Russia’s perpetual struggle with its own identity, and its place in the world has been a common theme throughout Russian history. The Russian experience with the East was first horrific and devastating with the invasion of the Golden Horde. This experience with the Mongols has been regarded by some as the “most traumatic historical experience of the Russian people”. The Mongolian ‘heritage’ from their subjugation amalgamated with the harsh imperial institutions inherited from Byzantium and their perceived status as the “Third Rome”. The east was regarded as an inhabitance of violent Cumans and Mongols, but with expeditions moving further east it was found to be a treasure trove of Furs and other material goods. Russia’s historical record also differs from European and Chinese paradigms in their colonial expansion. This difference is in their general acceptance of subjugated peoples differing racial, cultural and religious traditions. Indeed many “European Russian’s” viewed the east as a foreign Asiatic colony, but over time this place became as much a part of Russia as Moscow would be. Russia’s identity is historically and emotionally intertwined with the Far East, and to understand Russia, one must look as much to the East as to the West.
The earliest period of Russian history, the Vikings (Varangians) established a base in Novgorod; then moving south amongst the river system establishing a mercantile empire. This river system formed a basis of transportation for the early Rus communities and eventual expansion eastward; The Rivers were also to be used as an inlet for invading forces, as it has been postulated that the Mongols used it to survey Russian territory. This foreign entity was eventually absorbed by the Russians, and became one of the first historical instances of Russian cultural flexibility.
The conversion of Russia to Christianity in 988 and the preceding courtship with the Byzantines exposed the semi-barbaric Russia to the world of Greek enlightenment and Western thought. With that exposure the Russians were introduced to the “classical idea” of their own geography, that of Asia and Europe were separated by a narrow isthmus, between the arctic and the Sea of Azov. The imperial structure of Byzantium impressed upon the Russians that Church and State were one in the same. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Russia began to see itself as the “Third Rome”, as the rightful inheritors of the Empire and the bearers of the true faith. This was in part due to the preaching of the monk Filofie (Philothes of Pskov), which would form the foundations of ‘slavophilism’ and anti-western attitudes in Russia.
Many of the Russian princes had an aversion to all things Western, clothing, technology, militarily and ideological. This stemmed from their belief at the time of the West’s backwardness and their pre-eminence, even comparing Westerners to “Tartars or Turks.” In the Russian mind they felt that they had already a “fully articulated ideology of their own national exclusivity”, so why would they need to look West for guidance? European gunsmiths and artisans, however were encouraged to come to Moscow; to set up armories and manufacturing to cut down on transportation costs of arms.
Wars on the western front were continuous as Lithuanian and Polish princes wished to capture Russian territory, and spread Latin Christianity to the East.
It was not until the Petrine reforms that European customs and ways of thinking were ever accepted en masse (begrudgingly) throughout the ruling class. The “pre-eminence” of European culture and Russia’s being part of the “Western fraternity” was also generally accepted until the Revolution.
Europe’s view of Russia was still based much on the old texts from Ptolemy or Marco Polo and was referred to as “Grand Tartary” in reference to the Mongol domination. This Grand Tartary extended from The Urals to the Pacific and it was even believed that no one lived north of the Gobi Desert. As stated earlier there were previous contacts through trade and Russian acquisition of Western specialists in ‘modern’ technology. The relative Orthodox antipathy to the Latin West led to little information in Europe as to the details in the Tsardom for much of its history. This is abundantly clear when after the Tsar conquers much of the former Mongol lands, he refuses to “disclose unto a stranger and unkown men.” Any geographical information about these conquered lands. The Catholic Church had a vested interest in Siberia as the sea routes to China for missionaries was extremely dangerous as “what with pirates, shipwrecks and disease…still many more destroy’d and miscarry than safely arrive in the Country.”.
A story of two French Jesuit Priests, who were seeking a safe land route to the East, sums up much of the apprehension that greeted Westerners in Russia at the time. On Russia’s secretiveness they commented “No man dares…inform himself in Muscovy for fear of…Jealousy to that Nation, the most distrustful and suspicious of any other perhaps in the World.”. The Priest’s gave one of the first European accounts of the vast land that was Inner Asia which had thus so-far been “mysterious”. It was previously believed to be “great frozen wastes, high mountains and harsh climate.” which barred the way to “would-be explorers.”
