Eighteenth-century Russia Expansion I

Russian Guards of the 18th Century.

Eighteenth-century Russia was dominated by women. Of Peter’s immediate successors, his widow, Catherine I, his half-niece Anna and his daughter Elizabeth together ruled Russia for more than thirty-two of the thirty-six years following his death, and Catherine II, known as ‘the Great’, reigned for more than thirty years thereafter. Peter II (1727—30), Ivan VI (1740-41) and Peter III (1761-2) interrupted the sequence, but had little impact on events.

The fact that most of these rulers were women did not diminish their authority, though there was some muted grumbling among the lower orders. However, none of them had received an education to fit them for supreme office, and apart from Catherine II they tended to be rather more dependent on one or two trusted advisers than most rulers. Cronyism and factionalism do seem to have increased at the Russian court, though this may be an impression given by observers who expected it to be so. The eighteenth century was a heyday for gossips. Empress Anna’s favourite, Biron (Bühren), was the dominant figure in the government, yet not — in Finch’s view at least – the linchpin that was needed. That function, he thought, was fulfilled by Count Andrei [Heinrich] Ostermann.

Ostermann, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, was given charge of the Foreign Office after Peter’s death, and soon undertook a thorough reassessment of Russia’s foreign relations in the light of current circumstances. The findings of this complex exercise led him to conclude that, although Peter’s policy of alliance with Denmark and Prussia had helped to keep a usually complaisant Poland in tow, it involved risk and yielded insufficient dividends. Prussia had proved an unreliable ally, and the orientation towards the Baltic region was too narrow to serve the Empire’s interests in the new era. Ostermann wanted to extend Russia’s influence in Europe as a whole, and, at the same time, to promote imperial growth. He was to achieve both these aims with brilliant economy, through one revolutionary turn of the diplomatic rudder.

The means was an alliance with Habsburg Austria, which was signed in August 1726. The two powers had a number of interests in common. They wanted to preserve the independence of their mutual neighbour Poland, the ‘sick man’ of Europe for the previous half century (its brilliant showing at the siege of Vienna in 1686 had been deceptive). They also wished to contain the Ottoman Empire, and to deter their other enemies – in particular France. But expansion to the south also figured in Ostermann’s strategy. His instructions to Ambassador Nemirov, Russia’s representative at peace talks with Turkey in 1735, included claims to the Crimea and the Kuban. As yet they were only negotiating points to be conceded, but they were not forgotten. Indeed, two years later Ostermann drew up a plan for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Strategists tend to plan for contingencies of course, but the Ottoman Empire was nowhere near collapse, as Ostermann well knew. These aims were for the longer term. A generation later they were to be pursued by Catherine the Great. Meanwhile the immediate thrust of Ostermann’s policy was directed further west.

One fruit of Ostermann’s policy of co-operation with Austria had ripened in the early 1730s, when the allies succeeded in getting their candidate, rather than France’s, elected as king of Poland — though not before a Russian army had advanced to France’s frontier on the Rhine. Russia had at last become a member of Europe’s major league. But the allies’ first war against the Turks ended in disappointment in 1739: Austria lost Belgrade, and although Russia regained Azov it was forbidden to harbour warships there. In 1741, when Peter’s daughter Elizabeth was brought to the throne by a coup d’état carried out by the guards regiments, Ostermann was arrested and purged. But the alliance with Austria continued to hold firm, and was to serve as the launch pad for brilliant advances late in the century. Where, then, did the cause of failure in 1739 lie?

Peter had left an army of 200,000 men – seven battalions of crack infantry guards, fifty regiments of infantry, and thirty of dragoons. Apart from a few hussars, the remainder were mostly garrison troops. By 1730 the complement of the guards had increased — by five squadrons of cavalry guards and three battalions of infantry. Three regiments of cuirassiers had been added to the establishment, and fourteen militia regiments to defend Ukraine. By 1740 Russia had 240,000 men under arms, and by 1750 270,000 — not counting over 50,000 irregular troops, mostly Cossacks and Kalmyks. Although the range of Russia’s military commitments meant that few more than 120,000 regulars could be fielded in a campaign, the army was growing in size.

