The Russians with whom the Elizabethans made contact stood on the brink of a fabulous career of conquest matched only by that of Great Britain. Ivan IV (who reigned in 1547-84) had recently conquered the Muslim Khanate of Astrakhan (now Tatarstan), the first step on to foreign soil. He had recently won, and then lost, a 'window' on the Baltic in Livonia. Still more recently, he had sent a party of Cossacks over the Urals into Siberia. Their quest would continue until Russian pioneers reached California in 1812. These campaigns, and those that followed, constantly transformed the meaning of what Russia is, and where it lies.
The Russian Empire was built on three pillars. Russian government relied on brute coercion. The Russian economy relied heavily on foreign expansion to compensate for shortfalls at home. Russian ideology relied on historical fabrications as whopping as the empire that they helped support.
In this regard, the machinations of Russian historical nomenclature have been brilliant. Ukraine, which in Ivan's time had belonged to Poland, was to be renamed 'Little Russia'. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was renamed 'White Russia'. The Ruthenian inhabitants of Ukraine and Lithuania were all declared to be Russians - as if 'Dutch' were the same as 'Deutsch'. In modern times, four Japanese islands off Hokkaido were added to 'the Southern Kuriles'.
It is often said that history is written by the winners and about the winners. The British historian E H Carr, like his state-employed mentors in Russia, never did anything else. Who knows that the Russian Orthodox Church was not created in 988, as Mikhail Gorbachev's Millennium Festival maintained? Who knows anything about Russia's democratic heritage in medieval Novgorod? Who remembers that tsardom was not overthrown by the Bolsheviks, or that the Soviet Union was not formed in 1917? Who was ever told that half the Soviet people were not Russians?
The durability of the Russian Empire, which has lasted on and off for four centuries, bears witness to its founders' methods. But force and fraud form a brittle cement. Whenever Russia's rulers were unwilling to frighten their subjects into submission or unable to enforce their fictions, the fabric of the state would disintegrate very rapidly.
The implosion of the Soviet Union was an obvious instance. Mr Gorbachev will surely be remembered as a man who did not grasp the basic characteristics of the system he was given to repair. Yet the phenomenon can be illustrated by several other episodes - among them the 'Time of Troubles' of the early 17th century and the so-called 'Russian Civil War' of the early 20th.
The Time of Troubles is best known from Russian romantic opera. The obligatory texts are Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (which Stalin commanded to be re-equipped with a folk hero and renamed Ivan Susanin). It is 20 years or so after the death of Ivan. Russia is beset by hordes of invading Poles, Swedes and Tartars, all intent on dismembering the fatherland. One False Dmitri, who poses as Ivan's long-lost son, grabs the throne with the aid of scheming Jesuits. He comes to a sticky end when fired live from a cannon in Red Square. A second False Dmitri promptly marries the first one's widow. At the height of the troubles in 1612, the Kremlin is occupied by Poles, a nation of marauding princes, priests and homosexuals. But all comes right in the end. Mikhail Romanov, the sixth tsar in a decade, defeats his rivals, drives out the dastardly foreigners, and creates a lasting dynasty. The message is clear. Invaders of Russia will never prevail against one folk, one faith, one leader.
Operatic librettos should probably be left in peace. But to understand the history, one has to look into things that the operas fail to mention. For the Time of Troubles was a violent reaction against violent policies which had been pursued for generations.
Moscow, for example, had destroyed the traditional status of the Russian nobles, the boyars. It was the boyar factions who scrambled for power after Ivan's death, and who brought in the foreign adventurers. The Polish garrison in the Kremlin, which was eventually captured and destroyed, did not have the support of the royal government in Warsaw. The Poles and the Swedes were minor players whom later myth would turn into major villains.
Moscow had suppressed all rival power centres in Russia itself. All the ancient cities and principalities had been crushed. Ivan the Terrible had butchered every man, woman and child in Novgorod. Muscovite autocracy did not become Russia's sole political tradition by evolution.
Moscow laid claim to all the former lands of the medieval Kiivan (Kievan) state. These pretensions, which the Allies eventually helped Stalin to fulfil in 1945, resembled nothing more than English claims to the throne of France. They made neighbours nervous.
By appointing a Patriarch of Moscow in 1589, the Muscovite state completed the creation of a separate Russian Orthodox Church. This Church owed allegiance to the Tsar, while claiming jurisdiction over all other orthodox Christians of Slavonic rite beyond the Tsar's frontiers. Fearful for their liberty, most of the non-Russian orthodox, mainly in Ukraine, promptly sought protection through union with Rome. None of these 'Greek Catholics' or 'Uniates' or 'Ukrainian Catholics' had been subject to Moscow. But that has not prevented Moscow from treating them as traitors to this day.
