Monday, January 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Missed Opportunities for an Even Larger Empire Lamented

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 13 – Most Russians are profoundly aware of how much of their country’s empire fell away first after the 1917 revolution and then in 1991, but relatively few are aware of Russia’s numerous attempts, all of them ultimately unsuccessful, to establish Russian colonies further afield.

            How valuable these might have been to a country that despite all these “losses” is still the largest country in the world is suggested in an article posted in the current issue of “Voyennoye obozreniye,” a journal directed at those interested in Russia’s military might (

            The article lists places where Russia might have established colonies but either chose not to or was pushed aside by others.  In the Americas, it says, Russia had the chance to colonize Tobago and did colonize Alaska, the West Coast of North America, and California, but it sold Alaska to the US and withdrew from the others, thus sacrificing strategic locations and access to natural resources.

            In Asia, it continues, Russia could have gained control of the straights of the Bosphorou and Dardanelles if there hadn’t been a revolution. It had the opportunity to colonize Siam (Thailand) but was outplayed by the British given that Russia’s diplomats were “passive” and “unable to neutralize the influence of the opponent.”

            Moreovere, the article insists, Russia could have made Mongolia a colony after 1921 but “the Bolsheviks preferred” an alternative solution so that “the USSR wouldn’t be the only ‘socialist country.’”  It coud have colonized Northern Iran and Western Armenia, Manchuria, Afghanistan, and even parts of Indonesia.

            The “first and last consul of Russia in Indonesia,”Mikhail Bakunin, pushed the idea so that St. Petersburg would be able to build a naval base there. But Nicholas II refused to support the scheme saying that “friendship with England is more important for me than are these wild places.

            In Europe too, the article says, Russia missed opportunities to establish colonies in Malta and the Ionian isles which were occupied during the Napoleonic wars. It also failed to colonize Hawaii although it had every chance to do so, Papua-New Guinea, and some 400 islands in Oceania, whose Russian nations show to whom they should have belonged.

            In Africa, the article continues, Russia has opportunities for extending its empire there.  There were probes into Madagascar and an active Cossack effort in Ethiopia in tsarist times. And the Soviets might have established colonies there as well but, the article says, Moscow preferred to rely on “friendship” there rather than take formal control.

            The same thing can be said about the polar regions. Russian sailors opened Antarctica to the world but “for some reason Russia never advanced claims for territory on this continent (so rich in resources) unlike a number of other countries.” And it lost to others territories in the Arctic such as Spitzbergen that could and should have been “Russian/Soviet.”

            Russia’s failure to make claims that it has every right to extends to a new frontier, the article says. Space.  Although the USSR was the firt to send probes to the moon, Venus and Mars, “it somehow did not raise the question about extending its sovereignty to these cosmic objects” or elsewhere in the solar system.

            There is only one possible conclusion, the article continues: “the idiotism and apathy of the authorities” and especially Russian diplomats because “despite the fact that we were in the cosmos first, its masters in the future will be Americans, the Chinese, the Europeans, the Japanese but not us.”

            The true meaning of Russia’s failure to build an overseas colonial empire becomes clear, the article says, if one considers how the history of the country would have been different if Russia had in fact had one at the beginning of the 20th century.

            Russia would not have lost the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 revolution would have been less severe, and Nicholas II, remaining as a result “more popular,” would not have lost World War I. “Consequently,” the article says, there wouldn’t have been a revolution in 1917, Russia would not have lost so many people or suffered the blockade of Leningrad.

            The article notes that many Russians mistakenly argue even against the sale of Alaska to the United States. That land is too far away and it is too difficult to supply they say; consequently, “It is better to give it away or sell it.”  But such arguments are wrong: “it is no more difficult to supply Alaska than Kamchatka or Chukotka,” prompting the question: “If we don’t need Alaska, why do we need [them]?”
            Obviously, this article does not reflect Moscow’s official position, but it is nonetheless noteworthy for three reasons: first, its unabashed defense of empire is something few elsewhere would be willing to make; second, its view of Russia’s borders as infinitely elastic highlights a broader lack of agreement on where they should be; and third, it thus implicitly if unintentionally opens the door to the contraction of those borders and not just their expansion.



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