Nor was it deficient in equipment. There were formidable magazines at Briansk, for operations in the west, and at Novo-Pavlovsk, for operations in the south, aside from the great arsenals in St Petersburg and Moscow. There were six cannon foundries, and two small-arms manufactories, one at Tula, the other outside St Petersburg, in which ‘everything is so well ordered that the connoisseurs, who have seen them, agree, that they are masterpieces of their kind’.

There was also provision now for specialist troops: an engineering school for the army; a navigation school for the navy. There were even some successful operations. In the Crimean campaign of 1736 Tatars had swarmed round the invading force as soon as it crossed the Perekop, but the regiments formed into square formation and marched on to the capital, Bakhchiserai. They captured it and sacked it, but they could not hold it. A third of the army had fallen sick, and the rest were exhausted from the great heat. However, in the following year the great Turkish citadel of Ochakov on the Dnieper estuary was taken, and its fortifications were demolished. Eighty-two brass cannon fell into Russian hands on that occasion, along with nine horsetail banners — the Ottoman emblems of senior rank. Those who had participated received a gratuity of four months’ pay from a grateful government. Four years later Swedish Finland was invaded and the well-defended strong-point of Wilmanstrand was stormed, taken, and ‘razed to the ground’.

Yet these successes were both hard-won and expensive. The root of the problem, according to an experienced officer, was not the enemy, however. ‘The Turks and Tatars … were what [the army] had least to dread; hunger, thirst, penury, continual fatigue, the marches in the intensest [sic] heat of the season, were much more fatal to it.’ And then there was the plague which broke out among the troops at Ochakov in 1738 and spread quickly into Ukraine. No wonder that by the end of a campaign regiments were seriously under strength, some by as much as 50 per cent.

The great empires of the age depended on sea power, and both France and Britain had considerable navies. Russia’s, on the other hand was outclassed even by those of Spain and Holland. The navy had been neglected under Peter’s immediate successors. The proud Baltic fleet of thirty ships of the line with their attendant frigates, sloops and cutters had mostly been allowed to rot. Empress Anna made some attempt to halt the decline after 1730, but in 1734 when the city of Gdansk had to be besieged the Admiralty found difficulty in fitting out even fifteen ships of the line, and some of those proved barely seaworthy. A serious programme of naval construction finally got under way again in 1766. But three years later, when the government attempted to send a fleet to the eastern Mediterranean to support a Greek insurrection against the Turks, operational difficulties soon became apparent. Since the enemy commanded the Black Sea, ships had to be sent from the naval base of Kronstadt near St Petersburg. The long lines of communication were as problematic as the army’s logistical problems had been on the long marches to the Crimea. Without help from Britain the voyage might never have been managed.

Admiral Spiridonov set sail from Kronstadt with many troops on board in the summer of 1769. The flotilla under his command was bound for Hull, where Admiral Elphinston was fitting out another force of three ships of the line and two frigates. Things did not go well from the start. One of Spiridonov’s 66-gunners had to turn back almost at once, and a frigate was lost in the Gulf of Finland. The rest proceeded to Copenhagen, there to be joined by an 80-gun ship; but bad weather in the North Sea caused the flotilla to disperse. They eventually put into Portsmouth, some of the ships in poor condition and their crews tired. But the British Admiralty had instructed the authorities there to be helpful, and by the spring of 1770 they were repaired, refreshed and ready to sail for the Mediterranean, Admiral Elphinston carrying his flag in the 84-gun Sviatoslav. This tidy force of nine ships of the line, three frigates and three sloops sailed on to engage a superior Turkish fleet of fourteen bigger-gunned ships off the coast of Greece in the Bay of Chesme. A Scots officer in Russia’s service, Captain Samuel Greig, led the attack in the Ratislav, and fire-ships proved the decisive factor. As many as 200 Turkish sail were set ablaze. It was a famous victory.

