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The Russian Empire and the World 1700-1917 The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment Review

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Geopolitics is a risky business, because all too often reality doesn't actually match up too well with what geopolitics has to say. Russia is probably the country which more than any other has been the subject of analysis for geopolitics, with great and airy predictions about Russia's drive for power, its hunt for warm water ports, its expansionism, its hard-headed realpoltik, its continent-spanning empire, the inherent struggle for power between a continental power like Russia and the sea powers of Britain or the United States - all of it arriving at the conclusion of English geographdf Mackinder in his belief of Russia as a heartland and dominating world affairs and events. And yet of course, Russia in the end was humbled by the coastal powers of Mackinder's writings, falling apart in the struggle with the United States and its allies during the Cold War. Russia may have been the pivot of history, but throughout the 20th century, history has failed to turn on it. Geopolitics has proven to be just as unreliable as scientific history in predicting the future.

But perhaps it does better in studying the past. After all, there is no need to draw future conclusions, and the evidence is directly available. John P. LeDonne's work, The Russian Empire and the World 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment aims to show how geopolitics drove Russian expansion and how Russia undertook its expansion, as it expanded across the heartland of Eurasia to dominate from the Vistula to the Pacific. Covering a centuries long period, with multiple theaters from the West to the Ottoman Empire to Persia and Central Asia to China and the Pacific, this lengthy and impressively detailed work also recounts the other side of the affair - the relationship of the Germanic powers, Austria and Prussia, to Russia and their attempt to constrain it, and the Western European powers of Britain and Russia and their intermittent attempts to contain Russian power. There are inherently massive flaws due to the geopolitical set up of the book, but it manages to provide a cohesive and wide-ranging history of the Russian Empire, one which helps the reader to better understand the processes and opposition of Russian expansion.


LeDonne divides Eurasia into the Heartland in red, the Coastland in the West, and Monsoon Coastland of China and India.

LeDonne divides Eurasia into the Heartland in red, the Coastland in the West, and Monsoon Coastland of China and India.

The book's organization is not strictly chronological, although its individual sections are. Its introduction lays out the geography of the Heartland region of Eurasia, both internally and its borders, the core areas that he would cover throughout the book as rivals, competitors, and zones of influence in the great game played by Russia and other nations, various expansion concepts he would use throughout the book such as a close border policy intended to firmly separate zones, fortress fleet to protect coastlines, forward policy to expand the border forward, and fleet in being of a navy capable of projecting power.

After this there are the various sections about each frontier zone of the Russian Empire, starting with the West, covering Russia's attempt to puppet or establish protectorates over Sweden and Poland, where it carried out a policy of destabilization and encouraging the defense of "liberties" - restrictions on governmental authority which handicapped Poland and Sweden attempting to effectively respond to Russia's growing might. Partition of Poland and the limitations of this policy in Sweden receive their share, as well the struggle with Napoleonic France and the naval defensive policy of Russia in the Baltic.

After the Western Frontier comes the Ottoman Empire and the Caucasus, with the multiple Russian wars against the Ottomans which drove them back and repeatedly took territory from them, but also the issue of Russia having to either choose friendly relations with the Ottomans to open access to the world through the Dardanelles, or hostility to take territory from them, and the Russian policy of destabilization and pan-Slavic influence in the Balkans which carried its own contradiction of Slavic nationalism and competition from other powers which prevented the Russians from achieving the same domination that they achieved in Eastern Europe. Iran also was the target of Russian expansion, where the Russians sought to destabilize Iran and keep it under their influence.

The Eastern frontier of Russia is the final zone to be analyzed, with Russia's drive across Siberia and its competition and cooperation with the Qing Chinese, which enabled the Russians to gradually expand across the continent. When the Qing began to fall apart, the Russians supported them, again to take advantage of the disintegration from the outside, gaining territory and influence, but faced the rise of Japan and its meteoric entrance into modernity, which turned awry Russian plans for domination of the East. But Russia and Japan would ultimately reconcile after the Russo-Japanese War, a cooperation which promised to deliver Northern China to them until collapse at home in Russia brought an end to Russian plans.

After this containment is the subject of the next two chapters. The first starts with the Austrians and Prussians and their attempts to contain Russia, undermined by their own mutual hatred for each other, and the apex of Russian power over them after Russian victory over Napoleon, which reduced them to buffers and satellites of Russia. But in the end the rise of Germany would come to meet its revenge on Russia, and topple the Russian Empire. Britain and France come next, with the coastal (ie. the Western European) powers trading off in hostility or friendship to Russia, the French hostile in the 18th century, the British in the 19th, as they sought to contain Russia but were tempted by Russian friendship to gain allies against competing powers. Ultimately the rise of Germany meant that Russia would enter into an alliance with the coastal powers, after a century long containment effort by the British.

The conclusion recaps themes from the book.

John P. LeDonne's work is definitively a work of geopolitics. This is both its greatest strength, and also its greatest weakness. The strength is that it is able to present a cohesive depiction of Russia's expansion, its strategy and objectives, and the tools which Russia used for this expansion: the negative is that these sometimes come off more as the author's interpretation of Russia, with only limited linkages to Russia itself, being more caught up in the age-old foreign reading of Russia that often has little to do with Russia and its people. Perhaps Russia really is like LeDonne writes, with a Machiavellian and brutally and chillingly inexorable expansionist tendency, driven only by power - but it is hard to say for sure, since the book comes off as LeDonne's idea of Russia more than letting Russia speak and mobilizing historical sources to attest to this.

