Russia Russian Foreign Policy Russian ontological security Russian Security Culture Russian Vigilance Norm Russian-Western relations Western Influence and Threat to Russian Ontological Security Western Influence in Russia Western Invasions of Russia Western Meddling in Russia

Russia’s Western Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the Security Vigilance Norm, PART 2

For the Introduction and Part 1 of this article see:

**All of the below is covered in greater detail and fully documented in Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Publishers, 2021).

Western Meddling in Russia’s Enlightenment Century

More assertive Western meddling emerged during subsequent succession struggles in the 18th century. Both the French and Swedes played key roles in Empress Elizabeth I’s accession to the Russian throne in a 1741 coup. The Swedes appear to have initiated the Western involvement with aspiring Elizabeth, but an impasse led to the French becoming her main co-conspirator. Paris had dispatched in 1739 its experienced diplomatic agent Joachim Jacques Trotti Marquis de la Chetardy to St. Petersburg as ambassador to monitior and influence the Russian court, improve very strained Franco-Russian relations, and most importantly break Russia’s alliance with Austria. Moving forward the three parties coordinated coup preparations and actions, with the French providing financial, political, and emotional support to the young princess under Chetardy’s guidance and Paris’s Swedish allies making a military incursion into Russia to rally the public, elite, and Guards Regiments around Elizabeth. The French were primarily interested in getting Elizabeth to jettison Germans dominating the Russian court – the Baltic German Ernst Johann von Biron was running a regency for underage Ivan VI – and thereby facilitate Russia’s withdrawal from the Austrian-led coalition opposed to France’s own in the wars for the Polish succession (1733-1738) and then the Austrian succession (1740-1748).

As the former war drew to a close, news of Anna’s grave health created potential for confusion and chaos in the Russian capitol as the succession struggle ensued. By 1740, France’s policy was to contain St. Petersburg from supporting Vienna by inciting Sweden to war with Russia, thereby diverting Russian power north. Sweden, at the same time, was enticed by the hope of recovering territories lost to Peter the Great in the Great Northern War. In July 1741 Stockholm declared war on Russia in Finland. Although the ostensible purpose was to assist Elizabeth’s coup, the invasion would occur in circumstances where, as Chetardy had advised Paris, the Russian army was unprepared to prevail. In August, Swedish forces suffered a crushing defeat, prompting a delay in the coup until 1742. Paris’s ultimate aim seems to have been to use Swedish pressure on Russia, so Petersburg would withdraw from the enemy coalition. The combination of Swedish military pressure and internal instability might accomplish the goal, but for Russia a major, perhaps existential threat might be posed. Where would the Swedes stop once they started out? Chetardy and the French were hardly concerned for St. Petersburg. In a coup’s eve memo to King Louis, commenting on a Polish proposal to include Russia in any Austrian peace talks, Chetardy wrote that Russia had no business being involved in Central Europe and it would be better “to leave her in its backwater (dans son cul de sac) to deal with its neighbors as it pleases.”

The inexperienced and hesitant Elizabeth finally pulled the trigger on the coup. The Guards Regiments’ imminent dispatch to the Swedish front in the war for the Austrian succession forced Elizabeth to act finally. On the night of 24-25 November 1741, the Preobrazhenskii Regiment easily seized power for Elizabeth, arresting key German-Russian and other Russian officials favored by the deceased Anna. They were tried, sentenced to hangng, but had their death sentences commuted on the scaffold and were exiled to Siberia. In Chetardy’s letter reporting to a Swedish commnder the coup’s results, he announced that the “foreigners” (that is, Germans), “who were in the service in this court and for so many years gave Sweden so many just reasons for complaints,” had been arrested in the coup. Russia was still a second-rate, if rapidly rising European power, still easily used and abused by greater powers.

Another European power, Great Britain, was deeply involved in Catherine the Great’s succession to the throne in a coup that led to the death of a Russian emperor, Peter III, who by all appearances was accidentally killed in the process. European involvement was less extensive in this 28 June 1762 coup. Putting aside Catherine II’s German origins and Petrine-like collusive reliance on Western, in particular French ideas, she utilized British subsidies specifically provided for the coup that would put her on the throne. London’s subsidies were most likely used to buy pivotal support from Guards’ officers and other key court actors. Catherine kept the British ambassador to Petersburg, Sir Charles Williams, misinformed on the progress of the planning, padding her reporting to keep the funds flowing before she even began plotting. Their correspondence began in 1756, with Catherine confiding her desire to seize the throne from her husband Peter, six years before the event.