Greig was only one of many foreigners who were to influence the development of Russia’s armed services and its traditions. Scots, Greeks, Irishmen, Germans, Danes and Italians all served in them, as did a future American hero, John-Paul Jones. The best remembered are mostly those who held high rank: marshals Münnich and Lacy, generals Keith and Lowendal and a brother of Jeremy Bentham in the army; admirals Greig, Arf and Elphinston in the navy. However, the chequered career of a little-known naval captain, John Elton, draws attention to lesser men who served as instruments of Russian imperialism, and in less well-known areas of operation — in this case the territory of the lower Volga, Central Asia and Persia. Elton was not a conventional sort of eighteenth-century hero. He won no brilliant victories, was not an enlightened reformer, had no political importance, and was unknown in the haute monde, though he was for a time a serious nuisance to officials, businessmen and diplomats. Venturesome, entrepreneurial and courageous, he was also choleric and unstable in his loyalties. At times, indeed, he appears as an anti-hero rather than a hero. Entering Russia’s service in the early 1730s, he was employed as an explorer and cartographer on land rather than being given a command with the fleet. He served with the so-called Orenburg expedition, set up in 1734 to secure the area round the confluence of the rivers Or and Ural, to explore the region’s potential for agriculture, mining and trade, to navigate the river Syr-Darya, and to investigate the suitability of the Aral Sea for navigation. Elton was involved with all these projects. He was also sent to Tashkent, disguised as a merchant. He surveyed the coast of the Aral Sea, which had been thought to be connected with the Caspian, looking for a possible site for a dock to build ships; he helped construct the citadel of Orenburg itself, and sounded the upper reaches of the Ural river to determine its possibilities for navigation.

It was while exploring the low-lying steppe beyond the east bank of the lower Volga that he mapped the great salt lake which still bears his name. His find soon proved very useful to the state, which maintained stocks of salt in order to guarantee the supply of this essential commodity and control its price. When the Stroganovs began to demand higher prices for Perm salt, Moscow was able to resist the demand thanks to Elton, and an ecological problem was also avoided, for the salt-boilers used a great deal of wood and the government now had a policy of forest conservation. Lake salt could be panned from the brine; it did not need boiling. Production at Lake Elton was expanded, and by the late 1750s it became by far the biggest source of salt in Russia. Long before then, however, Elton, piqued at failing to receive the promotion he thought his due, had resigned the service and had immediately become involved in other ventures.

He set out to pioneer a new trade route from England, across Russia to Khiva, Bukhara and Tashkent. If such a route were found, he knew fortunes could be made by selling English woollen cloth there and bringing back valuable silks. While working with the Orenburg expedition he had questioned people who had crossed the Central Asian steppe, including Cossacks who had been taken as slaves on Bekovich-Cherkasskii’s ill-fated expedition of 1717. Concluding that the plundering Kyrgyz, Khivans and Karakalpaks made that approach too dangerous, he now set out to promote a new and safer route that went down the Volga, across the Caspian Sea to Rasht, and thence by camel caravan across the desert to Meshed and points east. Having negotiated the approval of the Persian authorities, he took his proposal to the British minister at St Petersburg and the Russia Company in London. Recognizing that the route would give it an advantage over its rivals, the Levant and East India companies, the Russia Company seized the opportunity and appointed Elton its agent.

But Elton soon fell foul of the Russian authorities, who suspected him of being in the pay of the Persians and of building a fleet for them to contest Russian mastery of the Caspian. Following diplomatic representations by the Russian minister in London, the Russia Company tried to recall Elton, promising him the handsome sum of £400 a year from the company’s profits and to use its influence with the British Admiralty to obtain a naval command for him. Elton, however, preferred to stay. He was distrusted now by both the Russians and the British. A political revolution following the death of his protector, Nadir Shah of Persia, made his position untenable, and he was eventually shot dead by his Persian enemies. His contributions to Russian imperialism survived, however.

