Empire of the steppe: Russia's colonial experience on the Eurasian frontier

Historian Michael Khodarkovsky offered insight into Russia's colonial rule in the Eurasian steppe and its implications for the current crisis in Ukraine during a Eurasian Empires and Central Asian Peoples seminar.

Photo for Empire of the steppe: Russia

by Michelle Sinness

UCLA International Institute, May 5, 2014 — Historian Michael Khodarkovsky of Loyola University in Chicago examined Russia’s historical interaction with the Eurasian steppe on April 17 in a lecture cosponsored by the UCLA Program on Central Asia, the Asia Institute, the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Center for European and Eurasian Studies.

“In many ways,” Khodarkovsky contended, “Russia continues to be an ‘Empire of the Steppe’: an empire that is bitter about losing in 1991 what it considers its territories, and is now trying to restore under the slogan of the Eurasian Union."

Continental or colonial?

Russia is a colonial empire that has “persistently denied its colonial nature,” Khodarkovsky explained. He noted that in the mid-16th century, while Spain and Portugal were exploring and conquering the New World, Russia was embarking on its own imperialistic mission along the soft borders of the steppe, a huge swathe of land that runs roughly from Eastern Europe in the west through Central Asia to Mongolia and China in the east.

Both Russian and foreign scholars have frequently disagreed about whether Russia’s policies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia and Asia can be considered colonial. Many scholars contend that Russia cannot be classified as a colonial empire because it expanded only within its own continent. Khodarkovsky, however, argued that Russia should be conceptualized as a “hybrid empire” because its expansion was both continental and colonial in nature.

While comparisons between Russia and the West are inevitable, Khodarkovsky claimed that traditional Russian scholars and policy makers have been quick to differentiate the Russian experience in the steppe and Western colonialism in non-European states. “Similarities with the West were welcome,” he observed, “as long as they confirmed Russia’s equal greatness.”

Traditionally, Russia has maintained that it came together as a country through peaceful and voluntary unification, instead of the violent means employed by European empires.

Unlike Europe’s colonization of the New World, which resulted in bloody wars of independence and ultimately the expulsion of Spain, Portugal, France, and England from the Americas, many Russian historians have argued that Russia’s control of conquered territory resulted from a policy of “unite and rule.” These nuanced differences, said Khodarkovsky, give Russia grounds to deny the country’s imperialistic tendencies.

The speaker argued that Russian history can indeed be classified as an imperial if one defines the main characteristic of colonialism as an unbalanced relationship between Christian conquerors and the non-Christian subjects of their civilizing mission. He added that the Russian empire was adept at using local elites in the lands it conquered to promote its imperial agenda long before the British attempted to do the same in India.

Although Russia refused to define its own expansion as colonial, Khodarkovsky said it learned from, expanded upon and sometimes imitated the colonial experiences of its European counterparts. And although the USSR initially identified Russia as an imperial power, this criticism was soon muted.

Expansion via soft borders

As Russia expanded its empire by pushing into the steppe south toward the Caucasus and east toward Asia, it encountered a different kind of geopolitical landscape than that of Europe, explained the speaker. Rather than facing borders that represented clearly marked and agreed boundaries, Russia found frontiers. In the steppe, these frontier lands were populated by nomadic tribes without a central leadership and were perceived as lacking sovereign statehood.

Under-fortified and ill-defined borders were not just a characteristic of the frontiers to Russia’s south and east. Khodarkovsky proposed that Russia itself was a “quintessential frontier society,” given that the country suffered raids from nomadic peoples that resulted in great economic and population losses. And for a long period, Russia found itself under Mongol rule.

After Russia regained control of its territory and began to expand, it sought to fortify its own boundaries, which it identified as borders rather than frontiers, said the speaker. Russia’s expansion continued in stages, with its borders expanding to accommodate conquered territory until it encountered an organized power that could stop its advance, as did the United Kingdom, France, the Ottoman Empire and Japan.

Russia’s recent colonial history

Throughout the Soviet period, Russia maintained a narrative that it was a benevolent unifier rather than an oppressive colonial power. 

Khodarkovsky noted that Soviet leaders initially sought to dispel the notion that the USSR was a colonial empire by promising equality for non-ethnic Russians living within its borders. Yet he argued that “the fact that Moscow denied the colonial nature of the Russian empire made the trauma of the 1991 Soviet demise even more painful. In this context, the collapse of the Soviet Union . . . may be seen as a product of decolonization.”

Russia’s imperial tendencies accordingly did not dissolve with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he argued, as evidenced by Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine.

Khodarkovsky noted that the word “Ukraine” actually translates as “frontier.” He explained that Russia still perceives Ukraine as a “sort of vague extension of Greater Russia” rather than as a sovereign nation.

“By insisting that Ukraine is not a real nation state,” he argued, “the Russian government continues to see [it] as a frontier.” In the same way that it justified its colonial expansion into the steppe frontiers in the past, today Russia is again taking advantage of poorly fortified borders to seize territory and extract geopolitical gains.

When asked how much the geography of Russia – that is, the geography of the steppe – affected Russia’s historical colonial expansion and present political actions, Khodarkovsky replied: “The lesson is very simple: [Russia] moves until it is stopped, and that's why you can draw your own conclusions about the present crisis in Ukraine.”