The two continental powers have strong parallels throughout history
This is the first in a two-part series about Russian multiculturalism
There are many curious historical similarities between Russia and the United States, even if on one first glance they appear like each other’s antithesis: one is an ultra-democratic republic, the other an empire once ruled by a divinely-ordained autocrat; one is characterised by an almost naïve optimism about the human spirit and the arc of history, the other a caustic humour about the injustices of life.
Yet there is something to the similarities. Both were driven by expansion towards the Pacific and their own version of manifest destiny, and both united by a universalising religion that made them different to normal countries. As E.H. Carr put it: ‘the conception that Russia was not merely a nation among nations, but had a unique mission to transcend nationality by becoming the archetype of universal humanity, became a central tenet of the Slavophil creed.’ Today America sees itself explicitly as a ‘proposition nation’, a sort-of empire with no unifying ancestry but defined by values — a liberal caliphate, as one man put it.
This is one of many thoughts I came away with from reading Krishan Kumar’s fascinating Visions of Empire, a study of five empires and the guiding vision that drove them. Kumar looks at empires as systems that evolved in different contexts, with different purposes and justifications, and analyses them with a refreshing lack of moral absolutism. None of the empires he tracks — the Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian, British and French, as well as the Roman — were entirely malevolent or benevolent, because no successful, long-lasting empire can be; and there were few as long lasting as the Russian.
All empires develop a guiding ideology or mission, usually to civilise the world and spread their universal mission; this was a theme running through the Roman, British and French empires, the latter most of all with its la mission civilisatrice. As Kumar writes: ‘Whereas the Ottomans and the Habsburgs and even the British would accept and even promote difference, for the French it seemed inconceivable that, once exposed to French culture, everyone would not wish to share in that culture to the fullest extent possible, to become, in a word, French.’ They wouldn’t be French if they didn’t think that.