J. LeDonne: Forging a Unitary State

Forging a Unitary State. Russia’s Management of the Eurasian Space, 1650–1850

LeDonne, John P.
XVII, 663 S.
£ 59.99
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Boris Belge, Departement Geschichte, Universität Basel

What was Tsarist Russia? In his book, John LeDonne ventures no less than to answer this question regarding the rulership and governance of Russia’s territory. Since the early 1980s, LeDonne has published widely on the field of Russia’s political and administrative history and geopolitics of the Russian Empire.[1] His book is an illuminating read. Like any good read, it raises questions – especially today when Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine brought the issue of imperial politics and domination back onto the agenda.

LeDonne’s study begins in the mid-seventeenth century Muscovy. When Alexei Mikhailovich became Tsar of Russia in 1645, the history of Russia took a decisive turn. In wars against Poland and Sweden, Russia expanded its dominion enormously and never ceased to grow, primarily by means of violent conquests. In the past decades, historians have described this new, territorial realm as an empire stretching over the Urals into Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus and onto the Baltic and the Black Sea shores and later further expanding into the Caucasus and Central Asia. They hereby reflected upon both the rulers’ self-denomination as “Emperors of all Russia” (Imperator(y) Vserossiiskii) since the days of Peter I and historiographic trends such as global and postcolonial history that produced elaborated methodologies to analyze large, heterogeneous entities. These “empire studies” tended to describe Russia as an empire since Ivan’s IV conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan in 1552–54.[2] John LeDonne argues vigorously against this paradigm. According to him, Russian rulers were not driven by imperial ideologies (like the idea of a mission civilisatrice which has been attributed to Catherine II’s reign) but aimed at forging the Eurasian Space into a unitary state.[3] According to this argument, imperial politics were not a guiding principle for the governance of vast regions but a necessary concession to the rulers’ limits of power. As soon as they could do so, they would change flexible politics of governance towards rigorous domination in the political, economic, and religious spheres. LeDonne describes this principle of a unitary state as a “political-military-fiscal-religious conglomerate” (p. 555) and makes sure not to confuse it with a nation-state. Instead, the idea of a unitary state developed in a space LeDonne calls “the Russian core” that expanded until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the core reached its limits and Russia started to become an empire with peripheries and neutral “buffer zones” around them. According to this theorem, the imperial phase of Russian history was much shorter than usually displayed and started only in the nineteenth century. This last step is where Russia’s management of space reached its limits.

LeDonne’s book is large, both in topical scale and length. It covers the whole territory of Russia over roughly two centuries. To LeDonne, the unitary state ended in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Russia changed into a genuine imperial state formation. Since he is mainly interested in the formation of this unitary state, his analysis ends somewhat around the annexation of Georgia in 1801 and the 1850s when “the expansion of the Russian core had found a natural obstacle, and an empire was born” (p. 563). LeDonne is mainly interested in the history of administration and therefore develops his argument by analyzing normative sources, primarily drawn from the Complete Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire (PSZRI), an authoritative published source of legislative acts of the Russian Empire, arranged in chronological order.[4] Additionally, he incorporates partly primary sources from newspapers, journals, travelogues, and an impressive range of secondary literature. LeDonne’s book is organized into three parts. After a concise introduction, the reader encounters three “theaters” in the Eurasian Space – a Western (consisting of the Baltics, Finland, and Poland), a Southern (mainly the territories of both left and right bank Ukraine, and the region then called “New Russia” including Crimea), and an Eastern one (Siberia, Central Asia, and the (Trans-)Caucasus). Each of the parts roughly follows three developmental steps: Laying the foundations from 1650 to the middle of the eighteenth century, full integration of former peripheries into the “unitary” state from the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and, lastly, the first part of the nineteenth century when the Russia turned into a full imperial state.

The book identifies and analyzes five possible agents of integration of newly conquered territories: ruling practices, jurisdiction, religion, education, and trade. Here, LeDonne argues strongly against recent findings of Russian imperial studies regarding governing practices: Whereas the former have highlighted the flexibility and pragmatism of Russian rulership over newly conquered territories and people, especially concerning the cooptation of local elites into the empire’s upper echelon, LeDonne opposes the idea of an “empire of differences.”[5] Instead, these differences were more of a “temporary aberration,” a concession of the “core” which knew about its inability to enforce a “unitary state” instantaneously (p. 8). Especially in the East, LeDonne argues further, the terminology of cooptation masks the forced stratification of societies to segregate high from low, top from down, and, finally, integrating the elite into the culturally homogenized ruling class of the center. He proposes to call this process “superstratification” instead of cooptation. This superstratification worked well in the East, Finland, and the Baltic provinces but failed in Poland, resulting in uprisings and revolts that would ultimately threaten the empire itself. Fiscal policy and jurisdiction were permeated by Russia’s admission of its own inability to enforce unitary measures in the first place. However, the adoption of fiscal and law practices in local contexts was only temporary and gradually replaced by more unifying legislation in all three theaters towards the end of the eighteenth century.

One of the most potent agents fostering integration was Orthodoxy, not only a religion but also the “ideology” of the unitary state (p. 361). Converting to Orthodoxy, LeDonne believes, had the power of “transforming into Russians” (p. 507). He claims that this ideology had deficits of its own. As a “manifestation of state power, it emphasized the observance of rites […] and remained very close to the paganism of the simple people,” preventing religion from becoming a “source of enlightenment and transcendental faith” like in Latin Christianity (p. 561). This questionable hypothesis is reminiscent of Alexander Gerschenkron’s search for Russian «protestants» among Old Believers as carriers of capitalist modernization in the Weberian sense.[6] The last two agents –trade and education –performed relatively weakly for the “unitary” state compared to the former three: The trade routes directed west- and southwards (towards the seas and overseas markets) and “projected the peripheries outwards” instead of integrating them (p. 560). Boosting education and promoting universities in the peripheries of Russia, such as Ukraine, sparked nationalism and separatist movements.

John LeDonne’s book is a journey both in space and time. Like on any other journey, the traveler must encounter obstacles. A larger one is his basic assumption: that there was a “Russian core” that had the goal to create a unitary state from 1650 on. The book leaves some questions about this unanswered: who made up the “Russian core” beyond rulers and the tiny elite at the top of the state? How was it made up? And who decided its directions and goals? LeDonne’s observation of Russian politics as a “family affair” (p. 365) “dominated by a ruling house […], and a ruling class of families for which upholding the ruler’s autocracy was the best way to guarantee their own” seems to be a bit of an oversimplification (p. 555). Following LeDonne’s argument, nationalism and separatist movements, especially in Poland and Ukraine, threatened Russia’s goal of building a and ruling over the unitary state. This is immediately obvious when speaking about non-Russian nationalisms (pp. 339–345). However, one wonders about the backfire of this development and the significance of emerging Russian nationalism inside the “core” itself. Petr Chaadev’s “Philosophical Letters” sparked fierce discussions about Russia’s place in Eurasia, feeding into Russian Nationalism in the 1840s. It ultimately posed the question of who was part of the “core” and who was not – a topic especially virulent with regard to Ukrainians (“Little Russians”) and Belarusians (“White Russians”). Today, the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine raises the attention of the conflicting and often problematic attributions of a “Great Russian Nation”.

Since LeDonne mainly relies on normative sources, his book offers rich material about the intentions and ideas of imperial administration. Due to the nature of these sources, they cannot talk much about how policies played out on the ground. The school of new imperial history has contributed much to the question of what happened with these imperatives, who resisted them, and how policies were made in the constant back and forth of rulers' demands and appropriation of the ruled.[7] Although “Forging a Unitary State” tends to miss this dimension of Russian history, it is insightful reading for all scholars interested in Russian political and social history. It comprises and condenses research on different Russian spaces and periods into a thought-provoking story – and reading it now is more than timely when our understanding of Russian imperialism is again questioned by Russia forcing its will upon its neighbors.

[1] A non-exhaustive list could include John P. LeDonne, The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire, 1650–1831, Oxford 2004; id., The Russian Empire and the World, 1700–1917. The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment, New York 1997; id., Ruling Russia. Politics and Administration in the Age of Absolutism, 1762–1796, Princeton 1984.
[2] Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire. A Multiethnic History, Abingdon 2013; Alexei Miller, The Romanov Empire and Nationalism. Essays in the Methodology of Historical Research, Budapest 2008; Dominic Lieven, Empire. The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, New Haven 2001; Geoffrey Hosking, Russia. People and Empire 1552–1917, London 1997; recently published: Valerie Kivelson / Ronald G. Suny, Russia’s Empires, New York 2017.
[3] Ricarda Vulpius recently stressed the importance of Russia’s civilizing mission for its ruling practices: Ricarda Vulpius, Die Geburt des Russländischen Imperiums. Herrschaftskonzepte und -praktiken im 18. Jahrhundert, Vienna 2020.
[4]http://nlr.ru/e-res/law_r/content.html (17.06.2022).
[5] Karen Barkey, Empire of Difference. The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, Cambridge 2008. This study has stimulated Russian imperial history to a large extent.
[6] Alexander Gershenkron, Europe in the Russian Mirror: Four Lectures in Economic History, Cambridge 1970, pp. 1–22.
[7] Jörg Ganzenmüller, Russische Staatsgewalt und polnischer Adel. Elitenintegration und Staatsausbau im Westen des Zarenreiches (1772–1850), Cologne 2013; for later periods see for example Theodore R. Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia. Nationalism and Russification on the Western Frontier, 1863–1914, DeKalb 1996; Michail D., Dolbilov, Russkii krai, chuzhaia vera. Etnokonfessionalnaia politika imperii v Litve i Belorussii pri Aleksandre II, Moskva 2010; Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors, Russia and the Small Peoples of the North, Ithaca N.Y. 1994.

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