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Book Review

Imperial Sunset
Empire by Dominic Lieven and Russia’s Empires by Philip Longworth
By Ian Mitchell

Empire by Dominic Lieven, Pimlico £15.00

atherine the Great once said that it was more important that Russia be large than that its people be happy. As far as she was concerned, size mattered.

During the long reign, from 1762 to 1798, of this highly-sexed German administrative genius, the Russian Empire arguably reached its point of greatest imperial lustre. It was certainly more secure then than at any other time. One of the most surprising thoughts provoked by the two excellent books under review is that Russia was in fact at its peak in the late eighteenth century and that after 1825, when Alexander I’s death provoked the Decembrist revolt, the story was of a long, slow decline in relative power, first signalled by defeat in the Crimean War in 1856.

Though the trend was uneven, and seemed to be reversed under Stalin, the long view is clear. Russia today has a GNP that is half the size of Britain’s, and one eleventh of that of the United States. It suffers from political apathy, technological backwardness and a cultural inferiority complex. Yet the country is still approximately the same size as it was when Catherine ruled. What has changed? The short answer is: the rest of the world.

Dominic Lieven is the scion of one of Russia’s great aristocratic families, which included Princess Dorothea Lieven, who was Russian Ambassador to the Court of St James in the early nineteenth century. Though he is Professor of Russian History at the London School of Economics, his book looks far beyond Russia, comparing the strengths and the weaknesses of the British, the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires in order to throw light on the nature of the Russian one.

Professor Lieven writes: ‘In 1462 the grand prince of Moscow ruled over 24,000 square kilometres. In 1914, Nicholas II ruled over 13.5 million. The Tsarist state was one of the most effective mechanisms for territorial expansion ever known.’ But by 1914 it was doomed, for a whole host of reasons. Two stand out: autocratic government and a changing attitude to foreigners.

Autocracy had initially been helpful by ensuring that Russia could mobilise all its considerable resources in times of crisis in a way which less monolithic political structures could not—Poland being the classic example. But the price was rigidity and an inability to adapt to a changing world.

That did not matter so much when the world evolved slowly. But the industrial revolution changed everything, and Russia started to lag behind. No longer could a series of intelligent and energetic rulers, including Ivan III, Ivan the Terrible, Alexis, Peter I and Catherine the Great, compensate for organisational rigidity.

By the time Nicholas I ascended to the imperial throne, in 1825, administrative stasis became the goal. The country slowly turned into a gigantic barracks, as the Marquis de Custine showed in his famous book, written in 1839, which was reviewed in this column last November.

With stasis came xenophobia. Nicholas substituted Russian for French as the language of the court. Slowly but inexorably, the official attitude to foreigners, especially ones who wanted to change things, became more and more restrictive.

It is important to remember how large a contribution non-Russians had played to the build-up of Russian power. From the Tatar nobility of Kazan which was co-opted after Ivan the Terrible’s capture of the city in 1552, through the Latinised Lithuanian and Ukrainian aristocracy of the seventeenth century, and on to the Baltic German gentry in the eighteenth, and a host of other peoples who fell under the sway of the rapidly expanding empire, Russia was able to tap into the talent of a vast range of cultures.

Russia’s Empires by Philip Longworth John Murray £9.99

Tsar Alexis founded the foreigners’ suburb in Moscow in the 1650s. Peter the Great grew up there and brought a vast number of people from Holland, Germany and Sweden to help him modernise the country, a tradition continued on an even greater scale by Catherine.

But by the time of Alexander III, who ruled from 1881 to 1894 when imperial expansion had stopped, the variety that had been the spice of imperial life started to be replaced by national chauvinism. This process reached the extremes of both absurdity and vileness under Stalin half a century later. It has not fully abated today, as expats in Moscow well know.

By contrast, the United States grew from tiny beginnings in Catherine the Great’s day to become the world’s superpower, partly by welcoming immigrants. Size was not all that mattered. Though uniformity and obedience can be useful for catch-up programmes, as in Stalin’s USSR and today’s China, heterogeneity is necessary for a leading-edge economy and an innovative society.

Russia’s problem today is that its leaders aspire to the latter while restricting themselves to the approach of the former. If history is any guide, this will not work.

These two books both suggest this conclusion, though they come at the problem from different angles. Lieven makes wide-ranging comparisons across the whole European continent, while Professor Longworth focuses exclusively on Russia but re-tells in a meticulously detailed and often startlingly original way the story of rise and decline, from pre-history to Putin.

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