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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 13 October 2022

Russia's Steppe Frontier

 This is Michael Khodarkovsky's study of Russia's colonial empire in the south between 1500 and 1800. This is a book that the current Russian President ought to read, as it shows how Russia colonised lands, incorporating or displacing the inhabitants, that he now claims are historically Russian. 

The book starts with a couple of academic chapters discussing the sociology and frontier concepts in Muscovy. The narrative history is divided into two chapters covering 1480 to 1600 and then 1600 to 1800. 

Russia's opportunity to expand came about as a result of the decline of the Golden Horde. The various Khanates ruled over vast swathes of what is today southern Russia. To give some idea of the distance, the border at Kulikovo was only 173 miles from Moscow, while Kharkiv in modern-day Ukraine is 531 miles away from Moscow. Crimea is even further. 

During the sixteenth century, the nomadic societies were torn by incessant civil wars. The Muscovite government was becoming increasingly autocratic and began to build fortifications to halt nomadic raiding. They also agreed on treaties and started the Russification of territories, imposing taxation and forcibly converting the Islamic tribes to Christianity. This had mixed success, but gunpowder weapons and mercantilist policies backed up the advance, although progress was very slow. The story is complex, but the similarities to the British in India are obvious. China and Persia had similar stories on the other side of the steppe. The difference between Russia and Great Britain was that the British used commercial trading companies rather than the central government.

A key element on the Russian side was the Cossack communities, ironically mainly populated by people who had escaped Russia. They raided the Khanates and later provided the military force to supplement the limited number of regular regiments based on the border. Serfdom in Russia was formally introduced just as it was disappearing from western Europe to regulate the available labour force.

Treaties had limited effectiveness in nomadic societies where the ruling Khan had only limited control. Fortification lines helped to contain the nomads, cutting off their pasturelands and cutting income from raiding. The nomads became increasingly dependent on access to Russian markets for trade. Russian colonisation was backed by a strong military, a bureaucracy and colonists looking for land. All of this didn't come cheap. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Moscow paid six million roubles in tribute to the Crimean Khanate and still lost up to 200,000 Russians as captives. This cash could have funded some 1200 small towns, a reason why Russia was slower to urbanise than its western neighbours. 

In the period covered by this book, Russian colonisation was initially driven by the need to defend its borders. It was in the nineteenth century, when Russia expanded into central Asia, that it adopted a more traditional colonial model. This period is covered in a new book by Alexander Morrison, The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814–1914. He was interviewed on the New Books Network podcast. Well worth a listen.

When this book was written in 2004, it didn't have the topicality it has today. It isn't the easiest read, but it covers a period that gets little attention in the West.

Some of my 28mm Cossacks from the excellent Foundry range.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder how the Russians would have dealt with the locals if ever they had faced Native American “plains Indians”? Or would they have been simply just another bunch of horse mounted nomadic tribes?