History of the pre-Revolutionary Origins of the USSR


SPEAKER–Dr. Carroll Quigley, Professor of History,
School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

We might say that the mother of Russia was the Byzantine civilization, the great civilization of the Roman Empire in the East, centered around the Capital City of Byzantium. You will recall that the Western Empire ceased to exist about 476 A. D., but the Eastern Empire continued for almost another thousand years, until 1453. During that thousand-year period of Byzantine history, it adopted certain characteristics which are not found in the Western Empire and certainly not found in western culture. It is that Byzantine empire which is the mother of Russia.

But Russia’s father was the Vikings. In Russian history they are generally known as the Varangians. That is to say, about the year 800 or so, the Northmen, whom we know as the Vikings, were spreading out from Norway and Sweden in every direction. You will recall perhaps that they are supposed to have come out from this area to Iceland, through Greenland, even to North America. They established Normandy in 911. They invaded England under Canute. Eventually they came down and established the great kingdom of Sicily about the year 1050 or so and a little later they established the Norman kingdom of Syria.

Now these Vikings are the fathers of Russia, and they came into Russia through the great river valleys of European Russia. These two, fitting together the Byzantine tradition and the Viking tradition, were what created Russia. From the Byzantine they obtained autocracy, that is the concept of the state as an absolute power, the concept of the state as a totalitarian authority, and a union of church and state. They received the belief that the religious system should be a department of the government; that there is a divergence between the state and the people; that the people are to be ruled by a separate and distinct authority; the concept that the state is primarily the private property of a semidivine ruler.

Now these characteristics, which are sometimes called Byzantine, were derived from the Byzantine civilization as it came into Russia in the period from about 850 onward. What were those? Autocracy, totalitarian state, union of church and state, a divergence between state and people, a concept of the state as the private property of a semidivine ruler. Those characteristics we find pretty much in Russia today. They were also found in the Byzantine Empire. From the Vikings, from the fathers who came for a short visit and they went away, they received militarism, the love of booty, a belief that a way of life could be made out of war and piracy. You see, these Northmen who went out in this way went out to conquer, to seize booty, to make slaves, to impose tribute on conquered peoples, and to make out of this a way of life. That was the Viking way of life. Now this is the basic background of the Russian tradition. I want to very briefly contrast it to the tradition of the West.

Back in the year 100, let us say, the great civilization was that represented by the Roman Empire. We call it the classical civilization. The Roman Empire was in the basin of the Mediterranean.

It always had a tendency to break into halves, the Latin half and the Greek half. The western half, the Latin half, of the Roman Empire ceased to exist, it was the Greek half, the eastern half, which continued to exist. Now the fact that the Western Empire disappeared and yet the western society continued is of the utmost importance because the people of the West discovered that the state and society are not the same thing; that you can live without a public authority; that the state is a different thing from society. This becomes the basis for what we call western liberalism, that is, that it is possible to have a way of life without direct intervention and supervision of the state. The belief that the state is a crowning but not essential cap to the social structure is a western belief. The belief that economic life and religious life can exist and should exist without state intervention and the belief that men have rights which are not derived from public authority, those are western ideas.

From this came much of European history, such as the conflicts of church and state. A conflict of church and state would be impossible in the Byzantine world or in Russia because they cannot conceive of a religious society and a church existing separate and independent from the state. We can, because the church existed in western Europe for hundreds of years, yet there was no state–in what we call the feudal period. Similarly in our society we have laissez faire. Now laissez faire means that economic life should run more or less on its own. “No government in business,” we say. That is the western idea. It is a very strange idea to the Russians. They have never had an economic life which was not largely dominated by the state, and before that, their mother, the Byzantine civilization, had very little economic life which was not dominated by the state.

Next in the west we have what we call the individual’s natural rights, that human beings have rights as human beings. That is, they have rights which are not necessarily granted to them by some superior authority. In the East they don’t have that. In the East they cannot really conceive of people having any rights except those which are granted by the State. Thus the idea of natural rights, which is an essential part of our tradition, is almost completely lacking in their tradition.

