era of collectivisation and ruthless industrialisation.
Nevertheless, if one is to divide up Russian history into three volumes then defining the dates of volume two as 1689 to 1917 is much the best option. In formal terms, this volume’s title (Imperial Russia) accurately defines the period between Russia’s proclamation as an empire under Peter I and the fall of the Romanov dynasty and empire in March 1917. More importantly, this era is united by a number of crucial common characteristics. Of these, the most significant were probably the empire’s emergence as a core member of the European concert of great powers and the full-scale Westernisation of the country’s ruling elites. These two themes are the great clichés of modern Russian history-writing: like most such clichés they are broadly true in my opinion.
The second volume of The Cambridge History of Russia covers the imperial period (1689–1917). It encompasses political, economic, social, cultural, diplomatic, and military history. All the major Russian social groups have separate chapters and the volume also includes surveys on the non-Russian peoples and the government's policies towards them. It addresses themes such as women, law, the Orthodox Church, the police and the revolutionary movement. The volume's seven chapters on diplomatic and military history, and on Russia's evolution as a great power, make it the most detailed study of these issues available in English. The contributors come from the USA, UK, Russia and Germany: most are internationally recognised as leading scholars in their fields, and some emerging younger academics engaged in cutting-edge research have also been included. No other single volume in any language offers so comprehensive, expert and up-to-date an analysis of Russian history in this period.
Empire is one of the most common types of polity in history. In the long term the most interesting and important empires were those linked to the spread of some great high culture or universal religion. Tsarist Russia was a worthy member of this imperial club. The three most crucial acquisitions in the imperial era were the Baltic provinces, Ukraine and Poland. The first was vital because it opened up direct trade routes to Europe, which contributed greatly to the growth of the eighteenth-century economy. By the end of the nineteenth century New Russia and the southern steppe territories were the core of Russian agriculture and of its coal and metallurgical industries: without them Russia would cease to be a great power. Expansion into Ukraine and the empty steppe was Russia's equivalent to the New Worlds conquered and colonised by the British and Spanish empires.