On Weber's realist criteria — material resources and the ability to project power — there is no doubt that Russia was a great power by the end of the 18th century. Similarly, on Durkheim's moral criteria — setting an example for how a state should be in the world — the socialization into the states system would appear to be strong enough for Russia to qualify.Footnote 12 There remained no doubt about its Christian credentials, the principle of legitimacy was the same as in the other powers, dynastic intermarriages had become common. How, then, should we account for the ubiquitous European complaints about Russia's lack of civility and the continuing doubt about the extent to which it should be considered as part of Europe? For Russia was still not seen as weighing heavily on the scales of civilization. An example is David Hume's complaint that ‘the two most civilized nations, the English and French, should be in decline; and the barbarians, the Goths and the Vandals of Germany and Russia, should be in power and renown (quoted in Horn 1945: 18–19). Variants of this complaint were heard in other forms and in other arenas. In 1804, the French ambassador Hédouville complained to his Foreign Minister Talleyrand that ‘There is no other foreign court where the diplomatic corps is less informed on political dispositions and proceedings than here’ (quoted in Grimsted 1969: 19).
Turning towards the issue of governance allows us to highlight two factors. First, regarded as a police state, Russia was less successful than others.Footnote 13 The capacity for state action was less efficient and more limited. Hamilton and Langhorne (1995: 74) highlights how Peter's reforms also embraced the state apparatus. A ‘new college of foreign affairs was established, and unlike some of Tsar Peter's reforms survived a period of near chaos after his death and grew to have 261 members at the accession of Catherine the Great in 1762. The college had a president, vice-president and two chancery councillors at its establishment, and during the eighteenth century steadily lost its responsibilities for internal provincial (also Central Asian) administration, ecclesiastical administration, for tax gathering and for the postal system, which was separated in 1782’ (comp. Meissner 1956). The result was that, as late as at the eve of the nineteenth century, ‘Compared to the smaller and more efficient foreign offices of many other European powers, the Russian ministry counted on its rolls an extraordinary large number of officials, from those of higher ranks to clerks, codifiers, translators, and copyists. The exact number of men functioning at a given time is almost impossible to ascertain because the rolls listed many persons who rarely or never served’ (Grimsted 1969: 26).
Secondly, during the 18th Century, European societies emerged and states changed their way of handling societies from being one of direct rule to one of indirect governance. In Europe, this period saw the gradual emergence of liberal forms of governing that replaced that of the police state, and society gradually replaced territory as the object of reference for governing. While this system weakened the further east from Britain one moved, liberalism, understood as concrete social practice, firmed its grip. Russia eventually had to take cognizance of the change. In summing up Catherine the Great's reign, Bruce Lincoln places the emphasis on how one cause of her social policy was that Russia's ‘status as a Great Power’ imposed an imperative for civil peace, which again imposed heightened efficiency in the Russian administration. He then adds another factor which added to this imposition, namely that a number of young Russian bureaucrats were impressed by European Enlightenment thinking, and thought that Russia had to conform to Enlightenment ideals of how a civilized polity should be governed. As Lincoln sums up the point,
the pre-modern military and fiscal concerns of Muscovite Tsars confirmed poorly to the image of a Great Power that their sovereigns hoped to project. To be sure, Russia's military needs continued greater than ever, but, as a Great Power, she also must exhibit some proper concern for her citizens (Lincoln 1982: 3, also 175).
To paraphrase, a new ethos of what governing a state entailed was setting a new standard not only for what a state had to be in order to be considered well-ordered, but also for which states should be considered great powers. Liberalism formulated an imperative whereby letting go of the state's direct control of society was becoming a necessity not only for reasons of efficiency (producing a surplus that could feed state need, including a military capacity), but also and more fundamentally for reasons of conforming to a new Europe-wide standard of governance (the need to appear ‘normal’). Given 19th century European thought's penchant for conceptualizing world history in terms of stages taking place in the same order and leading to the same goal, the lack of normality was read more specifically as a slow rate of civilizational development.Footnote 14 Russia was a laggard in introducing what was considered a civilized form of government, and this made it inferior.Footnote 15
On the strength of moral criteria, after the Napoleonic wars, Russia was the great power par excellence. At Vienna in 1815, Russia's role as great power was institutionalized. At this time, for the specific purposes of managing the system of states, being the military arbiter of Europe proved sufficient. Only five powers were given the right to have ambassadors extraordinary and plenipotentiary, and Russia was among them. We note, however, that Russia experienced trouble with maintaining its great-power credentials throughout what Eric Hobsbawm calls the ‘long 19th century’ (1789–1917), and that this may be accounted for by the factor of governance. Indeed, Vattel's definition, that a great power should be able to hold its own against any constellation of other powers, was put to the test after the Vienna settlement, when all the other great powers allied against Russia in the quadruple alliance and Russia held its own with ease. In relative terms, Russia's strength weakened throughout the 19th century. Realism cannot account for this, but an account highlighting the factor of governance can. System of government was at the heart of Russia's increasing inability to match the growth in prosperity found (elsewhere) in Europe.
A moral reading of Russia's tenuous standing as a great power throughout the 19th century would highlight how, as the principle of legitimacy shifted towards popular sovereignty, Russia led the rearguard action on the behalf of kingly sovereignty. Such an account is, of course, apposite. When there was a shift in Britain and France's position on what should be the constitutive principles of international society, Russia's response was to insist on the role of God and the heavenly mandate for kingly rule. What continued to tie Europe's monarchs together, tsar Alexander argued in 1815, was that they were brothers in Christ (Palmer 1974). His proposed Holy Alliance was clearly and explicitly embedded in such a discursive universe. As seen both by the formal and informal reactions to it, however, these arguments had lost not only their obviousness, but also some of their persuasiveness. Russia's inability to rally the other great powers who constituted the Congress of Europe behind a program of policing Europe against regimes based on popular sovereignty demonstrates how the discrepancy on the principle of legitimacy translated into inability to act in concert. The result was continued questioning of Russia's standing as a European or even a civilized nation. Grimsted (1969: 3) is right when she argues that
Russia's stature as a great European power reached its zenith because the economic, social and political developments which were to transform the European continent in the next hundred years had not, by 1800, separated Russia from Western Europe to the extent that would be so evident in the Crimean War at mid-century.
As a more liberal type of governing took hold domestically as well as between states and established itself as ‘normal’, Russia once again became a laggard. Where governance between states is concerned, The Congress of Vienna had marked a breakthrough in international governance. It stabilized state boundaries between European states, and insulated Europe from extra-European rivalries. Much in the same way as Adam Smith had conceived of political measures as preconditions for economies to thrive, international agreement demarcated specific areas (understood as state-contained societies) for states to govern. This changed the meaning of what it meant to be a great power. As Paul Schroeder puts it, the general principles of the Concert of Europe ‘protected the rights, interests, and equal status of the great powers above all, but they also committed these powers to the performance of certain duties connected with those rights — respect for treaties, noninterference in other states’ internal affairs, willingness to participate in the Concert's decisions and actions, and a general observance of legality and restraint in their international actions’ (Schroeder 1986: 12–13). It became harder and less legitimate to compensate for bad governance with territorial expansion in Europe. In the 18th century, the three partitions of Poland and the resulting territorial aggrandizement of Russia, particularly after the third division, had a certain aggrandizing effect on Russia's standing as a great power. By contrast, Russia's imperial policy in Poland, Finland etc. in the 19th century did not have such an effect, but was rather detrimental to its standing. The explanation for this is to be found in the increasing importance assigned to systems of government.
This is generally occluded by realist analyses, which often conclude that, in the period from the Vienna settlement to the Crimean War (1853–1856), Russia was not only secure in its great powerhood, but that it was even preponderant. For example, William Wohlforth (1999: 21 note 30) holds that the Concert of Europe as it operated in this period was ‘based on a Russo-British cohegemony’. Paul Schroeder disagrees, pointing out
The common view that Russia enjoyed an enormous and growing power and prestige in Europe until the Crimean War broke the bubble is a great exaggeration. After 1815, Russia never was the arbiter of Europe or exercised the dominant influence in Germany that Catherine II or Paul I had enjoyed for a time, and the young Alexander I had aspired to (Schroeder 1986: 10).
The point here is that, underlying not only the growing gap in relative resources but also the gap in principle of legitimacy was a difference in governance. At the heart of Russia's troubles as a great power was its unwillingness and inability to change from a rationality of direct rule to a rationality of indirect governmentality. Again, consider Lincoln's argument that
If Russia was to meet the challenge posed by the rapidly industrializing West, she, in turn, had to find some way to achieve greater administrative efficiency and instil into her middle- and upper-level officials a measure of support for change. Russia's bureaucrats had to become responsive to the needs of the nation they served, and some means had to be found to enable those few who were well informed about complex social and economic issues to gain input into the tsarist policy-making process (Lincoln 1982: 6).
Lincoln's book painstakingly traces how this process unfolded in the middle of the 19th century to culminate in the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and leading to sweeping judicial reforms directly and explicitly inspired by European models (esp. Lincoln 1982: 200). It is of key interest, however, that Russia's autocratic order put a clear limit to how such moves could be taken. If all power should in theory emanate from the Tsar, bureaucracy had to maintain the principle of direct control from above. Therefore, Russia's politicians could not act independently. Neither was there any way in which they could function as aggregators of societal interests apart from the tsar, and so any economic strengthening of the emerging middle class could not find any direct political expressions. ‘As a result, just when the new social and economic groups that comprised the middle class were eroding the power of absolutism in the West, it was strengthened in Russia’ (Lincoln 1982: 7).
There is broad consensus in the historical literature about the logic and importance of this process. In terms of state-society relations, the problem was that Russia simply did not have the social agents necessary to mediate between the state and the population at large. This meant that a necessary precondition for indirect rule was lacking. Given the absence of self/government amongst the subjects, if the state decided to ease direct rule, there was an immediate danger that anarchy would ensue. Therefore, moves to indirect rule, which would entail the easing of direct rule, were precluded. As Geyer (1977: 27–8) puts it
As a result of the new attitudes forced on the government, the reform period witnessed the first flowering of political journalism in Russia. […] A common thread to all the criticism was opposition to the bureaucratic machinery of the state and demands for self-government and ‘openness’ (glasnost’). No consensus existed, however, on the question of who should be responsible for self-government in the districts and provinces: aristocrats ‘born’ to mediate between the ruler and his people? owners of private property in their capacity as the most respectable group of citizens? the educated classes as the preceptors of the people and defenders of democratic rights?
The state was not able to put any of these social groups to good use, which meant that it was basically stuck with the state apparatus. Within this apparatus, however, the regime once again ran into the elite social forces, which it was not able to harness for indirect rule. The regime's lack of ability to deploy its own apparatus effectively meant that direct rule was inefficient as well. To draw on Dave Alan Rich's (1998: 29) formulation, ‘autocracy's constructed dynastic myth left little room for state professionals. Partnership with the rising ranks of experts who filled the central bureaucracy — and sharing of authority with them — were beyond its defining tropes.’ Rich's example is the Russian General Staff. The military leadership's response to the reforms of the 1860s was to embark on professionalization. This succeeded in setting up a solid planning operation, but having it implemented proved difficult, since the tsar and his immediate family sat at the top of the military hierarchy from which they were able to stall the process. Having failed to circumvent the royal family, the General Staff simply gave up. As summarized by Rich (1998: 19):
…civilian political leaders, who had sought unification of policy in the Council of Ministers after 1905, ultimately found themselves hobbled by habits of insularity and by the supreme power, Tsar Nicholas II, who thought government his personal possession. Professional bureaucrats, the experts whose authority might have insinuated interministerial political unity, instead settled into parochialism, and none more so than the technicians of the Russian general staff. In the end, professionals were not the potential savoirs of autocracy and empire but virtual guarantors of their demise.Footnote 16
As did his predecessors, Nicholas operated according to a rationality of government where the tsar was supposed to be the head of the household. Etymologically, we may even trace this in the Russian term for state, gosudarstvo, which translates loosely as the holdings of the lord. The unwillingness to let the sovereign's documents count for more than the sovereign's whim, that is, the unwillingness to subsume leadership under the law, meant that Western-style bureaucratization was held back from the top. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, his son and successor passed a Statute of exceptional measures which gave one such body, the secret policy, a free run on the sovereign's subjects. Zuckerman (1996: 13) concludes from a careful reading that ‘the political police by the mid-1880s already operated beyond the control of the regular bureaucracy’. Since these measures remained in force until the October revolution, one may indeed describe Russia as a ‘police state’ in these years, but in a very different meaning from what 16th and 17th century Europeans meant by ‘police’.
Note that the bureaucracy tended to experience the delegation of power to ad hoc organs like the secret police and those organs’ subsequent tendency to ignore the bureaucracy's instructions as a direct hampering not only of their own power, but also of the effectiveness of the state. This may be seen, for example, in the internal fight between the ministry of Finance and the ministry of the Interior over the development of labour movements. Up until 1903, when the so-called starosta (elder) law allowing the choice of elders from amongst the workers to play a role as spokesmen was established, forming anything approaching even a proto-union had been illegal. The new law followed a failed attempt by Sergey Zubatov, head of Moscow's secret police, to construct police-controlled worker organizations. McDaniel (1988: 65) comments that
The Zubatov experiment was the closest the Russian state ever came to a corporatist policy of creating and coopting dependent organizations, a strategy that achieved notable successes from the standpoint of the authorities in numerous other countries.
In Russia, however, the state was too aloof, the industrialists too weak and the workers too unused to the give and take that is necessary for industrial relations to work for the Zubatov experiment to be successful. Again, the preconditions for indirect rule simply were not present. McDaniel stresses how autocracy's choice not to accommodate social groups was a self-conscious one, quoting the soon-to-become Internal Minister hailing in 1902 ‘the complete independence of our government’ (Sipyagin quoted in McDaniel 1988: 58). Note, however, that he also traces the impulse to study indirectly in this debate, for one of the express reasons why the Ministry of Finance wanted the starosta law in the first place was
to reduce the role of the police in the factories as much as possible. The law had its origins in the request of factory inspectors that they be allowed ‘to summon worker deputies and talk with them’ before the police intervened. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, they claimed, did not sufficiently recognize this duty of the factory inspectorate, and unfortunately all disorders were dealt with by the police (McDaniel 1988: 90–1).
Of course, the spokesman for indirect rule, the Minister of Finance, was a liberal (Witte), whereas the Internal Minister who was inclined towards direct rule was a conservative. The conservative was right in his assumption that indirect rule would undermine the regime, and so he won the debate. We may conclude that at least some Russian bureaucrats as well as its few liberal politicians shared the assessment of European statesmen where the weakness of the Russian state was concerned. They did not, however, draw the same conclusion, or at least not in the same degree, namely that Russia did not meet the standard of civilization necessary to pass muster as a great power.
For our purposes, where the key is to spell out the different rationalities of rule and government between Russia and other European regimes, these analyses may be generalized in ways that give them analytical purchase even today. Consider, for example, Moshe Lewin's (1987) reading of Russia's inability to reform. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lewin argues, the Russian state would perceive the situation to be one where Russia was losing out to Western competitors due to the relative lack of productivity of its enterprises. In reaction, the Russian (or Soviet) state would ease its direct control of enterprises, and encourage them to increase their own initiative. The enterprises would go ahead and do so, and at some point, their very success would generate demands on the state (in the form of pressure for different systems and degrees of taxation, for new legislation, for a say in decision-making, etc.) The state would not consider itself to be able to answer these demands without systems-wide change, and would respond by putting an end to reforms. Leaning on the governmentality perspective, this process is easily defined as one of the state refusing to accept a change away from logic of direct rule towards a logic of indirect governance. Society is not allowed to exist as an institutional and hence non-transparent reality. As seen from Europe, Russia held on to an outmoded and inefficient mode of state power, which made it appear anything but great. The result was, to quote Lincoln once again, that
By 1856, the political ideologies of the West stood in unflinching, hostile array against those very precepts and institutions of autocracy that Alexander II was sworn to defend and to which the enlightened bureaucrats were committed by necessity and conviction. Europeans unhesitatingly saw in Russian autocracy the personification of that tyranny they had fought to destroy in the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, and the survival of autocracy only strengthened some of them in their opposition to Russia's claims for recognition as a European power (Lincoln 1982: 175).
Arguably, the tsarist empire's resistance to Western pressure for a change towards liberal governance cost it its life for it alienated the regime from every single emerging social group and zapped its military strength when it was most needed. Debate about whether the balance of power should be conceived as a balance of capabilities or a balance of threats has its specific counterpart in the debate about whether great powerhood should be assessed in terms of material or perceptual indicators. For example, William Wohlforth (1987) demonstrates how, in the decade leading up to the First World War, policy makers were led astray by their trust in numbers, which made them grossly overestimate Russia's power. Interestingly, the power that held that power to be the most modest was Russia itself. Since Wohlforth operates within the problematique of order, he rests content with demonstrating the discrepancy.Footnote 17 A focus on governance suggests that the more intimate Russian knowledge of its weakness in this regard explains its modesty in overall assessment of its great powerhood. As Wohlforth himself demonstrates, furthermore, it was exactly the inability of foreign observers to appreciate the full importance of the state's tenuous hold on society for its international standing and survival that led them astray. Within Russia itself, however, there were key people who fully grasped the problem. Consider Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich's lament that ‘we cannot deceive ourselves any longer […] we are both weaker and poorer than the first-class powers, and furthermore poorer not only in material but also in mental resources, especially in matters of administration’ (quoted in Lieven 1983: 21). What the Grand Duke did not note, however, was that having someone like himself on top was exactly one of the things that made it impossible for tsarist Russia to match the administrative systems of the ‘first-class powers’.
When, in its final months, the tsar turned to the ambassadors of Russia's allies, who were also representatives of the most liberal states in the system, the stock answer was that the tsar should broaden the popular basis of his government. Despite the odds, he vehemently refused. After a short socialist interregnum, a communist regime was installed. In terms of resource base, the Soviet state quickly matched the level of resources once possessed by tsarist Russia. Realists may account for this by pointing to Soviet disinterest in managing the system, and a Durkheimian may account for it by pointing to the different principle of legitimacy on which the communists operated. By the same tokens, they may produce complementary accounts of how the Soviet Union regained its great power status after it emerged victorious in the Second World War. But, how may they account for the repeated relevance of the view, held by Western leaders like Winston Churchill, that the Russian leaders were barbarians, and the matching uneasiness of the Soviet leaders towards what they at some level obviously considered their more highly cultured counterparts? Consider an example from a period which, according to a realist account, has the Soviet Union play the role of one of the world's two superpowers. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev compared himself to a heroine of a popular play from the 1930s, Lyubov’ Yarovaya, where little Dun’ka undertakes a trip to Europe. The expression ‘as Dun’ka in Europe’ passed into everyday language, translating as something like ‘as a country bumpkin in the big city’. Khrushchev wrote that
Dun’ka's travel to Europe was of consequence and went to show that that we could deal with international matters even without Stalin's orders. To use a metaphor, in foreign policy we had thrown away the boy's shorts and donned the long trousers of the adult. […] We felt our power (Khrushchev 1993: 78).
Maybe so, but how to account for the insecurity obvious in the need to spell out how one feels from the leader of a state that perceived itself and was perceived by the other powers in the system as having the military might of a great power? Fulfilling the criterion of having enough economic strength to uphold a military might that was great in relative terms appears as a necessary, but insufficient criterion of great powerhood here. From Grand Duke Constantine to Khrushchev and beyond, we see a continuing Russian fear of being seen as inferior by (other) European powers. And indeed, beginning in the late 1980s, post-Soviet leaders themselves began to identify the root cause of their uneasiness vis-à-vis the West in civilizational terms. One of the key slogans of the perestroika period was the need to ‘rejoin civilization’, a slogan that logically implied that the Soviet path had somehow led Russians away from it (Neumann 2005). With the fall of communism, for the next ten to fifteen years, the official Russian self-understanding of the Soviet past came to blame a mistaken system of governance for the lingering problems in what was frequently referred to as the civilized world. There was a tentative turn to European liberal models of government. During this period, the understanding of Russia as inferior was often shared by Russian leaders themselves.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian elite adopted a number of European social practices (marriage patterns, military procurement and deployment, diplomacy), and partook in the management of the states system in ways that were explicitly associated with great powers (having ambassadors plenipotentiary, being a guarantor power, participating in conferences, gaining a droit de regard). Still, doubt lingered in European capitals — and in some degree in Russia itself — about its role as a great power. Realists, which treat great powerhood as a matter of having and being able to project material and especially military power, may account for why Russia was increasingly recognized, but not for the lingering doubt. A moral account, which takes intersubjectivity seriously and stresses the degree in which a power accepts confluence of norms, may account for some of the doubt. It cannot, however, account for the lingering doubt in periods when Russia largely adhered to international norms. I have suggested that a governancy-based account, which focuses on regime types and their representations by other powers, can. Mine is a power-based and socially grounded account. As noted in the introduction, whereas this reading is something new in social theory and IR, a non-theorized prototype of it is fairly prominent in the work of Russian historians.Footnote 18 For example, Bruce Lincoln (1982) remarks on Catherine the Great's reign how one cause of her social policy was that Russia's status as a Great Power’ imposed an imperative for civil peace and a need to ‘exhibit some proper concern for her citizens’ (Lincoln 1982: 3, cf. 175).