Empires are fated to drag along with them a cast iron wreath of invincibility and lead chains of infallibility. An empire can never lose or make a mistake, otherwise, it’s not really an empire
Russia is no exception. Once upon a time in Zalesye, the land fertilized by Kyivan Rus was sown with the seed of empire by the Horde. Out of it grew Muscovy, which was then called the Grand Duchy of Vladimir and was an administrative territory of the Golden Horde in the great Mongolian Empire. And when the dream of empire arose, it mattered little whether it was from Genghis Khan or Byzantium. To become an empire myths about its invincibility were desperately needed.
From ruffians to rulers—the pathway of empire
The first hero of the Russian Empire, Aleksandr Nevsky, was forged and figured to meet imperial objectives. From traitor to saint, from murderer to hero, from Tatar deuce to top dog: this was the grand image of the Scourge of Sarai and the dog knights that everyone knew from Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda film in soviet times. Such a titan, naturally, needed great victories. And so a thuggish ambush of Swedish merchants who had chosen to illegally trade with Izhora or Ingria, a region subordinate to Novgorod, was turned into the glorious Battle of the Neva in imperial historiography, while a minor skirmish with Livonians on Lake Peipus was transformed into the grandiose “Battle on Ice,” and the feeble Livonian Order into a mortal threat to all Rus lands.
The next pillar of empire was Dmitri Donskoy. The approach was the same: a loyal servant of the Khan suddenly becomes a proud, autocratic ruler. Donskoy also needed some high-profile victories, so historical sources began to talk about the Battle of Kulikovo. The course of the battle was pinched from the “Battle on Ice:” an enemy attacks and drives deeply, but then a hand-picked platoon hits its flank. The fact that no traces of a battle have ever been found in Kulikov field has never stood in the way of the Battle of Kulikovo becoming a “triumph of Muscovite arms.” The 19th century Russian historian Sergei Soloviov even compared it with the battles of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD and Poitiers in 732 AD. If indeed there had been such an epic battle, Donskoy’s part in it was simply as a loyal vassal of the legitimate Khan Tokhtamysh against a usurper, Khan Mamai. Just two years later, in 1382, that same Tokhtamysh laid waste to Moscow: Donskoy abandoned his capital city and fled to Kostroma. Yet that caused no harm to the myth of Kulikovo or the image of this princeling as victorious over the Tatar yoke.
The next epic event was the Great Stand on the Ugra River in 1490, which is also referred to as a “great triumph” and “the end of the Mongol-Tatar yoke.” In reality, the real yoke had ceased to exist back in 1327, after the Tver uprising: tributes were no longer collected by the Mongol baskaks or darughachi, but by a Great Prince of Vladimir. At the Ugra, Ivan III merely outstood Khan Akhmat, the leader of the Great Horde, a bloodied splinter of the Golden Horde from which Kazan, Crimea, Astrakhan and the Nogai had already split off. Indeed, the following year, those same Nogai murdered Akhmat. What’s interesting is that 22 years after his victory on the Ugra, Ivan III once again declared himself a vassal of the Khan of the Great Horde. The men who did in the Great Horde were not even Muscovites, but Crimean Tatars, who succeeded the Golden Horde and to whom Moscow paid tributes until the early 18th century.
Building on the bones of feeble enemies
The Livonian Wars of 1558-1583 were the next major Muscovite “triumph.” One of the most highly promoted Muscovite rulers was Ivan Grozniy, known in English as “the Terrible” and the hero of yet another Eisenstein film. He undertook the first large-scale invasion of Europe in Russian history. At first, things went well and the Livonian Order was easily routed, because Muscovy’s forces and resources outmatched the Livonians severalfold. Even during Nevsky’s time, the Livonians were not powerful and once they were thrashed by the Lithuanians and Poles at Vilkomir—now Ukmergé—in 1435, the Order went into complete decline. Unfortunately, now the Russian leader had to face the Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes—a catastrophe that brought such devastation as Muscovy had not seen since the invasion of the Mongols. Considerable territory was lost and the Riurykovych dynasty soon disappeared into history. Yet Russian historiography presents the Livonian wars as a military draw, as though the brave Russians first destroyed the cursed Livonian Germans and then prevented the Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes from taking over Great Russia.
In 1612, another “great victory” was chalked up by Muscovy when it forced the Polish garrison in the Kremlin to surrender. Of course, Muscovites themselves had invited the Poles to the Kremlin when they chose the Polish King Wladislaw to rule over them. How a sole foreign garrison in the capital of an enemy country might have been in a position to offer serious resistance is not clear, but the leaders of the “struggle against the Polish invasion,” Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitri Pozharskiy, are glorified to this day in a monument on Red Square.
