Conservative Historian

The pull of East and West: Russian and Ukrainian History – Part II

March 13, 2022 Bel Aves
Conservative Historian
The pull of East and West: Russian and Ukrainian History – Part II
Show Notes Transcript

We go to the second of our four part series and explore the time of the first Tsars to the reign of Peter the Great, roughly the late 1400s to 1725.  We see the pulls of East and West, and the establishment of an authoritarianism that exists to the present day.  

The pull of East and West: Russian and Ukrainian History – Part II

March 2022


“Autocracy is a superannuated form of government that may suit the needs of a Central African tribe, but not those of the Russian people, who are increasingly assimilating the culture of the rest of the world. That is why it is impossible to maintain this form of government - except by violence.”

 Leo Tolstoy


“Should Russia be part of the East or West? Russian politicians, scholars, writers, and thinkers have discussed this question for several hundred years. While no agreement has yet been reached, the discussion has had practical political consequences far from being purely academic. How Russian leaders positioned themselves in this discussion and where they thought Russia should be moving towards at any given period directly influenced both the government’s internal and foreign policy. The analysis of this debate can contribute to the study of Russian political culture and estimate the prospects for Moscow’s cooperation and possible integration with Europe.” 


Alexander Lukin, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Politics, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, writing in 2003.


“Be more autocratic than Peter the Great and sterner than Ivan the Terrible.”

 Tsarina Alexandra, to her husband 


That last quote illustrates why Russia is, well, different. This simple online quote calls Alexandra, wife to the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, as Tsarina, implying that Nicholas was a Tsar. In a way, he was, but that was not how he styled himself. 

Instead, from the time of Peter the Great in the early 1700s, the Russian rulers were called Emperors. In Nicholas’s case, he was Emperor of all the Russias. So dear listener, you might think I am being pedantic, sometimes a prominent trait, but I point this out to illustrate that the history of Imperial Russia, and even the Russia of today, this moment, is that of a strain, a pull to the East and the West. Of calling the ruler Tsar, a term unique to Russian Rulers. 


The latter title evolved to form the Latin Imperator, something the Romans would call generals who were victorious on the field. Not just the Romans, nor Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Emperor, but during Nicholas’s last days in 1917, there were three Emperors, the German Emperor Wilhelm, also nationalized in the term kaiser, and an Austrian Emperor, Charles I. 


Russia is a European country, the largest continent, with a tangled history with other European powers. It is also an Asian country, the largest, that has a tangled history with nations such as Persia, China, and, as we shall see in the following podcast, Japan. And not, unlike every other European country save the Ottoman Turks, through colonial possessions, but on Russia’s borders. 

And at the heart of this dynamic, to maintain both East and West lies ruthless authoritarianism established during the first Tsars.   


So, where did the word Tsar come from? One argument is that it came from Old Slavic tsesari, Gothic kaiser, Greek kaiser, and Latin Caesar. Because so many other historians, and the general population, know the Russian rulers from the 1400s to 1917 as the Tsars (and Tsarinas), we will use that as a general term. But also understand this was title rejected by Peter the Great, and his successors, in favor of the more Western Emperor, taken directly from the Roman Latin Imperator. Ivan IV first adopted the term Tsar in 1547. One hundred and fifty years before Peter the Great attempted to link Russia with the West, Ivan IV more firmly, surnamed the Terrible, tried to attempt with the title. But it is interesting that he did so in a very Russian way, with the etymology through old Slavic and not, what Peter would later do, declare his title that of Emperor. And he spoke Russian. It was later, after Peter, that French would become the language of the court, and some Emperors, such as Alexander I (1801 – 1825), preferred French to his native language. So I will stick to the term of Tsar but know that the pull of East and West upon Russia, and subsequently Ukraine, is evident in the title of the ruler.  


But before we get to the Tsars themselves, we need to first start with the Mongols. My previous podcast ended with the Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe in the mid 13th century and the sack of Kyiv. The invasion, facilitated by the beginning of the breakup of Kyivan Rus’ in the 13th century, had incalculable ramifications for the history of Eastern Europe, including the division of the East Slavic people into three separate nations: modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Moscow started its independence struggle from the Mongols by the 14th century, ending the Mongol rule (the so-called “Mongol yoke”) in 1480.  