The last point is that we have a concept in the western tradition which we call the rule of law. That means that society, religious life, economic life, and so forth, have certain rules which are intrinsic in themselves. You find out what those rules are by observing them. How does economic life function? Those are principles of economics. How does religious life function? Those are the principles of religion, and so on. Thus we believe that there are laws and rules which are independent and separate from the state and we even may have the idea that the state should be under the law.

Now they don’t have that at all in Russia. The idea that the state should be under the law is completely strange to their tradition. When we talk about it, they think we are hypocrites, and yet it is an essential part of our tradition. The distinction which I am trying to emphasize here is a distinction which is derived very largely from the fact that the Russian tradition was derived from the Byzantine civilization.

In Russia the state dominated everything. The church was a department of the government. The Russian idea was that the state was above the law, above the church; was the source of all rights; was the source of all prosperity; was the source of all security and all justice. These concepts were imported into Russia from the only political structure they knew, that is the Byzantine civilization. The Byzantine Empire was the only great civilization they knew. They were dazzled by it, being a barbaric people, and they attempted to copy it.

That appears very clearly in one story we are told. One of the old Russian rulers, about the year 900 or so, decided they should have a religion. After all, this barbaric superstition they had wasn’t satisfactory, and he sent reporters out to examine the basic religions, that of Israel, the Byzantine, and the Latin church of the west. When they came back he examined their reports and decided they should become Orthodox Christians, that is, they should adopt the religion of the Byzantine civilization. We have a description written by the reporters in that case and it is perfectly clear how dazzled they were because the first thing that impressed them was they went to the Cathedral of San Sofia, which is in Constantinople. They describe how they were dazzled by the mosaics, by the candles, by the incense–by the whole impression. Now this dazzling by the Cathedral of San Sofia is repeated in every aspect of their culture. They copied, not just the religion, they copied the alphabet, the way of writing. The Russian alphabet is copied, you can see very clearly, from the Greek-Byzantine.

Now this fact that the Russians copied Byzantine civilization and did it very consciously in their religion, in their writing, in their state, in their laws, and various other things, even in their literature to a certain extent–was intensified by the fact that in Russia the rulers were always outsiders. These rulers innovated all of the political, religious, and economic life. There was no state. Foreigners brought it in. The Vikings established it. There was no religion. It was imported from Byzantium wholesale and imposed on the people. Their economic life was at the very lowest level, that is, it was largely living off the forest, a forest economy with hunting and rudimentary agriculture. On this there was imposed by the Vikings an advanced economy or a world trading system. That is, the Vikings were trading from Byzantium up across Russia to Sweden.

So we have, then, that in Russia the rulers were outsiders. The rulers were the originators of their political, religious, and economic life. But there is something else and this, I think, is perhaps the most important thing. Russia was in very exposed political position. It was caught between the pressure of Asiatic populations pushing westward from these great open spaces and the pressure of western technology pushing eastward. By western technology I mean the scientific discoveries of the West, such as gunpowder and firearms, systems of counting, systems of public finance and budgets–things of that kind. In a moment I will explain exactly what I mean by that.

If you take this Byzantine tradition, add to it the fact that in Russia you had a forest-dwelling, agricultural people with a foreign military group imposed upon them, and then add to that the third fact that this dualistic society was caught between a population pressure and a technology pressure, you get then the structure which became Russia. Russia became a foreign barracks structure, superimposed on a Slav agricultural population and it remains that pretty much to this day. All Of that was by way of introduction. That is summing up what I am going to say.

Now very briefly I want to look at geography and chronology. Geography and chronology are the basis of history. The geography of Russia is quite simple. It is the western end of a great open plain. That is simple enough. But more than that, the eastern end of that plain has been drying, drying, drying. There is inadequate rainfall. There is a desert in Asia which has been spreading for many hundreds of years. I will come back to that in a moment when I discuss chronology. Let us finish the geography. In this geographical structure there are three belts in Russia, the central belt, we call the forest belt; north of that, the tundra–a flat, frosty, plain; south of it, the steppes–a flat plain. Now each of those three is divided into two. I won’t bother with the tundra. That is divided into two. The forest belt is divided into two–the northern forest belt of evergreens and the southern forest belt of deciduous trees–they drop their leaves in the fall. The steppes are divided into two—the southern part of the steppes is a salty plain that is practically useless; the northern part of the steppes is the famous black-earth region, very rich in agricultural soil.