            The progress Westernization had made as a result of Peter’s great displacement of Russia’s medieval culture to European ways was more evident than ever during Catherine the Great’s reign. The German Francophile empress read and corresponded with the French philosophes – Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and others – whose ideas sparked revolution. Her reading of Montesquieu inspired her to institute a quasi-constitutional governing document for an enlightened autocracy. The Nakazy, ‘Mandates’ or ‘Instructions’, softened the Russian punitive system and codified the rights and priviliges or lack of them for the delineated classes or ‘estates’ legally structuring Russian social, economic, and to some extent political life. Her many other reforms were based on Western models, and she even considered emancipation of the serfs, establishing a cumbersome commission to examine the state of affairs in the countryside and prepare proposals for emancipation. This initial, liberal period of Catherine II’s reign gave way to reaction in response to the French and American revolutions and the rise of what were for that time radical Westernized thinkers in Russia itself, such as the father of Russian republicanism Alexander Radishchev, who exposed the serfs’ cruel plight, called for their emancipation, and justified regicide. The penetration and growing prominence of Freemasonry in Russia also piqued Catherine’s concerns. Radishchev and leading Freemason Nicholas Novikov were both exiled for their views. Another aborted displacement accompanied growing cultural change, with the Russian aristocracy havijg become fully Europeanized and Francophone.

Catherine the Great’s successor, her estranged son Paul I, was more reactionary than reformer. His guiding principle was the reversal of his mother’s policies, whether reformst or reactionary. Where mother was a Francophile, son was a Germanophile. Where Catherine imagined herself an intellectual, Paul was a militarist. The new emperor’s profound unpopularity, driven by his arbitrariness, cruelty, and love affair with things Prussian, alienated his son. Alexander I soon replaced his father on the throne in yet another British-backed coup that led to the death of another Russian emperor. Great Britain’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Charles Whitworth, who despised Paul I even more than Alexander, led London’s operational and financial support for Alexander I’s coup, which the tsarevich did not envision leading to his father’s death. The evidence suggests that outgoing ambassador Whitworth, stationed in St. Petersburg from 1788 to 1800, played a central role in backing the coup morally, organizationally, and financially. The findings of the only historian, James J. Kenney, ever to make extensive use of Whitworth’s archive are particularly revealing and with other evidence strongly favor the conclusion that Whitworth acted on official British government instructions. Kenney uncovered, among much else, the disappearance of 40,000 rubles (equivalent to some $7 million today) distributed to Whitworth by the British government days before the end of his ambassadorship and departure from St. Petersburg in autumn 1800 and just a few months before the coup when its planning phase was in high gear. The final coup plan was approved by the conspirators in January-February 1801. Kenny characterizes as “quite irregular” the handling of the money requested by Whitworth. 12,000 rubles, Whitworth claimed, was used to cover personal debts he said were accrued during his years in St. Petersburg, and the remaining 28,000 rubles were devoted to “Secret Service” expenses. A government investigation was suddenly shut down withut explanation, and Whitworth was never made to account for the expenditures as required by British law. Moreover, Whitmore was intimately involved in the meetings of the main coup plotters, who acted with Alexander’s knowledge.

Catherine’s and Alexander’s Western-backed coups, coupled with what traditionalists with some good reason saw as risky ill-timed republican constitutionalist reforms, injected further suspicion towards Western projects to remake Russia especially among the losing, traditionalist parties in these struggles. Instructive in this regard was Alexander I’s dsmissal and exile of his top reformst advisor, Mikhail Speranskii, who was scapegoated as a dupe or agent of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose imperialist revolutionary wars undermined the next great Russian displacement in favor of Western form of political and social organization and sparked a deepening of Russia’s security vigilance militarily, domestically, and ontologically.

The Russian Dilemma Manifest

Alexander I made three attempts – the last almost immediately abandoned – to install a constitutional monarchy with considerable republican elements, a system that would have resembled the monarchy with a parliamentary State Duma established a century later under Nicholas II. In addition, he also intended to abolish serfdom, and once his reforms were implemented to abdicate the throne and find rest and a simple life in some small corner of Europe, as he confided in a letter to one of his many Western and Westernized teachers and advisors. In 1818, Alexander I traveled to Warsaw to open the Polish Sejm, which operated a republican constitution for the conquered Poles within the Russian imperial system. In his speech, he declared that he was preparing to introduce the same for Russia herself, but within a few years this plan had been abandoned by Alexander for the third and last time. The two other attempts to install a Russian constitution were interrupted because of Napoleon’s war-making. First Alexander was diverted to lead Russia against Napoleon’s march east and attempt to replace monarchies with ‘fraternity, liberty’ and equality’ under a pseudo-republican autocracy and imperial system. In 1812, the invasion of Russia itself by Napoleon and a ‘Grand Army’, representing some thirty European states, again interrupted Alexander’s constitutional and other reforms. After Napoleon’s defeat, Alexander’s short-lived third attempt was abandoned as he began to get word in 1820 from his secret police that a revolutionary republican movement with European ties had taken root in the army among the young officers, who had marched to Paris in liberating Europe from the Napoleonic yoke and helped establish a constitutional monarchy in France under Alexander I’s leadership. Thus, in all three scuttlings of republican constitutional reform under Alexander, Western and Western-tied factors forced postponement and then abandonment of the very kinds of reforms many in Europe had hoped for decades might be instituted by their eastern neighbor.

