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Geopolitical Factor


Historians note a number of geopolitical characteristics peculiar to Russia, that have been instrumental in shaping her historical development. Three features, in particular, seem to have had a fundamental influence:

Coat-of-arms of Muscovite Russia

Coat-of-arms of Imperial Russia

Coat of arms of the Russian Federation

The vast, sparsely populated territories of the Eastern-European Plain and Siberia created favorable conditions for the migration of the peasant population from the historical centre of Russia towards its ever expanding fringes. As a rule, the colonizing Russians did not have to impose their domination on the indigenous tribes and ethnic groups of the newly colonized territories of European Russian and Siberia by the use of force, as there was enough land and living space for all.

The flow of the population to the fringe territories, however, created problems for the state and the ruling classes, which were compelled to tighten the control over the movements of the peasant population and to increase norms of its exploitation in order to secure their income. As the states expenses continued to grow, the  grip over the peasants grew tighter, and, eventually, a considerable part of Russian peasantry became bonded to their squires and turned into virtual slaves - or serfs - of their  landowning masters or the state.

The lack of natural defensive borders (such as seas or mountain ranges) made Russian territories exposed to foreign invasion both from the east and from the west, which greatly threatened the historical existence of the Russian nation. Exploiting this geographical vulnerability of Russia, her neighbors, such as Catholic Poland, Sweden, Germany and even the more distant France (under Napoleon I) launched invasions into her territory from the West, while the nomads of the Great Steppe attacked her from the East.

The constant threat of military invasion due to the exposed nature of the countrys borders put heavy demands on the Russian people which had to strain its limited economic and human resources, scattered over a vast territory, to maintain its sovereignty. National security interests required the ability to mobilize all available resources of the country at times of military emergency. A poor, sparsely populated agrarian country had to maintain a huge military force to protect its drawn-out open borders.

Russian 16th-century cavalry

Under these conditions the role and powers of the state swelled out of  proportion. A special warrior-class had to be created, which was bound by the obligations of military service to the state. Means had to be found of rewarding the military class for its services. The only commodity which the state had in abundance was land. It was given by the state to members of the military serving-class under the obligation that, at the states first behest, landowners would join the Russian military force.

To fulfill the obligations imposed by the state, landowners had to have a stable income from their land generated by the labor of the peasants. Without his peasant work-force, the landowner could not provide his military services to the state in time of war.  The solution of how to maintain the countrys military security was found in bonding the peasants to their landlords and thus preventing them from leaving their military obligated masters. The enserfing of peasantry thus ensured that all members of the military class always had a work-force on their land and thereby the means to fulfill their military obligations.  In this sense, the appearance of serfdom in Russia can be seen as a desperate measure by the state to maintain the countrys military security in extremely difficult economic circumstances.

Russias half-way geographical location in the centre of the Eurasian landmass, between Europe and Asia, has had a profound effect on the emergence of a distinctive civilization, which was Asiatic in the eyes of the Europeans and too European for the Asians. The Russian state found its fitting symbol in the double-headed eagle of Byzantium, with one of its crowned heads turned to East and the other, to West. Adopted as the coat-of-arms of the Muscovite tsars, then of the Russian Empire and now resurrected as a state attribute of the post-communist Russia, it symbolizes the dual nature of a great state which extends for thousands of miles across the two continents. This state, with its extraordinary mix of multiethnic population, accommodated the traditions and ways of life of many different peoples. But it was also vulnerable to the danger of being torn apart by the incompatibility of the diverse cultures that it had brought together into one empire over the course of many centuries.

Russias geographical location gave birth to an empire whose growth took a direction unfamiliar to Western Europeans. Russia acquired colonies not overseas but along its frontiers, with the result that metropolis and empire became territorially indistinguishable. This type of colonial expansion has left its impact on imperial mentality of Russians. For most Russians national identity has been inextricably linked with the notion of empire. The English or the French had no doubt where they stood in relation to their colonies, for they never identified them with the homeland. By contrast, the Russians who have always lived among non-Russians have for centuries equated their national state with an empire.

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Pre-Petrine Russia

Origins of Kievan Rus
Emergence of Muscovy
Imperial Expansion
Key Historical Factors
Environment and Climate
Geopolitical Factor
Religious Factor
Social Organization
"Service State"
Consolidation of Serfdom
Vast Powers of the State
Traditional Society
Political Regime


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
Tables and Statistics

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