The Orenburg project which Elton had served had been planned in the 1720s but was implemented only in the early 1730s. The submission of a group of Kazakhs under Abdulkhayir of the Little Horde in 1731 had given impetus to the scheme. They had wanted Russia’s protection against the Jungarians further east, and they had held out the prospect of helping Russia to subdue the Karakalpaks, Turkmens and Khivans. But most Kazakhs would not submit, and, realizing that diplomacy alone would not resolve the problem, the Russian government proceeded to develop a new fortress city of Orenburg at the point where the river Or flowed into the Ural river, between the Bashkirs to the north, the Kyrgyz-kaisaks and the Volga Kalmyks.

Two primary purposes were to exploit mineral deposits in the south-east and to find the most convenient routes to access the silks of Persia and the rubies, gold and lapis lazuli of India. A third priority, on which the others depended, was to protect the south-east frontier from the steppe nomads, and to insulate them from restless groups within the Empire, notably the Bashkirs of the southern Urals and the Volga Kalmyks. Furthermore, if these peoples could be brought into submission, not only would the region become safe for settlement, and hence more productive, but the tribute or taxes they paid would help the needy exchequer.

A range of persuasive means was used to encourage the steppe peoples to submit to Russian rule. The Kalmyks were allowed to trade at the frontier free of customs duties, and Muslim Kazakhs were allowed to build mosques in Orenburg. Chiefs were persuaded to send a son into Russian care to receive an education, and to serve as surety for the group’s good behaviour; they were also promised protection against their enemies, and sometimes an attempt was made to awe an important subject chief and prospective client or subject by showing him the sights of St Petersburg, including the collection of wonders in its new Academy of Sciences.

A key figure in the dealings with the Kazakhs was a former Tatar mirza who was employed by the Foreign Office as a translator. He was used in negotiations in 1734, later converted from Islam to Russian Orthodoxy, and was promoted a major-general based at Orenburg. His efforts paid dividends. In 1740 the Middle Kazakh Horde at last paid allegiance to Empress Anna, and the relationship proved to be mutually profitable. The Kazakhs were encouraged to divert their trade to Orenburg, where, so long as they met the Russians’ requirements of good behaviour, they were offered good prices for their wares and advantageous terms for Russian goods. By 1747 they were bringing 7,000 horses and 28,000 sheep a year to Orenburg.

But, although some Bashkirs had continued to serve the state, many opposed the Orenburg project. They had ambushed one of the first columns bringing labourers, building materials and supplies from Ufa, killing its commander and more than sixty dragoons and labourers. They also rode off with over forty carts carrying supplies. The building of Orenburg proceeded, but other Bashkir raids followed. Fearing that the Bashkirs’ attitude might be contagious, St Petersburg ordered up strong reinforcements from Kazan and put a new commander in charge of operations in Bashkiria. A bitter colonial war was soon under way there. The raids continued, some of them on a large scale. In retaliation, villages were torched and such leading rebels as could be caught were hanged.

Eventually a cordon of Cossack villages was established and stable administration followed, to a large extent using the Bashkirs’ own elders. But the pacification had been as cruel as such operations tend to be. ‘Seize their wives and children, their property, horses and livestock …’ ran an order from Kirillov, the Russian commander at Orenburg. ‘Destroy their homes and punish the main instigators as an example to the others.’ Minor offenders and male children were sent to the Baltic as conscripts for the army or the fleet. The women and girls were given to ‘whoever wants to take them … in order that their roots will be completely torn out’, for Kirillov reckoned that rebellion in Bashkiria tended to run in families. In 1740, after five years of rebellion and suppression, 17,000 Bashkirs had lost their lives, over 3,000 had been sent to the Baltic, and nearly 700 villages destroyed.