The reason I mention this geography is because if we draw a line between the steppes and the forest, we are drawing a line between two economic worlds. The forest world is to the north of this line, and the line runs just south of Moscow. The forest world has an inadequate food supply, but a more than adequate supply of wood, building materials, fuel, and such. The steppes to the south, that is the black-earth region, has a surplus of food since it is among the great cereal-producing regions of the world but has a tremendous deficiency in fuel and building materials. Obviously there is going to be interchange, the interchange of food moving north into the forest and the forest supplies, which include, in addition to fuel and wood, such things as honey from the bees, skins, hides–things of that kind. You get that interchange. That is the geographic pattern in regard to the lay of the land and it leads to an economic interchange between the steppes, the black-earth region, and the deciduous forest.

Then we impose on the western end of that structure the river system. Russia in the western end has a marvelous river system. As you move from near Smolensk, you will find rivers going in all four principal directions. There are at least two great rivers which go to the Black Sea–the Dnieper and the Don. One great river goes to the Caspian Sea, the Volga. There are other rivers which go up to the White Sea; another river that goes up to the Baltic Sea. This means, then, that you have a river system running vertical across agricultural zones running horizontal. This means that the political center of Russia should be–if only geographical factors were looked at-right about where Smolensk is, because Smolensk is halfway between the north and the south. It is in a position where you can easily reach all four rivers which will take you to any one of the four bodies of water, and it is just about where the steppes, with its surplus of food, joins with the forest, with its surplus of wood and fuel. Thus Smolensk, you see, is in a very commanding position.

As a matter of fact, the political center of Russia isn’t at Smolensk. It is at Moscow, and it is northeast of Smolensk. Why is it that the center for political reasons is north and east of where it would have been for geographic and economic reasons? The reason is those pressures I mentioned before; the pressures of population coming this way came up at Smolensk from the southeast. At the same time, the technology pressures of the West, coming in this way, made it necessary to retreat from Smolensk. Smolensk, which is the geographic center of this system, was under Polish control for long periods. Moscow became the center politically because it was in the forest where the barbarians coming out from the steppes couldn’t easily reach it. It was in the backwoods territory of the Volga. Now the invaders from the East came up the Volga, but they didn’t bother going up that little tributary, the Moscow River. Thus Moscow became the center, and Moscow became the center in the period we call the Moscovite period of Russian history.

The political chronology of Russian history can be examined. A much more important chronology, and that is the one I want to speak about, is this:

Central Asia has been getting drier and drier for almost 2,000 Years. As a result the population has been pressing westward for almost 2,000 years. And yet it doesn’t press westward any more. Why? The reason is the technological advance of western Europe.

European technology began to rise very, very rapidly since perhaps the year 1200 or 1250. By the year 1600, European technology had risen so high that Europe began, for technological reasons, to push into Asia and to stop the population pressure based on geographical reasons from coming out. And, as a result, beginning about 1600 Europeans began to move into Asia everywhere. They went down into India; they went into China; they went into Japan. They were doing that for technological reasons, because a few Europeans with firearms could overcome great masses of Asiatics who didn’t have firearms. Europeans had a good system of communications, for instance, a marvelous alphabet, a good system of counting. Our system of counting is a marvelous thing. With all these great technological advances, Europe put a terrific pressure on Asia and the turning point, that is, the breaking point of Russian Chronology is about the year 1600. That is why Russia came into existence about the year 1600 in what is called the Moscovite period.

Before I leave this technology I want to point out one obvious thing. The turning point between the period of Asiatic population pressure moving westward and European technology pressures moving eastward is about the year 1600, but there is obviously another turning point in the future, is there not?

That would be the turning point when Asia gets western technology, because if Asia ever gets western technology and combines population pressure outward with a western technology, it will reverse the system. No longer will you have European pressure moving into Asia. You will, at that future date, have Asiatic pressures moving this way. That is the point we are rapidly approaching, a point where the pressure of population in this area will be combined with a European, westernized technology–the gasoline engine, telephone, telegraph, wireless, and so forth, rapid communications, rapid transportation, and of course western firearms and western methods of military procedures. When those are combined in this area, you will have again a pressure outward. We have almost reached that point, it seems to me. Now you have an outline, I believe, of Russian history. I am going to run through it very rapidly, take these basic concepts, which I think I have given to you, and try to tie them into the history of Russia.