This intelligence and a 1820 revolt in the Semyonovskii Guards’ Regiment prompted Alexander to abandon reforms. As evidence of the conspiracy’s reach mounted and instability emerged in the Holy Alliance’s Congrress of Vienna established under Alexander’s leadership, the tsar ordered the arrest of the leading conspirators and plunged into a depression. The far-flung conspiratorial ‘Decembrist’ movement had a powerful leadership cell in the capitol. So upon hearing of Decembrists’ arrests in the south, Alexander’s sudden death in November 1825, and news of confusion as to who was his designated successor, the Petersburg Decemrists undertook a bold attempt to seize power in a military coup led by Guards Regiments, seize power from Alexander’s brother and emerging successor Nicholas I, and undertake a revolution from above to install a republican form of government. The coup failed disastrously. The cream of the Russian aristocracy and officer corps was purged, with five Decembrist leaders hung to death in an equally disastrous execution that had to be repeated several times. Thousands were exiled to Siberia.

Nicholas I, who might never had reigned if there had been no Napoleon, began his reign with blood on his hands, revolution in the air, and constitutional and other Alexandrian reform plans laying in tatters. A new traditionalist reconstituion was a result of the more distant past, the previous century’s Western-backed coup plots, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and destruction of Moscow and much of European Russia’s countryside, and the French-inspired Decembrist revolt. The new emperor oversaw the investigation into the coup plot himself and ordered investigators to uncover any Western traces of collusion with the Decembrists—further testimony to the strengthening of the security vigilance norm vis-à-vis Western meddling embedding deeply in Russian political and strategic culture. Moreover, Nicholas I reconstituted a neo-traditionalist Russia in the form of a modern bureaucratic police state of the kind Napoleon pioneered and Russia’s European allies, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, adopted. It was based on a conservative Prussian model and Slavophile nationalism influenced by German nationalism and Romanticism. The foundation of the new order imposed on society was ‘Official Nationality.’  

Perhaps Russia’s first official state ideology, Official Nationality was designed to declare Russia’s autonomy from and opposition to its increasingly anti-monarchical, revolutionary Western ‘Other’ and to sharply curtail the century-long great displacement instigated by Peter the Great. It was to be a bulwark protecting Russia from durther Western threats to its ontological security. The ‘Official Nationality’ was founded on three ideological pillars of the homeland: ‘Orthdoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.’ Proposed in 1833 by Count Sergei Uvarov, Nicholas’s education minister from 1832 to 1848, Official Nationality would be an antidote to France’s ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.’ ‘Orthodoxy’ was in opposition to the radical secularism and anti-clericalism of ‘Liberty.’ ‘Autocracy’ counterposed the revolutionary principle of ‘Equality.’ ‘Nationality’ was not related to ethnic nationalism, but rather promoted Russian conservative thought in rejection of Western revolutionary republicanism and socialism. But Uvarov, though conservative, was European. He supported not reaction but gradual liberalization, the pace of which should be gauged in accordance with the increase in European education among Russians. He himself was educated in Gottenberg University, Germany, where he imbibed the Hanoverian critique of French revolutionary thought.

After Russia’s Napoleon experience and with a lingering threat of revolution emanating from France, a xenophobia, especially Francophobia gripped Nicholas I, the Russian court and the Third Department. Nicholas I banned foreigners from wearing beards, which were greatly popular among the European intelligentsia at the time. Fear of the ‘French infection’ intensified after the July 1830 revolt and the rise of power of Louis-Philip and particularly so after the invention of railroad, which became an iron conduit for revolution into Russia. The French were seen as a harmful, yet useful and necessary evil, given their key role in various spheres of Russian life, though in St. Petersburg they numbered only in the several hundreds in 1839 and around 3,000 (with another 600 in Moscow) in 1843. The Third Department regarded the French as “scum” and spent a good portion of its resources controlling their entry into and activities while in country. It used an array of instruments – the ‘high’ or secret police, local police, constables, customs control, visa application procedures, guides, and secret informers – to gather information on the French and other foreign nationals visiting Russia. Nicholas’s ideological restrictions and the emergence of large domestic censorship and spying apparatus under the Third Department’s control cast a long shadow over Russian history.