These operations had also been costly to the Russians, but the rewards were great. Rich new deposits of copper and iron had been found in that part of the Urals which was Bashkir country, and no time was lost in exploiting them. By 1750 the area accounted for 90 per cent of Russia’s considerable iron production and 70 per cent of its copper. Furthermore, the Bashkir threat to Russian communications with Central Asia had been eliminated. Both Bashkiria and Kazakhstan could now be counted among the Russian Empire’s permanent possessions.

On New Year’s Day 1740 St Petersburg was treated to an exotic spectacle. Representative couples of various native peoples in the Empire, including Bashkirs, went in procession to an ice palace, constructed on the ice of the river Neva, where the wedding of a courtier, Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, was celebrated. Charivari had long been a feature of the Russian court at this season, but the like of this had not been seen before. Pairs of Lapps and Finns from the far north, Tatars, Kyrgyz from Central Asia and Tungus from furthest Siberia, as well as the Bashkirs, rode on sleds drawn by dogs, reindeer, camels or whatever their native beasts of burden were deemed to be; each couple contributed to the festivities by dancing their native dance, and ate a celebratory dinner of their native foods. It was an exotic show, but also a live, if incomplete, demonstration of the Empire’s ethnic variety, which by that date included peoples even more exotic than these. In the far north, beyond the river Lena, for example, lived the Yukagirs and Nganasans, who were totally dependent on the seasonal migrations of wild deer for their food, housing and clothing; and in Chukhotka, in the far north-east (which involved a considerable journey not only in space but back in time) were the settlements of the Yugits, who hunted walrus and Greenland whales and wintered in dug-out igloos framed with giant whale bones.

The native Siberian population was soon to be severely reduced, however — not so much by war, for many of them had fought each other before the Russians came, but because of influenza and smallpox, which the colonizers inadvertently introduced, and syphilis, which became endemic because of their crowded living quarters. Nor was Russia the only power that wanted to impose its order on the natives. The Chinese, Russia’s competitors in Dzungara, slaughtered many Mongol- and Turkic-speaking natives in the 1750s. Yet the Russian government’s policies were enlightened, and even in furthest Siberia its administrators and explorers often exemplified the civilized values of the age. Some, indeed, were almost touchingly earnest in trying to persuade the native population to abandon their primitive ways. As one of them told the natives in the far north-east as he doled out a gift of beads and showed them portraits of Empress Catherine II and her son, the future Emperor Paul, ‘The Russian monarch and her successor are extremely gracious and diffuse their blessings among innumerable people. They also pay indefatigable attention to the welfare of all these nations who border on the Russian empire and have no protector; employing all possible means to preserve them in content, peace and security.’ One gets the impression that the speaker believed what he was saying. Another conscientious representative of enlightened imperialism

laboured to persuade [the natives he encountered] to quit their savage life … which was a perpetual scene of massacre and warfare, for a better and more happy state. I showed them the comforts of our houses, clothes and provisions; I explained to them the method of digging, sowing and planting gardens, and I distributed fruit and vegetables and some of our provisions amongst them, with which they were highly delighted.

All in all, Russian colonization in this period was kind rather than cruel, and if the smallpox the explorers introduced took its toll among the native peoples, so it did in St Petersburg. The population of Siberia as a whole grew at roughly the same rate as the rest of the world from the eighteenth century.

Chappe d’ Auteroche, a member of the French Academy, who visited Russia in the early 1760s, published an account of it in 1768 which enraged Empress Catherine II. In his book he denigrated the condition of Russia, and even poured scorn on its armed services. The army might be a quarter of a million strong, but it could field no more than 70,000 effective regulars. Moreover, the infantry was effective only in defence, and the cavalry was ‘the worst in Europe’. Russia’s artillery might be good, but ‘the corps of engineers … [was] incapable of conducting a siege.’ As for the navy, it had few ships and ‘the sea officers have as little knowledge as those on land.’ ‘In the present state of population and wealth in Russia, an army cannot be sent beyond the confines of the empire without being ruined even by the victories it may gain; a Russian army in such a situation must be almost entirely destroyed.’

