Eighteenth-century Russia Expansion II

Equestrian portrait of Catherine in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

Battle of Kagul, southern Bessarabia, 1770

A substantial number of Nogai Tatars — nomads who had roamed the north Caucasian steppe since the Mongols had arrived centuries earlier — raised a revolt in the north-western foothills of Caucasus. Ottoman agents and Muslim religious had probably helped to stir them up, as they did other Muslim groups deeper into the mountains. In 1782 Aleksandr Suvorov, the general who had performed so brilliantly in several battles of the First Turkish War of 1768—74, was sent in to sort the problem out. His objective was to secure the eastern flank of the operation, which was to bring under direct Russian administration not only the north Caucasian plain and the north-eastern shores of the Black Sea, but also the Crimea and the Black Sea littoral as far as the river Bug to the west of it.

Suvorov employed a whole armoury of means to persuade the Nogais to accept Russian rule. He staged demonstrations of force; he used diplomacy; he offered bribes; and, inviting them to swear oaths of loyalty to the Empress, he laid on a feast to celebrate the occasion – 100 roast oxen and 800 sheep, to be washed down with dozens of barrels of brandy. The results, however, were disappointing. Only 6,000 Nogais turned up to the ceremony, and at least as many took up arms against the invading Russian troops. Three thousand were killed in one battle; many more fled towards the mountains, but pursuing Russian units caught up with them as they retreated northward up the river Laba, and its banks were soon littered with their bodies. The establishment of a new line of Cossack settlements along the banks of the river Kuban now went forward, and the Greben and Terek Cossack lines to the east were strengthened. Before long the rolling plains to the north and west of the Caucasus were being marked out for settlement. But country further south was also brought within Russia’s sphere. In 1783 Catherine had agreed to a request for protection from King Erekle of Kartlo-Kakheti in Georgia. Some authorities have seen in these episodes the real origins of the Eastern Question.

However, the fate of the Nogais had sounded alarms among the Muslim Chechens of the northern Caucasus, and by 1785 Sheikh Mansur Usherma had succeeded in bringing together most of the diverse mountain peoples, from Dagestan to the Kuban, in an anti-Russian jihad. That year Sheikh Mansur’s warriors trapped a sizeable force of Russian troops on the river Sunzha, and massacred most of them. The Russian command reacted systematically as well as strongly. By 1791 Mansur had been taken and imprisoned. Those followers who survived were subdued. Officials in the region remained watchful, but decades of relative peace were to follow, with no obvious sign that Mansur’s victory on the Sunzha was to be a harbinger of things to come.

A few months later the Sultan finally accepted the loss of the Crimea, at which Russia quickly put the new property to use. A primary aim was to establish naval bases, but increasing its population was also a matter of strategic concern: census-takers counted only 160,000 inhabitants in 1793. The troubles prior to the occupation had taken their toll of casualties; so had the disturbances which followed it, and the plague. But the chief factor was an exodus of population, including most of the Tatar elite, once the Treaty of Jassy confirmed the Crimea’s transfer to Russia, removing all hope that the Tatar state would ever be resurrected. However, those elements of the old Tatar establishment who stayed on — Muslim clerics as well as secular notables – were prepared to co-operate with the Russians, and the transition was further eased in the first instance by having Tatars versed in the old ways of doing things administer Russian rule. Furthermore, the demands imposed on the remaining inhabitants were at first very light. Until the end of the century they were even exempted from taxation and the standard recruitment laws. However, the kid gloves were slowly drawn off and a regime more consistent with practice in the Empire as a whole was gradually imposed, including an obligation to furnish sufficient recruits to man two regiments.

The repopulation of the Crimea was doubly advantageous for Russia. Not only had the country been rid of hostile elements, now there was space for new settlers and new projects. But the ambitious colonization programme for the south — of which Prince Grigorii Potemkin, the Empress’s one-eyed lover, had charge — involved far more than the Crimea itself. All the new territory between the lower Bug and Donets, along with the Zaporozhian Sech, which had been broken up in 1775, was placed under his administration as part of a new province called New Russia (Novorossiia). Its economic potential matched its strategic significance, but first new foundations had to be laid. Potemkin’s far-reaching plans for his new satrapy were based, according the Empress’s wishes, upon the most rational and enlightened ideas of the time. The policies he implemented as viceroy derived in part from legislation of the early 1760s which aimed to encourage foreigners to settle in Russia. However, the approach now concerned not only individuals, but entire communities. The purpose was to make underpopulated areas more productive.

