Comparing the Tsarist Russian and Soviet Empires

By Magdalena Noga
2011, Vol. 3 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

Compared to other empires throughout history, the USSR was an exception. The rulers of the Soviet Union viewed empire and imperialism in ideological terms as ‘the highest and final stage of capitalism’.1 By this Leninist definition, the Soviet Union did not identify itself as an empire, and instead, its leaders vehemently denounced imperialism that was carried out by its enemies and competitors: the capitalist states. Despite its own anguish over being identified as an empire, the Soviet Union indeed was one. While the meaning of ‘empire’ has shifted over time, for the purposes of this paper the definition of empire is in the sense of a great power, a polity, ruling over vast territories and people, leaving a significant impact on the history of world civilizations.2 As the characteristics of the Soviet Union are examined, support for viewing the USSR as an empire grows.

The Soviet Union emerged after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Tsarist Russian Empire’s government was overthrown by the local soviets, led by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks attempted to replace the Russian empire with a communist one, in which socialism would make nationalism obsolete and in place there would be a supra-national imperial ideology.3 Still, coming back to the issue of ‘empire’, the Soviet Union clearly maintained a commanding control over multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic societies that surpassed the extent of the preceding Imperial Russia Empire. A question thus arises: was the USSR a Russian empire? The first aspect to consider is if the USSR was a continuation of Russian imperialist power or if an intrinsic distinction can be made between the two. What is notable to address is what is meant by ‘Russian’ identity and nationality, its formation, and reshaping through time. Once this will be accounted for, this paper will move on with an answer to the question: the USSR was indeed an essentially different empire from the one preceding it, and thus, the USSR was not a Russian empire.

A focal point will be the end of the Tsarist Russian Empire and the beginning of the Soviet Empire. Undoubtedly, empires change over time and the Russian Empire and the Soviet Empire both evolved throughout their existence. Thereby, in order to constitute a comparison, this paper will look at the two empires at the culmination of their power and influence. Because power is the most important element of an empire, the sources of power are of importance to this analysis of the two empires. The sources of power as defined by Mann (1992) are military, political, economic, cultural/ideological, geopolitical and demographic.4 The arguments of this paper continue as follows: First, the ideological/culture aspects of the empires will be discussed in order to establish the imperial ethos. The issue of identity and nationality will also be given substantial attention. Next, the forms in which the empires exercised military, political, and economic power will be addressed to reinforce the distinction in motives and aspirations. Following this, the demographic make-up and the geopolitical sphere of influence will be tackled to show that the Soviet Empire, unlike the Tsarist Russia one, recruited ethnic cadres from its periphery and exercised geopolitical influence that far surpassed that of Imperial Russia. Finally, an overview of the mentioned points will be made to conclude that the USSR did indeed differ from a Russian Empire even though certain elements of the Imperial Russia Empire were present, especially after the USSR was altered throughout the years.

Cultural and Ideological aspects

Tsarist Russia began with the reign of the first tsar, Ivan IV “the Terrible” (1533-1584) until the reign of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II (1894-1917).5 What was meant to be ‘Russian’ went through changes during those years with prevailing complexes of cultural inferiority felt by the people. The triumphant success in the eighteenth century in war and diplomacy eased the cultural inferiority by providing a sense of security and self-confidence. However, the nineteenth century saw less success for the Russian state and vulnerability returned.6

Russian culture has been to a great extent attributed to its unique geographical location, somewhat of a middle ground between Europe and Asia. This awareness has led to a profound ambivalence in the national psychology, assuming the form of an existential indeterminacy between Asia and the West.7 The geopolitical entity of the Russian Empire was fully formed by the nineteenth century. A dominant portion was located in Asia, and Russia’s imperial identity was deeply permeated with the awareness of its position in the East.8

