Tocqueville on Russian expansion

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Vol. 1 of Democracy in America (published in 1835, when the author was 30):

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place amongst the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth (1); all the others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term. The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

Footnote (1): Russia is the country in the Old World in which population increases most rapidly in proportion.

Quite amazingly, Tocqueville foretold the rise and the character of the American and Soviet empires. The more amazing part is actually the one about America. At the time of Tocqueville’s writing, Russia was a major power on the Continent: only two decades earlier, the Russian army had marched through Europe into Paris to destroy the Usurper. Less than twenty years later, France and England would team up to contain the Bear’s push to the Straits — successfully.

On the contrary, Europe hadn’t yet discovered America the giant by then.

As you have probably guessed, I object not to Tocqueville’s conclusion but to some of his arguments. Namely, think his unfavorable assessment of Russia’s growth grew out of a defect in historical vision. Tocqueville conflated the acquisitions of post-Petrine imperial Russia, made by the brute force of its reformed army, with the lengthy colonization that had shaped the country that Europe knew first as Muscovy, then as Russia.

By colonization I mean the settlement of areas sparsely populated or/and previously dominated by nomads in ways that made permanent settlement impossible. Examples are the colonization of North-Eastern European Russia by Novgorod and Pskov up to the 15th century; the settlement of the Upper Volga (the first historical core of Russia proper) by Ruthenians from the South-West beginning in the 12th century; the much-later colonization of expansive steppe plains along the Middle and Lower Volga and Dnieper and around the Black Sea, by Russians, Ukrainians and (even) Germans.

This is not to deny that the Russia of Peter I, Catherine I, and Nicholas I was an expansionist empire whose economy was founded on serf labor; not to deny that the serfs’ predicament came dangerously close to slavery. But this is only part of the moving picture. First, Tocqueville focused on a snapshot or a few frames from a long movie. Second — folowing from the first — speaking of expansion, one should distinguish between the annexation of Poland (a hostile acquisition) and the settlement of the Don steppe (organic growth). The driving force of the latter was the Russian (Ruthenian, more generally) peasant’s propensity to move out, when given a chance, to new lands where the soil is unexhausted, and the taxman unlikely to show up. It is also said that for centuries, the only form of political protest available to Russian indentured classes was flight. Colonization, at a certain stage, was its by-product, as well as a better-known one, Cossackdom.

Still, the army, the bureaucracy and the taxman followed in the settlers’ steps. Unlike American colonists, Russian settlers (even the relatively well-organized Old Believers whose attitude to centralized power was much like radical English Protestants’) could either submit or run away, again. Eventually, the government would take control of all but the most remote areas and appropriate the fruit of the free agents’ labor. Thus, it was not serfdom that drove Russia’s organic growth but serfdom followed on the settlers’ heels.

Tocqueville’s apparent loss of perspective should not be taken as an odd exception, a failure of his faculties. The answer is 1835:

— Ten years into Nicholas I’s reign.
— Ten years after the December 14, 1825, uprising.
— Five years after the Polish insurgency of 1830.
— Two years before Pushkin’s death.
The Russian empire was in the grasp of a tyrannical bureaucracy, at one of those low-temperature points that can last for decades. (By the way, Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839.) French perceptions of Russia were unsurprisingly skewed by short-term factors, such as antipathy for Nicholas the despot, and sympathy for the Polish cause.

But Tocqueville was hardly the type antipathies can lead astray. What sources on Russian history could he rely on? Unfortunately, no comprehensive studies were available. The greatest foreign contribution to the field had probably been August Schlözer’s publication of Nestor’s chronicles. Within Russia, Mankiev, Bolotov and Tatischev had made (in)valuable contributions in the 18th century but their work was barely known in Russia in the 1830s, let alone abroad. The only systematic history based on Russian chronicles that had appeared before 1835 must have been Karamzin’s. Though his work was enormously important to Russian thought, I don’t think Karamzin wrote much on the hidden springs of the country’s development. It was not before Solovyov, Kluchevsky, Kostomarov, Platonov, etc., that Russian history was interpreted in terms of population movements.


  1. the serfs’ predicament came dangerously close to slavery

    I’ve never understood why serfs are not supposed to have been slaves. It seems to me a distinction without a difference in most cases.

  2. Legally, serfs were bound to the land, not a specific master. Most had their own plots to live off. They were considered subjects of the tsar, which means the owner of the land did not have unlimited authority over his serfs. The master could not kill his serfs or try them for serious crimes. Russian serfs served in the army, which would have been unthinkable for slaves. In practice, though, the distinction was sometimes zero, especially for the dvornya.

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Winterings in Trans-Scythia

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading