Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals

Book Cover

Book Title

Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals. United States: Yale University Press, 2001


Lieven, Dominic


In this book, Lieven aims to discuss Russian empires in an international context. He compares the tsarist empire and the Soviet Union to its contemporary rivals, the British, Ottoman and Habsburg empires, claiming that there are both key similarities and differences and that their existence affected Russian geopolitical decisions. Lieven is also however interested in a more general discussion of the definition of “empire” and what such a label entails, even going so far as to reach backward to the ancient Roman and Chinese Eastern Han empires for points of reference and comparison. Lieven makes it a point to highlight the fact that the Russian empires were unique in various ways, and that the logic often imposed on Western European maritime empires cannot be applied to them. Russian uniqueness in terms of geography, ethnicity and ideology places it in a category of its own.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Lieven opens the book with a section on the concept of empire and the characteristics shared by most imperial entities. He makes it clear here that the tsarist empire and the Soviet Union both do not possess their traits, but nevertheless are classified as empires. He also makes constant reference to the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the word “empire”, noting that Russia would be loathe to admit that it was one because of its connotations with capitalist exploitation. The label of “empire”, therefore, either praises or condemns; it has strong political ramifications. He clarifies that he does not subscribe to the morality play of the empire being dismantled in favor of the democratic nation-state.

Lieven then moves on to introduce his comparative case studies: the British, Ottoman and Habsburg empires, rivals of the Russian empire. This is to provide geopolitical context for the following section on the Russian empire itself, from the 16th century to the watershed year of 1917. He also discusses the Soviet Union, in existence from 1945 to 1991, as a unique empire. Finally, he discusses the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the transition of old colonies to independent republics.

In conclusion, Lieven’s geographical scope and time frame are not limited to the Russian empires alone. In fact, he takes great liberties in exploring other empires, either for comparison, or to provide more insight on the definition of “empire”.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Lieven’s discussion ultimately points to the uniqueness of the Russian empires. It is neither European nor Asian, but trod into or dangerously near both regions: the Russians expanded into Central Asia, the steppes, and the Trans-Caucasus region. It is clear that the Russian empires were neither European nor Asian when Lieven remarks that they had different attitudes toward their possessions in both regions. In Asia, they were filled with a sense of superiority and with the responsibility of “civilizing” lesser peoples; in Europe, they were debilitated by overwhelming vulnerability. Lieven points out that this vulnerability was as much a factor in expansionist policies as was the Russian instinct for territory.

More fundamentally, the Russians had a completely different concept of empire from their European counterparts. Firstly, they were largely a land-based empire in which the navy was an Achilles heel; in contrast, European expansion was maritime in nature. Secondly, the Europeans associated “empire” with the exploration of a whole new world—but Russia’s land-based expansion meant that they conquered peoples they were already familiar with. Thus, the Russian idea of empire did not carry with it a sense of “otherness”. Moreover, Russia simply did not have the financial resources to indulge in the luxury of indirect rule; while the British could win the sultans of Malaya over by providing large pensions, the Russian expansionists could only gain and maintain territory through brute force—military mobilization through peasant conscriptions was a forte.

Lieven also discusses the reasons for the Russian empire’s success in the 18th century and decline in the 19th century. The 18th century was blessed with two extremely competent monarchs, Peter I and Catherine II. Their autocratic rule resulted in the brutal but efficient exploitation of manpower for expansionist purposes. The 19th century, however, saw rulers struggle with weak domestic legitimacy and the division into rival ministerial empires, which compromised their abilities to hold territories abroad.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip