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The Structure of Russian Imperial History

Richard Hellie
History and Theory
Vol. 44, No. 4, Theme Issue 44: Theorizing Empire (Dec., 2005), pp. 88-112
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590859
Page Count: 25
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The Structure of Russian Imperial History
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Abstract

Path dependency is a most valuable tool for understanding Russian history since 1480, which coincides with the ending of the "Mongol yoke," Moscow's annexation of northwest Russia, formerly controlled by Novgorod, and the introduction of a new method for financing the cavalry-the core of a new service class. The cavalry had to hold off formidable adversaries (first Lithuania, then the Crimean Tatars, then the Livonians, the Poles, the Swedes, and the Ottomans) for Muscovy to retain its independence. Russia in 1480 was a poor country lacking subsurface mineral resources and with a very poor climate and soil for the support of agriculture. These basic problems inspired autocratic power and by 1515 an ideology was in place justifying it. Religion, literature, and law were employed to support the autocracy. A variant of a caste society was created to support the army. This made up the substance of the first service-class revolution in which all resources (human and intellectual) were mobilized to support a garrison state. After 1667 the external threats to Muscovy diminished, but the service class kept its privileges, especially the land fund and the peasant-serfs. Russia faced major foreign threats again in 1700 and in the 1920s and 1930s. Those threats precipitated the second and third service-class revolutions. The second and third service-class revolutions broadly paralleled the first. Reinvigorated service classes were created with state institutions to support them. As society became more complex, so did the service classes and their privileges. Ideologies (Russian Orthodoxy and then Marxism-Leninism) were converted into devices to support the infallible autocratic ruler and his elites. Almost the entire population was bound to state service, either directly, working to support the service state, or paying taxes. The church and clergy were harnessed first by Peter's Holy Synod and then Stalin's Department 5 of the Secret Police after he revived the church during World War II. Writers and artists were also put into uniform, until they finally rebelled-but the arts retained their civic functions, first supporting the regime, and then criticizing it. Finally, law retained its traditional programmatic functions in regimes themselves beholden to no law. As the foreign threats diminished, the service classes lost their function, but the elite servicemen kept their privileges as the service states disintegrated and the service classes lost their collective élan. Both the Russian Empire (in 1917) and then the Soviet Empire (in 1991) collapsed almost without a whimper.

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