The Traditional Policy of Russia

AT this moment, when the PanSlavic and Greco-Catholic Propaganda gathers all its strength to aid the Czar’s government in making another push at the East, and when the Muscovite armies, as a preparatory move, have taken possession of the Khanates of Tartary, thus nearing the British possessions of India, the traditional policy of Russia, as exhibited in her ancient history, acquires a peculiar importance.

Current events are often the outcome of deep-rooted tendencies. In the case of Russia, everybody talks fluently of her “traditional policy"; yet how few are there who have even a faint knowledge of the political and social conditions through which that empire has passed during and after the Middle Ages ! There is a wellnigh general, but withal fallacious, belief that Russia is “ a young state,” in the prime of life, whose political organization dates only from the last century. Hence those comparisons with the youthful Transatlantic Republic, arising out of a few accidental, and no doubt transitory, similarities, with omission of the deep and characteristic diversities.

It is no exaggeration to say that even In England, which is the rival Asiatic power with Russia, one might as well ask for a general knowledge of what the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan did a thousand years ago as for an acquaintance with ancient Muscovite history. As the existence of the human race is recorded to have had its origin with “Adam,” so Russian existence is often thought to have begun with a certain “ Peter.” As to what occurred in the fabulous times before the appearance of that historical Czar scarcely any one cares to inquire. Ere the “ Shipwright of Saardam ” connected his empire with Western civilization, Russia is usually assumed to have been a terra incognita to Europe. Since his time only — so many believe — the Northern Colossus has acted a part as an aggressive power in the East.

Yet, in what a different light would “youthful” Russia be regarded, were it kept in mind that, centuries before Czar Peter, — nay, at the very epoch when Alfred the Great founded the power of the English realm,—the ancient Russian Grand-Princes had already made themselves hateful to the Eastern world as barbarian sovereigns of the most grasping ambition. Opinions with respect to Muscovite “ orthodox” policy would be altered, if the fact were remembered that, more than nine hundred years ago, when Russia was still sunk in paganism, the Danubian Principalities, the countries of the Black Sea, the Balkan, and the Bosphorus, and the gates of Constantinople itself, were already the theatre of Russian invasion and attack ! What would be thought of the “religious mission” the autocrats have attributed to themselves, were it remembered that, in those far-distant times, the name, not only of the heathen, but even of the GrecoCatholic 'Pŵs (Russian), was pronounced with feelings of terror within the walls of Greco-Catholic Byzance long before that city of world-wide importance had become the capital of the “ Padishah and Caliphe of all the Mussulman believers ” ?

If we would keep to real historical truth, we must reverse many current notions and preconceived ideas. We must not seek in the so-called evidently forged “ Testament of Peter I.” for the text-book of Russian attempts at universal dominion, or for the first indices of Russian movements against Constantinople; this encroaching tendency must be traced ten centuries back!

In the ninth century, when the Russians still revered the idols of Perun and Yurru, while Constantinople was ruled by an orthodox imperator, their Grand-Princes, as they were then called, made war against Constantinople, holding the savage doctrine that “ Byzantium must become their capital because the Greeks were women and the Russians ‘ blood-men.' ”

In the tenth century, when the Russian Grand-Prince had embraced the same faith to which the Byzantine Empire adhered, another pretext had to be framed for aggression. Constantinople was then to become the residence of the barbarian, “because it suits the dignity of the Russian monarch to receive baptism in the capital of Eastern Christendom.”

In the eleventh century, another trifling occasion was eagerly caught at by Russia to make an attempt for the conquest of Constantinople with one hundred thousand men. And when subsequently the Byzantine Emperors were relieved from further attacks on the part of Russia, it was only because she had become weakened by internal feuds and ultimately subjected to Mongol rule.

All this, we ought to note here, happened at a time when Russia was not yet so much of a Slavonian power as she at present is. Finnish and Tartaric populations occupied, in those early centuries, a larger area within the confines of the empire than they at present do. Superposed on those three great national divisions — the Fins, the Slavonians, and the Tartars — was a dynasty and a military aristocracy of Northern, Germanic descent, which probably came from Scandinavia, and which gave the empire it founded a name imported from its Northern home.

