Approaches to empires



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By the end of the century two contradictory processes coexisted within the ministerial bureaucracies. On the one hand there was an important shift in the composition of the bureaucratic elite. The core was composed overwhelmingly of Russians who were committed to spreading Russian language and culture throughout the imperial borderlands, "to turn as much as possible of their empire into something resembling a Russian nation."92 On the other hand there was the emergence of a new generation of enlightened, reforming bureaucrats who had no direct connection with the first generation trained in the reign of Nicholas I but who envisaged carrying to a conclusion the unfinished business of the Great Reforms. They were responsible for launching the industrial development of the 1890s and drafting the Stolypin reforms.93 Over the past two decades western scholars have disagreed over the effectiveness and efficiency of the Russian bureaucracy. In one camp there are those who stress the evidence of higher levels of education, growing professionalization of outlook and a stronger commitment to legality although they recognize that the process was uneven in different ministries and between the center and the provinces.94 In the other camp are those who emphasize the persistence of patron client relationships, the absence of a unified bureaucratic system and the failure to create a genuine rule of law (Rechtsstaat).95 Both sides concur that deep tensions split the bureaucracy into factions.96 There is general agreement that in the reign of Nicholas II the bureaucracy became increasingly isolated from society on the one hand and detached from the person of the tsar on the other. Nicholas had exchanged the role of a managerial tsar standing above and mediating the bureaucratic conflicts to an interventionist tsar who endorsed one political course of action.97 The peculiar strength of the bureaucracy proved in the long run to be a fatal weakness. It had provided the empire not only with a group of increasingly well-trained and hard-working civil servants but had served as the main arena of politics where conflicting points of view could be advanced and debated. Following the creation of a State Duma and the growing hostility of the tsar to any sign of opposition to his rigid political outlook, whether on the floor of the Duma or within the imperial chancelleries, the bureaucracy lost its main function as the link between the autocrat and the people.

The responses of imperial bureaucracies to external threats and internal crises demonstrates the fallacy of most theories of decline. The long histories of the Eurasian empires reveal periods of crisis and renewal, not to be sure in any regular cyclical fashion, but rather in response to the specific challenges to the imperial system. Although their functions and procedures were routinized in the Weberian sense, they shared with intellectuals, literati and religious thinkers the same educational system that exposed them to the ethical sources whether ancient concepts of kingship, the Koran, Confucian Analects, Christian theologies or secular humanism in the shape of the Enlightenment. Except for the Habsburg Monarchy reform from above through bureaucratic means pre-dated Western influences and was rooted in indigenous cultures. The challenge to imperial bureaucracies from Western ideas was of a wholly different magnitude. It posed the problem of how to justify change that appeared to be culturally subversive. Although there were numerous attempts within the imperial bureaucracies to reconcile the contradiction, none of them succeeded. It had been considerably easier to absorb, adjust to or bargain with the invasive steppe cultures that had comparatively few permanent institutions than to incorporate the complex cultures of the west.

* * *

The ability of empires to manage their frontiers was the third measure of their longevity. The term management is preferable to that of defense because the process involved more than a construction of military lines. A variety of techniques were employed ranging from trade and tribute to repressive population movements as well as the traditional use of armed force. The multiplicity of means developed during the long history of relationships between the sedentary empires and the steppe, on the one hand, and among the competing empires themselves, on the other hand.



The following section seeks to locate Eurasian frontiers within a general typology of frontiers, analyze their shared characteristics, identify intense zones of conflict to be called complex frontiers and outline the persistent importance of frontiers in shaping state institutions and ideologies. Eurasian Empires represent a series of variations on three major types of frontiers: the west European state frontier, the Islamic frontier and the dynamic frontier.98 The Habsburg and Russian frontiers, like their symbol of the imperial double eagle, face in two directions involving them in two kinds of frontier experience. Their boundaries with European states share common characteristics with the west European sub-type - stable and well defined by an international treaty system. But to the southeast for centuries the Habsburgs faced the Islamic type - military and culturally contested while the Russians faced a dynamic frontier with its sedentary agricultural population advancing against a nomadic culture. The Ottoman and Iranian empires belong to the Islamic type both in their relationship to one another - Sunni versus Sh'ia - and with the non-Islamic world at least until the eighteenth century when they were forcibly drawn into defining their frontiers facing the Habsburg and Russian empires along the lines of the West European state system. The Chinese belongs to the dynamic type. Their centuries old interaction with the nomadic world culminated in modern times with the advance of their sedentary agricultural population into the grasslands and the establishment of a West European type state boundary with Russia. Thus the history of imperial frontiers is one of great complexity and change in response not only to external wars but also to a shift in ecological conditions and population movements. Once again it is a testimony to the flexibility of imperial structures that they were able to cope with a great variety of frontier conditions, adopt to the expansion, contraction and cultural transformation of their state boundaries.

