Russian History

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Why did Russia want to expand its empire?

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The drive to expand Russian territory was rooted in several factors. One of the most important of these factors was awareness of Russia’s exposed geographical position, which had led to various invasions by peoples from Central Asia. The greatest of these invasions, that of the Mongol Empire, resulted in two centuries of domination by the Mongols and their successors. Even after Mongol power was broken, a number of Mongol successor states, or khanates, persisted on Russia’s borders. As part of an effort to make its frontiers more secure against the khanates, Russia pushed outward against them in a series of wars that steadily expanded its territory. Thus the Kazan khanate was conquered by Ivan the Terrible, and later Peter the Great made repeated attempts to conquer the Crimean khanate, a project completed by Catherine the Great.

The campaigns against the khanates led to conflicts with other major powers, most notably the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Wars with Turkey were driven not by a sense of insecurity, but by religious and imperial impulses. It was Russia’s goal as late as the First World War to liberate the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), from Turkish rule because Russia’s Orthodox Christian rulers hoped to restore Constantinople to the Orthodox Church. Before its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Constantinople had been the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the religious center of the Orthodox Christian world. Seeing itself as successor to Byzantium and defender of Orthodoxy, Russia therefore hoped to liberate the city from the Ottomans and to restore Orthodox Christianity to the region.

However, geopolitical and imperialist ambitions also drove Russian expansionism. While a city like Constantinople had important historical ties to Russia, it had even greater strategic importance. Not only does it stand at the gateway to southern Europe and western Asia, it lies on the straits that link Russia to the Mediterranean Sea. So long as the Ottoman Turks or another hostile power controlled Constantinople, the straits could be closed at will, cutting off Russia from access to trade and resources, and keeping much of Russian sea power confined to the Black Sea.

Geopolitical concerns also influenced Russia expansion to the west, where Russia came into conflict with Sweden, Poland, and the Habsburg Empire. The conflict with Sweden arose over Peter the Great’s effort to secure access to the Baltic Sea, which would bring with it increased trade from countries like England. Peter also wanted to have a warm-water port for the Russian navy (which was another reason why he hoped to add Crimea and its ports to the Russian Empire); following the defeat of Sweden, Peter founded the new city of Saint Petersburg, which not only became a major port, but also the new capital of Russia.

Expansion to the west also led to conflict with Poland and the Habsburg Empire. In collaboration with the Habsburgs and Prussia, Russia partitioned Poland in the late 1700s, and it acquired a large chunk of central Poland following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Its relations with Habsburg Austria were marked by rivalry for influence in southeastern Europe, where the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decay. Here Russia’s justification for involvement was the ethnic character of many of the region’s peoples, which was Slavic. As the largest Slavic state, Russia assumed responsibility for protecting the interests of Slavs in southeastern Europe. Ultimately, however, this policy contributed to the outbreak of World War One, when Russia tried to prevent Austria’s invasion of Slav-ruled Serbia in 1914.

Imperialist motives were the main factor at work in Russia’s expansion across Siberia to the Pacific. Absorption of the khanates to the east allowed Russia access to the rich resources of Siberia and East Asia. Ultimately Russia annexed all of Siberia, plus Alaska, and it laid claim to the American west coast as far south as California. Russia subsequently abandoned its American claims and territories, but it concentrated on developing the Russian Far East by founding cities like Vladivostok. It also tried to enhance its commercial and military position by extending its influence into northern China, acquiring a port at Dairen and railroad rights in Manchuria. These efforts were destroyed, however, when Japan defeated Russian military forces in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

The reasons for Russian expansion can therefore be seen as both numerous and complex. While some reasons can be found in Russia’s vulnerable geographic position and its religious-historical links to other societies, others stem from geopolitical ambitions to turn Russia into a great power both in Europe and in Asia.

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