The Kyivan Rus was the actual state of Russia and claimed by three nations as its beginning and, of course, the linguistic link of Rus to Russia. This is one of Putin’s claims that he is not invading a sovereign nation in the case of Ukraine but unifying what others are inorganically torn asunder. In this case, Putin is not trying to restore the Soviet Union as many claims, but his justification for bloodshed is reunifying the traditional Russian state that Mongols tore apart.  


Moscow’s eventual dominance of northern and eastern Rus (again using this term to denote what were once the Kyivan Rus) was in large part attributable to the Mongols. For example, after the prince of Tver joined a rebellion against the Mongols in 1327, his rival prince Ivan I of Moscow joined the Mongols in crushing Tver and devastating its lands. He eliminated his rival, allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to move its headquarters to Moscow, and was granted the title of Grand Prince by the Mongols.  


The Muscovite prince became the chief intermediary between the Mongol overlords and the Rus lands, which paid further dividends for Moscow’s rulers. While the Mongols often raided other areas of Rus, they tended to respect the lands controlled by their principal collaborator. This, in turn, attracted nobles and their servants who sought to settle in the relatively secure and peaceful Moscow lands. As a result, the Mongols ruled Eastern Europe for nearly 200 years, and as late as the mid-1700s, Mongol descendants were ruling in Crimea.  


We here a great deal of knowledge of certain Tsars such as Peter and Catherine, Ivan the Terrible (because they all got epitaphs, and others such as Michael Romanov, founder of a 300-year dynasty). 

But the figure that started it all, who completed the recentering of Eastern Europe from Ukrainian Kyiv, or the Rus, the precursor word of Russia, to Russian Moscow, was Grand Prince Ivan, also called III. However, he never had the title of Tsar.  


From 1440 – October 27, 1505, Ivan III Vasilevich was a grand duke of Muscovy who was the first to adopt the more pretentious title of “Grand Duke of all the Russias.” Sometimes referred to as the “gatherer of the Russian lands,” he quadrupled the territory of his state, claimed Moscow to be the Third Rome, built the Moscow Kremlin, and laid the foundations for Russian autocracy. He remains the longest-reigning Russian ruler in history. Even up to the present day. Just as some refer to US executive branch edicts as coming “from the White House.” The Kremlin remains shorthand for the Russian government. During the reign of Ivan III, Muscovy rejected the rule of the Mongols, known as the Tatar yoke. During this same period, Western Europe built ocean-going vessels and established ties with North and South America. The printing press was created, universities were flourishing, and books were being translated into local languages and made available to vast swathes of people. Medieval systems such as Feudalism were transformed, and modern states were born. While this was going on, Russia was fighting off the last of the Mongols nearly 250 years after the death of Genghis Khan.  


One of the misnomers of history is that Russia, up until Peter the Great, was somehow cut off or unaware of the West. Ivan III had correspondence with the Catholic Pope and even imported Italians to help beautify Moscow. It was not that the Russian rulers did not know the West; instead, there was always a pull to the East that meant that Russian rulers sometimes more resembled Chinese and Persian rulers than Western European ones. An aspect of this was that, partly due to the labor shortage created by the Black Death in the mid-1300s, Western European nations moved away from serfdom. In Russia, Serfdom, or locking a peasant to the land or a role, lasted until the mid-19th century, hundreds of years after its demise in the West.  


Part of the issue of Western influence was that as specific cultural centers such as Italy, Germany, France, and Spain evolved, Russia had a series of buffer states between Moscow and these places, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and a surprisingly powerful Poland. In addition to these states, Ivan III also conducted a war against a rival city to Moscow, Novgorod. However, the army of Moscow won a decisive victory in the Battle of Shelon River on July 1471, which severely limited Novgorod’s freedom to act thereafter, although the city maintained its formal independence for the next seven years. In 1478, Ivan III sent his army to take and ruin the city. 


We will return to the first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, grandson of Ivan III, but now we must look at Ukrainian history to better understand the dichotomy between Russia and Ukraine. The Ottoman Empire to the south, Poland, Lithuania, Finland, and later Sweden, all provided barriers between Russia and the core of the West European states and their cultures. In Poland and Lithuania, their histories intertwine strongly with that of Ukraine. During the 14th century, Poland and Lithuania fought wars against the Mongol invaders, and eventually, most of Ukraine passed the rule of Poland and Lithuania. More particularly, the lands of Volynia in the north and north-west passed to the rule of Lithuanian princes, while the south-west passed to the control of Poland (Galicia).  