Orthodox Christian settlers—including 20,000 Greeks, some Armenians who knew how to raise silkworms, and others — were recruited from Ottoman territory to help make the land fruitful. Some Georgians also arrived, responding to the offer of protection and financial inducements, and soon a major colonization programme was being implemented. Romanians who understood viticulture and Albanians also came. Poles were allowed to settle there too — and even Jews, who for the most part were confined to the-so-called ‘Pale of Settlement’ in the Polish provinces. These Jews, generally excluded from Russia proper, were valued here for their skills as artisans and, like the Greeks, for promoting trade. The policy was to result in a healthy development of commerce as the immigrants exploited connections with their places of origins and former trading partners. Greeks had long been important in the Levant; Jews were responsible for the growth of overland trade with western Ukraine, especially through Austrian Lemberg (Lvov), though many of them later became free farmer settlers. They were also prominent, alongside Italians and other immigrants, in the development of the port city of Odessa, which by 1802 was receiving an average of over 300 merchant ships a year.

Substantial numbers of Germans were also attracted to the Russian south. Indeed they were reckoned at a premium on account of their industry, orderliness and farming skills. The terms offered them were tempting indeed: freedom to choose their occupation, cash subsidies or an allocation of up to 70 acres if they wished to farm, seed for the first winter and spring sowings, two horses per family, and either free equipment or money in lieu of it. They would also enjoy freedom from taxation for up to thirty years, be exempt from recruitment into the services, and receive the costs of passage if they needed it. Some settlers were even told that they would be under a form of administration based on the Swiss cantonal model. Recruiting contractors were engaged and were offered appointment to a military rank (which brought some privilege and prestige) if they produced a large enough number of settlers.

The prospects for German migrants were painted rosily by the recruiting agents. A prospectus for the Saratov area of the Volga issued in 1765 informed the public in the targeted area that the climate of their potential new habitat was ‘similar to that of Lyons in France … The soil… is extraordinarily fertile … There are the most magnificent meadows … also a great quantity of stock … The horses are … swift … can travel up to fifteen German miles a day and cost no more than six rubles … A milch cow [costs] not above three to four’ and the best of meat cost only a kopek a pound. In some areas grapes could be cultivated, yielding wine of ‘a splendid flavour’, and the soil was also suitable for tobacco. Fruit and flowers grew in abundance, and there was a profusion of game to be shot. The prospects, in short, were altogether excellent. But in case there should be any residual doubt, an assurance was offered: ‘The director of the colony … will make [every effort] to ensure that each new settler … shall be able to enjoy a peaceful and plentiful life.’

Not all the colonists found the Volga to be quite the promised Eldorado, but the strategy as a whole proved productive. This scheme, like many associated with the Empress, bore the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. Indeed, some of the leading luminaries of the Enlightenment, including Diderot and Voltaire, longing for a country to receive their progressive ideas, and judging Bourbon France to be a hopeless case, now looked to Russia as the great hope for the future. This was not simply because Catherine was powerful and subscribed to many of their ideas, but because Russia was so backward and possessed so few institutions. This meant that the Empire could accept the imprint of their ideas and be moulded by them.

But if the government’s policy towards immigrants bore the stamp of the Enlightenment, what was it in regard to its other subject peoples?

In Poland, which presented such contrasts to Russia institutionally and culturally, sentiment was not totally hostile to Russian rule. Indeed, as a German traveller observed, ‘the Poles, particularly the nobility and gentry, are better affected to the Russians than the Prussian, as was … manifest [at the partition crisis] … when they made no scruple of openly declaring their intention to receive the Russians with open arms.’ The vast majority of the population, of course, were politically inert peasants.

Although some nobles were fiercely hostile to the new regime, a number of prominent aristocrats, notably those of the Czartoryski family, had been inclined towards Russia before the partition, and served their new masters willingly. What reconciled the more important Polish nobles to Russian rule, even though they were Catholics, was not simply the preservation of their noble status, with all the rights that in Russia went with it (Kazakh chiefs who did military service enjoyed the same privileges), but the preservation of serfdom. Its abolition in neighbouring Prussia threatened to undermine many of their compatriots across the frontier economically and destroy their local power. Even though, in conformity with Catherine’s provincial reforms, Russian laws and the Russian language were introduced to eastern Poland, the nobility was left in control of local government, and the Catholic Church was not interefered with. In fact most peasants and many townspeople in Russian Poland were Orthodox. The second and third partitions of Poland, in 1793 and 1795, brought 1.7 million of these under the Russian crown, and when the Uniate Church was brought into the Orthodox fold and under the administration of Russia’s Holy Synod it seems that as many of its communicants were relieved as were offended.

The partitions, however, created another religious problem by bringing well over a million Jews as well as several million Catholics into the Empire. This was the chief source of Russia’s reputation for anti-Semitism. Hostility to Jews had been imported into Russia, as into every other Christian country, with the writings of the Church Fathers. Yet Russians themselves were no more anti-Semitic than other European peoples, and less so than many. Before the partitions few Jews had been allowed to enter Russia proper except by express command of the tsar — a policy most probably due to the state’s care to avoid antagonizing the privileged merchant class, on which it was long dependent for financial advice and tax collection, as well as the Church, which had been an important economic support for the state before the eighteenth century. Anti-Semitism in the Empire was for the most part characteristic of certain subject peoples rather than the Russians themselves, having been entrenched for centuries among Ukrainians, Baits and Poles — in short, among the people who inhabited the frontierlands of the Catholic Church where it confronted Protestants or Orthodox Christians.

Although what had been eastern Poland was now subject to Russia militarily, the occupying power did not wish to alienate the Polish ruling class and so delayed the imposition of Russian norms on the Polish territories. But in the 1790s the Polish elite as well as the Russian authorities became increasingly concerned about how to counter the influence of revolutionary France. Polish landowners were terrified by the Jacobinism which had infected some of the budding intelligentsia in the towns, and Russian rule became more popular. But Russian concern resulted in the Polish elite retaining their social, cultural and legal distinctiveness. This helped to embed them as a ‘foreign body’ within the Russian imperium, creating a problem for the future.

Russian Ukraine west of the Dnieper was administered as part of Russian Poland, but eastern Ukraine was subject to policies that would help absorb it, indeed Russify it. This was not the consequence of any master plan to extinguish Ukrainian independence and distinctiveness, however. Since nationalist sentiment did not develop there until well into the nineteenth century, there was no need no counter it in the eighteenth. Nevertheless, some Ukrainians valued their autonomy as well as their traditions, and the Russians were to eliminate Ukrainian autonomy. They did so partly to improve security and prevent disorder. This is why the Zaporozhian Sech had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed in 1775, although some of its Cossacks had promptly gone over to the Turks, who allowed them to form a similar community on the lower Danube under their protection. The removal of obstacles to an enlightened monarch’s power was in itself an enlightened idea. So was the abolition of regional, sectoral and any other rights regarded as antiquated and irrational.

The occasion for implementing this principle of uniform centralism had come long before, in 1763, soon after the Empress’s accession. The Ukrainian elite, numbering about 2,200 out of a population of a million, had petitioned for their Council of Officers to be converted into a constitutional Diet of the Nobility. They had also wanted parity of rank and privilege with Russia’s nobility. At the same time Hetman Razumovsky of Ukraine, who had been the favoured lover of Empress Elizabeth, asked for his appointment to be made hereditary. This had angered the enlightened Catherine, who had just acceded to the throne. She not only denied the petitions, but abolished the post of hetman, appointed a governor-general for Ukraine, and looked forward to the time when, as she put it, even the memory of hetmans would be obliterated. There was strong resistance from those who demanded a new appointment, but the Russian authorities reacted with severity. Thirty-six of the objectors were sentenced to death, though they were subsequently reprieved.

Russia’s new system of regional administration, proclaimed in 1775, was applied to Ukraine. However, this obliged the government to recognize the Cossack elite as nobles on a par with the Russian nobility, and in 1783 serfdom was introduced into Ukraine. These measures mollified the Ukrainian elite, who were landowners as well as Cossack officers, so that when Ukraine’s own indigenous institutions were abolished, as they were in the 1780s, protest was muted. Indeed it was Ukrainians on the Russian governor-general’s staff who installed and administered the new regime. Although the Ukrainian elite continued to take pride in their Cossack past, most of them accepted the new order, and in time many of them were to become Russian patriots.

The processes by which differences in wealth within a community increased, and the officer class was accorded both the privileges of noblemen and the right to keep serfs, took place in other Cossack communities which had previously been rebelliously inclined. In 1773 the Don Cossacks had produced in Pugachev the most terrifying rebel of all, but another development also helped to break them in. This was the emergence of an ethos of pride in loyal service which the state helped to shape. The ethos related conveniently both to a sense of social privilege and to pride in military glory.

The later eighteenth century saw an almost uninterrupted series of campaigns in which Cossacks were involved. The imperial citations, awards of decorations for bravery and donations of colours combined to create a patriotism that was gradually to blot out any will to assert a collective independence. Indeed, when the government needed to establish a new Cossack community to build and guard the Kuban river line, former Zaporozhian veterans who had served as marines in the Second Turkish War of 1787—92 were allowed, as a reward for their valued service, to kneel down before the Empress and petition for a grant of land in the area on which they could settle. The petition was, of course, granted, the purpose of the ceremony having been achieved. In an age when glory could inspire both pride and awe, the state now possessed a means other than suppression to fend off thoughts of protest and manipulate its subjects. That is how the Cossacks came to be psychologically enslaved.

The Baltic provinces constituted a quite different case. The great majority of the population there were peasant serfs whose horizons extended very little further than their village and who spoke local Baltic dialects (the modern literary languages had not yet been constructed). Russian rule made little difference to such people, except that men in Russian rather than Swedish uniforms garrisoned the towns and when necessary patrolled the countryside. Authority was represented by the same lord that they had had before. The lords themselves were predominately German-speaking, and, as we have seen, they had been co-opted into the Russian elite. Every governor-general in the eighteenth century was a Baltic German except one, and he, George Browne, was an Irishman married to a Baltic German.

The dependence of government on educated Germans became so pervasive from the 1730s that many a provincial governor would put his signatures to reports that were actually written in German. So long as the Baltic Germans preserved their right to use German in the local courts and in correspondence with the imperial government they had little incentive to learn Russian unless they aspired to very high office. Indeed, until the middle of the century German was the principal language of the imperial court, as subsequently French would become the favoured medium. Furthermore, in the later eighteenth century Baltic Germans held a far higher number of senior positions than their numbers warranted in the imperial administration, the judicial service and the military. They were content with Russian rule. The honeymoon ended only when, in August 1796, the terms of Catherine’s Charter of the Nobility of 1785 were applied to them. The charter deliberately ignored the noble traditions and institutions of the Baltic Germans. Its introduction prompted polite remonstrance, and then protest. But Catherine — a German herself — was adamant. The protestors, she said, did ‘not appreciate the advantages offered to them, but [clung] to traditional habits … The disposition of rulers’, she warned, ‘should at all times be accepted with respect and obeyed without demur.’ The sword of the enlightened improver cut evenly against ancient constitutions and the habits of savages alike.

As ever, there was less restlessness among the peoples of the north and west than in the southern provinces of the Empire. In part this was due to rising affluence, in part to a measured combination of firmness and concession. Indifference and inertia also counted. But, if there was little opposition to Russian rule, there was little inclination to assimilate either. Religious toleration — another principle of enlightened government — helped reinforce the distinctiveness of Catholic Poles, German Protestants and Jews. So did the preservation of serfdom and the persistence of private law. The state was beginning to encroach on privilege and localism, though decades were to pass before the effects were very visible. Had these reforms been implemented earlier and been more widespread, a far higher proportion of the population would have been Russified and there would have been less scope for the nationalism of an age yet to come.

Yet no thoroughgoing Russification policy was applied consistently, even in the mid-Volga region, one of the earlier scenes of Russian empire-building. If Russians came to predominate in that region, this was because of demographic expansion rather than policies of absorption. Russians had formed the majority of the population at least from Peter I’s time. In the 1790s the Chuvash in the region numbered 310,000, the Cheremis 140,000 and the Votiaks only 127,000, but there were more than 250,000 Mordvs and 400,000 Tatars. Some of these minorities, as well as Russians, moved into the Bashkir areas of the southern Urals. The Kalmyks, about 200,000 strong, found they had to share their part of the steppe with Ukrainian, Tatar, Mordv and German as well as Russian colonists. Again, no great effort was made to Russify these elements, although between 1740 and 1755 the Church did mount a missionary campaign directed at animists, and groups whose co-operation the government particularly valued were offered inducements to convert to Christianity. Kazakhs and, later, Crimean Tatars and others who did so were granted three years’ remission of taxes and allowed to own Christian serfs. Yet no attempt was made to make even the patriarchate of Moscow a Russian preserve. Of the 127 Orthodox bishops installed in the Empire between 1700 and 1762, no fewer than 75 were Ukrainians and only 38 Russians. And there was no policy to promote ethnic homogenization.

Russia’s laws, policies and institutions — including Catherine’s ‘enlightened’ rationalizing measures — came to apply to the new provinces as well as to the old, to the Crimea as well as to Livonia and Ukraine and Moscow Province. Not only did they arouse understandable resentment, however, they sometimes resulted in anomaly rather than standardization. In 1795, thanks to the partitions and the age-old policy of co-opting elites, there were some 600,000 registered noblemen (szlachta) in Russia’s Polish provinces — four times as many as in Russia proper. Many of them, however, were devoid of resources — in effect they were the servants of noblemen with means. And, although the local-government reforms of 1775 were applied throughout the Empire, their norms regarding the administration of justice in particular remained a dead letter in Siberia, because the new laws had allotted various administrative functions to members of the nobility, and the Siberians had no noble class.

The Second Turkish War, which formed the backdrop to these developments, confirmed Russia’s superiority over Ottoman Turkey, and established its power in the Black Sea and the northern Caucasus. Success in that war was achieved through a succession of brilliant victories in hard-fought battles – the defence of Kinburn, the battle of the Rymnik, the storming of Ismail. At the same time Russia was able to sustain successful operations, chiefly by sea, against a hostile Sweden. The gains resulting from this triumphant progress were only half digested when another southern project got under way. In 1796, 30,000 troops moved down the Caspian coast to take Derbent and Baku and to prepare for an advance into the heartland of Persia. The ultimate objective of this ‘Oriental Project’, led by the brother of the last of Catherine’s lovers, Platon Zubov, was to seize Tibet and the roads into India.

Already alarmed by the build-up of Russian sea power in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, Britain was spared further concern by Catherine’s death later the same year. But, although the Oriental Project was called off and British interests in India became safe for the moment, the progress of Russian arms was not to end there. Suddenly, in November 1798, the Knights of St John – based on Malta, the pivotal point in the Mediterranean — elected Catherine’s son and successor, the Emperor Paul, grand master of the order, so Malta in effect became a Russian protectorate. Yet there was to be no clash between the Russian fleet and the British who had helped to create it. Indeed, they were soon united by a common enemy: revolutionary France. Thanks to Russia’s alliance with Britain, Napoleon Bonaparte was to be denied Malta and Egypt, but Russia’s Mediterranean plans were also to come to nothing.

By the end of the century the Empire covered well over 2 million square miles, more than a fifth of them in Europe. Just before the turn of the century a Russian—American Company was founded to exploit the trading possibilities in the north-eastern Pacific and to administer territories on the eastern side of the Bering straits ‘belonging to Russia by right of discovery’. Russian explorers had already been burying inscribed copper plates in new-found lands and erecting crosses over them declaring them to be ‘imperial Russian territory’. The company was empowered to make new discoveries south as well as north of the 55th Parallel, and to exploit them.

This had all been achieved with relatively modest military resources, given how great a power Russia had become. Of a total military establishment of 435,000 in 1782, more than half were garrison troops, labour battalions (of convicts, rebel tribesmen and the like) and frontier troops such as the Cossacks. There were only 118,000 regular infantry, 52,000 regular cavalry and 29,000 artillerymen. The cost, according to the reliable Le Clerc, was 5,173,000 rubles a year. The navy cost a further 1,226,999 a year, compared with 1,588,747 for the court and a mere 73,000 for the Academy of Sciences.  Richard Hellie has estimated that the army cost one-eighth of all Russia’s productive resources in the eighteenth century.  Russia lost 653,000 men in its eighteenth-century wars, nearly a third of them in the Turkish wars. High as these costs were, they were not an excessive price to pay for the immense assets gained — territorial and human — and it has been calculated that between 1719 and 1795 the male population had grown by almost 7 million, not counting the population of the new territories.

Russia was incontestably a world power now, and, as powers do, it attracted opposition. Not only traditional rivals like the Ottoman Turks and France, but former allies now harboured misgivings. Britain was concerned at possible Russian threats to its interests in the Mediterranean and India; Habsburg Austria, long Russia’s closest ally, was now worried that a collapse of the Turkish Empire, previously unimaginable, might precipitate serious problems for it in the Balkans. In the natural way of things, these powers would have been expected to club together with France against Russia in order to restore a balance of power in Europe — but this did not happen. A new factor had intruded itself: the rise of revolutionary ideology. Concern about France’s radically new form of imperialism with its weapons of mass mobilization, democratic populism and subversion was ultimately to mobilize a new, nationalist, form of opposition to it. But in the meantime the disruption of Europe in the Napoleonic Wars was to facilitate the further expansion of Russia’s traditional empire.


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