Is Russia Too Big?

Has Russia's problem throughout history been that it is simply too big? Can any nation state be too big? Well frankly . . . yes, especially if it's impossible to achieve a balance between it geography, population, economy, and society.

During the three hundred years of Romanov rule between 1613 and 1917, Russia's geographical boundaries expanded immensely and its organisation and function changed drastically. At the same time these social, economic and, most vitally, strategic concerns were being revolutionised so too was warfare itself. The development of disciplined, professional armies using effective muskets transformed tactics in the seventeenth century. The advent of mass armies equipped with rapid firing artillery and later machine guns by the end of the nineteenth century led to warfare of unprecedented scale and brutality.

Over the three centuries of Romanov rule Russia became steadily more integrated into the European states system and steadily more concerned with affairs further afield than simply her own frontiers. As a result, Russian armies found themselves in Berlin during the Seven Years War, Italy during the War of the Second Coalition, and in Paris in 1814-15. Russia was also attacked during this period by French, British, Austrian, Prussian and German troops, in addition to the 'regular' wars against Poland, Turkey and Sweden.

This huge scope of operations, which covered almost the entire European continent, posed two crippling challenges to Russia. First, it required Russia to be able to project and maintain forces far beyond her boundaries in support of her continent-spanning interests and objectives. Second, it required Russia to be prepared to defend the great extent of her boundaries from any one of several potential enemies at all times. The strain of attempting to meet this challenge led to a number of devastating consequences for the Russian state.

Imperial Russia of the modern period was cursed with land frontiers with three potential enemies (Austria, Prussia and Turkey), and a large coastline vulnerable to seaborne enemies such as England and France. All of these theatres had to be defended, none of them were mutually supporting. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia's Ukrainian lands had become a source of much of the Empire's revenue, both through import/export duties on grain and through the taxes levied on the peasants and landlords who grew grain. The defense of the Black Sea, especially of the mouths of the rivers Bug, Dnieper and Don, was, therefore, of vital interest to Russia's economic stability.
As if that wasn't enough, all the grain flowing from the Black Sea ports had to flow through the Turkish Straits. Russia's economic health was, therefore, maintained largely by the goodwill of frequently hostile Turkish sultans. Whenever tensions between Constantinople and St. Petersburg reached a certain point, the Turks would close the Straits to Russian shipping, doing incalculable damage to the Russian economy.

Russia's other theatres of defense were no less demanding. In contemplating war against Britain, regarded with some justification as a serious possibility from about 1829 until the turn of the last century, the entire Baltic region had to be covered from Helsinki to the Prussian frontier. Troops in Finland could not readily reinforce troops in Lithuania, and vice versa, nor could troops in Helsinki or Riga count on getting to the capital quick enough to beat off a seaborne attack. 
Throughout the nineteenth century, Poland was a theatre all of its own. From the time of its reincorporation in to the Russian Empire in 1815, Poles rebelled against Russian rule in  almost every generation. Once again, however, distances between Warsaw and St. Petersburg, Moscow or Odessa were so great that forces deployed in Poland were not readily available to reinforce other theatres even when the international situation permitted it.
Tsarist Russia was thus faced with the highly undesirable alternative throughout the last century of her existence of either failing adequately to cover all vital threatened areas or maintaining armed forces far in excess of what the economy could adequately support, and far in excess of what any other state had to maintain in peacetime.

In 1854 Russian forces armed with smoothbore muskets fought French and British forces armed with rifles. In 1905 the Russian sate collapsed attempting to fight an enemy whom Russia's armies, taken together, far outnumbered. In 1917 the Romanov regime fell during a war in which Russian armies has failed in almost every major undertaking they had attempted. It has become fashionable and common to blame Russia's 'backwardness' for such failures. The lack of rifles during the Crimean War, of adequate railroads during the Russo-Japanese War, of adequate economic structures and a sophisticated rail network during World War I are all frequently cited as both the results of backwardness and the cause of failure.

'Backwardness' is an explanation that begs the question 'Why was Russia backward'? Various theories -racial, socio-cultural and political have been advanced to explain the backwardness, but at its root is it simply the fact that Russia is too big to catch up? This would seem to reinforce a powerful strand of Russian though which sees a tension between 'Westernisation' and Russian nationalism beginning with Peter the Great and consistently escalating in a country too large and ill-equipped to deal with it.
This clash created in Russia a series of critical social, economic and political handicaps. The fact that the basis of the Russian economy rested on the institution of fully-fledged serfdom until 1861 severely limited the process of industrialisation, both by restricting the supply of cheap labour, since it was mostly tied to the land by law, and by hindering the accumulation of sufficient capital properly distributed to begin the development of capitalism. On the other hand, the Russian legal system did not support industrialization either, the Tsar's resisted the development of limited-liability corporations that was essential to the full growth of an industrial economy. Both these issues could have, however, been overcome with time, if it was not for the sheer size of the state. Relatively modest investment in railways in Germany and France, for example, generated significant improvements in the railway networks in those countries, connecting the various regions of the state and promoting general economic interdependence. Russia's enormous expanse meant that modest investment in anything generated only very slight results, while the poverty of the Russian state relative to Prussia, France and even Austria ruled out investment that was more than modest. At the same time, the size of the army needed to defend this huge expanse rendered the prospect of adopting new technologies horrifyingly costly. The cost of re-equipping a force of over 800,000 with the latest rifles, as opposed to the much more modest peacetime armies maintained in every other European state, was far beyond anything the strapped Russian economy could sustain.

Russia's enormous size and the geostrategic problems it generated, hindered her inability to industrialize rapidly and efficiently, the poor quality of communications within Russia itself, and the prolonged lingering of the system of serfdom in the face of the 'westernisers' all conspired to push Russia back from developing alongside the more advanced states of Europe. It is not a clear question as to what the Tsar's could have done, within the constraints of their system and personal beliefs, to alleviate this problem. Considering the incredible toll  the course of modernization took in the Soviet period, it is unlikely they would have undertaken it even if they could have.

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