Lithuania took control of the state of Volynia in northern and northwestern Ukraine, including the region around Kyiv (Rus), and the rulers of Lithuania then adopted the title of the ruler of Rus’. Eventually, Poland took control of the southwestern region. In 1569, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the “Republic of the Two Nations,” was formed, leading eventually to the creation of a unitary state in 1791. Following the union between Poland and Lithuania, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, and Jews migrated to the region, forcing Ukrainians out of positions of power they shared with Lithuanians, with more Ukrainians being forced into Central Ukraine as a result of Polish migration, Polonization, and other forms of oppression against Ukraine and Ukrainians, all of which started to take shape fully.

In 1490, due to increased oppression of Ukrainians at the hands of the Polish, a series of successful rebellions was led by Ukrainian hero Petro Mukha, joined by other Ukrainians, such as early Cossacks and Hutsuls, in addition to Moldavians (Romanians). Known as Mukha’s Rebellion, the Moldavian prince Stephen the Great supported this series of battles. It is one of the earliest known uprisings of Ukrainians against Polish oppression. These rebellions saw the capture of several cities of Pokuttya and reached as far west as Lviv, but without capturing the latter. 


After the Union of Lublin in 1569 and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth formation, Ukraine fell under Polish administration, becoming part of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The period immediately following the creation of the Commonwealth saw a considerable revitalization in Polonization efforts. Many new cities and villages were founded. Links between different Ukrainian regions, such as Galicia and Volyn, were greatly extended, 


New schools spread the ideas of the Renaissance; Polish peasants arrived in great numbers and quickly became mixed with the local population; during this time, most Ukrainian nobles became polonised and converted to Catholicism, while most Ruthenian-speaking peasants remained within the Eastern Orthodox Church, social tension rose. Ruthenian peasants who fled efforts to force them into serfdom became known as Cossacks and earned a reputation for their fierce martial spirit. The Commonwealth enlisted some Cossacks as soldiers to protect the southeastern borders of the Commonwealth from Tatars or took part in campaigns abroad. Cossack units were also active in wars between the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Tsardom of Russia. Despite the Cossack’s military usefulness, the Commonwealth, dominated by its nobility, refused to grant them any significant autonomy instead of attempting to turn most of the Cossack population into serfs. This led to an increasing number of Cossack rebellions aimed at the Commonwealth.


We will see the Cossacks later but suffice it to say; it was not until the 1600s that Russia successfully took the city of Kyiv from the polish and the divisions of Ukraine as under Polish domination, and modern-day Belorussia under Lithuanian rulership, sowed the seeds for the modern-day nation-states we see today.  


So we now come to Ivan III’s grandson, Ivan the IV, as noted, the Terrible, who ruled from 1533-1584. In some ways, he was not terrible but rather successful. In campaigns in 1554 and 1556, Russian troops conquered the Astrakhan Khanate at the mouths of the Volga River, and the new Astrakhan fortress was built in 1558 to replace the old Tatar capital. The annexation of the Tatar khanates meant the conquest of vast territories, access to large markets, and control of the entire length of the Volga River. Subjugating Muslim khanates turned Muscovy into an empire. Another aspect of Russia that emerged during the tsarist and imperials periods was the sheer size.  


Under Ivan, the first, and indeed not the last, Russian Ottoman conflicts began in 1569. Simultaneously, Ivan’s attempts to conquer his way to the Baltic Sea, and better trade with the West, was foiled by a combination of Polish, Lithuanian and Swedish (another future adversary) forces. Just as Russia was rapidly expanding east and south, there was a failure in the north and west. And it is not surprising that of all Ivan’s enemies, his losses came from his attempts to establish those links to the West. His grandfather was the first to designate Moscow as the Third Rome in an obvious homage to Western and Europe’s Orthodox Christianity. 


But the use of an epitaph such as Terrible, especially given the deeds of his predecessors and successors, must be earned, so he did. 

Contemporary sources present disparate accounts of Ivan’s complex personality. He was described as intelligent and devout but prone to paranoia, rage, and episodic outbreaks of mental instability that increased with age. In one fit of anger, he murdered his eldest son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich, and he might also have caused the miscarriage of the latter’s unborn child. This left his younger son, the politically ineffectual Feodor Ivanovich, to inherit the throne, a man whose rule and subsequent childless death directly led to the end of the Rurikid dynasty and the beginning of the Time of Troubles.  


Relativity is a strange concept of humanity. In the United States of today, we think we have problems. 


The Russian Time of Troubles, taking place over 25 years and only roughly ending in 1618 with the accession of Michael Romanov, was not the fever dreams of those wishing to incite a following or drum up donations, but a real Time of Troubles.   


As depicted by author Dmitry Shlapentokh in an essay entitled, “The Time of Troubles: Did It Ever End? States, “The political style created by Ivan the Terrible was replicated under Boris Godunov (1584-1605), a Moscow aristocrat who took over as de facto regent for Tsar Feodor and later, after Fyodor died in 1598, as the first non-Rurikid Tsar in Russian history. Godunov resorted to similar purges of the elites but, like Ivan, failed to solve the increasingly acute serfdom problem. “The principle of serfdom served as the main cause of sharp social conflict between the landholding gentry class of the army and its lower classes, which represented the organized oppositional mass of the population,” writes Platonov. While similar to Ivan the Terrible in his miscalculations, Godunov did not enjoy the former’s legitimacy, complicating Godunov’s relationship with the populace. As a result, Godunov accelerated the crisis and pushed the country into real chaos—the Time of Troubles by continuing Ivan’s policies. Weak rulers, social antagonism, and an anarchical populace brought the country to the brink of destruction.” 


And then there was the famine. The Russian famine of 1601–1603, Russia’s worst famine in terms of the proportional effect on the population, killed perhaps two million people: about 30% of the Russian people. This is what I mean by relativity. We have a term here in the US called Food Insecurity, the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. The further descriptor is that any American worries about food at any point within a year; they are victims. Note, worried. The equivalent to the Russian Time of Troubles would be the death of 100 million Americans. Relativity. 

I would also note that food growers champion this term, cuo Bono indeed.  


This is not to say west good and east bad. But, just as Michael Romanov established his dynasty, Central Europe would begin to tear itself apart over the religious controversy that resulted in the man-made destruction of life, also in the millions. 

Instead, it explains that Russia has always felt a strange relationship with the West. Just today, I read in the Wall Street Journal an interesting piece about Russian historian Robert Service. The historian is another believer in the NATO expansion theory. If Ukraine had not entertained designs on entering NATO, Putin would have left it in peace. I made counter-arguments in my previous podcast, and I would add another. As of this writing, China’s Xi is expressing a Putin-like interest in uniting the sovereign nation of Taiwan to China, just as has been done with Tibet and Hong Kong. 

At one point, Taiwan was once part of China, so the people of Taiwan be damned, Xi wants the island. There is no Pacific equivalent to NATO, so what is the explanation for Xi’s behavior?  


Yet Service and this article by Tunku Varadarajan has many interesting points, including this one, “It rankles Mr. Putin that Ukraine would seek to join the West – and not merely because he wants it to be a satellite state. He also “can’t afford to allow life to neighboring Slav state which has even smidgen of democratic development. His Russian people may get ideas.” Two key points, Putin, born in Europe, speaking a European language, and dressed in suit and tie, a distinctly Western form of dress, says of the West like he was no of a part. And in a sense, he is not. Second, forget the NATO stuff. That is the real reason for Putin’s antipathy and invasion, and in a sense, Xi’s. It is one thing for Britain or the United States to establish functional, highly successful democracies. Still, quite another for the former Soviet Republic (or a former province of the Chinese Empire) to do so.  


And for this, our podcast now brings us to one of the most intriguing figures in history. The years 1682 to 1725 encompass the troubled but necessary regency of Sophia Alekseyevna (until 1689), the joint reign of Ivan V and Peter I (the Great), and the three decades of effective rule of Peter I. Muscovy, already established in Siberia, entered the European scene in the latter period. Under Peter, the term Emperor began to usurp the term Tsar as Peter felt the latter was too Russian. Upon its creation in 1721, the Russian Empire possessed a multinational population of about 17.5 million. 


Peter the Great was the youngest son of Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina. Alexey was succeeded by the invalid Fyodor III, Peter’s eldest half-brother, who lasted on the throne only six years and died without surviving issue. Although only ten years old, Peter was chosen by the Boyar Duma as heir over his other half-brother, Ivan, as the latter suffered chronic physical and mental disabilities. Ivan’s sister, Sofia, and her relatives were dissatisfied with the arrangement, however, and with the support of the elite Streltsy Guard fomented the Moscow Uprising. In the subsequent rioting and violence, Peter personally witnessed, as a child, the slaughter of several members of his family, including two of his uncles at the hand of the Streltsy. The uprising resulted in Sofia becoming regent, and Ivan was crowned Ivan V, sharing the throne as a senior partner with Peter.