Chappe was to be confounded on every point of his assessment. During the Seven Years War (1756—63) Russian troops had not only raided Berlin, they defeated the army of Frederick the Great at Gross Jägersdorf and at Künersdorf. And they were to triumph, almost without interruption, on every European front for the remainder of the century. The upshot was a considerable expansion of the Empire, much of it at the expense of Poland. Yet Russia did not initiate the first partition of Poland, in 1772. It had no interest in doing so. Poland was already a client state. Its king, Stanislaus Poniatowski, had been the Empress’s lover, and Russian garrisons were already quartered there. It had been Poland’s weak government, derived from its lopsided constitution (‘anarchy tempered by civil war’ was what one wit termed it), which had invited intervention. Russia did not want instability on its frontier. Furthermore, there was the question of the treatment of Orthodox Christians in Poland. Russia’s use of this issue is often regarded as a cynical excuse to intervene. So it may have been, but the Polish Church had a long record of persecuting Orthodox Christians, and Empress Catherine, who had been born a Protestant and was herself a convert to Orthodoxy, could hardly overlook it.

In fact the first partition was precipitated not by Catherine but by Frederick of Prussia. The port city of Gdansk and the Vistula estuary on which it stood divided his realm, and he wanted to unite it. He chose his moment to propose a partition carefully. Both Russia and Prussia had their hands full fighting the Turks. In other circumstances Catherine and Maria Theresa of Austria would have combined to warn Frederick off. However, as things were, they agreed to territorial compensation at Poland’s expense. So Russia gained a swathe of territory between Riga and Chernigov, whose inhabitants were predominately Orthodox and ethnically Ukrainian or Belorussian. It was soon to make more gains as a result of the Turkish war: the western shore of the Black Sea, the coast between the rivers Bug and Dnieper, and the Kerch Strait between the Crimea and the north-east shore of the Black Sea. And Ottoman troops were to quit the Crimea itself.

The Crimea was nominally independent, but since pro-Turkish sentiments were rife among its predominately Muslim population, and since the neighbouring Kuban region was as unstable as Poland, in November 1776 Russian troops crossed the Perekop again, and installed a Russian puppet, Shahin Girey, as khan. But this device did not work well enough for long, and so on 8 April 1783 Catherine annexed the Crimea, accusing the Turks of bad faith in order to justify her own breach of the treaty terms. The new imperial property was doubly valuable. It not only yielded a range of exotic crops — from wine, silk and olives to sesame seeds, dyes and cotton — it offered command of the Black Sea. Before long the old Tatar towns of Akht-mechet and Akhtiar began their transformations into the city of Simferopol and the naval base of Sevastopol.

It had been the birth of a second grandson, in 1779, that had served to crystallize Catherine’s ambition for the Empire’s advance to the south. She had him christened Constantine, after the founder of Constantinople, engaged Greek nurses, and later tutors, for him, and asked her secretary, Count Bezborodko, to sketch out a plan which was to achieve notoriety as ‘the Greek Project’. This contemplated the division of the Ottoman Balkans, the creation of an independent Romanian state of ‘Dacia’, even the replacement of the Ottoman Empire by a revived Byzantine Empire, to be ruled by the infant Constantine. In due course the plan, which drew on the earlier ideas of Andrei Ostermann, was shown to her ally Emperor Joseph II. This is somewhat surprising, since Austria might well have been expected to object to it as potentially detrimental to its interests. But, though Joseph demurred, he did so only on grounds of feasibility. Nikita Panin, president of Catherine’s College of Foreign Affairs, was soon dismissed and replaced by Ostermann’s son, Ivan. Thenceforth Russia’s policy in the south became more aggressive, as did its economic exploitation of conquered territory. But it did not go uncontested.


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