Aiming towards Europe
Finally, there was the amazing military success of the Russo-Polish War of 1654-1667, when Muscovy, together with the Ukrainian Hetmanate, the Swedes, Siebenbürgen (historic Transylvania), and Brandenburg, destroyed Poland. It was precisely with the joining of the Hetmanate that Muscovy crept into a corner of Europe and began to position itself more and more as a European country, including through military and political alliances.
The first such alliance was an anti-Polish one during the Deluge, then came an anti-Swedish one during the Great Northern War, which ended in yet another “glorious triumph.” Despite its enormous advantage in forces and resources, Moscow was tormented by the Swedes for more than two decades, managing to completely lose battles where it had as much as a fivefold advantage—at Narva in 1700—and winning finally at Poltava in 1709—against a starving, exhausted Swedish and Kozak force that was half its size and running short of both artillery and ammunition.
The Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763 brought the next imperial triumph. Entering the war on the side of Austria and France against tiny Prussia, the Russians spent several years fending off the very persistent Frederick the Great. At Gross-Jägersdorf in 1757, they were unable to win despite a twofold advantage in numbers. At Zorndorf in 1758, a 50% size advantage also failed to bring victory. Finally, at Kunersdorf in 1759, the Russians had their victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one, as they lost far more men than the vanquished enemy. In short, Russia waged a very costly war on behalf of Austrian interests without gaining any significant benefit. Wherein lies the Russian victory? The real winners of the Seven Years’ War were England, which decisively took from France its status as the top power in the world, and Prussia, which maintained its right to Silesia.
Cannon fodder for the glory of others
This tendency to do battle for others’ interests, as though it were a vassal and not an empire, became more and more pronounced in Russian history by the mid 18th century, when Holstein-Gottrop Germans came to the Russian throne. Russians slowly turned into European cannon fodder, fighting the Seven Years’ War, on behalf of Austria, the Napoleonic Wars on behalf of Austria and England, WWI on behalf of England and France, and WWII on behalf of the United States and, once again, England and France. But an empire cannot tolerate this kind of humiliating image, so two means were used to transform it: glorifying the success of Russian arms and soldiers, and accusing opponents of aggressive intentions.
Of course, Russian soldiers were considered the best in Europe: after all, the great Frederick himself said that it wasn’t enough to kill a Russian soldier, he had to be toppled as well. But the valor of soldiers could not compensate for the strategic mistakes of their commanders. Even Aleksandr Suvorov’s famed march through the Alps in 1799 after Mutten Valley, was essentially a hasty retreat while being hammered by a looming enemy. Yet Suvorov, the famed victor over irregular Turks, Polish insurgents and Pugachov Bashkirs became the next pillar in the ideological construct of empire.
Even the image of Suvorov and his endless victories is a powerful, well-wrought myth, as are the many aphorisms attributed to him. The famous phrase about “warriors of wonder,” which he supposedly said about Russian soldiers, was found in Suvorov’s letters, where he used the term “wonder warrior” with reference to one man—and one man only—, Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he genuinely admired.
Count Dmitri Miliutin, then Minister of Defense, clearly stated what he thought of Suvorov’s Swiss march: “This unsuccessful campaign brought the Russian military greater honor than the most brilliant victory.” And there is some sense to this statement, as only the bravery and endurance of Russian soldiers who meekly covered the snowy slopes of Alpine passes with their bodies made it possible for Suvorov to complete this tragic expedition. The soldiers died, but Suvorov was given the title “generalissimo” for the Swiss march and a grand monument in St. Petersburg.
With the start of the Napoleonic Wars, however, opinion as to Russian soldiers began to change. Napoleon himself wrote: “I know what they were thinking when they went on the Austerlitz campaign: they saw themselves as invincible. But now they are quite convinced that they will be defeated by my armies.”
Who attacked whom?
The other way to hide the real state of affairs in wars with Europe was to shout, “They attacked us first. And even if they didn’t actually attack, they were planning to attack! After all, every Russian knows how nasty Europe just dreams of taking a tasty morsel out of Great Russia!”
Henry Kissinger once spoke on this: “Being paradoxical has always been the most classic feature of Russia. While constantly at war and expanding in every direction, it was completely convinced that it was under constant threat. The more multilingual the empire became, the more vulnerable it felt—in part because it needed to isolate so many different nationalities from their neighbors. To strengthen its control and overcome tensions among the different peoples who lived across its vast territory, all of Russia’s rulers used the myth of a powerful foreign threat. In time it became a self-fulfilling prophecy and doomed Europe to instability...”