The Russians vision of the East was that of the age old battle between the sedentary Russians and the nomadic tribesman (i.e. Mongols and the Cumans before them), the forest and the open steppe. The nomadic Cumans, another tribe of the stepp whom the Russians had fought numerous battles with, were referred to as “godless…sons of Ishmael.” According to Church sources, the Cumans were killed by the Mongols for the murder of Christians. In Serge Zenkovksy’s Medieval Russian epics, chronicles and tales we see the ‘first hand’ accounts of the Mongol’s invasion. The pre-eminent view that one gleans from these ancient texts is the purity and nobleness of the Russian people and land. Even in defeat the Russians are noble and even admired by the Mongols “…never have we seen such courageous heroes…they are winged people…and they fight bravely.”.
Unlike the portrayal of the upright Christian princes and people of Russia, those from the East are particularly dastardly and evil. When Riazan was in danger of being invaded Prince
Fedor came to speak to “The godless, false, merciless [Khan].” This is not a title that sets up someone who is of good character. Batu is later seen demanding that Prince Fedor, along with the other princes send their wives and sisters to be his concubines. Throughout the Church’s medieval texts, the Mongols were demons incarnate, sent to punish the Russian people for their sins. Regardless of the overwrought tales of heroism in Russian accounts, it’s certain that the Mongolian invasion was extremely destructive. Riasanovsky points out that “in contrast to the wars of medieval Europe, the wars between the Russians and the peoples of the steppe were waged on a mass scale with tremendous effort and destruction.” Another account of the destruction stated that “…no one in the town remained alive…no one here to moan, or cry…all lay together dead.”
While it is understandable that a people would demonize any outside group that sought to subjugate them, their characterization of the Mongols is extreme. After the Mongols defeated the Russians they instituted a system of in a lecture by Professor Dennison in February, 2012 it was noted that the “yoke” of the Mongols was less than restrictive that implied in the texts. There was no true overlord rule of the Russian territories, as the Mongol way was indirect tribute to be collected by the Russian princes themselves. From the Mongol domination the Russian princes came away with a regimentation that would be the foundation for Russian style autocracy. This style was that of Mongolian autocratic control with the outward cloak of Orthodox authority.
The Russian’s view of the Siberian frontier as they inexorably moved east was that of encountering a savage and backwards people. In The Life of Archpriest Avvakum by Himself we see the Russian view of the east through the lens of the great religious schism at the time. The east was a place of much hardship, rivers that destroyed rafts and scarcity that led them to eat “grass and roots”. There was also great beauty and bounty to be found in the Siberian wilderness as stated in a lecture by Professor Dennison in February, 2012.
The two main reasons for the eastward expansion were territory and taxes. Russia’s expansion was blocked by European powers in the West, and past the Caucuses, the Turks in the South. To the east there was no real opposition all the way to the pacific, except for various Mongol/eastern tribes dispersed throughout the territory. A merchant by the name of Stroganov was given mineral rights to all of Siberia and given a charge by the Tsar to open the east to expansion and trade. As the Russians moved farther east they set up small lodges along their routes where the tribute would be brought from subjugated locals. The Russians employed a Mongolian style tribute system, where they did not overtly seek domination (yet) but demanded tribute in fur, specifically Sable. Professor Dennison in a lecture in February, 2012 stated that the tribute that was exacted was called a yasak, this was a tribute of fixed number of pelts per adult male. The Sovereign Tithing tax was a 10% tax on all sales of fur pelts in the territory.
Through the tax and Yasak’s the state reaped huge profits due to an insatiable European demand for Sable and other fur’s, and were able to finance larger expansions of the state and military. The Yasak itself was seemingly modeled very much upon the Mongolian system of tribute and rule. In large part during the eastward expansion there was little in the way European style subjugation and colonization of the Far East. Russian traders and officials fought and subjugated natives when they would not submit to the Yasak, but there was little to no attempts at ‘Russification’ of the native populace in the early pacification of the East.
In 1869 an article was published called Rosiia I Evropa by Nikolai Danilevskii which disputed the “assumption that Europe represented the most exalted expression of human social, cultural, and intellectual development...”. Danilevskii was more of an anti-European polemic than an articulated early Eurasianist position, as he was more concerned with breaking down the ‘fact’ that Europe itself wasn’t even a continent, but more of a peninsula of Asia. Vladmir Lamanskii also presented a similar view of Russia as a large whole and not the “European metropolis [in the west] and Asiatic Colony [in the east]”. He believed that the Russian movement east was different from European colonization by sea or Manifest destiny in America; Russian domination was “an entirely natural and organic process”.
With the decline of the fur trade in the 19th century Russian views of this once bountiful land once again reverted to visions of Siberia’s inhospitable nature. Around the same time Siberia was becoming a favorite destination for the government to send exiles, as even the name Siberia become synonymous with exile. For the elite of Russia at that time Siberia was “nothing more than a withered and useless remnant of past colonial glory…its wild and primeval environments and inhabitants terrorized the civilized sensibilities of…Russians west of the Urals.” This image of Siberia and Asia as desolate and inferior would remain in the mind of most Russians, but the way some Russians viewed Asia, and Russia’s relationship with it, would soon change.
Eurasianism, represented to many Russians a “new approach to Asia”, a way to distance itself from Europe and the West. This new ideology held that although Russians were foreign to the Chinese or Japanese, Eurasia encompassed both Asiatic and non-Asiatic parts. This idea was borne following the horribly bloody years of WWI, and was one of “bitter rejection of the past and…vague messianic hopes for the future.” This hope for the future was to shed Russia of its alien European clothing, and Europe’s bloody wars, and embrace Russia’s Asiatic heritage.
Early in the years of the Revolution Aleksandr Blok published a poem entitled The Scythians which preached Pan Mongolism. Blok claimed a common Asiatic heritage “Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asiatic’s, with slanting and greedy eyes!” This idea of Pan Mongolism was an extreme break from historical Russian thought. To the Eurasianist’s, Russia was not the inheritors of the Byzantines, but of Genghis Khan himself. They were no longer the “Third Rome” but perhaps a new Horde. Russia has had a continual manic-depressive relationship with where they come from and fit in; Asia or Europe, West or East, a combination of both or neither, unique.
When one views the whole of Russia’s haphazard attempts to identify themselves you can find three distinct attitudes. These three attitudes are somewhat interchangeable and often form amalgamations of a number of positions and ideas.
The first is the original idea that Russia is unique amongst all the countries of the world, distinct in its being the inheritor and rightful heir of the Roman Empire, the “Third Rome”. Their geographical space put them from the end of Europe to the end of Asia, and thus this put them in many minds in a distinct and separate space. Their religion of Orthodoxy was heavily intertwined with this idea, as it was the main component of the “Third Rome”. In Russian minds, western Rome died, and the place of authority lay in the East, and the East was Orthodox. When Constantinople fell, much of the East’s religious authorities and craftsmen fled to Russia.
Since Russia was the last bastion of the true religion, the power and authority that went with that fell to them. The geographical ideal has switched back and forth from Asia, to Europe to a combination of both, but Russia’s place as the sole authority in Orthodoxy is the foundation of the idea of the “Third Rome”.
The Second being that Russia is of Europe, they have much in common with similar political beliefs, ways of warfare and similar religions. There have been differing opinions on the ‘European’ qualities of Russia. Peter the Great believed that Europe was far more advanced and thus should be copied; others believed that Russia’s culture was distinctive, even superior but still had much in common with Europe. Tatishchev was a “tireless partisan of Peter’s reforms” and was put in charge of re-writing the geographic boundaries of Russia.
Tatishchev reworking of the ‘Russian question’ made distinct the European metropolis and the “Asiatic colony” of the East. This issue led to much debate within the Petrine government and eventually the Ural’s were somewhat arbitrarily chosen to delineate the two areas. Even in this description one can see the Slavic portion of Russia separating itself from the Eastern ‘colonies’, recognizing their importance and belonging to Russia, but also being distinct from what is truly ‘Russian’.
The third is that Russia is more Asiatic in its bent that European that the Russian landscape is Asian and the Russian distinctive mindset is more in line with Asiatic thought and action. Russians began in the early nineteenth century too see themselves as aligned with Asia, a intermediary between Europe and “silent Asia”. Russians viewed their domination of the East as more enlightened and without the tinges of racism as was found between Europeans and their colonies. Aleksandr Herzen penned these words pointing out Russia’s Asian roots “does one assume that we think Europe is Eden and that to be a European is an honourable title?...We do not blush at the thought that we come from Asia…”. The Vostochniki went as far as to claim that Russia was not heirs to Christian Byzantium, but the Mongol Empire. The Vostochniki
Prince Esper Ukhtomskii believed that Russia belonged to Asia, with similar lives and interests. With these three main differing opinions on identity there are various forms of which they co-mingle, some westerners holding that their Orthodox third Rome position, makes them brothers or even fathers to the lost west. While others believe that Russia is distinct in its geography, with traditions from the West and East, Byzantium and the Mongols. It is very difficult to pinpoint any ‘True’ philosophy as it is all sides have valid positions and historical evidence and anecdotes to back their claims. The one true statement that still holds is that Russia is unique and distinct, not truly European or Asian, but a stepbrother to both regions.