Imperialism. The process of territorial expansion by a state and its establishment of formal sovereignty or domination over subordinate political entities and societies that differ culturally and ethnically from it. The term frequently connotes oppression and exploitation and the fusion of militarism and colonialism.

Ukraine has been the victim of imperialism on the part of its neighbors. Poland, for example, took the western and central Ukrainian lands and all of Belarus as a result of the Union of Krevo (1385) when the Lithuanian ruler Jagiełło married the Polish queen Jadwiga. The most persistent form of imperialism from which Ukraine has suffered was practiced by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, beginning with the policy of expansion and aggrandizement adopted by Muscovy in annexing neighboring principalities, especially Novgorod the Great in 1478, and continuing with the subjugation of the Kazan Tatar Khanate in 1552 and the penetration and annexation of Siberia in 1649. Muscovy obtained the opportunity to penetrate eastern and central Ukraine with the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654, under the guise of aiding the Ukrainian Hetman state that proclaimed its independence from Polish rule in 1648. The renaming of the Muscovite State as the Russian Empire (1721) reflected growing imperial ambitions that included the Russian annexation of Belarus and the territories of Right-Bank Ukraine and Volhynia in the last quarter of the 18th century, with the partitioning of the Polish Commonwealth. The Crimea was annexed in 1783 and Bessarabia in 1812.

Other forms of imperialism undertaken at the expense of Ukraine included that of the Habsburg dynasty’s acquisition of Galicia in 1772 and Bukovyna in 1774. Hungarian claims to non-Magyar ‘lands of the crown of Saint Steven’ included Carpatho-Ukraine and Slovakia. During the Second World War Ukraine was an object of Nazi Germany’s eastward drive for empire and suffered for three years as a battleground for the competing Nazi and Soviet imperialisms.

Imperialism is the outgrowth of various domestic and external circumstances. Muscovite and Russian imperialism was facilitated by the development of autocratic rule and an absolutist political order in the Muscovite State that its rulers acquired while collecting tribute from other principalities on behalf of the Mongol-Tatar authorities. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed the concept of ‘Oriental despotism’ and used it to characterize the Muscovite State and Russia. The subjugation of alien peoples meant that the Muscovite State acquired a diverse population that prevented its future development into a conventional nation-state and impelled it on the course of an empire. Empire-building was also facilitated by taking advantage of opportunities, filling power vacuums, and selecting weakened victims whose subjugation involved little risk. Thus, in the 19th and 20th centuries the Russian Empire expanded in East Asia at the expense of a weakened China that could not defend itself, but this expansion also provoked the ire of Japan and led to Russia’s military defeat in 1905. Russian imperialism also sought to take advantage of the balance of power when it participated in the partition of Poland, when it proposed to Great Britain the partition of the Ottoman Empire, and when it annexed Western Ukraine and Belarus under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Russian quest for empire was sustained by a seemingly unending and obsessive search for ‘security’ by means of annexing contiguous territories and then penetrating into adjacent territories in order to ensure the security of the most recent acquisition.

Russian imperialism has relied heavily on Russian nationalist historiography that had its origins in the imperial designs of Peter I. The official political doctrine of autocracy promoted Russian imperialism. Russian historians have sought to justify expansionism, wars, and colonization as a natural and ‘legitimate’ process of development. The Russian claim to the history of Kyivan Rus’ was designed to broaden the historical and geographical claim of Muscovy and Saint Petersburg, which would have been reduced if Novgorod the Great rather than Kyiv were deemed the precursor of ‘Russia.’ The principal exception in Russian historiography was Mikhail Pokrovsky, a Russian Marxist historian who criticized Russia’s depredations against subject peoples and regarded Russian expansionism as a consequence of the state’s failure to deal with domestic problems. Pokrovsky’s writings were banned as part of Joseph Stalin’s revival of Russian nationalism and subsequently remained in official disfavor.

Rationalization of empire has been provided by the adoption of a messianic role and civilizing mission as evidenced by the idea of Moscow being the Third Rome, and in the views of such Russian Slavophiles as F. Dostoevsky, N. Danilevsky, A. Khomiakov, and F. Tiutchev. Slavophilism depicted Russia as ‘truth-possessing’ and morally superior, as historically destined to redeem humankind. It claimed universality and easily developed into Pan-Slavism, which advocated Russian subjugation of other Slavic (and non-Slavic) peoples, even when they possessed older cultures that were more highly developed than that of the Russians. Justification was also sought in the obsession with obtaining Constantinople and in reviving a reduced Byzantine Empire as part of the Russian imperial plan by delivering the Balkan Christian peoples from Ottoman rule.

Russian expansionism also sought justification in the view that its purpose was the acquisition of ‘warmwater ports.’ This rationale does not explain Muscovy’s acquisition of Siberia, and it ignores the fact that Russia had acquired an ice-free port at Murmansk as early as the 13th century but did not develop it until 1915. The theory was used to rationalize the Soviet claim to Dairen and Port Arthur in Manchuria at the 1945 Yalta Conference.

In the past, Ukraine played a vital role in Russian imperialism. It served as a place d’armes for the acquisition of Russian naval power in the Black Sea, and it enabled the Soviet Union to exert political and military pressure against Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Balkans, and Turkey. Ukraine’s strategic position and its economic and human resources were used to enhance Soviet Russian military capabilities.

Thornton, A. Doctrines of Imperialism (New York 1965)
Seton-Watson, H. The New Imperialism (New York 1971)
Cohen, B. The Question of Imperialism (New York 1973)
Hunczak, T. (ed). Russian Imperialism from Ivan the Great to the Revolution (New Brunswick, NJ 1974)
Pap, M. (ed). Russian Empire: Some Aspects of Tsarist and Soviet Colonial Practice (Cleveland 1985)

John Reshetar

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 2 (1988).]

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