Muscovy, like the Russian Empire after it, was a predatory state which lived by collecting land. For every invasion of Moscow, the Muscovites invaded their neighbours 50 times over. But invading Russia is wrong.
The 'Russian Civil War' is a label that does not adequately describe the turbulent events of 1918-22. The overthrowing of tsardom in February 1917 provoked two interlocking chains of conflict. One, the Russian Civil War proper, involved a contest for control of the central government. The other was a series of international conflicts between Russia and the independent republics that had sprung up in all non-Russian areas of the former empire. The first was fought out between the Bolshevik 'Reds' and an assortment of conservatives, constitutionalists and non-Bolshevik socialists, collectively known as 'the Whites'. The second was fought out in multilateral scrums in each of the republics, where national forces were beset by both Reds and Whites. It was brought to a conclusion when the victorious armies of Soviet Russia conquered each of the breakaway republics in turn.
This concatenation of wars had started in January 1918, when Lenin closed down the democratically elected Constituent Assembly in Petrograd. And it ended in 1922, when the Red Army finally broke the Menshevik government in Georgia. Only then could the new general secretary of the Bolshevik Party, himself a Georgian, set about designing a new sort of empire - the Soviet Union.
Historians have long debated how it was possible for a small group of Bolsheviks to seize the largest country on earth. One reason lay in the divided opposition. Another lay in Allied intervention. A relatively minor element of the civil war gave Bolshevik propaganda a major opportunity to raise the cry that Lenin was saving Russia from invasion.
The vital period between the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917-18 and the creation of the USSR in 1922-23 is rarely taken seriously. Most Western historians have followed the Russian nationalist myth, which believes in 'Holy Russia One and Indivisible', even when it has ceased to exist. Except for Finland, Poland, and the Baltic States, which were recognised by the West, the national republics are somehow judged illegitimate. The principle of national self-determination is ignored. The brutal Bolshevik conquest is explained away as Russia reclaiming its own. As a result, as soon as glasnost brought these same republics to the surface 70 years later, everyone was taken completely by surprise.
Ukraine and Siberia are the key countries. Muscovy, without Ukraine, was always likely to starve. Hence the extraordinary zeal with which Muscovite apologists argue that Ukraine is not really Ukrainian. In 1918-21, the Ukrainians declared their sovereignty, and defended it against all comers. Their right to independence was recognised by no one except Germany. Their capital, Kiiv, changed hands 15 times. But they ended up in the Bolshevik bag, to be treated by Stalin with genocidal ferocity. If the Nazis could have refrained from similar atrocities, as the Kaiser had done in 1918, the Soviet Union could not have survived.
Siberia, which also broke away in 1918, is as big as North America. Its physical links with European Russia are tenuous. Although its population is largely Russian in origin, the people have their own interests and outlook. Their relationship with Moscow can be compared to that of Canadians and Australians to London.
British attitudes to Russia are among the curiosities of modern times. We have in-built filters to stop us seeing it for what it is. The English no doubt feel an affinity for fellow imperialists in decline. People such as Lord Tebbit, who believe in 'a thousand years of British parliamentary history', can equally believe in 'a thousand years of Russian history'.
More important are the sympathies left by two centuries of strategic alliance. Russia has been Britain's ally in every general European war since Napoleon. Russian power repeatedly saved our skins. It was the Russians who humbled Napoleon's army, who took the strain in 1914-17, who broke the back of Hitler's Wehrmacht. But it is unwise to let gratitude colour one's judgement. Discreditable Russian regimes do not stop us thinking that a Greater Russia is desirable. Russia's enemies have been our enemies. Russia's faults are forgivable. Russia's victims are none of our business.
The past can never serve as a reliable guide for the future. The strategic value of territorial megastates has been radically diminished by the instant communications and intercontinental ballistic missiles of the nuclear age. But some of the old factors continue to operate.
First, one needs to be reminded that Russians have been unusually conditioned against foreign intervention. Even Western economic aid is often seen as tainted. Pro-democratic political engagement might hand the strongest of all cards to Russia's anti-democratic imperialists.
Second, one needs to face the fact that Russia's inner empire is no more eternal than the outer one. The idea of holding it together is no more realistic than Mr Gorbachev's pipe dream of democratic Communism. If Moscow could not assert its authority through Communist dictatorship, it has little chance of doing so through parliament and a prayer. The battle between Boris Yeltsin and the Congress is largely irrelevant. The Russian Federation, like the USSR, is an artificial amalgam. If the far-flung dependencies in Siberia and the Far East are not given dominion status, they will move towards separation. The sooner that Russia is reduced to a group of manageable autonomous units, the better for all concerned.
Norman Davies is Professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. His book, Europe: a History, is to be published by Oxford University Press.
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