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Soviet and Post-Soviet Integration : The History of the Russian Empire

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

European construction is a recent phenomenon. Indeed, until the end of the Second World War and the end of the colonial Empires, the European states were built in an autonomous way and often in conflict with each other. This of course did not prevent the emergence of a common civilizational model, but it is important to stress that European states have often considered their neighbors first and foremost as competitors. Moreover, once all European territories became the possession of one power or another, the only prospects for growth were outside the continent, hence the search for colonies.

The space that will be the object of our analysis has lived through a whole different story.

If at the beginning, Russia was part of the “Christian” European ensemble, although a little on the margins, it was cut off from Western civilization at the time of the Mongol invasions. Thus, if Europe was built by being turned towards the West and towards the great Western capitals like Paris, London or Florence, Russia was subjugated and forced to turn its gaze to the East and the great centers of Mongol power like Kazan, Astrakhan or Karakoroum. If Russia succeeded in maintaining its language (which was nevertheless strongly influenced by Mongolian terms) and its culture (of Byzantine and Slavic origin), it experienced a different evolution vis-à-vis Europe from that point on. If Europe gradually turned to parliamentary regimes or to models of corporations and Charters granted by their sovereigns, Russia has experienced an unprecedented centralization of power and state monopolies. Thus, Tsar Ivan the Terrible already controlled a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in the 16th century and appointed to all state offices, regardless of the regional level.

This constitutes a key element in the understanding of the history of this geographical group. As soon as Russia succeeded in getting rid of the Mongol yoke, it took the opportunity to take its place, not to re-establish a political system inspired by Europeans. The Tsar was the heir of the Great Khan. Proof of this is that Ivan III had crushed the Republic of Novgorod, a state in the north of the country which lived under a system comparable to that of Poland at the time (with Assemblies and corporations). The Republic of Novgorod was indeed the only Russian territory not to have been conquered by the Mongols, which allowed it to follow an evolution similar to that which had taken place in Europe, in particular via trade with the Teutonic Hansa. Ivan IV, later, established a political police and an administration which was entirely submissive to him, which again shows us that the roots of Russian authoritarianism are old and deep.

If the European states were forced from the 16th century to seek territories in America, Russia decided to conquer the former Mongolian territories in the East and then to turn entirely to the conquest of the Far East. Thus in a few centuries Russia became the master of what would later be called “Turkistan” (Central Asia).

If Peter the Great wanted to follow the European model, it was only to catch up with Europe in the technological field, not in politics. Peter the Great decided to annex lands in Eastern Europe to reestablish Russian dominance in this area but without accepting locl laws and customs. Thus no legal heritage from Lithuania or Poland has been integrated in the Russian Empire. During the 18th century, Russia also conquered Ukraine and Belarus, the countries of the Caucasus, and consolidated its control over the East.

In 1914, Russia was huge. It controlled peoples of different cultures, languages ​​and religions. All subject to the power of the “Autocrat” : the Emperor. The Russian Empire was, moreover, a centralized state with a few exceptions (such as Finland or Poland, which enjoyed some derogatory regimes). The Governors were appointed and recalled by the central power, the word of the Emperor was law. Traditions and customs continued to exist at the local level because Russia remained an agrarian state, barely present in rural areas. But it was out of the question to grant any autonomy to the peoples making up the Empire such as the Jews, the Turkish peoples or the Caucasians.

We therefore see that the space we are studying has lived through the same History and comes from the same historical process. It is certainly a multi-ethnic Empire, but it has given unity and identity to all its members.

However, the Tsar's regime could not hold out. Despite some attempts at reform in the 1860s, the population as a whole remained poor, illiterate and mercilessly exploited by the big industrialists. At the end of the 19th century, everyone had the same idea in their minds: “Revolution”. But the question was: what Revolution? Some advocated a liberal Revolution like the French Revolution, others advocated going further, like the Paris Commune.

A Revolution took place in 1905 and the Tsar was forced to grant the liberal opposition the creation of an elected Assembly: the Duma. But he quickly reneged on his promises, and the Duma was in the end only an advisory body.

The event which brought about a true Revolution was the Great War. Indeed, military failures, the incompetence of ministries and economic mismanagement ended up undermining the foundations of the regime. The reign of the Romanovs ended in early 1917 with the February Revolution.

But the transitional regime of the Provisional Government was found to be powerless and unable to keep its promises. It was always undermined in its policy by the Petrograd Council (the “Petrosoviet”), a body created at the same time as the Provisional Government and representing the workers and the military.

It was Lenin who led the October Revolution, a Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks (a Social Democratic Party faction) to power and began the creation of a new society. Lenin was an heir to Marxist and socialist thought. He therefore decided to implement them for the first time at the level of a State. But he did it according to his own conception of power. This theory became known as “Marxism-Leninism”. Coupled with the ideas of "permanent revolution" of Trotsky, the main idea was to create a communist society forcefully.Indeed, according to the old Marxist theory, capitalism should collapse on its own and it is enough to wait patiently for all the natural stages of its collapse to take place. These stages are the creation of a bourgeois and liberal society, which at an advanced stage of an industrial economy gives rise to a workers' revolution which establishes a government of radical democracy which builds communism. But Lenin considered that it was possible to skip all of its stages and go faster by creating a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. An authoritarian society in which the Party held all the levers of power and played the role of a revolutionary vanguard, forcibly pushing the society forward.

The irony of the Soviet regime is that Bakunin (a famous 19th century anarchist) had succeeded in predicting its downfall long before its establishment. He had indeed said that it does not matter whether the dictatorship is conservative or socialist, that distinction does not remove the harmful effects of the dictatorship from it, and the result will be the same in both cases. Thus, by creating a Party dictatorship, supported by a political police, Lenin had in fact only reconstructed the previous regime in new colors. The oppression was no longer monarchical, but it was still there.

70 years later, the harmful effects of an authoritarian regime, coupled with the inefficiency of a socialist interventionist economy, have led to a structural weakening of the regime. This weakness resulted in the collapse of the USSR, this time with the independence of these components.

By 1991, the Soviet Union had become fifteen new independent states. Most of these states initially claimed to follow the path of liberal democracy and market economy. While some have succeeded in this bet (we are thinking in particular of the Baltic countries) others have failed.

The reasons for these failures are numerous but two come to mind in particular: the weakness of the State and a hasty liberalization of the economy. Without effective means of repression, the States could not prevent the creation of a new oligarchic class which succeeded in seizing all the possible economic levers. This oligarchic class then succeeded in infiltrating the corridors of the great presidential and parliamentary palaces of the new independent states.

The decades that followed were as much decades of consolidation of the power of the new groupings in place as a period of unprecedented internal disturbances. One thinks in particular of the “Color Revolutions” of the States of Central Asia or of the Chechen War.

But in 2014, a new process was initiated: reintegration. Indeed, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Armenia have founded a Eurasian Economic Union. Kyrgyzstan joined the organization soon after its inception. This organization aims to bring these States together in the economic field and to draw inspiration from European integration to reconnect with regional integration lost since the fall of the USSR. The objective is also to protect the whole from external interference and to become a geopolitical power in its own right.

Considering that the whole claims to be inspired by the European Union and that this international organization is close to the latter, it is interesting to study its integrative process, especially to try to deduce the future evolution as well as these possible interactions with the European Union. No one disputes, moreover, that European history has influenced the history of Soviet space and vice versa. After all, Europe still has to deal with the consequences of the Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe today.


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