Generalizations can also be included in the work and represent one of the flaws. Consider Japan, where the book applies the same methodology as to other zones like Poland, Sweden, or Persia, and where a "rotting process" is expounded, one where Russia supported the conservative faction (the Shogunate) in an effort to encourage this rotting process (the Japanese quagmire at the end of the Shogunate before the Meiji Restoration) to accelerate and for Russia to be able to pick off the exterior or even gain access to this core region, just as Russia kept Poland and Sweden disunited and unstable in an effort to secure control over them and bite away from them at their expense. It introduces the corollary that the coastal powers, its group of countries which means Britain, France, and to a lesser extent Germany and Austria, meanwhile, were opposed to the Shogunate, out of their interest in a strong Japan to contain Russia. This is a grave exaggeration, since while the British did support the Meiji Restoration, the French were definitively ranged upon the side of the Shogunate. Postulating the Shogunate as purely reactive and conservative government ignores the substantial efforts it made in the effort of Japanese modernization and development in its waning days, and that the Meiji supporters to foreign powers would not appear in the slightest as being enthusiastic modernizers of the country - after all, they seemed to be composed of samurai and traditionalists bent on expelling the foreign barbarians and a return to isolationism. The entire situation is simplified, inaccurately, in order to present a neat depiction of a uniform Coastland/Heartland divide over clearly distinct factions.

This emphasis on the "rotting process" is representative of a greater tendency in the book to play around with terms, ideas, principles, without elaborating the reasons behind them. This is most clear in regards to Russia: Russia throughout the book appears as a dynamic, expanding, power, one which enforced its will upon a vast expanse of Asia and Europe, the single largest land power in the world. Not much in the way of mention of Russian weakness is made, other than noting some poor economic performance on the part of the Russian Empire - until its chapter on the German attempt at containment of the Russian Empire, when suddenly it is the Russians, not other powers, who receive the moniker of being in the midst of the "rotting process". Russia's relative decline compared to other powers appears clear in hindsight, but the factors for why Russia could now be defined as entering the rotting process - at the same time of the continuing expansion of the territory of the Empire in Persia, Central Asia, and in East Asia -are not elaborated. Furthermore, it bears the imprint of hindsight - Russia lost the First World War, which meant it was weakening, which meant it was in the rotting process. But there was nothing inherently inevitable about the disastrous Russian performance in the First World War, as there are plenty of scenarios involving Russian armies performing better and the Russian Empire surviving and winning the First World War. Would the moniker of a "rotting process" have been applied to Russia in this circumstance? Presumably not - which is the author's great Turkish chess player, that he knows what happens historically and he contrives to fit the past into his narrative of development of Russia, and contrives to manipulate the past to achieve this.

This is amplified by the lack of voice and agency that LeDonne gives to Russian policy makers themselves. LeDonne makes it clear that his work is not about the individual actions of Russian leaders, generals, emperors, but rather about the general nature of Russian expansion, about the forces which propelled Russia onward to the conquest of a continent. Were Russian leaders completely motivated by realpoltik like LeDonne states? Or were there ideological elements which entered too into their calculations? Surely Russian leaders in their support of conservative factions which aimed to defend traditional rights and privileges were not merely doing so because of their interest in undermining and sabotaging other nations, but because these ideologies genuinely matched closer to what the Russians considered as their own ideological preference - conservative defense of tradition? Russian leaders almost never give themselves their own reasons, in their own words, of what their policies were and why they carried them out in foreign countries - but foreign leaders do receive approving quotation, such as Lord Curzon, Viceroy of British India, who spoke of the Russians as aiming to undermine and destabilize Persia. Curzon may have been right - but shouldn't a Russian figure have been quoted for the idea of carrying out this policy? The same about Russia's supposed eternal search for a warm water port, which doesn't include actual Russian justifications for such a measure.

These are all the traditional flaws of geopolitics, with its lack of attention to individuals, its tendency to generalizations, its projection, its concentration on fears of outsiders rather than the intentions of those of the object of study, its obsession with monolithic and unstoppable expansion, and the lack of interest for soft factors, who are sacrificed on the altar of cold, hard, power. LeDonne's work is LeDonne's vision, one where he shapes things to fit what he perceives Russia's development and expansion as having been. But e does have the advantage that despite all of the flaws that he has, he manages to give a remarkably consistent vision of Russia's foreign policy and expansion over the centuries, to write of it in sweeping terms, to do so in areas where Russia's foreign policy is little covered otherwise (such as in the period following the Russo-Japanese war between Russia and Japan, where the book gives an excellent look at the rapprochement between the two states), and which introduces vital concepts about the nature of Russian expansion with close and forward frontier policies, and the idea of fortress fleets or fleets in being.

Certainly, LeDonne's book is flawed, and I would place greater faith in any particular subject in being covered by a more conventional volume, but it does give a good idea of some of the geopolitical relationships covering Russia's expansion, how it facilitated this forward march, the principles behind Russia's expansion, and the strategic influences which worked upon it. As an introduction to the subject or as a way to tie together a variety of works on Russian foreign policy, it is a very useful book. Even if it could have presented a less abstract and more supported account of the expansion of the Russian Empire, it still is to be congratulated for the breadth, depth, and completeness: anyone interested in Russia's expansion and foreign relations will find it a profitable read.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.