Peter the Great, Stalin, and Russia’s Historical Reckoning

There are three possible objectives in a war of conquest: assimilation, imposition, and accommodation.

The first was demonstrated by the Holy Roman Empire as it sought to tie its origins to the Hungarian state which, following centuries of Habsburg supervision, became formally absorbed by the Austrian Empire in 1867 as the state attempted to eliminate all undesirable nationalities within its boundaries through the process of Magyarization. The second was practiced by Napoleon in his quest to create the “United States of Europe” guided by the institutions he introduced to post-revolutionary France. The third was executed by the Mongol khanates who often did not exceed demands for tribute payments in their administration of an ethnically diverse empire.

Conquering states can be placed in one of these three categories based on the declarations made by their leaders and the policies they pursue during peace and especially war. Russia has usually been no exception. Ivan the Terrible’s seizure of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 15th century, the conquest of Siberia starting in the 16th century, and Catherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea in 1783 would fall into the imposition category. All were accompanied by efforts to settle Russians in newly occupied regions, spread Orthodoxy, and impose military service requirements on conquered peoples.

On the European front, successive tsars leaned toward accommodation. Mikhail Speransky, Alexander I’s progressive minister whose reforms were rapidly overturned when historians like Nikolay Karamzin blamed the statesman for eroding Russia’s idiosyncratic past, drafted a constitution in 1809 that made the tsar a constitutional ruler in Finland until the empire’s 1917 collapse. Alexander I, who threatened to declare war on his allies with whom he had just defeated Napoleon when they initially refused to grant him the Duchy of Warsaw, wanted to keep Poland separate from Russia but remotely controlled by the empire. This accommodation lasted until his successor, Nicholas I, abolished Poland’s local autonomy.

Read the full article at RealClear Defense.

Axel de Vernou is a research assistant at Yorktown Institute.

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