Since the establishment of Muscovy as the geographical heart of a new political entity during Ivan the Terrible’s rule, the isolated and xenophobic Russians saw foreigners negatively as they failed to acknowledge the one true faith of Orthodoxy. The revolution brought on by Peter the Great (1682-1725) dramatically changed attitudes by the ‘Europeanization’ of Russian society, meaning Russia was or ought to be a European country. Russia’s self-image as European furthered the imperial mentality of intrinsic cultural superiority over the East. The rather indifferent Europe to Russia’s new status as a ‘European country’ led Russia to find its ‘Europeanness’ in Asia.9 The formation of a Russian identity became largely a process of depicting a European Other from the Russian self, and accordingly, an Otherness that Russia must be saved from.10 The reluctance of Europe to accept Russia as one of its own contributed to Russia’s search for its place and identity in Asia. However, Eurasianism failed to garner broad support in neither the international émigré community or with the Soviet Union. The movement, in its original form, failed to even survive the Second World War.11

The debate about Russian national identity had no real place in the uniform communist ideology of the Soviet Union. The relationship to the West no longer mattered geographically but rather in Marxist terms; it was the progressive workers’ state against the reactionary capitalist world.12 The soviets defined nation as a synonym for people and Stalin’s definition required the fulfillment of the following criteria: all members share common economic conditions, common language, same territory, and similar frame of mind (culture and national character).13 Communism, the reigning ideology of the USSR, was a departure from the ideology of the Russian Imperial Empire.

Non-Russian nationalism was principally a response to Tsarist oppression. The process of korenizatsiia (indigenization) addressed the positive psychological needs of nationalism. Native cadres would make Soviet power seem indigenous rather than an external Russian imperial position. Soviet policy did promote a distinctive national identity and national self-consciousness of its non-Russian population. The vision was of a peaceful coexistence of the distinct national identities from which an all-union socialist culture would emerge that would replace the pre-existing national cultures. 14 The Soviet central state did not identify as Russian, and Russians were driven to bear the burden of the empire by suppressing their national interests and to identify with a non-national empire. This stemmed from the Bolshevik task of promoting internationalism rather than separate national identities.15

Military, Economic, and Political Comparisons

Parallels are often made between Peter I and Stalin (for example—the use of despotic methods to mobilize people and resources in the cause of economic modernization and military power) but such comparisons are limited. While Russia was increasingly opened to Western ideas and immigrants during Peter’s reign, Stalin’s policy created an autarchic, monolithic and xenophobic society that was as closed to outside influences as was possible.16 Further parallels can be seen in the economic context in which Alexander II and Mikhail Gorbachev operated. Both rulers were liberal modernizers with a key element of liberating people’s economic potential from serfdom and the command economy. While both cases saw the a partial introduction of capitalist principles, liberal economic values were not given much interest and in place was a deep fear of the impact on political stability. The result was heavy constraints on the development of a free market in land and labor.17

While both empires were economically agrarian empires, the USSR underwent an industrialization program that was a large component of its new status in the world as a ‘superpower’. The Russian empire was only characterized as an agrarian economy, but the USSR reached status of a major industrial power. The Brezhnev era saw rapid urbanization and the USSR was marked by universal signs of an industrialized society: shrinking low-status jobs and a sharp increase in high-status ones. This satisfaction of limited upward mobility was a main cause of the stability of the Soviet system.18

Political stability in both empires (before the 1860s and in the 1980s respectively) depended on the ability of an authoritarian regime to create a climate of fear, inertia, and public disinterest in politics. Further parallels can be drawn between the sixteenth-century Muscovite polity and Stalin’s USSR. Modernization and competition with the West required the opening up and thus, acquirement of Western values and mentalities. Looking at the political history of imperial Russia, the effort to merge Western liberal principles with authoritarian tsarist traditions can be seen. However, the Soviet regime’s denial of continuity with the tsarist past led to the not surprisingly quick collapse of the Soviet system of government after Gorbachev’s introduction of Western principles of law and democracy.19

What can be said is that the Soviet Union was not so much a Russian Empire as a Moscow Empire.20 All decisions were determined by Moscow and this led to resentment against the old Moscow elite. The problem in the USSR was not a concentration of power at the top bur rather an obvious overgrowth of the intermediate link and the relative weakness of the lower and higher links. While economic reform raised the prestige and influence of the first and third levels, the second level was lowered.21 Although the core of the Soviet polity was the Communist Part, and thus, its ruling elite, Tsarist Russia did not have a similar type of a super-bureaucracy.

