Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide: The First & Ultimate Questions

November 2nd, 2011

This is the first in a series of lively, fun, and challenging study guides illustrated by my artwork about Russian history.  In addition to being an artist, I have a Ph. D. in Russian History from the University of Michigan.  My new paintings and mixed media works about Russia are collectively titled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.  

My Playground of the Autocrats art animates a framework for studying Russian history.  This framework explores how Russia’s present-day society and government are embedded its past, from the 13th century through the rise of Muscovy, Tsarism, Communism and post-Communism.  In the image below, the Tsarist godparents of a mustached infant Stalin bestow the blessings of their autocratic past on him, to his delight.

Stalin’s tsarist “godparents” bestow the “blessing” of Russia’s past on Soviet Communism.  Detail of central panel from “Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

In these Study Guides, I’ll suggest “big questions” for discussion.  I’ll take a long perspective, not focusing on fine details: less on trees and more on forest.  Actually, I’ll take another giant step back from the forest to see it in wider perspective, to ask what forest conditions cause certain trees to grow there but not others, one forest ecosystem to develop instead of another:

What caused an autocratic state to grow on the vast territory that became Russia, rather than another form of government?  Was it pure chance, or were there particular conditions that engendered it?

Three Quotations

Detail of center panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

From Chester Dunning and Norman S. Smith, “Moving Beyond Absolutism: Was Early Modern Russia a ‘Fiscal-Military’ State?”  Russian History, 33, No. 1 (Spring 2006) pp. 38-40 (my bold):

“The origins of Russian autocracy are complex and controversial… [They] resulted in the rapid development of a service state…in which he performance of duties that directly or indirectly bolstered the country’s security were required from virtually everyone.  As a result, Russia’s tsarist system became ‘one of the most compulsory in Europe….’

“Coming into the sixteenth century, Russia was, more than any other contemporary society, ‘organized for warfare.’  During the sixteenth century Russian military forces fought almost constantly, and Russia actually emerged as a major military power before the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84), the founder of the Russian empire.  The sixteenth century also witnessed the rapid development of a powerful Russian central state administration….  As in other fiscal-military states, that led to extremely coercive efforts to harness Russian society to the task of paying for the prohibitively expensive costs of early modern warfare.  The extraction of domestic resources was greatly facilitated by the fact that nowhere else in Europe was the principle of service to the state pressed as far as in Russia….

“Generously rewarded for life-long service, the tsar’s bureaucrats were incredibly loyal and hardworking, and they succeeded admirably at imposing the central state’s authority.

“From the very beginning, Russia’s bureaucrats were primarly oriented to the task of raising, financing, and supplying the tsar’s military forces.  They were not hampered by the concerns of bankers or merchants and were therefore basically free to extract resources from the economy with no concern for or understanding of the impact of their actions.  Taxes were imposed with zeal to pay for the cost of war….  Over the course of the [16th] century taxes for many Russians rose 600 percent….”

Detail of center panel of “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Why was the 15th and 16th century Russian state so continually focused on war, devoting more of its resources to military mobilization than did any other society?  Research over the last decade or so indicates that Russia’s vast open southern steppe frontier forced the country to mobilize militarily from top to bottom. Virtually every year, semi-nomadic Tatar raiders, in small groups and large, galloped across the wide open plain to plunder and “harvest the steppe” of humans to sell into slavery in Crimean slave markets. Over several centuries, hundreds of thousands of Russians were abducted and marched in chains across the steppes to be sold into bondage.  No population except Africans has been enslaved more than the Slavs.

Some of the historians who have researched Russia’s southern steppe frontier are Carol Belkin Stevens, Michael Khodarkovsky, and Brian L. Davies, who wrote in his Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500-1700 (pp.1, 17, 23):

“For nearly four centuries – from the reign of Moscow Grand Prince Vasilii III through the reign of Russian Empress Catherine the Great – the Russian government, army, and people confronted the threats of Crimean Tatar invasion and raiding on their southern frontier….