Peter never forgot these bloody events, and many historians believe that these childhood experiences shaped his complex, terse, energetic, and decisive character. Setting off to Europe in 1696 on the so-called Grand Embassy (a large Russian delegation whose purpose was to find allies for the war with Turkey), Peter traveled incognito under the pseudonym of Pyotr Mikhailov. He traveled to Prussia and even as far as England.  


Peter was the first Russian monarch to receive an education both in Russia and abroad. Even as a boy, the youngest son of Tsar Alexey was naturally curious and drawn to learning. He received his education from palace tutors and in German Town, a district of Moscow where many enlightened foreigners lived. There young Peter became interested in the latest developments in science and technology as well as natural science, which until this point had never caught the attention of Russian Tsars.


Peter focused on the development of science and recruited several experts to educate his people about technological advancements. He concentrated on developing commerce and industry and created a gentrified bourgeoisie population. Mirroring Western culture, he modernized the Russian alphabet, introduced the Julian calendar, and established the first Russian newspaper. When looking at a series of Tsarist portraits, one item that stands out is that Peter is beardless, mimicking the western styles. 


St. Petersburg, founded in 1703 among marsh and woodland, a living symbol of the new era and its initiator, replaced Moscow as the capital of Russia in 1712. There the sea routes of the Baltic met the system of overland waterways leading to the Caspian. Peter cleverly named his city for his namesake Saint avoiding the more overt narcissism of Alexander and the Egyptian city.  


Under Peter’s rule, Russia became a great European nation. Then, in 1721, he proclaimed Russia an empire and was accorded the title of Emperor of All Russia, Great Father of the Fatherland, and “the Great.” 

Although he proved to be an effective leader, Peter was also known to be cruel and tyrannical. The high taxes that often accompanied his various reforms led to revolts among citizens, which the imposing ruler immediately suppressed. Peter, who stood at roughly 6 6 feet tall, was a handsome man who drank excessively and harbored violent tendencies. Peter married twice and had 11 children, many of whom died in infancy. The eldest son from his first marriage, Alexis, was convicted of high treason by his father and secretly executed in 1718. In this, Great eerily mirrored his Terrible predecessor.   


So how did Peter’s movement to the West work? Unlike the early Romanovs and Rurikids, Peter brought Russia into direct and constant contact with the West. But he did not end serfdom, his armies, as we will see in the following podcast, kept up their Eastern and southern movements, and his successors reverted to many of the ways of their forbears. Moreover, Peter’s reforms were not organic responses to things like the advent of the Printing Press or the emergence of representative government in England, something Peter himself could not understand. Instead, he imposed them in an authoritarian manner.  


Watching the carnage enveloping Putin and knowing his stranglehold on the Russian people, it is easy to forget that he was quite popular at one time. After the bumbling corruption of Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s, Putin’s decisive, authoritarian manner seemed welcome. Whether that manner was a simple desire for strong government or something in the DNA of the Russian people for authoritarians is challenging to say. 


What is certain is that for all of Peter the First’s love of the West, the one thing he was not able or willing to do, was to instill any form of representative government. In this, he was not dissimilar from some Western contemporaries, most notably Louis XIV of France or even his primary opponents in Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. But seeds were being put in place for administrative bodies outside of the monarch in England. Seeds that were not allowed to grow in Russia. And a style of one-person rule that we see in Russia at this very moment was to endure from Peter’s time to the present day. We noted that Putin describes the West as other. However, he speaks a European language dresses in Western styles, and his Oligarchs prefer locations in Italy, New York, or London rather than China or Tehran. 


But his approach to rulership far more resembles that of Imperial China, Japan, or the former Kings of Persia than it does a British Prime Minister or an American President. But what Putin most resembles is not a location but rather a time.  A time before modern, representative government.  A time of medieval rulership when nations existed for the betterment of the rulers, not the other way around.  The struggle to understand Putin’s, or Xi’s or Kim Jong Un’s motivations are not rooted in geography but rather when raised and educated to believe that government exists for the people, and the people do not exist for the government, it can be a struggle.  Yet this is the key to the Tsars, to Russian history, and to what we see today.