Despite the variations in the types of their frontiers, the Eurasian empires shared a set of ecological and cultural features that were shaped by the process of empire-building in the early modern period and continued to evolve down to their dissolution or their political reconfiguration in the early twentieth century. They may be summarized as follows: 1) military contest zones of rival multi-cultural empires with culturally homogenous core areas edged by culturally heterogenous peripheries; 2) meeting grounds of settled, semi-nomadic and nomadic populations and of mixed ethno-linguistic and religious groups; 3) continuous cross border interactions ranging from trade and tribute to smuggling, raiding and warfare; 4) a high level of population movement including migration, colonization and deportation; 5) ambiguous loyalties on the part of the peoples of the frontier zones toward their sovereign overlords combined with strong cultural and often political ties to their religious, or ethno-linguistic counterparts across the boundary line; 6) inconsistent frontier policies on the part of the central imperial administration oscillating between offense and defense, bargaining and repression in order to maintain security and stability in the frontier zones.99

Along the Eurasian frontiers there have been five "flash points" or complex frontier zones where three or more imperial powers have competed with one another for influence or outright control. Their geographic location may be sketched in roughly as follows: the western Balkans (triplex confinium) where the leading contestants for over three centuries were the Habsburg Empire, the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire; the Pontic steppe where the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia and the Ottoman Empire competed in the early modern period and left a legacy that burdened their successors in the first half of the twentieth century; the Caucasian knot where the Ottoman, Iranian and Russian empires clashed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the Inner Asian where Mongol (Dzhungar), Russian and Chinese empires - and their successors - competed and the Far Eastern which from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century involved the Russian, Chinese and Japanese. The competition underwent a number of permutations, particularly with the intervention of latecomers, the British at key points along the southern perimeter of the Russian frontiers and the rise of the flank empires of Germany and Japan in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.100

In addition to the military and diplomatic competition of consolidated state powers, these complex frontier zones were the arenas of periodic conflicts among the indigenous populations. Consequently, there arose a particular kind of frontier culture among the local population as a response to the shifting boundaries, the mix of ethno-linguistic and religious traditions and the sheer necessity of survival. For example, in the western Balkans the quintessential frontier peoples were the Uskoks, in the Pontic steppe the Cossacks who played a similar role in the Caucasus along with certain north Caucasus tribes, and in the Far East Mongol and Manchu bannermen. These complex frontier societies were characterized by a high level of cross-cultural interaction and borrowing as well as ambiguous political loyalties.101 The intensity, duration and participants, both imperial states and indigenous peoples, in these perennial zones of conflicts have varied over time. Yet they retained their explosive potential well into the twentieth century and in some cases to the present time.

Recent literature has demonstrated that the imperial management of frontiers was not a one way process. The imperial governments were obliged to bargain, to modify their policies or even to abandon them in the face of resistance by the indigenous peoples. Relations between the imperial center and the borderlands was just as often a matter of negotiation as it was of dictation. The impact of the frontier on the social and cultural as well as the political attitudes and decisions of the imperial center is only now beginning to be explored systematically. Much of Chinese history, for example, is being reconceptualized in terms of the impact of the "conquest dynasties" of Inner Asia (Khitans, Tanguts, Jurchens, Mongols and Manchus) as well as the persistent problem of managing the frontiers occupied by non-Han peoples stretching from Yunnan and Tibet through Xingiang and Mongolia to Manchuria.102

In the case of Iran all the ruling dynasties from the Seljuks to the end of the Qajar Empire had their origins in tribal confederacies on the periphery of the country except for the Safavids which had nevertheless a strong Turcomen component.

As one leading authority has put it: "Tribal groups have occupied Iran's border regions for centuries because the peripheries of state power were where the tribal formation flourished and tribal groups endured."103 Western scholars interpret differently the relationship between tribes and the state. Some place emphasis on the evolution from tribal societies to state formations while others focus on the coexistence and interaction of tribes and the state.104 But both agree that the frontier problem was central to an understanding of the history of the country.

In Iran messianic Sufi sects provided a common ideological bond for the opposition of tribes in the frontier zones to a centralized state. But once the tribal leaders had taken power they also provided a great potential and at times an active force in integrating and legitimizing the new state power. This was the pattern with the Turkish type of warrior dynast who assumed the mantle of protectors of Islam without claiming a religious role for themselves. But even they routinely replaced their messianic followers in the armed forces with new armies (although they used tribesmen as auxiliary troops), and recruited experienced administrators to help them rule. The Safavid shahs were rather exceptional. To be sure once in power they turned against their own Qizilbashi (Turcomen) soldiers and replaced them with a Georgian slave army. They also recruited experienced Persian (Farsi) administrators to staff government institutions. But, as we have seen, they represented themselves as quasi-divine figures, persecuted the Sufi sects and relied upon the Shi'a ulama to help reduce the turbulent tribal societies on the periphery. In order to prevent the tribes from building a new political base, the Safavids also resorted to deportation of potentially troublesome confederations near the political center to the periphery of the empire.105

As a sub-type of Islamic frontier the Ottoman Empire faced a highly diverse set of frontiers which in their complexity can only be compared with the Russian. Both faced imperial rivals in three complex frontier zones. Both bordered on several very distinctive civilizations, representing many branches of the Christian and Muslim faiths. The roots of the Ottoman Empire, like those of many Iranian dynasties, grew in a frontier environment, in their case between the Seljuk and Byzantine Empires in the fourteenth century. The Turkomen tribes that migrated to this region from Central Asia united two traditions, the nomadic warrior or gazi and the Islamic. The first was centered on raiding, migration and territorial expansion according to the principle "take the wealth of they neighbor." The second, adopted by their early leaders, provided them with a spiritual zeal and ideological legitimization of conquest together with the foundations for a new set of stable cultural and political institutions. As in Iran these two principles produced a basic tension within the Ottoman frontier policies that became more pronounced as the expansion of the empire slowed and then virtually ceased.106

After 1699 when the Treaty of Karlowitz ended a long war with the Habsburgs, the Ottoman frontier policy shifted away from the ever-expanding frontier justified by jihad, to a more defensive posture resting on frontier fortresses, mediation, and fixed boundaries. The consequences for the stability of the empire were mixed. An abandonment of the traditional political legitimacy sparked internal rebellions by artisans, soldiers and ulama, like that of 1703 that briefly drove the sultan from Istanbul. Throughout the eighteenth century the local elites on the periphery of the empire increasingly challenged the appointees of the center, the governors and their servitors. These emerging provincial aristocracies, together with the old tribal elites, controlled the main source of recruits for the militia that the government came more and more to rely upon for the defense of the frontiers. The militia were compose of non-Turkish but Muslim minorities - Kurds, Tatars, Georgians, Circassians and Albanians - from the frontier zones where competition for their services were shared by the Russian and to a lesser extent the Habsburg empires. The price for increased reliance on militia was a decline in discipline, an increase in plundering by armed, often rebellious subjects on the frontier.107

The changing demographic and social structure of the Turkish and Christian populations of the Balkans further weakened the Ottoman hold on the region. After the sixteenth century the central government was no longer able to resort to its traditional policy of surgun, the compulsory deportation of Turks from Anatolia to the frontier provinces which had played such an important role in the Turkization of parts of southeastern Europe.108 For example, no Turks were settled in the depopulated areas of the Hungarian plain after the long wars at the beginning of the seventeenth century. For reasons specific to the reproductive cultures of the Muslim and Christian populations, the former steadily lost ground to the latter. The Christian populations developed various protective forms like the extended family (zadruga) and other socio-economic associations that provided them with a resilient structure. In the nineteenth century became under the guidance of secular-oriented intellectuals they were the mainstay of broadly based insurrections and national independence movements.109

The Ottoman Empire was more successful on its Islamic frontiers. It proved more effective than its Iranian rival in subordinating the tribal elements to the interests of the state. From the late fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries, in eastern Anatolia, the Ottomans were used their slave infantry and artillery in order to repress a series of revolts by Turkish nomadic tribes led by Sufi opponents of the centralizing state. Thereafter the main concentrations of tribal societies were held at a distance from the center of power in the North Arabian desert, Upper Egypt and the southern regions of North Africa.110

In the period of reforms in the mid-nineteenth century (Tanzimat) the Ottoman government moved by stages to bring the borderlands into the new system. First they multiplied the activities of the state bureaucracy at the local level, constructed schools and hospitals. Then they shifted from dealing with collectivities to individuals in the land codes and census. Finally, they encouraged the transformation from a subsistence and barter economy to the marketing of crops. The reforms were more readily accepted on the Arab periphery than in the Balkans.111