The first period of Russian history we call Ancient Russia. It lasted until about 878. In that period of Ancient Russia you have a forest area inhabited in the east by Finns, in the west by Slavs. You do not include the steppes because the population pressure on the steppes makes it untenable for European people. Here you have the Slav slowly moving through the forest, mixing with and replacing the Finns who were there in the forest. That is the period we call Ancient Russia, and it is an economy of hunting and rudimentary agriculture. There is no commerce, and there is no industry. As the Slavs moved eastward, they pushed northward more and more because of the pressure from the steppes. The wild horsemen galloping out of Asia kept hitting them, but if they stayed in the forest they were hard to hit. These tribes of horsemen on horseback had bows and arrows, but they could function only on the steppes. Accordingly, the Slavs moved through the forest eastward. That is Ancient Russia, a period of 100 years in which relatively little happened.

Then, in about 830, the Vikings came in. The Vikings came in as fighting people concerned in their minds with getting booty and trade. They made no distinction between these two. These Varangians, or Vikings, came down among these forest people, or the Slavs, and set up a line of traffic from Byzantium up the Dnieper, then up various other rivers to Lake Lagoda, and then to the Baltic Sea. They brought in the idea of the state; they brought in commerce, which didn’t exist before; and they began to change this Savage tribal wooded condition into a state.

That leads us to the second period of Russian history, the Kievan period, because the city of Kiev became the political center of these Varangians or Vikings. I have down here in the Kiev period that it lasted approximately from 878 to 1237. And the essence of it was the Novgorod-Smolensk-Kiev water route. That is the trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea, of which the west bastions were at Novgorod in the extreme North, Smolensk at the middle, and Kiev in the South, near the Black Sea. For a number of years the Vikings had in the South a foreign commercial system imposed as private property on a Slavic agricultural population. In this period they became converted to Byzantine-0rthodox, Greek Christianity. There were raids from the steppes still continuing and eventually these raids, by driving far enough west, captured Kiev and destroyed this commercial system.

That brings us to the next period of Russian history, the Mongol period, because the greatest of these raiders from the steppes were the Mongols, or, as the Russians generally called them, the Tartars.

About 1206 under Genghis Khan they began to conquer from Central Asia to every point that they could reach. When they conquered an area, they imposed tribute on it. They were relatively few in numbers, very warlike, and they traveled with terrific speed. Each man had three or four horses and shifted from horse to horse. They traveled for days at a time without getting off. They ate on the horses, and the story is that they even slept on their horses. They hit and ran. They never could be pinned down, and eventually they conquered much of this area. In fact in 1241 they reached Genoa. They got deep into central Europe. However, they fell back but continued to hold Russia. This is, accordingly, the Mongol period of Russian history.

What it means is that you have a foreign exploiting system still imposed over the Slav people. Earlier it had been the

Varangians; now the Mongols, still foreigners, still exploiters, still militaristic. It was in this Mongol period that Moscow began to rise. Moscow rose for several reasons. I have already indicated it was in the forest area. Thus it was relatively safe. Second, it was on a tributary of the Volga. The Mongols did go up the Volga, but they rarely went up that tributary which went too far west. There were other accidental reasons. In Moscow the ruling family had sous who grew to maturity before their fathers died. Now that is just an accident. It was not until 1425 that there was any dispute about the succession in Moscow. In these other cities where there were still remnants of the Vikings, they were now almost pure Slav through intermarriage. When the Vikings came in, they didn’t bring their women with them. They married Slav women. Accordingly, as their children grew up, they grew up under Slav training because their mothers were Slavs, and they became practically pure Slav in blood. They had Slavic minds, but they still had the Viking attitude, that is a foreign group imposed on the Slavs and wresting all they could out of them in tribute.

