Is Russia in Dissolution?

The New States of Finland, Poland, The Ukraine, Lithuania, and Others That May
Arise if The Muscovite Empire Is Cleft into Fragments

By Frederick Austin Ogg

[Professor of Political Science in the University of Wisconsin]

[Munsey’s Magazine, February 1918]

Is the world witnessing the birth-throes of a great and lasting democratic republic in Russia, or the prologue to a pageant of reviving monarchy, or the crumbling of an imperial dominion, along historic lines of cleavage, into a mélange of independent and jealous political divisions? Statesmen in a score of capitals would listen greedily to the man who could tell.

Twelve years ago Russia was riding on the crest of a gigantic wave of reform. Defeat by Japan and recurring internal disorders had completely discredited the old autocratic regime. A written constitution was promulgated, a national parliament was created, local government was regenerated, patriotism was revived, the repression of subject peoples was halted, civic rights were enlarged, the press was liberated, public education received a new emphasis. The country seemed determined by one grand leap to put itself abreast of the great, free nations of the earth.

But no people ever really moves forward so fast. The French did most, or all, of these things in the space of a few months in 1789-1790; but years of revolutionary violence, followed by a long stretch of Napoleonic absolutism, and that in turn by more than five decades of alternating liberalism and reaction, were required to bring the country to the settled and orderly democracy of the Third Republic.

The eight years from 1906 to 1914 were in Russia a time of grievous disillusionment. From the exuberance of idealism, the nation was plunged into gloomy contemplation of a score of bitter facts. Time soon revealed the hollowness of the democracy that had been set up, the indifference of the masses, the lack of unity of feeling and purpose, the menace to social order from lawless radicalism, the inexperience and doctrinaire delusions of the popular leaders.


The outbreak of the present war brought the drifting country to the sudden necessity of some great decisions. The Czar's government decided to resist the purposes of the Central Powers; the people decided to support the government, as being engaged, not in an adventure engineered by unscrupulous ambition, but in an unavoidable struggle for independence and existence. For a time the national enthusiasm swept all before it.

"It is a great, unforgetable time," wrote an eminent Liberal whose energies had been previously devoted mainly to criticism of the government and its conservative supporters. "We are happy to be all at one." Americans need not be told in these days that the strain of war brings to light unsuspected cleavages in a people. The solidarity of Russia was quickly proved a fiction. Geographical, racial, religious, economic, political differences rose like gigantic walls to set off group from group. Whether the war was a success or a failure, internal clash of interest and opinion was certain sooner or later to reduce the country to a state of comparative passivity. Nowhere was this fact better known than at Berlin.

Finally came the dramatic disclosure of the nation's volcanic condition in the revolution of last spring, resulting in the enforced abdication of Nicholas II and the proclamation of a republic. By rapid stages the country fell into the clutches of the usurping crowd of socialists, pacifists, pro-German agents, and labor agitators which controls it at the time of writing this article. Not even Russia has ever known such anarchy. Not only is the country's further participation in the war made extremely doubtful; the very foundations of social order are endangered, and territorial unity seems to hang by a thread.

Already the disintegrating process has set in. Finland has proclaimed long-coveted independence, and if the opportunity continues other districts will follow suit. Like a bundle of staves held together by a string, the empire began to fall apart when the cord of national government was cut by revolution.

Should the Muscovite giant be permanently dismembered, what are the geographical and political lines on which the break will probably come? What new states are likely to arise? In short, what will the map of eastern Europe look like when the wave of secession has spent its force?


When one sets out to think or speak of things Russian, one must throw one's mind into high gear. The powers of visualization have to be stretched to their limits. For, as the old procurator of the Holy Synod, Pobiedonostseff, used to say:

"Russia is not a state—it is a world."

Recall, first, the fact that European and Asiatic Russia together comprise one-seventh of the land surface and contain one-twelfth of the population of the globe; that they would make forty-two countries the size of France and three the size of the continental United States; that from Moscow, the heart of European Russia, to Vladivostok is, as the crow flies, a distance of nearly five thousand miles—as if the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean were dried up and Paris had its eastern harbor at Calcutta.

Remember, too, that Russia in Europe has an area of 1,867,737 square miles, which means that France could be set down in it nine times, England and Wales thirty-two times. New York State almost forty times, the kingdom of the Netherlands one hundred and fifty-five times. Obviously a good many states could be carved out of such a dominion and yet be of very respectable proportions. Russia is a world also in the contrasts of her climate, the richness of her resources, and the variety of her products. Leaving out of account the frozen marshes of the far north, inhabited only by the Laplander and reindeer, and the salt deserts of the extreme south, frequented only by the nomadic tribes and the camel, the country falls into three great, irregular zones extending from east to west—the zone of primeval forests in the north, the region of grassy steppes or prairies in the south, and an intermediate belt of arable land, " that famous black soil of inexhaustible fertility, which it is only necessary to scratch for the harvest to burst out as by enchantment." To forest, pasture, and agricultural wealth are added mineral resources—the coal of the Donetz, the oil of Baku, the gold and silver of the Ural regions and Siberia—such as are possessed by no other European country.

What is more to the present point, Russia is not a nation, but a conglomerate of nations, speaking many languages—Polish, Finnish, Swedish, German, Rumanian, and three chief dialects of Russian—professing many forms of religion—Buddhist, Mohammedan, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, pagan—with every degree of civilization, from the nomadic tribes of the steppes to the progressive Finns, with their universal public education, their democratic parliament, and their votes for women.

For a thousand years the limitless Russian plains, lying wide open to the world, have been a debatable land over which successive hordes have swept like spring torrents. Ethnologists have counted forty-eight racial elements representing the alluvial strata of these invasions. "Tchoudes and Tchouvachs, Tatars and Tcheremissans, Kalmucks and Khirgiz, Finns and Samoyedes, Georgians and Lesghians, Persians and Armenians, Jews and Rumanians, Germans and Swedes, Poles and Lithuanians, Great Russians, White Russians, and Little Russians—each unit of this babel of nations is a living witness of a tragic past."


The main threads in the making of modern Russia are two—the building, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of the Czardom of Muscovy, centering at Moscow, and the subjugation of the territories, stretching toward every point of the compass, by which the monarchy's boundaries were rounded out to their present limits.

The builder and subjugator was the Great Russian, the pioneer of the Slav race, who though originally the weakest element of that race politically, and much affected by Tatar and Finnish influence, became the most indefatigable conqueror and organizer of eastern Europe. The Great Russians to-day occupy the vast plains of the Volga and the Don, northward to the latitude of Petrograd—the heart of the country. They number about forty millions. Starting with the czardom of Muscovy, ruled from Moscow, the Russian nation grew by process of steady accretion around the rim. Ivan III (1462-1505) conquered Novgorod and extended his dominions northward to the polar sea. Alexis (1645-1676) absorbed the territories of the Ukrainians, or Little Russians, as far as the Dnieper. Peter the Great (1689-1725) acquired the Baltic lands of Ingria, Karelia, Livonia, and Esthonia, together with a part of Finland.

Catherine II (i762-1796) incorporated Courland, participated in three partitions of Poland—by which Russia gained the major portion of that unhappy state—and compelled the Turks to yield the Crimea, together with large stretches of territory on the Black Sea and Danube. Alexander I (1801-1825) took advantage of the Napoleonic wars to bring in the remainder of Finland, and started a piecemeal absorption of Caucasia which was brought to completion by Alexander II, following the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Expansion in Asia went on steadily from the seventeenth century to the first decade of the twentieth.

Each successive annexation brought more taxes, more soldiers, more resources of every kind, but it also added to the heterogeneity of the peoples gathered under Muscovite rule and raised new and difficult problems of assimilation.

The supreme task which the modern Russian state set itself, after the rounding out of its dominions, was the Russification of its subject nationalities. In this it largely failed. Its efforts were spasmodic, its methods were harsh and repelling. It modeled its policies upon those of Prussia, and to a large extent depended on German officials to carry out its brutal decrees. After all was done, the empire remained a mere aggregation of geographical and racial units, held together partly by community of economic interest, but mainly by force. Even Great Russians, Little Russians, and White Russians quarreled incessantly and hated one another royally.


One solution of the problem would have been—would yet be—the adoption of a federal plan of organization, which would allow to the leading nationalities of the empire a large measure of self-government and cultural independence. Many of these nationalities confidently expected from the revolution of 1905-1906 a result of this sort; and the revolutionary program drawn up before the creation of the first Duma proposed the reorganization of the whole empire on the basis of a free confederate union.

"Every nationality which belongs to the union," the preamble declared, "has the right to leave it whenever this procedure appears useful for it. Vice versa, every nationality that does not belong to the union may join it upon mutual agreement."

The revolution passed, and the empire was not federalized. Content with their increased share, through the Duma, in directing the nation's destinies, the leaders of Great Russian nationalism promptly fell in with the bureaucratic policy of Russifying the minor nationalities. Finns, Poles, and the rest felt the lash of intolerance under the new regime quite as severely as under the old.

Enraged by this disappointment of their fondest hopes, these nationalities fell into sullen disaffection, and lent a ready ear to the anti-Russian propaganda cleverly set on foot in various parts of the empire by German and Austrian agents. From the time of Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 until after the outbreak of war in 1914 the Vienna and Petrograd governments were engaged in a titanic duel whose principal modus operandi on each side was the encouragement of sedition and separatism among the discontented racial groups of the other power.

A short, successful war might have tended to consolidate the empire by vindicating the power of the national government and arousing a common pride of conquest; but the war, from the Russian point of view, has not been successful. Brilliant exploits have been succeeded by humiliating disasters; vast numbers of soldiers have been killed, wounded, or captured; territory taken from the enemy has been lost again; Russian soil has been invaded; the nation's fighting front has collapsed; loyalty to a cause as personified in the Czar has been succeeded by an uncertain allegiance to half-understood principles of republicanism, socialism, federalism, and other "isms " too numerous to specify.

For more than a year everything has been dissolution, disorder, chaos. Plainly the chance for which the various groups of nationalists have long been looking is at hand.

If the former empire finally goes to pieces, what are some of the fragments that may be expected first to fly off from the main body?


The first is the grand duchy of Finland, which, as has been observed, has already declared its independence. Finland is, with one or two exceptions, the most non-Russian part of Russia. Geologically it belongs to the Scandinavian peninsula, being cut off from Russia proper by a chain of lakes which forms one huge trench from the Baltic to the White Sea. It has an area of 144,255 square miles, and is therefore about the size of Montana, or two-thirds the size of France.

The Finns, who form nine-tenths of the population of the duchy, took possession when they were still barbarous nomads, a thousand years or more ago. Racially, they are aliens in Europe, being akin to the yellow peoples of Asia, the Mongols and the Turks; although the relationship is now remote, and the traveler will find few evidences of it. In the twelfth century they were Christianized from Sweden, and at the same time they were brought under Swedish political control; for, like many good people before and since, the Swedes went forth with Bible in one hand and sword in the other.

None the less, the Swedes extended to the backward Finns their superior civilization, gave them laws, improved their crude agriculture, and introduced among them various practical arts. In the sixteenth century the country was raised to the dignity of a grand duchy, and at the opening of the seventeenth Gustavus Adolphus gave it a diet, composed of the four orders of the nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasants.

Meanwhile Russia's expansion northward brought her to the Finnish borders, and as early as the fourteenth century the unhappy territory began to suffer the common fate of "buffer" states by being made a cockpit of international war. Peter the Great conquered the entire land, although by the peace of Nystad (1721) only the easternmost province, that of Viborg, was annexed. Repeated efforts of Sweden to regain this province failed, however; and finally, in 1809, Alexander I brought all the Finnish territories under the Muscovite yoke.

Far from treating the new lands as a conquered province, the liberal-minded Czar confirmed to them all the laws, rights, and privileges that they had enjoyed under Swedish rule. This meant that Finland continued to be a partially independent state, with its own laws, its own army, its own currency, its own postal system. The Czar, as grand duke, was represented in the country by a governor-general; the diet served, as before, the purposes of a national parliament.

For eighty years the system worked smoothly and Finland prospered. Then, in the reign of Alexander III, the Pan-Slavist bureaucracy got the upper hand at Petrograd, and Finnish liberties began to be curtailed.

First, Russian was made the language of official correspondence. Then the local press was gagged. An imperial manifesto of 1899 canceled the powers of the diet and virtually abrogated the constitution. A new military law of 1901 practically amalgamated the Finnish armed forces with the Russian. Finally, in 1903, the Russian governor was invested with powers closely resembling those of a dictator. The country was flooded with spies; newspapers were suppressed and books confiscated; schools were closed; arbitrary arrests and banishments became daily occurrences; no means of Russification was left untried.

The oppressed people protested with all vigor, but without avail, until the Russian reverses in the war with Japan lent fresh force to their arguments. Then a great popular strike drove the Czar's government, in six days, to abandon its autocratic policy. On November 4, 1905, a decree was issued annulling the whole series of despotic measures and making Finland once more a free country, with a responsible government of its own.

In the following year the Finns themselves followed with a revision of their constitution, substituting for the antiquated four-chambered diet a consolidated parliament, giving the franchise to women as well as men at the age of twenty-four, and establishing a system of proportional representation. The first parliament of the new regime contained nineteen women.

Troublous times set in again for Finland in 1908, when at the instigation of the Pan-Slavists the Czar began to insist that all Finnish questions affecting the empire should be decided by the ministry at Petrograd. Thenceforth until the outbreak of the war in 1914 the tension was severe, and at times the Finnish constitutional system was in imminent danger of overthrow.

Finland has, therefore, no love for Russia. Her ties with that country have been wholly artificial. Her three million people include hardly a person of Russian stock, except here and there a public officer. Aside from a quarter of a million Swedes, who form the nobility and upper bourgeoisie, the population is purely Finnish. The country is small and poor, but its people are thrifty, spirited, and progressive. They are the last folk in the world to shrink from the responsibilities and dangers of separate nationality.

A second important portion of the empire that is likely to go off at a tangent is Poland.


The long record of Poland's wrongs and misfortunes was outlined in an article published in the January number of this magazine, and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that the sufferings of the Poles are one of the great tragedies of history, their future one of the enigmas of international politics.

At the outbreak of the present war the Polish populations of central Europe numbered some twenty millions. Four millions were under Austrian rule, four millions under Prussian, and twelve millions under Russian. In view of what has happened, there is deep irony in the fact that only a few years ago many of these people looked forward to a world war with a feeling of grim satisfaction. So bitterly did they resent their national dismemberment and helplessness, so strong was their discontent under alien rule, that patriots were ready to welcome a general conflagration as the last hope of a revived and united Poland. Save in the event of a wiping of the slate by war for a remaking of the map, the Polish question seemed buried forever.

The Poles of Russia had hoped for better things following the revolution of 1905-1906; but they were doomed to disappointment. In so far as the liberals got power, they were nationalists of the most virulent type, who held that constitutionalism would prove workable only after all parts of the empire should have been thoroughly Russified. The Poles and other subject peoples fared worse at the hands of a Russia with a Duma than before.

The storm of war broke before even the Poles expected it; and never was there greater disillusionment. Instead of finding themselves in a position to act with deliberation and turn the situation to their own advantage, the unhappy people saw their territory become immediately one of the principal theaters of the war, where whole nations met in a tremendous death-grapple. From the Carpathians to the Dwina the country now lies one vast scroll of horror.

Furthermore, two million Poles of military age were drafted into the armies of the three contending nations and lined up on opposite sides of the battle-field, brother against brother; so that to the devastation wrought by pillage, hunger, exposure, and disease was added that of fratricidal war.

Through the long course of disaster there has been one star ahead—the hope of a restored nationality. Specific pledges have been given by the combatants on both sides. In the first month of the war the Grand Duke Nicholas, commanding the Russian army on the west front, issued a stirring proclamation assuring the Poles that the hour had struck when the "sacred dream" of their fathers and forefathers might find fulfilment, and promising that under the power of the Russian scepter Poland should be reborn "free in faith, in language, and in self-government."

A conference held at Petrograd in February, 1917, to discuss the future organization of Poland and her relations with the Russian Empire, was interrupted by the revolution which overthrew the government of the Czar; but one of the first acts of the provisional government was to proclaim the principle of Polish independence. The Polish members forthwith resigned from the Duma, saying that there was no reason why they should sit in a Russian parliament.

Meanwhile, in November, 1916, the sovereigns of Germany and Austria-Hungary, by a proclamation issued at Warsaw, agreed to reconstitute a kingdom of Poland.

The Poles fully understand, however, that these are merely paper promises. The change of heart which they betoken is under the suspicion of being due to mere expediency. The proclamation of the Grand Duke Nicholas was not ratified by an imperial ukase; and in the hour of her successes in Galicia, far from confirming such liberties as Austria-Hungary had conceded there, Russia started in on the old policy of sweeping Russification.

The Teutonic emperors, on their side, were extremely indefinite as to the boundaries of the new Polish state. In fact, it was fairly to be inferred from their language that only Russia would be expected to make territorial concessions.

In 1912 representatives of all the independence parties of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Poland met to discuss plans of procedure in the event of an international conflagration. The sense of the gathering was that, in view of the relative leniency of Austria's dealings with her Polish subjects, a federal union of a reconstituted Polish state with Austria and Hungary would be the most desirable arrangement short of full independence. Defeat of the Central Powers may very well make it unnecessary for the Poles to accept any Austrian connection; and, assuming that Russia will not recover and play an important part in the concluding stages of the war, an entirely separate Polish nationality is one of the distinct possibilities of the situation.


A third great division of the empire which the present disorders are likely to jostle loose is the Ukraine. The Ukraine has been described as a very vast, very fertile, and very beautiful country that does not exist! Certainly the average American has never heard of it, and he could not find it on the map if he were to try.

The Ukrainians, none the less, comprise one of the many important submerged nationalities which the war is bringing to the world's attention. The part of Europe which they inhabit stretches in a mighty zone all the way from the Carpathians to beyond the lower Dnieper, and hence includes large sections of both Austria-Hungary and Russia—eastern Galicia and Bukowina in the former, most of the great "black earth" belt in the latter. It centers about the ancient Russian capital, Kiev, and includes not only the finest agricultural land in the empire, but also the richest mineral deposits. The name "Ukraine" means " "borderland;" for this fantom country separates north and south, forest and steppe.

The country was not always a fantom. In the sixteenth century it was a thinly populated region inhabited chiefly by Cossacks. Until 1569 it belonged nominally to Lithuania, but was practically independent. In that year, when Lithuania and Poland were permanently united, it fell under Polish rule. Polish control was maintained with difficulty, and in 1654 the Czar Alexis intervened in behalf of the Ukrainians and took them under Russian protection, on the understanding that their ancient autonomy should be preserved.

The Cossacks were democratic in their political life, and very soon they came into conflict with the Russian autocracy. Numerous wars ensued, and in 1667 the lands west of the middle course of the Dnieper were regained by Poland. Russia, however, recovered them at the second Polish partition in 1793.

Russian rule in the Ukraine is one long story of intolerance and oppression. The pledge of autonomy was repeatedly violated, until by 1775 self-government was entirely a thing of the past. Thenceforward all effort was directed to the Russification of the subject provinces.

As a single illustration may be cited the attempts to stamp out the Ukrainian language. On the ground that this tongue represented not a separate language, but only a dialect of Russian, ordinances were launched from Petrograd against its use, culminating in a ukase of 1876 forbidding publication within the limits of the empire of anything in the Ukrainian speech except books of an antiquarian nature.

"The Ukrainian language," declared the minister of the interior, "never has existed, does not exist, and must not exist."

The Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences, in 1905, recommended that there should be granted to the Ukrainians the long-denied right to use their mother tongue for educational, scientific, social, and artistic purposes; but no action of the kind was taken. The foremost literary figures of the Russian south—Gogol, Kostomarov, Potapenko, and others—have been obliged to put their works in the Great Russian form of speech in order that they may be lawfully published. The situation is made the more ironical by the fact that the Ukrainian claims to be the Russian of Russians, and it is generally conceded by non-partizans that this branch of the Slavic people retains most purely the characteristics, and especially the language, of the race.

The Ukrainians number to-day about thirty-five millions. In Austrian Galicia and Bukowina, where they are known as Ruthenians, there are about four millions; in Russia, where they are officially designated as Little Russians, there are at least twenty-eight millions. They form the major part of the population in a stretch of country about twice the size of Germany or France.

There are, furthermore, more than four hundred thousand of the race in the United States, two hundred thousand in Canada, and one hundred thousand in South America. Many have been for years industriously gathering funds for their country's liberation; and while it has been necessary of late to concentrate effort upon war relief, hope of a revived nationality bums more brightly than in a century. The Ukrainian Federation of the United States, with headquarters in New York, has formally placed the Ukrainian cause before the Foreign Affairs committees of Congress, and by the circulation of literature has begun to bring it to the attention of the American people generally.

Not only because they command the Black Sea, but because of their agricultural and mineral riches, the Ukrainian lands are vastly more valuable to Russia than is either Finland or Poland. Their possession, more than anything else, makes Russia a European power. From them a state could be formed with a population a third as great as that of the United States, and with wealth and resources fully equal to those of Italy. Kiev would be its logical capital.


Still other parts of the former empire are marked off by conditions of geography or race for possible independence, or at all events for separation from the parent state. One of these consists of the Baltic provinces of Courland, Livonia, and Esthonia, collectively known as Lithuania or Lettland, with an area of thirty-six thousand square miles—a little more than the State of Maine—and a population of about three millions. These territories are sometimes spoken of as the "German provinces," for part of their population is German, and they have long been dominated by German influences. Until 1876 they had a separate government, under a viceroy, and enjoyed special rights. After that date they were drawn under the general Russian system.

In their advance to Riga the Germans brought Courland under military occupation, and it is the avowed intention of the Pan-German party that this province, and perhaps its neighbors, shall be kept permanently. A final Teutonic victory would undoubtedly mean such a settlement. On the other hand, a recent newspaper despatch reported that an independent government had been set up at Walk, in Livonia, within the Russian lines, and that an appeal for Lithuanian unity and autonomy would be issued to all the powers.

At the opposite corner of the empire lies another great area which might easily be detached. This is the governor-generalship of Caucasia, occupying the territory between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov on the west and the Caspian Sea on the east, and including portions of the Armenian highlands. Most of this region was acquired in the opening decade of the nineteenth century, and largely from Persia; although additions continued to be made until after the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1877-1878.

Here the country's medley of races reaches its climax in a kaleidoscopic grouping of Georgians, Tatars, Armenians, Iranians, Turks, Mingrelians, Lesghians, Ossets, Koumiks, and the rest—ten or eleven million people, of forty nationalities and almost as many religions. Mohammedanism is, however, the dominant faith; indeed, the southeastern quarter of the empire contains fifteen or sixteen million Moslems, which far exceeds the number in both European and Asiatic Turkey. It is difficult to see how a substantial state could be formed from this polyglot population; but in times like these secession is easy, whatever may be its consequences.

The most probable course of a Russian dissolution is thus the "peeling off " of the conquered, oppressed, scantily Russianized border nationalities, leaving the Great Russian "core," with perhaps the vast, thinly populated arctic and Siberian dependencies, which have no great interest in political autonomy. Great Russia itself may crack, and indeed it would not be surprising to see Moscow and Petrograd become seats of independent governments. Moscow is, after all, the true Russian capital, and the part of the country that could be held to allegiance to a Petrograd government as against a rival at the older center would probably be small and unimportant.

One is reasonably safe in saying that if a break-up is to be entirely averted, it will be because of the reorganization of the empire on federal rather than unitary lines—a plan for which, happily, Russian history itself furnishes several good precedents.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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