Remembering the Crimean War: Russia and the West have been here before

Battle of the Alma

By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Dan Erdman

July 11, 2022  — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Russian Dissent — At the end of February, when the current events in Ukraine were just unfolding, I wrote several posts, urging readers to remember the history of the Crimean War of the 19th century and to draw some conclusions. Just in case, let’s revisit the historical facts.

By the 1850s, the Russian Empire remained militarily powerful, but technologically backward, squatting on the economic periphery of the developing capitalist world system. The well-being of the ruling class was completely dependent on the export of raw materials - timber, grain, metals - to the West. Then, European demand for a number of key goods began to fall. The market for grain was still strong, but here competition from the Danubian principalities, which were under Turkish control, was significant. Despite the seeming strength of the Russian autocracy, internal tension was growing, and a sense of impasse gripped the educated part of society (writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin very vividly described the feeling of collective shame that at once seized many people who compared the domestic state of life with that of the western one).

Emperor Nicholas I decided to deal with these problems all at once by arranging for a small victorious war. All that was necessary was the dismemberment of neighboring Turkey, a simple expropriation of those territories that were rich in grain and lay among the export routes. In public, the tsar complained about the oppression of the Orthodox people in the neighboring state, and in private, quite sincerely, suggested that other European countries also cut off a piece from Turkey so that no one would feel left out. To the surprise of the emperor, no one responded to this call, and the West warned that in the event of an invasion of Turkey, punishment would follow in the form of economic and military sanctions. In turn, the tsar, confident in the power of his army, recalled the Patriotic War of 1812 and announced that “we can repeat it.”

The reality was disastrous. It turned out that the Russian army was much weaker than it had seemed to the tsar; her weapons could not compete with their western counterparts’. Soon, the country found itself in conflict with the entire western world. Total corruption paralyzed all military efforts, attracting criticism from the tsar himself, who declared that only two Russians not tempted to thievery were he himself and the heir to the throne. Against the calls of some radicals (including Karl Marx), the western armies crucially did not wage a full-scale war against Russia, preventing the tsar from an appeal to patriotism. The war was fought on the outskirts of the empire, and foreign troops prudently declined to march into the nation itself, so there was no way to repeat 1812.

In Russia, attempts to stir up patriotic hysteria, well described by the same Saltykov-Shchedrin, fizzled out against the background of the economic crisis and military failures. Meanwhile, in the West, the wave of Russophobic propaganda that had been raised by the press in the first months of the war was also fading away. If at first British magazines presented Russia as a country in bondage, ruled by villains who dreamed of also enslaving the rest of Europe, then by the end of the war Russia was described as, of course, not free, but otherwise quite an ordinary country. If, in this account, the St. Petersburg government were to leave Turkey alone and abandon its mad ambitions, then it would be quite possible to negotiate with it. But one problem remained: in the eyes of the whole world, and in the eyes of the domestic enlightened public, Nicholas I looked like a beast, the very face of reaction, the culprit of the war, and the enemy of enlightenment. He had become, in modern terms, toxic; even the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph wanted no truck with him, despite the fact that it was Russian forces who once saved his crown.

To everyone’s joy, Emperor Nicholas died suddenly in the midst of the war. And his heir, Alexander II, immediately reconciled with the West and embarked on reforms that, while very limited, were quite progressive. True, the reforms did not satisfy a significant part of society, leading to unrest, to the point where the tsar himself became a victim of an assassination attempt by the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) revolutionaries, as punishment for political inconsistency. But that’s another story.

Returning now to our times, I will allow myself to note that the strategy of the West, which became clear after the Rammstein-3 meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, should remind us of the history of a century and a half ago. After the list of weapons provided to the Kyiv government was made public, many Ukrainian bloggers started talking about another betrayal. In their opinion, the West does not truly seek a victory of the Ukrainian army, providing it with weapons sufficient only for defense. In turn, our “patriotic” Russian commentators, who claim that the West seeks to destroy Russia and all its people, are somewhat embarrassed. On the one hand, it is good that Ukraine receives fewer weapons, but on the other hand, this reality disrupts the picture of the world formed by Russian state propaganda.

What is really happening? The plain answer to this question was given by the western politicians themselves, though quite clearly no one either in Russia or in Ukraine are ready to understand it. Firstly, western leaders have said bluntly that they will not allow Russia to win the war, and secondly, they don’t necessarily wish for a change of the Russian regime. The western elites want to preserve the regime, if not necessarily in its former condition.

The ruling class of our country, administering the system of peripheral capitalism, had gone - imprudently, from the point of view of European and American leaders - beyond their natural niche and must now return to it, realizing that they will not achieve anything by raising the stakes. The West is quite satisfied with the existing regime in Russia, but also believes that it needs to slightly improve its reputation. The Russian domestic elite has been given time for this – several months. Yes, the prolongation of hostilities means additional casualties on both sides, but this is not a problem for the ruling class in the US and the European Union. A much bigger problem is the toxicity of the current Russian leader, with whom it is difficult to negotiate, and not only due to a bad reputation: the West simply no longer trusts him.

The Russian authorities have been given time to solve this problem. Will it be resolved through some kind of agreement? Or, as all kinds of experts on Kremlin rumors say, maybe everything will be determined by the natural course of events. Perhaps we should expect some showdowns and conspiracies at the top. In any case, we will most likely find out towards the end of autumn. The process is already running and it has a certain time frame.

But to what extent such a strategy will yield the expected results remains the most important question.