The Mongol invasion wiped out for several centuries the existence of a Russian Empire. On the revival of the latter a spark of the old ambition reappears. In the fifteenth century the Muscovite autocrats return to the old designs. They were certainly unable then to try the chance of arms against the powerful Osmanlee, who in the mean time had planted the Crescent on the cupola of St. Sophia. But by and by they sought to gain influence among the Greco-Slavonians of what now had become Turkey ; basely asserting that at no distant date the Czar would be able to seize upon Constantinople as his inheritance, “because the marriage of Ivan Vassiljevitch with the niece of the last Paleologus gives to Russia a title to the possession of the Lower Empire.”

Time passed on ; the Porte lost its military prestige, and the moment at last appeared propitious to revive ancient pretensions by force of arms. So Peter I. propounded the doctrine that Constantinople must become the capital of Russia because “the religious supremacy of the Czar is entitled to sway the whole East.”

In the middle of the eighteenth century, French philosophy penetrated into the Cabinet of Catherine II. The grand seigneurs and roués of her voluptuous court coquetted with the ideas of liberalism and classic humanism : consequently the world had to be told that Constantinople ought to become a Muscovite fief “ because the republics of ancient Hellas must be re-established under Russian protection.”

But philosophy and classicism got out of fashion at St. Petersburg when the revolutionary storm thundered in France. The old dictum was therefore reproduced, that Stamboul cannot remain under Ottoman dominion “ because the infidel Turk is a disgrace to the Holy City from whence Russia received the light of Christianity.” This argument was strongly in favor with the late Czar Nicholas, who, however, had still another in reserve, — not this time of a religious character, — namely, that Russia had a right of succession to Turkey, “because the Turk is a sick man.” Let us add that even this medical dictum is a traditional one, already in vogue at the time of Catherine II., who was indebted for it to the wit of Voltaire.

Thus the spirit of encroachment has, with certain compulsory interruptions, always existed in Russia since the formation of the Empire. Not in the eighteenth, but in the ninth century, was the organization of Russia as a military monarchy first undertaken. Not under Peter I., but immediately after the introduction of the Rurik dynasty, do the pretensions of Russia to the domination over Constantinople appear. Not with the establishment of the “Holy Directing Synod,” but in the very first year of the general spread of Christianity into Russia, under Vladimir, in 988, are the theocratical tendencies of the Russian sovereigns to be remarked. In the reigns of Oleg, Igor, Sviatoslaf, Vladimir, and Yaroslaf, Russia has already her prototypes of princely absolutism, military conquest, and ecclesiastical ambition. The later czars continued, they did not originate, this policy.

Nothing, consequently, can be more erroneous than to say that under Peter, son of Alexis, Russia for the first time emerged from a chaotic state into the proportions of a realm, and that since his time she has been continually developing her “juvenile vigor.” History unfolds a view diametrically opposed to this theory. Russia is an old empire. And, unlike other European countries which have had their rise, growth, and decline, or transformation, she has for a thousand years oscillated between the existence as a military empire of menacing aspirations and a state of total political eclipse. She can hardly boast of a steady internal development. Warlike, aggressive despotism in one epoch, total prostration in another, have been her characteristics. In the mean while, through all these jerking changes, her people have unfortunately ever remained servile and uncultivated, her princes ever unduly ambitious. There were only two germs of freedom in Russia at the two farther ends of the Empire. We allude to the city of Novogorod, at one time a member of the German Hanseatic League, and to the city of Kiev. Both fell before the onslaught of czarism. There was no force in all the vast extent of the Empire to support the good cause of Novogorod ; and it would seem as if the abject spirit of slavery in so many millions of subjects had continually tended to produce a vertigo of ambition in the minds of the monarchs. Finding at home no impediment to their most extravagant wishes, they indulged in the wildest dreams of conquest of other nations. In this manner they brought forward schemes of universal dominion, and stretched out their hands — they, the barbarian chieftains ! — towards the sceptre of Eastern Rome. But when they failed, the nations that had been wronged took a great revenge ; and so Russia often sank to almost entire annihilation under the shock of foreign coalitions. In this way, exaggerated aspirations were followed by terrible catastrophes. But after a period of prostration, the insatiate spirit of conquest regularly reappeared ; and this, we apprehend, will continue until Europe has succeeded in pushing the frontiers of civilization farther into Muscovy.

As the view above given of Russian history is not quite in accordance with the recognized notions, it may, perhaps, be as well to add an outline of the chief epochs with regard to the autocratic foreign policy of the grand-princes and czars.