Brian Davies, book cover

“There were forty-three major Crimean and Nogai attacks on Muscovite territory just in the first half of the sixteenth century….  Large Tatar forces were able to penetrate into the heartland of Muscovy even in years when…the Russians [were able] to increase regimental strengths along their southern frontier.  In 1571 Khan Devlet Girei invaded with an army of 40,000 Crimeans, Nogais, and Circassians and burned much of Moscow, allegedly killing 80,ooo and carrying off 150,000 captives.  The Tatars burned the suburbs of Moscow again in 1592 while the bulk of Russian forces were busy fighting the Swedes on the northwester frontier.  In 1633, while the tsar’s army was preoccupied in a western campaign…the Crimeans and Nogais launched devastating attacks upon the interior districts of Kashir and Serpukhov….

“[S]laveraiding was essential to the economy of the Crimean Khanate.  And if Tatar slaveraiding was a lower-intensity threat than invasion, it was also a nearly constant threat and inflicted heavy costs….  Tatar slavers raided the southernmost Muscovite colonies almost every summer, capturing servicemen and peasants working in their fields, driving off herds of livestock, burning villages and town suburbs, and ambushing patrols and merchant caravans.  Most of these raids were undertaken by chambuly of a few hundred men yet were able to do a great deal of damage.”

Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy

Richard Hellie book cover

Every member of the Russian gentry was obligated to mobilize for half of every summer along the frontier to defend against raids.  This put huge a burden on gentry members who also had to maintain agriculture on what were often small estates.  Wrote Richard Hellie in Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy (p. 29),

…it was not a standing army.  Usually one half was called up in the spring, to await an expected Tatar invasion on the frontier, and served to mid-summer.  Then it was replaced by the other half, which served until late autumn.  During either offensive or defensive emergencies, which were frequent throughout this period, both ‘halves’ were summoned simultaneously….  The success of any mobilization call was highly dependent on the condition of agriculture at the moment of the summons.  If a serviceman’s lands could not provide the wherewithal for his service, he would not report for duty.

Russian Peasants in Detail of “Still With You,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

To the extent possible given the immense drain on resources, all of Russian society was organized like an army ready for war.  The Tsar was commander in chief.  Independent organizations and institutions were not allowed, just as in armies the chain of command from must always to be obeyed.  While Tsar and elites benefited most from this system, the general populace acquiesced in order to be protected against constant threat from across Russia’s great flatland.

Discussion Question 1:

A.  Are there factors beyond human decisions that shape the development of societies in general and in particular Russia?

B.  Or are human beings and their free choices the primary drivers of history, including in Russia?

C.  Can you think of a different position altogether, or some combination of A and B?

Discussion Question 2:

A.  Once an autocratic “garrison state” was formed in Russia, could it have been eradicated in later periods when the country was less vulnerable to outside attack?

B.  Or were elites able to maintain themselves in power even after the “garrison state” was no longer as necessary?

    1. Was the psychology of the majority of people so molded by autocracy that most couldn’t envision an alternative?
    2. Did the lack of development of institutions and power bases independent of the government block the possibility of transformation to a less autocratic state?

In other words, is my triptych godparent image accurate or not?  Is the past the godparent to the future, no matter how revolutionary that future seems superficially?

These are very big questions that you won’t be able to fully answer at the beginning of your Russian history study.  As you read and hear more about Russia, you’ll gather more evidence to form your own opinions about them.

Additional Links:

On the similarities between the trade in Slav and African slaves:

Robert O. Crummey, The Formation of Muscovy, 1304-1613

Chester Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty.

Dunning, Russia's First Civil War

The beautiful cover of Chester Dunning’s book RUSSIA’S FIRST CIVIL WAR, THE TIME OF TROUBLES AND THE FOUNDING OF THE ROMANOV DYNASTY, published by Penn State University Press, 2001, shows “The Rebel Siege of Moscow, 1606”


177 Responses to “Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide: The First & Ultimate Questions”

  1. It’s hard to find educated people about this subject, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!Thanks

  2. trade shares says:

    Thanks for sharing such a pleasant thinking, postis pleasant, thats why i have read it entirely

  3. WillisSaulk says:

    sildenafil over the counter south africa sildenafil 20 mg tablets online

  4. ivermectin 0.08 – ivermectin tablets ivermectin 1 cream

  5. I truly appreciate this post. I¡¦ve been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thanks again

  6. Ill right away snatch your rss as I can’t to find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Kindly let me recognize in order that I may subscribe. Thanks.

