The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831

The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831

The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831

The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650-1831

Synopsis

At its height, the Russian empire covered eleven time zones and stretched from Scandinavia to the Pacific Ocean. Arguing against the traditional historical view that Russia, surrounded and threatened by enemies, was always on the defensive, John P. LeDonne contends that Russia developed a long-term strategy not in response to immediate threats but in line with its own expansionist urges to control the Eurasian Heartland. LeDonne narrates how the government from Moscow and Petersburg expanded the empire by deploying its army as well as by extending its patronage to frontier societies in return for their serving the interests of the empire. He considers three theaters on which the Russians expanded: the Western (Baltic, Germany, Poland); the Southern (Ottoman and Persian Empires); and the Eastern (China, Siberia, Central Asia). In his analysis of military power, he weighs the role of geography and locale, as well as economic issues, in the evolution of a larger imperial strategy. Rather than viewing Russia as peripheral to European Great Power politics, LeDonne makes a powerful case for Russia as an expansionist, militaristic, and authoritarian regime that challenged the great states and empires of its time.

Excerpt

I must begin with a caution and a plea. Some readers will argue that writing a first book on Russian grand strategy without the benefit of monographs concentrating on specific problems—decision making, for example—is running the risk of writing about the “virtual past.” They will argue that what is presented here is nothing but “virtual strategy,” in which the author attributes to the Russian political elite a vision they never had. I answer that if we must wait until enough monographs have been published—especially on eighteenth-century history, which has been so neglected—we condemn ourselves to purely descriptive history for a long time to come. But there is a more serious argument. One can think of history writing as the patient accumulation of facts which eventually yields an insight—or none at all. That is the work of the caterpillar, in Ihor Ševčenko's felicitous contrast between two types of historic writing. But if the inductive work of patient accumulation adds to our knowledge of a historical period or subject matter, it often contributes nothing to an understanding of it. One can write an entire book on diplomatic negotiations or military operations without an understanding of their context, of their continuity with previous activities, and without seeking to elucidate why they took place. The inductive historian who gains an insight—not all do—after many years of research and contemplation may enlarge it into a vision that informs the period or subject matter. It is then for the scholar to select among the mass of facts those which support his vision and contribute to the building of an integrated and intelligible whole. That is the work of the butterfly, who sees a field of flowers where the caterpillar sees grains of sand and tiny leaves.

Facts by themselves are dead matter. They acquire life by becoming connected with other facts by the power of the imagination; the connections are virtual because they are fundamentally subjective. The historian's vision will help him create a historical interpretation reflecting both his personality and his own times. That is why, as William Walsh puts it, “each generation finds it necessary to write its histories afresh.” That we need to create such connections is especially urgent in Russian military history. Much information is available in collections of various materi-

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