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On the question of Russian imperialism By Nikolai Ustryalov 1916

The Russian Version can be found here

(Journal of foreign policy and law “Problems of Great Russia”, No15, October 15 (28), 1916, pp.1-5.)

Service to the motherland imposes on every thinking citizen the duty to find out the meaning of this service, to think over and justify its motives.

“Great Russia” is the slogan that today unites the broadest and most diverse circles of Russian public opinion. We are fighting for the honor and dignity of our native country, “we need Great Russia.” What is the real content of this slogan dictated by life, how are the basic conditions for its feasibility conceived, what is the essence of that ideology, the confession of which logically leads to it? Only then can the problem of Great Russia be solved when the very nature of its formulation is clearly understood. This article aims to outline certain prospects in this direction.


Faith in “Great Russia” is, first of all, faith in the Russian state. In other words, “Great” Russia can only exist as a state a. Both given “theories” and living facts of empirical reality equally inevitably lead to this conviction.

Humanity of the present historical era exists and develops under the sign of statehood. The life of modern “nations” is the life of states. And, of course, this phenomenon is not accidental, it is rooted deep in the nature of things. A people’s “personality”, a national “idea”, like any spiritual monad, requires a certain unity for its manifestation. We need a center of spiritual energy that acts according to goals, we need a formalizing principle of activity. A single integral beginning should hold together the complex diversity that the historical life of this or that “people” seems to be. And so the state was such a unifying, formalizing, fastening principle.

The state organization was born at a certain stage of world-historical development, when the lower forms of social life ceased to correspond to the degree of cultural age reached by mankind. Perhaps, initially, or at least in its original “idea”, the state was directly connected with the tribe, race, nationality. But over time, this connection has weakened significantly [,] and the state has acquired an independent, self-sufficient value. Unity according to the principle of breed, tribe, in a word, “physiology”, having turned out to be too narrow and poor, was replaced by a unity of a higher order. True, a homogeneous tribal core is also useful for a modern state; yet it is by no means a necessary feature of it. Even “nation” in the sense in which it is now commonly understood by science *), cannot be considered its constitutive feature. If theoretically it cannot be denied that a nation is capable of creating a state, then in reality the opposite process is observed incomparably more often: the state creates a single nation. Thanks to the unifying power of the state, groups of people that were previously alien to each other are coming together, drawing closer together, acquiring “many common, unique cultural elements and a common historical past.” So, for example, it often happens with areas conquered by an external force: years pass, and the population of these areas, which used to shun and hate their conquerors, gets used to them, sometimes even completely merges with them. In this regard, the tragic example of Poland, which is now before our eyes, is instructive and bright to the last degree: even if her soul is still one, but isn’t it threefold, like a body, in which he lives? Is it a secret that if the Russian Poles are completely devoted to Russia, then the Austrian Poles, in general, are loyal to Austria, and the Germans to Germany?…

In statehood itself, in the very “essence” of the state, there is obviously some kind of strong ferment capable of holding elements, sometimes very heterogeneous, in sovereign unity. The state of modernity embodies in itself a whole complex set of various national, racial, ethnographically, historically and culturally unique features, permeates the diverse content with a single creative form, combines individual elements into a kind of higher synthesis, and under the sign of this synthesis reveals itself to humanity and world history.

States are the same organisms endowed with soul and body, spiritual and physical qualities. The state is the highest organism on earth[,] and Hegel was not entirely wrong when he called it an “earthly god.” It encompasses everything that is valuable in humanity, all the heritage of culture, accumulated over centuries of creativity. The state is a necessary condition for concrete morality; it is through it that Good is realized in life.

“Great Russia” must exist before all the state.

Meanwhile, it is well known that it was in Russian culture that it was very difficult for the ideas of statehood to achieve recognition. Not only the Slavophile line of Russian thought, but also its other currents often treated the state somehow unfriendly: either with an absolute, frank denial, or with hostile suspicion, or somewhat contemptuously, “haughtily”. This widespread hostility might even give rise to the conclusion that the Russian people are apolitical, stateless, incapable of organization, discipline, and law and order. However, such a sad conclusion was refuted by the fact of the great and ever-growing Russian state **).

Of all the “critics” of the principle of statehood, only Tolstoy was consistently and to the end consistent. Together with the state, he also denied any coercion, “condemned” even the whole “culture” in general, and, most importantly, he had the courage to deny “Great Russia” as well. His preaching acquired from this a significant moral loftiness and purity, but on the other hand it completely renounced the concrete situation in life, passed entirely “by life.”

The Slavophils believed in the “Russian idea”, but associated it not with the state, but with the community, the “world”, with the “Earth”. But their theory, which sharply separates the “State” from the “Earth”, must be deeply mistaken [th]. These principles are inseparable both in principle and in fact. The State is the Earth that has known itself in its highest unity, internally enlightened. The Earth without the State is an amorphous, inert mass, the State without the Earth is simply nonsense, a naked form, devoid of any reality.

The “spirit of life”, once sung by Khomyakov, forced Russia to take the only path worthy of a great people – the path of bold and broad state building. Despite innumerable external obstacles, despite some of our own national characteristics, we have created a powerful state organism: apparently, world history needs us, and it did not let us perish.


Within each state, a special culture is created, universally valuable, but individually colored; perhaps universally valuable precisely because of its individually unique coloring. All those elements, the complex totality of which constitutes the soul and body of the state, do not disappear in its concrete unity. On the contrary, the more perfect the state, the more fully and clearly they are preserved, giving the whole uniting them a specific, original look. Each power has its own culture, a number of special distinctive features that belong only to it. In this culture, as well as in these signs imprinted with the seal of individuality, lies the source of that charm that is inherent in the “fatherland”, “motherland” in the eyes of every citizen. Patriotism can be explained only through the highest categories of aesthetics,

Each state organism is thus called upon in its own way to fructify the historical life of mankind, to tell the world its own special word. Everyone lives by this “word” and strives to make it sound more powerful and louder. Everyone strives to make it sound to the whole world.

In the field of international life there is a profoundly significant correspondence between spiritual authority and external, political power. The development of the spiritual culture of the state is somehow intimately connected with the growth of its political power. This general law of state existence, confirmed by constant factual examples, was noted in the history of Russian thought by Khomyakov: “according to the secret (but perhaps understandable) sympathy between the spirit of man and the volume of society – we read from him – the very greatness of the mind and thought belongs only to great peoples” ***).

Yes, that’s for sure: great culture can be owed to power n o n o m u n a t i o n a l o n o n a l o n o d a r s t v e n o m

And from here, a practical imperative arises before each state: strive for expansion, be powerful if you want to be great! Here is not only the voice of a biologically natural and valuable instinct; here – the command of moral reason, the covenant and demand of the historical Spirit. Existing and due here coincide together, as two aspects of one and the same phenomenon.

Those nations that have already fulfilled their mission, whose “words” have already resounded, must die politically and give place to others. But “places” in world history are not given for free – you need to know how to take them, you need to prove in practice your superiority over the old holders and new applicants. To do this, first of all, you need to know yourself, your spiritual powers, the limits of your inner capabilities. For not infrequently, having overestimated themselves, the great powers also suffer grave wrecks. So it was with Napoleon. So it was with Russia in the era of the Crimean War. Apparently, this will be the case with present-day Germany. The state will to power must be regulated by the power of the state mind.

These considerations, it seems to me, justify the phenomenon that is now usually called imperialism. Imperialism explains many great events throughout the history of mankind. The idea of ​​imperialism underlies the policy of all modern states. This idea is vital and deeply fruitful.


To defend the principle of “Great Russia” and at the same time to deny imperialism means to reveal either an insufficient understanding of the principle being defended, or an undoubted inconsistency.

You have to choose: either outright cosmopolitanism (be it socialist, be it anarchist, be it religious), or state politics. Tertium non datur. World history follows the second path.

“The Slavic world is like a woman who has never loved and therefore herself, apparently, does not take any part in everything that happens around her. She is unnecessary everywhere, a stranger to everyone. But you cannot be responsible for the future; she is still young, and already a strange longing has taken possession of her heart and makes him beat faster.” So wrote Herzen in 1851 ****).

As for Russian statehood, this statement was not true even then. But it very aptly characterizes the mood that is widespread in the Russian public.

Isn’t it time for us to finally realize our love? Will not the world fire of our days ignite the eros of “Great Russia” in every Russian heart?…


The path of imperialism is the necessary and completely legitimate path of the great states. It needs to be openly acknowledged. Otherwise, that false note will certainly be heard in our ideology, which is compromising, first of all, for our own national self-consciousness. Is it possible to accept the understanding of the current war of the peoples as “a war against imperialism incarnated in Germany”, and in the corresponding interpretation of our enemy as “the enemy of the human race.”

Let’s be sincere and honest! Let’s be objective! Isn’t imperialism a specific characteristic of German policy alone, and don’t the Powers of Accord act under the banner of imperialism?

Isn’t the “will to power”, the “will to expand” characteristic of modern England? Consider the Anglo-Boer War. Let us recall the British policy in Egypt, in Asia. Consider English history in general. And it would be very naïve to assert that England does not know militarism: for what is the English fleet but the offspring of militarism, in any case no less formidable than its German brother and rival. Imperialism is impossible without a militant world outlook, without constant work on external might. England is too wise not to be imbued with the principle of militarism in our epoch. And if the island position and the general international conjuncture allowed her until very recently to be limited only to the cult of naval military power, then from the point of view of the fundamental difference between her and Germany it is impossible to catch. Both here and there – a sovereign policy, backed by armed power. Very instructive in this respect is the book of the English Professor Cramb…

Modern France is less typical. She is more tired of history, “Napoleonism” has exhausted her too much, she is now poured not so much centrifugal as centripetal force. But even she, obeying the basic law of state life, cannot remain in absolute peace, in complete contentment with her borders. Suffice it to recall at least her definitely offensive policy in Africa (Morocco), her active role in the Far East, not to mention her desire to reunite Alsace-Lorraine …

Let’s take our other allies. Japan is steadily following the path of great power. Serbia clearly proved its will and its ability to expand in the era of the Balkan wars of 1912-1913. In addition, it tends to the west, towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Italy and Romania never concealed their state-national aspirations.

Finally, let us look impartially at ourselves. It seems that history has not offended us, we have nothing to complain about, our land is truly great and plentiful. However, let us recall the life of Russia over the last century. Constant expansion, multiplication of state property, constant growth, struggle … Poland, Finland, the Caucasus … Wars in the Middle East, Central Asian politics, war in the Far East … “Warm Sea”, Tsargrad, Manchuria, Vladivostok, Port Arthur … Nature itself forced us to spread in all directions: Russia is truly the greatest state, and therefore it has always been cramped within its actual borders. The next tasks were carried out – new opportunities, new prospects opened up. And corresponding theoretical substantiations of all these broad claims were always born …

And we have nothing to hide, bashfully keep silent about our great power, about our activity, aggressiveness. It is indecent for a lion to dress in the skin of a lamb. It is inappropriate for a Russian bogatyr to put on a mask of sham oiliness, to hide a sharp sword and a damask club under the rags of a passable kalika or under the cassock of a monk alien to the world *****) … Yes, we are a healthy nation, great both spiritually and physically. Yes, we freely strive forward, the will to power lives in us. Of course, we have no right to deny the same will in others. But if our primordial, natural path coincides with the primordial, natural path of another state, a collision is inevitable, inevitable, and attempts to avoid it are useless. Such clashes, for all their horror, are deeply fruitful: they create history, they burn the obsolete and give way to everything new, worthy of life.


All living things must be born in torment – such is the law, such is fate, or, if you like, such is the curse of our earthly existence. Rejection of torment is a rejection of life, of living creativity. If a nation harbors truly constructive forces, it is not afraid of suffering on the Cross: it sacrifices itself in the name of its “idea” and it will say its word at all costs.

World history appears to us as the arena of these constant contests between states, this constant competition of national “ideas.” Within each state, a continuous process of physical and spiritual growth, maturation, and finally death is taking place. The results of such processes inevitably affect the interstate life. Some figures give way to others, new factors of development constantly appear in the light. The “international order” is something temporary and deeply conditional – it is entirely conditioned by the actual correlation of the available forces of civilized humanity. And one should not make of it some supposedly sacred principle, a fetish, which it is a sin to touch. The internal state of one of the states, the figures of world history, will change in a tangible way – inevitably, automatically, and “

The “ideas” of cultural states intersect, intertwine in a peculiar way, and at the same time mutually enmity, compete, strive to subdue each other. This is a great, aesthetically valuable and fruitful struggle of different styles, diverse ways of human life. Each of them is legitimate and necessary in its own way, each in its own way expresses the universal, universal principle. But their mutual struggle is also truly necessary: ​​it is a guarantee that humanity is not frozen in place, it is the main factor of progress.