In actual fact, prior to Napoleon, not one European leader had ever planned to conquer Russia: not the Prussians, not the Swedes, not the Poles, let alone the Livonian knights. Given conditions at the time, Europeans were in no position to take on and hold such an enormous country with its terrible infrastructure. Moreover, what were they to do with this trunk without handles: a roadless, lawless, half-empty wasteland without any industry, populated by dense, ignorant, aggressive people.
Even the Mongols never bothered placing garrisons in the cities of Zalesye or appointing governors there. All they did was to require one of the local princes to collect tributes and bring it to Sarai. None of the hordes’ khans ever tried to establish a seat at Vladimir-on-Kliazma or Moscow or to declare himself the great Vladimir Prince—unlike the Mongol emperors in China, the Ilkhan dynasty in Iran, or the rulers of Moghulistan and Mavarannahr.
And Alexander Gonciewski’s hapless Poles only ended up in the Kremlin because Muscovites themselves elected a Polish prince to be their tsar. As to the Livonian Knights, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Prussia—they were all fending off incursions launched by Russia.
Even Napoleon organized his march on Russia only after Russian armies invaded Europe three times and began attacking him. But even he had no intention of conquering Russia. He simply wanted to force the Russian tsar to fulfill the provisions of the Treaty of Tilsit, which the autocrat had signed five years earlier, after the Russians were pulverized at Friedland. Napoleon was interested in England: Russia was not part of his plans at all—until it started to get in the way of them.
Historically, the Battle of Borodino is the culmination of the War of 1812, which the Russians immediately claimed as a victory. Prince Mikhail Kutuzov was promoted to General Field Marshal and all Russian participants in the battle were awarded medals and money. Since that time, the Battle of Borodino has been a celebration of Russian arms, a source of inspiration—and yet another brilliant example of imperial propaganda. The actual results of the battle were thus: the Russians lost one and a half times more men than the French, they left the battlefield and abandoned their capital without resistance, burning it down before leaving. If this is victory, then what might Russians see as a defeat?
It seems that Napoleon is more accurate in his memoirs: “The Battle of Moscow is my greatest battle: a showdown between two giants. Russians had 170,000 armed men. They had every advantage— numbers of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and a brilliant position. And they were defeated!” More neutral Russian historians evasively refer to Borodino as a “moral victory” for the Russians.
Of course, winning Borodino did not bring the French overall victory in the war. But what did victory bring the Russians? Why had they become the victims of a Napoleonic campaign? In order to defend English interests. For what did they sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives in Russia and then in Europe? To destroy Napoleon and return the Bourbons to the throne, so that English trade—not French—might flourish in both hemispheres, and so that Indian chiefs, African potentates and Asian emirs might bow to the English flag—not the French one.
Russia paid very dearly for the defeat of Napoleon and got nothing in return: Russians could not even stay in Europe any longer than the English and Austrians allowed them. To bring down an opponent together with allies and then to see yourself—and only yourself!—as invincible is a tune Russia sang again and again.
The seduction of Crimea
In 1853, Russia finally decided to get involved in big politics on its own. And so it attacked the weak Ottoman Empire, all in the name of “freeing Balkan Slavs,” in the hope of getting its hands on Constantinople and the Straits. This was the third time that Russia believed in its own imperial propaganda and decided to launch a major war without allies. The first ended in the catastrophe of the Livonian War. The second, Russia’s first march on the Ottomans, ended up with the ignominious encirclement of Peter I on the Prut River in 1711.
Initially, things went well, much as for Ivan the Terrible and Peter I: the Ottoman fleet was easily sunk in the Battle of Sinop. After this, however, the big guns, England and France, came in on the side of the Ottomans. They sailed to Crimea, crushed the Russian army in Alma, and surrounded Sevastopol.
This is when the imperial fiction about Sevastopol as “the City of Russian glory” was born. It started with Leo Tolstoy’s “Tales of Sevastopol” and continued through numberless novels, paintings, films and even postage stamps. The “glory” was based on the sinking of the Russian fleet in its harbor without a shot being fired and the wasted deaths of a large number of defenders during massive allied bombardment. What’s more, during the first phase of the siege, the allies cleverly blocked the Russians even though they were outnumbered.
The 349-day siege ended with the surrender of the city and the retreat of Russian forces. During nearly one year, the Russians attempted to unblock Sevastopol three times and were defeated all three times—at Balaclava, at Inkerman and on the Chorna River. But you will never hear about a “defeat at Sevastopol.” The logic of Russian propagandists is the same here as with the Livonian War: We gave Sevastopol up, but we prevented the enemy from going any deeper into Russia—as though that was the enemy’s intention all along...
The Crimean War also cost Russia the territory of Bessarabia, a protectorate over Moldova and Walachia, and the right to have its fleet in the Black Sea. This disgraceful loss was damaging to the grand imperial image, so it was necessary to counter it with tales of heroism, the bravery of the defenders, no doubt, a counterbalance to the technical backwardness of the Russian army and the mistakes of its command.
Blood vs technology
In its wars with Europe, the Muscovite-Russian army was always inferior in terms of its arms and organization, in the training of its soldiers and the skills of its generals. But it always enjoyed superiority of numbers in men and resources. There were more Russian soldiers than Swedes, Prussians or Frenchmen, while the vast and fabulously rich storehouse that was Siberia made it easy to cover any losses. The result was that the blood of brave Russian soldiers compensated for the mediocrity of their generals: “an army of lions led by donkeys” was how Napoleon put it.
So this became the imperial Russian style of waging war: brave slaves desperately defended their slavery, fighting with muskets against shotguns, with windjammers against steamers. In contrast to the shotguns and steamers, however, slaves cost nothing, there were always plenty more where they came from, and so no one worried about preserving them. Using blood vs technology, the slave-owning empire simply did not know how to fight differently.
What’s more, the empire never learned from its mistakes. “They forgot nothing and learned nothing,” meaning they never forgot their victories and failed to learn from their defeats.
The last follies of the Romanovs
In 1877, Russia launched a new war against the Ottoman Empire, using the same battle cry about liberating Balkan Slavs with the same strategic aim—to capture Constantinople and the Straits. Despite major losses, the Russian army achieved considerable success: the Turks were routed and Adrianopolis was occupied, within spitting distance of Constantinople. Once this was in Russian hands, victory would be complete. But when British warships entered the Sea of Marmara, the Russians were forced to withdraw, repeating the Crimean catastrophe of 20 years earlier.
Once again, Russia had lost a war because it gained nothing in the end—except perhaps the glory of being the “liberator of Slavs.” For some reason, though, the liberated folks were more interested in the West than in Russia. In Romania, Germany’s Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty took over, while in Bulgaria it was Aleksandr I Battenberg first and then Ferdinand I of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha, taking over thrones generously bought with the blood of Russian soldiers. Russia could still relish the laurels of a triumphant victor with its entire soul, while clever authors, from Valentin Pikul to Boris Akunin, thrilled their readers with tale after tale of heroic Russian exploits.
Another 27 years were to pass before Russia risked war without serious allies, this time against tiny Japan. The Russo-Japanese War ended with Russia losing both fleets, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, possession of the Liadong Peninsula and influence in Manchuria, known as Yellow Russia. Its plan to occupy the territory was dropped once and for all. This was a disaster of spectacular proportions that led to serious economic and social upheaval—and the Revolution of 1905. As usual, official imperial historiography claims that things did not end too badly after all: the Japanese were exhausted and they weren’t able to penetrate any further into Mother Russia.
In a mere nine years, Russia found itself entangled in the Great War, once again on behalf of foreign interests. This war is generally termed “incomplete,” as if to say, “Were it not for the Revolution of 1917, we would have done Fritz in!” And now we have Vladimir Putin addressing the Federation Council and blaming the Bolsheviks for Russia’s defeat in WWI. The reality was just a little different: the Bolshevik putsch was still just a revolutionary dream when Russia was forced to give up Poland, part of the Baltics and Belarus and nearly all of Western Ukraine after the “Great Retreat” of 1915.
Despite all its subsequent efforts, the imperial army managed to nothing noteworthy by the time the February Revolution took place in 1917. It left the stage as it had lived: drowning in blood, cursing fools, cowards and traitors—its commanders—, dragging a long list of defeats renamed as victories (or at least draws).
Its last battle was lost to masses of yesterday’s peasants, reinforced by gangs of foreign-born nationalists of every stripe: from Jews to Chinese. These crowds overcame the Russian army in the classic imperial Russian style: piling up the corpses and losses be damned. The Imperial Army met with even fiercer Russian imperialists and lost. The New Russians, a red variety, would soon show the world a new, terrifying example of the imperial Russian style of waging war, including “brilliant victories” kludged from bloody defeats.