As Moscow began to rise in this way, the decisive factor probably was that the Mongols made the princes of Moscow their chief tribute collectors for all of Russia. Thus the princes of Moscow went out everywhere and in the name of the Mongols collected tribute. This continued for hundreds of years. Moscow became what we might call the representative of the Mongols in Russia. The supremacy which Moscow has exercised since over Russia is very largely that kind of supremacy, a supremacy based on a tribute collector, a foreign, remote, conquering state to whom the people felt no real allegiance and toward which they gave what they had to give. It was Ivan the First who was made the exclusive tribute collector for the Mongols for all of Russia. A little later the Mongols made a court of highest appeal in Moscow. So now not only was money flowing to Moscow, but all justice on cases of appeal was flowing to Moscow.

In 1380 Dimitri Donskoi won a great victory over the Mongols on the Don River, and was given the surname of Donskoi. What this indicates is that Russia was shifting from a Mongol period to a Moscow period, because the princes of Moscow were supporting the resistance against the Mongols, and it means when the Mongols are gone, Moscow will still be there.

That brings us to the third period of Russian history, the Muscovite period. This was the period in which pressure from western technology and pressure from eastern populations met and together hammered out Russia as a military machine superimposed upon the Slav population. The poverty of the people made the possession of firearms an exclusive state prerogative. Only the state had firearms and the state could maintain its firearms only by fiscal pressure on the people. Thus, you have fiscalism. This fiscalism so drained the wealth from the people that they were never able to get firearms, so firearms remained the exclusive prerogative of the government. The populations didn’t have firearms; they couldn’t get them; there was a continuation of the Mongol tribute. The result was autocracy. The peasants were subject to the landlords and thus you got serfdom. This was the period in which serfdom was created. The landlords were given this power over their serfs so that the landlords would be able to fight. Thus you get a military machine because the landlords were allied with Moscow.

That brings us to the next period. The next period of Russian history is the Imperial period. I have listed some of the great leaders of that period of Imperial Russia beginning with Peter the Great. Peter the Great attempted to westernize Russia, but every effort he made to westernize Russia merely meant he was establishing more firmly that government which was alien to the Slavic people because he was not westernizing the Slav people.

The pressure from the West came from Sweden and Poland largely. They both disappeared. The year 1750 marked the decline of Sweden and Poland, also the decline of tyranny. Thus Russia was given a moment of relief in which, using westernized technology of a very rudimentary character, it was able to impose its supremacy on the peoples to the East. Once the population pressure from the East decreased, the peasants of Russia began to pour eastward and by 1650 they had reached the Pacific. The government made every effort to stop that movement of the peasants, because only if the peasants remained to work the land of the landlords could the landlords maintain the military structure of the society which they thought was necessary. Ultimately the government followed the peasants and thus it was that Russia got this Asiatic terrain by following the movement of the peasants eastward.

Once the pressure from the East was off, Russia became Moscow-domination over the Slav people. The pressure from the West had also declined. Then the Russian Government began to have a bad conscience toward its own people. In addition to that, it still wanted to westernize them. When these two fitted together, the desire to westernize and the bad conscience toward the people, it produced reform, but when the people claimed things, it produced reaction. So there was reform, reaction, reform, reaction. In addition to having a bad conscience toward its own people in this period, the government had an inferiority complex toward the West, something which I think it still has.

After this rapid survey of Russian history I have listed four conclusions. First, the whole period of Russian history shows bad government toward the people; the government is above the law; in fact many segments of the population, such as the peasants, are even outside the law and have almost no law or judicial system to which to appeal. There is corruption and violence in the government itself. It is an irresponsible kind of system.

The third conclusion concerns the nature of the people. The nature of the Russian people is quite different from the nature of the government. The Russian people have terrific potentialities. They are patient; they are long-suffering; they are moody. On the whole, they are pacifists. They want to be left alone. They are devious. They don’t tell the truth generally because they think if they tell the truth it may lead to more pressures on them—taxes will be increased or something. They are indifferent to humanity. They have suffered too long. That is the third conclusion.

The fourth conclusion is that there is a danger of antithesis between reform and reaction. If the Russians don’t reform, they are a threat to our culture because they are not western, but if they reform and become westernized, then they become a threat to us because if they become westernized and adopt our technology, they become more able to wreck us or even impose their wills on us. That is, if they don’t reform they are a threat culturally; if they do reform, they are a threat politically. It is an important fact that material culture and western technology will spread to the East faster than will our western ideologies, western ideas, laws, ethics, anything of that kind. That ends my lecture. Naturally I went a little over the time, but I covered it.

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