Peasant conscripts made up the core of Imperial Russian military power. The Russian army gained great prestige for itself and for Russia as a whole by playing a big role in the allied defeat of Napoleon in 1812-14.22 In contrast, the Soviet Union engaged in a mechanized military that greatly surpassed the one of Imperial Russia. During the Second World War, the soviets were able to experience high levels of industrialization and mechanization, which would further solidify the USSR’s superpower status. In military and economic terms, Tsarist Russia only experienced a fragment of the great power that the Soviet Union held.23

Demographic Composition and Geopolitical Sphere of Influence

As was briefly mentioned before, Russia has the unique location of being the middle ground between Asia and Europe. Geography is one reason why Russian stands to some extent alone and isolated when compared with the history of other empires.24 The vast, low-lying Russian plain makes its geography more Asian than European. Despite having a stark contrast to Europe’s geography, the fact that Russia is on Europe’s borders makes it also a part of Europe.25 The Russian land was a poor base for an empire as its heartland could not sustain a great population and was remote to international trade routes, both maritime and land.26 However, this meant that Russia was a region that did not have a prevailing threat of conquest, but instead, the region as a whole initially experienced little resistance to its advance.27 The expansion in the European western and northern borderlands grew out of a fear for the security of the empire’s political and economic heartland. This heartland was the same for both empires, centered on Moscow and St. Petersburg, making the geopolitical make-up quite similar.28

However, when geopolitical influence is considered, Tsarist Russia did not come close to match the control exercised by the Soviet empire. During the Second World War, Stalin and Hitler agreed on secret protocols of August-September 1939. Thus, by June 1940, the USSR’s rule extended further and new Soviet Socialist Republics entered the USSR: Karelia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova. Northern Bukovina and eastern Poland were also absorbed in the Ukrainian and Belorussian Republics.29 During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had an array of client states, that is, a country that is economically, politically, and/or militarily dependent upon another state, usually a great power (USSR vs. USA). Such a relationship is bilateral and normally beneficial, with mutual though different obligations. The Soviet Union’s client or proxy states included much of the Warsaw Pact nations as well as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Cuba, etc.30 These nations were heavily influenced by Soviet military power and economic strength.

Under the Tsarist Empire, Russia was a vast size of a country. It stretched from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean, earning its title as the largest country in the world. Finland and most of Poland fell to its borders, as did the ancient Christian kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia, and the Muslim emirates of Bukhara and Khiva.31 Despite its large territory, Imperial Russia did not match or surpass the great geopolitical influence of the Soviet Union. While both were powerful in Asia and Europe, the USSR’s controlling reach extended to areas all over the world. The USSR employed an informal power on a truly global scale that Tsarist Russia did not even come close to.

The demographic power also greatly differed between the two empires. The goal of Russian imperialism was state-building and security rather than driven by religious messianism. Conquest included the appointment of local elites into the Russian administration and bringing native laws and economic procedures in line with general Russian practices.32 Tsarism imposed a new state order that included new regulations, taxation, and laws, and imposed serfdom on societies in certain regions that had little contact with strong state structures. The policy was to impose a uniform way of life as much as was possible on all the tsar’s subjects. Despite not having a nationality policy, Tsarist Russia operated with an ever-present awareness of ethnic and religious distinctions. For example, tsarist officials considered Byelorussians and Ukrainians part of a greater Russian nation and thus, forcefully discouraged the use of the Slavic languages of the western provinces.33

The Soviet state that emerged was both federative (at least, in name and theory) and based on ethnic political units. Nationalities like Jews, Armenians, Ukrainians, did indeed enjoy extraterritorial privileges such as having their own schools and operating in republics of other nationalities. The expectation that concessions to the national principle would lead to the consolidation of ethnicity, rather than to its disappearance, was correct for the larger nationalities. The Soviet Union was an ‘incubator of new nations’ rather than a ‘melting pot’.34 Thus, the USSR was the first state in history to be formed of ethnic political units; a pseudo-federal state that both eliminated political sovereignty for the nationalities and guaranteed them territorial identity, educational and cultural institutions in their own language, and the promotion of native cadres into positions of power.35 However, the rule of Stalin took severe measures against such policies of nationalities within the USSR, and instead sought to justify the need for the Soviet Union to be homogenized under a Great Russian culture, resulting in violence against the ‘former people’. At the height of the Great Terror in 1937-38, a defensive foreign policy stance was adopted that eventually led to ethnic cleansing and mass arrests and executions among the USSR’s diasporas nationalities who were now considered to be ‘disloyal’ simply based on their national identity alone.36


Analysis of the sources of power within the Tsarist Russian Empire and the Soviet Union shows that indeed the USSR was a distinct empire from the Russian Empire. The USSR was formed, based on, and ruled with a different ideology of replacing capitalism with socialism, and later communism. Thus, the core of the Soviet polity was the Communist Party. Tsarist Russia existed solely as an agrarian empire while the USSR underwent a massive industrialization that allowed for large-scale production and the status of a military and economic superpower. The demographic bases were different since Tsarist Russia did not have a (pseudo) federal system as the USSR did. The different geopolitical imperatives meant that the USSR exerted influence on a global-scale that Tsarist Russia did not, even though both empires incorporated huge territories in their rule. Despite the presence of similar characteristics in both empires, especially seen during their evolution, the USSR was not a clear continuation of the Tsarist Russia Empire and was a distinct Empire in world history.


Fry, Michael G. (2002). Guide to International Relations and Diplomacy. London; New York: Continuum.

Hough, J. (1997). Democratisation and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991. Washington DC: Brooking Institution.

Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press.

Lieven, D. (2000). Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals. London: John Murray.

Mann, M. (1992). The Sources of Social Power, Vol 1. Cambridge University Press.

Martin, T. (2001). The Affirmative Action Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Neumann, I. (1996). Russia and the Idea of Europe: A Study in Identity and International Relations. London: Routledge.

Resis, A. (1981). “Spheres of Influence in Soviet Wartime Diplomacy.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 53, No. 3, pp. 417-439.

Rzhevsky, N. (2001). Modern Russian Culture. Cambridge University Press.

Simon, G. (1991). Nationalism and Policy Toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union. Boulder: Westview.

Slezkine, Y. (1994). ‘The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” Slavic Review 53 (2).

Suny, R. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1.) Slezkine, Y. ‘The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism’, Slavic Review 53 (2), 1994: p.421.

2.) Lieven, Empire, London: John Murray, 2000, Preface.

3.) Simon, G. Nationalism and Policy Toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union, Boulder: Westview, 1991, p. 135.

4.) Mann, M. The Sources of Social Power, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

5.) Suny, R. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Chronology, p. 507.

6.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, pp. 220-1.

7.) Rzhevsky, N. (ed.) Modern Russian Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 57-8.

8.) Rzhevsky, N. p. 66.

9.) Rzhevsky, N. pp. 69-74.

10.) Neumann, I. Russia and the Idea of Europe: A Study in Identity and International Relations, London: Routledge, 1996, Ch. 3, p. 38.

11.) Rzhevsky, N. p. 79.

12.) Rzhevsky, N. p. 80.

13.) Simon, G. Nationalism and Policy Toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union, Boulder: Westview, 1991, p. 14.

14.) Martin, T. The Affirmative Action Empire, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001, Ch. 1, p. 12.

15.) Martin, T. The Affirmative Action Empire, p. 20.

16.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 300.

17.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 301.

18.) Hough, J. Democratisation and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991, Washington DC: Brooking Institution, 1997, p. 32.

19.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, pp. 301-2.

20.) Hough, J. Democratisation and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991, p. 56.

21.) Hough, J. Democratisation and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991, p.p. 56-7.

22.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 268.

23.) Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End, Cambridge University Press: 1999, pp. 89-96.

24.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 202.

25.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 203.

26.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 204.

27.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, pp. 206-7.

28.) Lieven, Empire, 2000, p. 214.

29.) Resis, Albert. “Spheres of Influence in Soviet Wartime Diplomacy”. The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sept., 1981), pp. 417-439.

30.) Fry, Michael G. Guide to International Relations and Diplomacy, London; New York: Continuum 2002, p. 9.

31.) Suny, R. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 3.

32.) Suny, R. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States, p. 24.

33.) Suny, R. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States, pp. 25-6.

34.) Suny, R. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States, p. 87.

35.) Suny, R. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, USSR, and the Successor States, p. 101.

36.) Martin, T. The Affirmative Action Empire, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001, Ch. 1, p. 26-7.

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