Stanford professor analyzes Russian Empire’s history in new book

Stanford history professor Nancy Kollmann discusses the establishment of the Russian Empire and how Russia’s past shapes its present.

The spotlight on United States-Russia relations has intensified over the past year to levels not seen since the Cold War, according to experts.

portrait of history Professor Nancy Kollmann

In a new book, history Professor Nancy Kollmann provides insight into the rise of the Russian Empire and how its history provides better perspective on the Russia of today. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

To understand Russia, it’s important to understand the course of its history. Stanford history professor Nancy Kollmann provides insight into the rise of the Russian Empire in her recently published book, The Russian Empire 1450-1801.

Stanford News Service interviewed Kollmann about her research:


Describe the Russian Empire during the period your book covers. What were some of its distinct characteristics?

The Russian Empire in the early modern centuries, approximately 1450 to 1800, expanded to stretch from Poland to the Pacific, and from the Arctic to the Black Sea, encompassing a myriad of ethnicities, including Russian, Tatar, Siberian, Ukrainian, German, Estonian, and religions, Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, Lutheranism, etc.

Perhaps most remarkable is how successful its rulers were in growing from a backwater principality in the northern forests into a major player in Ottoman and European geopolitics. They did this despite Russia’s tremendous historical lack of resources – farming in such a northern climate was at a subsistence level, and the population was very sparse. They succeeded by pursuing two principal strategies of governance.

First, they defined central state control very minimally: controlling the means of violence – the army, frontier defense – and mobilizing all available resources through taxation and population control, even to the point of enserfing peasants, and providing criminal justice for serious crimes. Otherwise, Russia’s rulers allowed subject peoples to maintain their own languages, religions, culture, elites, laws and institutions, creating an “empire of difference” that constituted its second key to success: By leaving subject communities generally intact, Russia built an empire “on the cheap,” saving expenditures on local government and ensuring social stability as long as subject peoples submitted and paid taxes.

As diverse as it was, the Russian Empire was also remarkable for its ability to impose uniformity when it mattered. At a time when emerging nation-states, such as France and other empires, were struggling with different languages and legal systems across the realm, Russia imposed one criminal law, one bureaucratic apparatus and one judicial culture. Russian law was not as learned as in Europe, but it was practical and pragmatic, and judges adhered to it in procedure and sentencing empirewide.

A third notable characteristic is Europeanization under Peter I [ruled 1682-1725]. To create an energized elite for his European ambitions, Peter insisted that his nobility adopt European culture, dress and learning. Russia remained an autocracy and a multi-ethnic empire, but Peter created a Europeanized high culture that endured through modern Russian history.


What made the Russian Empire different from its European neighbors?

The early modern Russian Empire fits well into the model of Eurasian empires. Like the Ottomans and Chinese, Russia’s rulers claimed undivided sovereignty and tolerated vast diversity across broad continental expanses. Russia differed from the emerging nation-states of early modern Europe profoundly. No social classes or institutions shared political power – no parliaments, no legally enfranchised nobilities and bourgeoisies. The politics between the tsars and their men was shaped by marriage, kinship, personal relationships and factions, not by legal rights.

Russia did not embrace the printing press and had very limited literacy until well into the 18th century. The Orthodox Church’s control over culture meant that there was no secular art and literature until the 18th century. Finally, Russia enserfed a massive part of its population, primarily East Slavic peasants, fixing them to their villages in order to provide material support for the ruling class and to make it easier to collect taxes and services. Lacking an open market in labor and with a sparse population, Russia remained a primarily agricultural society through the early modern centuries when major states in Europe were diversifying the rural economy and developing manufacturing and finance.


What can history from that time tell us about the current relationship between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea?

Ukraine and Crimea each possessed distinct cultural and historical experiences when they were conquered by Russia. Ukrainian lands had been in the Polish-Lithuanian state since the mid-1300s and participated in its European culture, society and institutions. The majority of Ukrainian lands were conquered by Russia quite late – 1772, 1793 and 1795 – by which time educated Ukrainians had developed a strong national culture and history distinct from Russia. Although the 19th and 20th centuries saw significant migration of Russians into Ukraine, Ukrainian national consciousness and independence were not dislodged.

The same is true for Crimea. When Russia took it over in 1783, the Crimean Khanate, a center of urban civilization and trade from ancient Greek times, was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire – Muslim in religion and Tatar in language and ethnicity. As an “empire of difference,” Russia tolerated Muslim institutions and elites. Despite the 20th-century oppression, the Crimean Tatars retain a well-grounded historical and cultural identity.


Why is it important for us to learn about the Russian Empire in particular?

Learning about the Russian Empire helps us to understand better the course of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the nature of modern Russian government. The Soviet Union occupied almost the entire imperial landmass that was assembled in the centuries covered by my book [in the 19th century, Central Asia, Finland, Poland and the Caucasus were added], and although it espoused a very different ideology, Soviet leadership acted like an “empire of difference.”

The Soviet Union ruled through a single autocratic center with a centralized state apparatus and unified law, but it also tolerated the variety of cultures and languages within its borders from Estonia through Ukraine to the Caucasus and across Central Asia. Thus, when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, major ethnic groups had the cohesion and cultural identity to splinter off to form their own republics. Within the Russian Federation now, which is still extremely diverse in ethnicities and cultural groups, President Vladimir Putin also reflects Russian history by ruling with strong autocratic control.


How does learning about the Russian Empire and its history provide better perspective on the Russia of today?

It draws attention to the dilemmas facing Russia today as it struggles to define its national identity. The Russian Federation is heir to Russia’s multi-ethnic empire, populated by a host of peoples, languages and religions stretching to the Caucasus and across Siberia. Ideally, Russia might promote an inclusive civic identity that embraces such diversity, but Putin has not taken that path. He is taking a more divisive approach of making Russian nationalism and Orthodox religion the defining ideology of this multinational federation.