In the first century of its foundation, the Russian Empire treads the stage, so to speak, in full armor. From the disorder of a host of not very warlike tribes, the foreign — Germanic — dynasty of the Ruriks calls a realm into existence, ready armed for offence ; and forthwith a despotism is developed, “ born with teeth in its head.” This earliest epoch dates from the ninth to the eleventh century. During it, the Rurik dynasty unites the Finnish and Slavonian tribes of what is now Northern and Central Russia into one empire, overthrows in the southeast the highly cultivated Tartar Kingdom of the Khazans,1 who inhabited the countries of the Don, the Dnieper, and the Tauric peninsula, and for two centuries wages war against the government of Constantinople, in order to unite the crowns of the Russo-Varangian princes with the golden tiara of Byzantium. The most monstrous designs were set on foot at this period by the northern despots. They strove for the annexation of the Balkan peninsula, the dominion over the Black Sea, the subjugation of the Crimea and the Caucasus. Thus, from 865 to 1043, the provinces of the Byzantine Empire were subjected to incessant inroads from the North. The Grand-Princes marched their Germanic, Finnish, Slavonian, and Tartar hosts along the Dnieper into the Danubian countries, or transported them in fleets of small craft across the Euxine to appear as besiegers before the “ City of the World.” The waters of the Pontus, the provinces which we now call Moldo-Wallachia, Bulgaria, the Haemus passes, and the coasts of Roumelia, were the battle-grounds for the armies and navies of Russia and of the Lower Empire. In these contests, the “ Russian capital,” as a proud Rurik chieftain called it, was for a time established at the foot of the Balkan, at Praejeslavety. But, not satisfied with this conquest, the invader pointed with his lance to Constantinople as the future seat of his government. It affords a singular spectacle to behold in the mirror of this ancient history the forecast of modern events. The treaties then agreed upon between the Byzantines and the Russians vividly recall to mind the conventions of Kutjuk-Kainardji, Adrianople, and others. With the Grand-Princes of the ninth and eleventh centuries, as with the czars of the eighteenth and nineteenth, it was the practice to look upon treaties as upon convenient conjurer’s caskets from whence to extract a sophistical justification for fresh aggression. With the Russian rulers of eight hundred years ago it was already good policy to “ protect ” the government of Constantinople against internal seditions, in order to degrade it into vassalage. Then already the Danubian provinces were seized upon by Russia as a material guaranty ” ; then already the government of Constantinople was declared to be only encamped in Europe ; and then already the Grand-Princes — scarcely weaned from idolatry! — claimed a certain supremacy over the Eastern Church.

Such was Russian dynastic policy eight hundred and nine hundred years ago. We say “dynastic,” because the people played no part in these events save one of passive obedience. Those mighty plans of a domineering Northern monarchy were fostered only in the brains of the Varangian rulers.

But after these vast exertions, Russia, by a sort of historical retribution, collapsed under internal convulsions. Her political unity was torn asunder by quarrels among the different branches of the reigning family ; and when at last the nomadic hordes of Genghis-Khan and Baton appeared on the confines of the Empire, there was no centre of resistance, no strength, no patriotism to oppose them. Within a few years, Russia became the slave of the Golden Horde. The Tartar flood broke forth from the depths of Asia, sweeping in its stormy course towards the West, and, being stayed by the rock of German and Polish valor, settled down over the Scytho-Sarmatian plains from the Volga to the Valdai HillsFor two hundred and fifty years, from the middle of the twelfth to the end of the fifteenth century, the Mongols governed the kingdom of the proud Ruriks!

Russia was now Mongolized in spirit, and even in the physical appearance of her people. Her very name became confused in the memory ot Europe. A line of Kalmuk frontier-guards drew, so to speak, a Chinese wall round the boundaries of the empire-

But when the sovereignty which the Mongol Kaptchak had exercised over Russia was at last destroyed (not by Russian bravery, but by conflicts among the wandering Asiatic tribes themselves), the Muscovite Grand-Princes, assuming the title of Czar and Emperor, again ran riot in ambition. The chief field of their activity lay this time, not to the south, but to the north and the west. Their sword was pointed, not to Constantinople, but to Sweden, Poland, and the German provinces of the Baltic.