The stultifying new ideology and police state, however, coincided with an explosion of printing and publishing and an unprecedented cultural and intellectual ferment and flowering both in reaction against, and in support of the new conservative reconstitution. The aristocracy and intelligentsia each split into Westernizer and Slovophile camps. Westernizers emerged from more than a century of post-Petrine enlightenment, producing the ‘superfluous men’ of the 1840s, the nihilists of the 1850s, and the socialist revolutionaries who rampaged across Russia from the 1860s into the next century and ultimately seized power in October 1917. The socialist and anarchist demons would be aided and abetted by the integration of Russia into Europe’s postal, communications, and overall civilizational system under the Great Reforms of the Tsar Liberator Alexander II, Nicholas I’s brother.

But under Nicholas, reform and revolution were postponed in Russia. Another war with Europeans was not. Although the post-Napoleonic Russian-led Concert of Europe and Holy Alliance initially strengthened St. Petersburg’s relations with the monarchist ‘Other’ of old Europe, Russia found itself increasingly alienated from its Other’s revolutionary other during Nicholas’s reign. Emerging new Europe was embattled by democratic-nationalist revolutions that Russia was obliged to suppress. Soon, the Holy Alliance weakened and dissolved. Consequently, geopolitical competition intensified in Europe, especially as the Ottoman Empire began to falter, leading to the Crimean War. Russia found that its European, Christian ‘Others’ were more prepared to ally with the Muslim than with the Orthodox Russian. The French and British efforts to contest Russian influence in Turkey and the Turkish Straits was driven by no small dose of Russophobia, imagined Russian plans to seize the Straits to the exclusion of other powers’ right to traverse their waters, and wartime attacks against Russian interests across the globe, from the Baltic Sea to the Solovetsk Monastery in the near Arctic and even in the Far East. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War prompted another phase of Russian westernization domestically under ‘Tsar-Liberator’ Alexander II, but in large part as a way to remain military parity with Europe and not before the Russian army’s heroic defense of Sevastopol was immortalized by Leo Tolstoy, becoming another iconic symbol of Russian security vigilance against the West.

At the same time, Alexander II was more committed to instituting a constitutional monarchy and representative forms of government than any previous Russian tsar. His Great Reforms constituted another majr dislocation to European values rivaling that of tPeter the Great’s. Alexander instituted forms of representative government at the village and volost levels through the zemstvos, which themselves produced a constitutionalist movement from below to match his own from above. He emancipated the serfs, which created an entirely new social equation and forces in Russia. Alexander II’s reforms, especially emancipation, the zemtva, and railroad construction continued to support Russia’s economic, social, and even political modernization during the reigns of his successors Alexander III, his prime minister Sergei Witte, Nicholas II, and his prime minister Pyotr Stolypin. The Russian economy underwent a revolution in industrial manufacturing, and agricultural boom by which Russia joined the ranks of the world’s leading economies. As industrialization developed, the peasant went to the city. As censorship was lifted and political organizing was liberated, the urban, university, and gentry manors’ youth went to the peasants; some to educate them, some to radicalize them, some to live like them. The crackdown on the ‘going to the people’ or narodniki movement, expanded the new recruiting pool for revolutionaries. It is a signature reflection of the Russian dilemma that the most Westernized Russian tsar of all – one who finally liberated the serfs and was about to sign a semi-constitutional document that would have been followed by the promulgation of Russia’s first constitution – would be assassinated by the acolytes of the new Western ideology of anarchist-socialist revolutionism that was striving to displace constitutional republican monarchies in Europe. Alexander II’s assassin was motivated by the Western ideology of revolutionary socialism; his victim was influenced by Western ideas of constitutional monarchy and representative government. Western radicalism defeated Western enlightenment on the Gribodoev Canal in St. Petersburg that cold March day.

Under Alexander II’s policy of glasnost’ or openness – Imperial era predecessor to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform brand of the same name – Russian aristocrats, intellegents, and soon countryside gentry and the quasi-middle class of the raznochintsty had broad access to European literature, including that of the French socialists, Marx and Engels, and other sources of radical ideas. Whether socialist, anarchist, republican, Slavophile, or monarchist, Russian thinkers were steeped in Western thought. Alexander III’s clampdown on society in the wake of his father’s assassination piqued frustrations, grew the ranks of the revolutionary parties, and radicalized those parties. The result was a wave of revolutionary terrorism the likes of which the world had never seen. Moreover, much of the terrorism and the revolutionary outcome it facilitated were nurtured by the same Western radicalism as well as diect Western political and material support for Russia’s demons.


*All of the above is covered in greater detail and fully documented in Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Publishers, 2021).



About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: