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Imperial Overstretch


Despite the authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining a privileged status for Russians, the nationalities policy had no beneficial effect on the economic well-being of the ethnic Russian population. The standards of life in the Russian heartlands were often lower than on the ethnic periphery. In addition, the incorporation of  territories that lagged behind in socio-economic development or were culturally different conflicted with the country’s historic goal of catching up with the leading nations of the West. 


Only by straining all its economic, demographic and military resources could it sustain the status of a great power capable of playing an influential role in the international arena and controlling the numerous nationalities that populated its huge territory. In a paradoxical way, the territorial expansion provided Russia with an impressive amount of men and materials to claim the status of a great power on the world stage. Yet the growth of the empire was achieved at a crippling social cost, caused mounting ethnic problems and, in the final analysis, was a factor which did more to constrain, rather than advance, the economic and socio-political development of Russia.

The great state, which accommodated the traditions and ways of life of so many different peoples, found it more and more difficult to cope with the pressures of ethnic assimilation and nationalism and was increasingly vulnerable to the danger of being torn apart by the incompatibility of the diverse cultures which it had brought together into one empire over the course of many centuries. With the collapse of the autocracy in February 1917, followed by the Bolshevik takeover in October, the seemingly monolithic structure of the Russian empire rapidly unraveled.

Fanned by the Bolshevik slogan of the right of nations to self-determination up to the point of secession, aided by the chaos of war and revolution, the national-liberation movements on the fringes of the decomposing state spontaneously and instantly destroyed the tsarist colossus from within, splitting it into a multitude of large and small entities (the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the Ukraine, Belorussia, Finland, the Baltic states, the newly created republics in Transcaucasia, the North Caucasus, the Volga region, Kazakhstan and Central Asia). Some lands, like Poland and Finland, gained full independence and became sovereign states. Most, however, would succumb to the recentralizing drive of the new communist authorities in Moscow which would re-incorporate them into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the name of ‘the proletarian internationalist interests’. They would finally escape from the tight grip of communist authoritarianism seven decades later, when in 1991 the tsarist empire’s successor would itself collapse.

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The End of an Empire


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
The Revolutionary Movement
Appearance of Marxism
The Last Romanovs
The Birth of Bolshevism
The Revolution of 1905-7
Between Revolutions
The Revolutions of 1917
Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
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