Every healthy state organism is attracted to expansion, to greater power, and each is limited by analogous impulses of organisms like him. Here the seal of some higher wisdom is clearly felt. Great wars, similar to the one we are experiencing, are, as it were, an impartial verdict of the historical Reason regarding litigations between earthly states. Judgment is being carried out on the peoples, on their aspirations, on their “ideas”. Organic changes that have matured over a certain period of time in individual states receive authoritative sanction in terms of world history. The external, “physical” appearance of the world is brought into line with its internal, spiritual appearance. Internally justified, truly legitimate claims are satisfied, internally false, empty encroachments (be it “offensive”, be it “


This is how the theoretical premises of the problem facing us, the problems of Great Russia, are drawn to me in general terms. The current war is a reassessment of the existing “international order” and, at the same time, a test of the physical and spiritual forces of modern state organisms. The results can’t be random. Its outcome is predetermined by the development of dramatic action throughout the entire chapter of the historical process that is now ending, and is conditioned by the objective meaning of this chapter. The war will end – the meaning will be revealed; not earlier: “the owl of Minerva begins its flight only at dusk” ******).

There is a struggle of various national-state “ideas” and “styles” of the modern cultural world. Each great power “defends” as much as it “attacks”, for each strives to keep its former property and, moreover, to strengthen it with new acquisitions. So far, England, Russia and France have changed the map of the world no less than Germany and Austria. Let Great Germany be carried away by the slogan “Berlin – Bagdad”, the image of “Tsargrad” persistently attracts Great Russia. If “Germanism” is justifiably proud of the greatness of its culture, then we must (and can!) oppose to it the no less majestic outlines of the still young, but already undoubtedly bright Russian culture. Oh, of course, here we still have a lot of work ahead of us, a huge field of activity, hard work on ourselves.

But in any case, we must not hide our nation-state aspirations in breadth. They are not a secret either for our enemies or for our allies. Let the Reason of history judge who has greater rights to Constantinople, who is more worthy of it: Turkey and Germany, or Russia. The “principle of the established international order” as well as the “national principle” are for Turkey. But the “Spirit of History”, I want to believe, is for us. Of course, much here depends on Russia itself. Will it withstand the great material and moral, physical and spiritual test, will its national genius rise to the height of the tasks facing him and already clearly realized by him?…

History seemed to be calling us to Tsargrad for a long time. Over the past century, this call has found a lively and at the same time quite conscious response in the “soul” of our country. The best Russian people pointed to Constantinople as the future path of Russia: national poets and publicists emphasized the deep ideological meaning of the upcoming “annexation”, active politicians took care of the practical side of the matter, and the Russian people made bloody sacrifices…

Moscow and the city of Petrov, and the city of Konstantinov – These are the cherished capitals of the Russian kingdoms

– so Tyutchev wrote back in 1848. He understood that Tsargrad is “the world destiny of Russia”, and was sure that the time would come when “the vaults of ancient Sophia in the renewed Byzantium will again overshadow the altar of Christ.”

“Sooner or later, Constantinople must be ours,” Dostoevsky wrote many times in the 1970s.

All modern Russian journalism unanimously professes and preaches the same conviction. The most varied theoretical views give rise to a single cherished practical slogan: “To Tsargrad!”

The Russian-Turkish wars fatally led us to the Bosporus. The best historical traditions of Russian foreign policy lead the same way. And, we will believe, the Balkan war of 1912 will be the penultimate stage on this path.

Soon, we’ll find out soon…

For now, the conclusion is clear. If the guiding principle of our political activity is the great Russian state, “Great Russia”, then the view so widespread today of the current war as a “war for European freedom”, “a war for the trampled rights of small nations”, “a war against imperialism”, ” war against German militarism”, “war against war” – with all this familiar ideology and phraseology will have to be decisively broken. For it is possible to consistently adhere to it only from the point of view of a narrow, cabinet abstract (although, perhaps, sublime) anarchic, cosmopolitan ideal, in other words, only by rejecting the idea of ​​the state, only by rejecting “Great Russia”.

N. Ustryalov.

————————————————– ———————-

*) “Nations are not natural, but historical and social formations … A nation is not something objective. A nation is something essentially subjective, that is, a property of a certain content of consciousness. A group of people who perceive themselves as united by a multitude of common, unique cultural elements and a common historical past and therefore different from other people, forms a nation. (Jellinek, “The General Doctrine of the State”, St. Petersburg. 1908, pp. 84–86).

**) This peculiar antinomy of Russian culture is aptly outlined by N. A. Berdyaev in his lecture-brochure The Soul of Russia.

***) A. S. Khomyakov, vol. I, Moscow[.] 1861, p. 227.

****) “The Russian people and socialism” (letter to Michelet).

*****) Only Alyosha Popovich did this in Rus’ …

******) Hegel, “Philosophie des Rechts”, Vorrede.

————————————————– ———————- (Journal of Foreign Policy and Law “Problems of Great Russia”, No15, October 15 (28), 1916, pp.1-5. )


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