Russia: Geography and Empire



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There are more problems with the Stratfor article on the geopolitics of Russia, than merely getting many of its facts wrong (see my previous post). Any interpretation of history and, certainly, any forecast of a possible future trajectory must be based on some theory, whether it is explicit, or implicit. Well, the theoretical logic underlying the Stratfor article is flawed. The theory underlying it is fairly traditional geopolitics, in places shading into geographical determinism.

In my 2003 book Historical Dynamics, I devote a significant amount of space to explaining why this geopolitical theory is wrong. First, it’s too static. Over the historical time scales geography changes little, while empires come and go. Second, where it attempts to explain dynamics (most notably, with the theory of imperial overstretch), it gets its math wrong. In Historical Dynamics I translate the verbal theory of overstretch into mathematical models and show that the models don’t predict any such behavior as imperial decline resulting from geopolitical overstretch. Incidentally, this is why we really need mathematical history—to make sure that our predictions really follow from the theory’s premises.

This is not to say that I think that geography plays no role in history. On the contrary, it’s of key importance. But things are a bit more complicated, than in naïve geographically determinist theories. Geography affects selective forces under which historical states operated (and, with certain caveats, this effect continues to be important today).

A more detailed explanation of how geography shaped Russian history is in my popular book War and Peace and War. At the beginning of the book, I consider the long history of interaction between the Russians and Turkic-Mongolic peoples from the Great Eurasian Steppe (whom for simplicity I will call the Tatars). I ask, why did the balance of power between the Russians and the Tatars changed so dramatically over the centuries? Why did the Tatars under Batu Khan easily conquered Russia in the thirteenth century, but, beginning in the sixteenth century, the Russians started their own conquest drive, which eventually led to most of the Great Steppe ending up within the Russian Empire?

WPW Cover

Geography did not change, people did. More specifically, the ability of the Russians to cooperate with each other, or asabiya, to use Ibn Khaldun’s term, changed.

Geography enters my story as a factor that shapes cultural evolution. Location on the steppe frontier puts human groups under enormous selection pressure: either learn to cooperate, or perish. Those groups that evolve a highly cooperative culture survive, and then go on to build large empires. (Those that don’t, disappear and are never heard of again.) This is one of the most reliable macrohistorical generalizations: location on a steppe frontier breeds large empires.

The Tatars, thus, were the concrete agents of this force of cultural evolution. In other words, they were the agents of their own doom. There is a lesson here, by the way.

What made the Russian situation in the thirteenth century even more dire was that not only were they on the steppe frontier, but they were simultaneously pressed from the West by the medieval version of NATO—the Latin Christendom. At the same time that Russia was conquered from the southeast by the Tatars, the Pope in Rome preached a crusade against the Russian ‘schismatics.’ As a result, northwestern Russia came under pressure from the German and Scandinavian knights.

The only lucky thing was that Russia encountered Western Europeans very early. Other societies, which were far away from Europe, encountered them when the Europeans reached the peak of their power, and native people had no chance of resistance. Russia, instead, co-evolved with Western Europe in a more gradual way.

This is the same mechanism that explains why ‘megafauna,’ large-bodied mammals, who are very plentiful in Africa, went largely extinct everywhere else. Homo sapiens is the ultimate predator. The African mammals coevolved with humans, and had a chance to develop defense mechanisms against them, so most of them survived. In North America, on the other hand, mammals had no previous evolutionary history with humans. So when humans got there around 15,000 years ago, over 90 percent of North American mammal species got killed and eaten in one of the most dramatic mass extinction event in the history of life.

But back to our story. In the thirteenth century the pressures on Russia intensified simultaneously and from opposite directions. Actually, there was no real ‘Russia’ at the time—rather, a collection of squabbling principalities and free cities in Northeastern Rus.


The Siege of Kozelsk by the Mongols Source

And geography did not have an immediate effect—it took three centuries for the processes of cultural evolution to forge the future Russian empire. Although cultural evolution works faster than genetic evolution, it still requires many generations to unfold.

Most of the Russian polities did not survive the pressures resulting from being squeezed between two predatory frontiers, and got eliminated in a variety of ways. However, one small, and initially insignificant principality, located in a completely unremarkable location on a secondary tributary of the Volga River, was the one that partly by luck, partly by design got the right institutions to unify Northeastern Rus.

Next: The Forecast I Made about Russia in 2004





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Julia Rastopchina

Thanks, Peter! A most exciting reading for me. Comparison of NATO and Latin Christendom tozhe dostavilo. Look forward to further posts.


brilliant. grateful for the insights. looking forward for more.

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