  7. Ridiculous story there. What occurred after? Thanks! Janeczka Danny Hedelman

  8. EdwardRet says: christiandatingforfree search
    [url=]tadalafil online in india[/url] tadalafil online united states

  9. buy stocks says:

    ivermectin antidote stromectol 0.1 ivermectin injection for dogs dosage how many grams oral ivermectin dose for rosacea

  10. trade metals says:

    Cómo abrir push unleash con 21 instancias y 7 herramientas

  11. superb post.Ne aer knew this, appreciate it for letting me know.

  12. wonderful points altogether, you simply gained a new reader.What could you suggest in regards to your put up that you simply made a fewdays ago? Any certain?

  13. buy stocks says:

    reviews of canadian pharmacies my canadian pharmacy rx

  14. Antonioanymn says: canadian pharmacies online

  15. Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s truly informative.I’m going to watch out for brussels. I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future.Many people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  16. Generally I don’t learn article on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me to take a look at and do so! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, very nice post.

  17. I loved your blog.Thanks Again. Keep writing.

  18. Thank you for your article post.Much thanks again. Great.

  19. order tadalafil: order tadalafil – tadalafilventolin pharmacy australia

  20. poker88 says:

    Hello to every , since I am truly keen of reading this blog’s post to be updated daily.It includes nice stuff.

  21. hydroxychloroquine uses hydroxychloroquine brand name

  22. There is certainly a great deal to find out about this issue.I really like all the points you have made.

  23. EdwardRet says: date game online
    [url=]christian singles dating site[/url] free dating sites

  24. This blog was how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I ave found something that helped me. Many thanks!

  25. game boxes says:

    My wife and i felt absolutely fulfilled Ervin managed to finish up his homework while using the precious recommendations he received from your very own blog. It is now and again perplexing just to find yourself giving for free tips that many other folks could have been selling. And we all understand we need the website owner to appreciate for this. Most of the explanations you made, the simple site menu, the relationships you help promote – it is everything awesome, and it’s facilitating our son and our family do think the concept is excellent, which is certainly incredibly important. Thanks for the whole lot!

  26. The listed numbers at each and every operatorcan differ, and we can directly attribute that tothe betting volume they have taken in on a contest.

  27. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.I don’t know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

  28. b?t hdpe says:

    I like this post, enjoyed this one thanks for posting. „We are punished by our sins, not for them.” by Elbert Hubbard.

  29. Hello! I simply would like to offer you a big thumbs upfor your excellent information you have got here on thispost. I will be returning to your blog for more soon.

  30. Antonioanymn says: canadian discount pharmacy

  31. I read this paragraph fully concerning the resemblance of hottest and preceding technologies, it’s amazing article.

  32. Hello, this weekend is fastidious in favorof me, since this occasion i am reading thisimpressive informative paragraph here at my residence.

  33. I want to to thank you for this great read!! I absolutely loved every bit of it. I have got you book marked to check out new stuff you postÖ

  34. EdwardRet says: the discount pharmacy
    [url=]chat singles[/url] single free dating sites for sex

  35. Actually when someone doesn’t be aware of then its up to other visitors that they will assist, so here it occurs.

  36. do mercedes says:

    Nbvkrg – tadalafil generique pas cher livraison rapide Bzlaxk xihvfc

  37. Riley Day says:

    Why visitors still make use of to read news papers when in this technological world the whole thing is presented on net?

  38. Major thanks for the blog post. Want more.

  39. Lawrence Hewitt says:

    WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searchingfor liquid organic plant food

  40. I’ve been troubled for several days with this topic. casinocommunity, But by chance looking at your post solved my problem! I will leave my blog, so when would you like to visit it?

  41. Amazing tons of superb advice. Provigil Where To Get ItprovigilIs Provigil Safe For Pregnancy

  42. chooneell says:

    levitra risperidone 1mg tablets patient information leaflet Reclusive North Korea, for which Kaesong has been a rare source of hard currency, and the South, one of the richest countries in the world, are technically still at war as their 1950 53 civil conflict ended not in a treaty but in a mere truce nolvadex side effects male EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

  43. Actually when someone doesn’t know then its up to other users that they will help, so here it takes place.

  44. Fun88 says:

    Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Finding the time and actual effort to make a great article… but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

  45. Evan Young says:

    I needed to thank you for this fantastic read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked to check out new things you postÖ

  46. Edwardref says: dating free sites
    [url=]dating match[/url] sites online dating

  47. Rubenchupt says: usa free dating sites