In the Southern Caucasus Ottoman frontier policy was always more successful along the Black Sea Coast than in the highlands of Armenia and Kurdistan. The Circassians and Georgians were drawn into the maritime commercial life dominated by the Turks and supplied highly valued slaves to the armies and harems of the sultan. But once the Turks attempted to drive the Iranians out of the highlands they suffered at the hands of the mountain tribes from the same kind of guerilla resistance to their conquest that was to slow the Russians advance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.112

The Russian Empire's management of its frontiers revolved around problems that were similar to if not identical with those facing the Ottoman Turks. The major difference that distinguished the Russian frontiers from that of other Eurasian Empires was the dual role of the state and people, between an expansion that was planned and systematic and one that was spontaneous and difficult for the center to control. Among the problems shared with the Ottomans, the two most pressing were the wide range of cultures and peoples surrounding the ethno-territory core lands (Russian and Turkish) and the porous or permeable nature of the frontier zones. The impulses behind the dynamic expansion of Russia's frontiers was the need to enlarge its resource base and the flight of the population either escaping from state obligations and persecution or seeking greater economic opportunities and wealth. The state sought to bring under its control the outlets to the sea of the major rivers constituting the internal communications system - the Western Dvina, Dniepr and Volga. It also promoted or supported the extension of frontiers to the south and east in order to gain control of rich agricultural land and the sources of wealth from furs, fish, salt and metals, mainly coal and gold. To the east and south the Russians encountered a wide variety of tribal societies at different stages of development from Siberian hunters and gatherers to pastoral nomads like the Nogai and Kalmyks and semi-nomads like the Crimean Tatars. To the west the frontiers adjoined those more similar to European states.

Into the eighteenth century the boundary lines of the Russian Empire were ill defined even where the state had constructed fortified lines and easily crossed or penetrated. The vast distances, absence of well defined natural or "national" (ethno-linguistic) demarkation lines, sparse population and the cultural predispositions of the nomads and semi-nomads all contributed to the extensive cross-border movements. In the early periods up to the eighteenth century, from the Russian side these movements took the form of runaway serfs, flight of religious sectarians, freebooters, gangs (vatgi) of fishermen or hunters, smugglers. From the other side, mainly the steppe, herdsmen with their flocks and raiders seeking slaves or plunder.

As the Russian advance encountered areas contested by other empires it found itself engaged at several points in tripartite, complex frontier rivalries such as those in the Pontic steppe with the Ottoman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the South Caucasus with the Ottoman and Persian Empires, Inner Asia with the Mongolian (Dzhungar) and Chinese Empires (and later in the nineteenth century in the Far East with the Chinese and Japanese Empires. The people of the frontier zones that separated the rival empires were themselves polyethnic and divided giving rise to what Owen Lattimore called "the tendency to equivocal loyalty", to go with the winning side at moments of crisis.113 The potential for large-scale wars arising from these encounters was a matter of serious concern on the part of the imperial elites.

Given the extensive and persistent problems associated with permeable, polyethnic frontiers, imperial elites adopted a variety of strategies not always either consistent or coordinated, but which contributed to prolonging the life of the empire. One recent interpretation goes so far as to maintain that the longevity of the empire can be attributed to the very lack of system in governing the periphery and the application of different methods of rule according to local conditions.114

With a different emphasis Michael Khodarkovsky argues that Russia's frontier policy was "a deliberate process with varying motives and polices, to be sure, but consistent in its objectives of expansion and colonization of the new regions and peoples."115 His analysis of the variety of strategies employed against the tribal-nomadic societies of the steppe may be summarized roughly under seven points: 1) divide and conquer or, in the Chinese version turn the barbarian against the barbarian, including the manipulation of exiles for purposes of blackmail and the extension of protection of one faction against another; 2) the creation of client-patron relationships as with the Don Cossacks, Kazakhs and khanates of Central Asia by signing of treaties or taking oaths of allegiance with ambivalent meanings open to manipulation by Moscow; 3) the use of Cossacks as an advanced frontier force, also a risky business given their uncertain loyalties; 4) actively promoting an advancing line of settlements along two tracks, first, the construction of forts and fortified lines and second colonization and turning of pasture to plough lands; 5) conversion to Christianity inconsistently applied and ranging from extreme violence in the period of Elizabeth Petrovna to the toleration of Catherine II; 6) the employment of frontier administrators drawn from local elites who had been converted and russified; 7) the administrative and legal incorporation of frontier lands into the imperial system accompanied by shifting representations of the "other" reflecting the intellectual currents of the time.116

As the Russian Empire gradually evolved from a frontier society to a multi-cultural state with fixed boundaries and imperial borderlands on its periphery its policies also shifted.


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