Whilst it had been the aim of the early Ruriks to establish Russia as a great Oriental power, the czars, subsequently to the fifteenth century, endeavored to found Russian supremacy in Baltic quarters. So strenuous were their efforts in that direction, that one might say they anticipated in thought the later foundation of the modern Russian capital at the Neva. But, although directing their chief energy towards Baltic quarters, the autocrats of that period did not wholly lay aside the “ Byzantine ” policy of their predecessors. By the ties of marriage and state-craft, the hospodars of MoldoWallachia were drawn into the Muscovite interests, and the zeal of the Greek population of Turkey kept up by showy demonstrations, which the agents of one of those czars contrived to perform in the very streets of Stamboul. Thus an embassy was sent by Ivan IV. to the Sultan, which, in the details of its get-up, astonishingly reminds us of the Menchikoff embassy of some fifteen years ago. At that time, also, the double eagle of Byzance, symbol of sovereignty over the east and the west, was adopted as the Russian escutcheon, so as to exhibit the Czar in the light of the chosen champion of Christianity against the unbeliever. This at an epoch when the Moslem stood at the zenith of his power.

Such was Russia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But this renewed attempt at an ascendency was not of long duration. It ended suddenly with the extinction of the Rurik family. Scarcely had the last tyrant of that race expired, when another catastrophe hurled down the Muscovite Empire into the depths of humiliation. Poles, Germans of the Baltic provinces, Swedes, Tartars of Astrakhan, and other nations that resented the former encroachments of Russia, make a simultaneous attack upon her. The situation is complicated, too, by internal dissensions. Prelenders arise on all sides, and wars of succession break completely the strength of Russia. The capital falls into the hands of the Poles, whose princes dispose of the throne of Moscow. Conspiracies are rife all over the country, in the sacristies of the clergy and in the castles of the nobles, until at last the tumult subsides into the election of the new dynasty of Romanoff. During this state of confusion, the attention of Europe had gradually again been diverted from those northern regions. Russia once more became to the West a hyperborean ultima Thule.

At the end of the seventeenth century Czar Peter appeared. He combined the schemes of the Russo-Norman Grand-Princes Oleg, Igor, Sviatoslaf, Vladimir, and Yaroslaf, with those of the semi-Mongol czars Ivan III. and Ivan IV. His ambition embraced the north and the south, the Black Sea and the Baltic, Asia and Europe ; and since his time the march of Russian aggression was again onward, until a check was offered to it in the Crimean War.

From this brief summary it will be perceived what importance must be attached to the history before Peter I. Nor are we wanting in authentic sources. Not to speak of the regular (chiefly Byzantine, Arabic, and Russian) chronicles, there exists, if we may say so, a whole series of “ voyage literature ” concerning Russia, beginning with the ninth century, and consisting of travel memoirs, ambassadorial reports, and so forth.

From Ohthere, a Norman native of Heligoland, who in 890 gave an account of his voyage to Northern Russia by order of Alfred of England ; and from Ahmed-ben-Fosylan, the plenipotentiary of an Abasside Khalif, who in 921 drew up a report of his journey, — there are, down to modern times, comparatively a great number of documents. Taking only the two centuries before Peter I., we come to the surprising fact that, nearly four hundred years ago, Germany sent her scientific commissions to Moscow, with a view to studying the situation of Russia, which had then just emerged from Mongol slavery. The reports of these commissions still exist. Unfortunately, they are hidden in the dust of Austrian archives. More accessible are the documents of a political nature, such as the letters and memoirs of German ambassadors at the court of Moscow.2 Of these latter we name only the accounts given by George Thurn, who had a mission from the German Emperor Maximilian to negotiate for a marriage with the daughter of the Czar (1492) ; then the work of Sigismund von Herberstein, a Councillor and President of the Board of Revenues of the German Empire, who, in 1516, went as envoy extraordinary to Moscow (Rerum Moscovitarum Commentarii, Vienna, 1549). In the sixteenth century Russia was much travelled through by men of all nations, trades, and stations of life. Of their numerous reports we will single out those of a few Englishmen: Thomas Aldcocke, factor of an English commercial company, who made the voyage from jaroslaw to Astrakhan (1564); Arthur Edwards (1565); Thomas Southam, in the service of the Anglo-Russian Company in London (1566): Thomas Randolfe, ambassador of Queen Elizabeth (1568) ; Giles Fletcher, also ambassador at Moscow (1588), etc.

Unquestionably, one of the most interesting memoirs is that of the French Captain Margeret, originally published iu 1607 at Paris. To assign their right place to the reports of this leader of free lands, we will observe that his sojourn in Muscovy, where he rose to great dignity, occurred during the beginning of a period which we called “ eclipse.” His work, therefore, cannot, properly speaking, serve as a contemporary authority for the traditional policy of Russia. Yet so constant has been the tendency towards territorial extension and absolute government, that even Margeret, though writing at a time when the country was hastening to decline, felt deeply impressed, not only by the vastness of its geographical extent and its military resources, but also by the restless ambition which prompted the barbarian autocrats to aspire to imperial honors and European importance.

If we were to draw any inferences from the more than secular—because almost millenary — policy of Russian czars, we should come to the conclusion that the appropriation of Constantinople by them may, after all, be still averted. Sometimes the accomplishment of the design has seemed near enough, but a gigantic catastrophe has as often averted it. Autocratic policy was powerful enough to move the stolid mass of the Muscovite population for the purpose of conquest, and unscrupulous enough to hurl the savage tribes of the farthest Asiatic deserts against the rich countries of Eastern Europe. But what the czars were unable to inspire their subjects with has been the noble instinct of enterprising migration and colonization, the intelligence of mind necessary for fertilizing territorial conquests, and converting them into valuable possessions. Even in the mere warlike spirit required for a system of encroachment the Muscovite people have ever been deficient. Their great successes have generally been won more by fostering dissensions among the enemy, by diplomatic influences, by the lavish use of gold, and by the skill of foreigners taken into Russian service, rather than by native Muscovite prowess. When invaded on her own soil, Russia had recourse to the aid of nature’s forces, availing herself of the barrenness of the country and the rigor of the climate. As to the boast contained in the spurious “Last Will of Peter I.,” that the vigorous races of Russia, similar to the Germanic tribes, will inundate the countries of the west, east, and north, we need only point to the thinness of the population of Muscovy proper, and to the utter absence of a wandering impulse among them. The most superficial observer must see through the fallaciousness of a pretended similarity between, on the one hand, the youthful, freedom-loving, adventurous Germanic races of the migrations, who scarcely knew kingly authority ; and, on the other, that enthralled mass of Muscovite subjects who have successively submitted to Khazan, Varangian, and Mongol supremacy, and whose government not unfrequently reminded one of the worst era of Roman imperators. A comparison between Russia and the United States is therefore certainly out of the question.

Latterly, Russia has made some steps in advance in internal improvement, mainly in consequence of her defeat by the allied Western Powers. The emancipation of the serfs is a great move, at which all friends of humanity must rejoice, though it is no secret that the Czar carried it out from a desire of diminishing the wealth of those nobles who, in common with a portion of the town’s population, were striving for the introduction of some sort of parliamentary government. No sooner, however, has Russia made those steps in advance than her rulers have resumed their aggressive policy in Central Asia, thus trying once more to divert the attention of the nation from progress at home to territorial conquests abroad.

  1. The history of the Khazan Kingdom, erroneously confounded with that of the Khanates of rude nomadic hordes, almost remains to be written. Although a Tartar (or Turkish) steppe-tribe by origin, the Khazans of the ninth century turned their attention to Greek culture and refinement, and acted as the pioneers of progress in Southern Russia. In those tracts of land where the hideous Kalmuk and Kirghiz people now swarm the Khaznns created wealthy towns and fruitful fields. The highway from Derbent to Suir was adorned by them with flourishing cities, such as Atel, Sarkel. Kuram, Gadran, Segekan, Samandar, Albaida, Ferus-Kapad ; the plans of most of which towns had been traced out, and the chief buildings erected, by Bvzantine architects. Khazan fleets traded up the Don, along the Black Sea, and in the Mediterranean as far as France and Spain. Unfortunately, this remarkable nation, which first began to ameliorate the savage habits of the Slavonians of the Dnieper, was weakened in its power 'y Russian invasions, and afterwards overpowered by nomadic inroads ; thus these Eastern countries were again handed back to the darkness of barbarism.
  2. These are, however, not the earliest traces of intercourse between Russia and the West. There were Russian embassies to Germany, and vice versa, during the reign of the German emperor Henry II. (1003 - 24 . Projects of intermarriage at that epoch were discussed or carried out between German, Hungarian, Polish, English, and French princes or princesses on the one hand, and members of the Rurik family on the other. In the eleventh century, a dethroned Russian sovereign made a personal pilgrimage to Mayence, to solicit aid against a rival, — the exiled Russian pretender promising that, if Henry IV. of Germany would reinstate him on the throne, he would engage “to hold Russia only as a vassal fief of the German empire.” Henry IV., being involved in a struggle both with his own vassals and the Holy See, was unable to do more than to make an inefficient diplomatic intervention.