“We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin” by Chris Miller

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The papers are currently full of articles and commentary on the ever-closer relationship between China and Russia, of their compatible economies, state visits, joint projects, shared geopolitical interests and camaraderie between their leaders.

As a lede, the previous sentence could have been written—and quite possibly was—every year since about 1990. If one is looking for reasons why Sino-Russian relations can sometimes come with a dash of déjà vu, Chris Miller’s We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin, contains a possible explanation in its subtitle.

“Russian history is a perpetual swinging of the pendulum between two poles of attraction, Europe and Asia.”

We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin, Chris Miller (Harvard University Press, June 2021)
We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin, Chris Miller (Harvard University Press, June 2021)

Early in the book, Miller quotes Russian historian Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky who wrote in 1828: “If we follow the course of Russian history, we shall find a perpetual swinging of the pendulum between two poles of attraction, Europe and Asia.” These swings, says Miller, were “set off by a surge of optimism that soon dissipated as hopeful bubbles were burst by logistical realities, domestic disagreement, and military defeat”:

 

The only “enduring” feature that unites Russia’s various Asian pivots is the role of excessive optimism in launching them. At different times, Russians have hoped that they might find warm-water ports, rich farmland, vast Asian markets, new lands open for conquest, riches, and glory. Only a small fraction of these hopes materialized, usually at far greater cost than initially expected.

 

This is perhaps a slightly more negative tabulation than is merited, for although there were a great many geographical and geopolitical failures (Alaska, California, Hawaii, the loss of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the People’s Republic of China breaking away from the USSR’s fraternal embrace), it tends to discount the significant advances that have stuck: notably the incorporation of the Russian Far East, and the peeling of Mongolia off from China.

Much of this material has been covered in other books, from the entertaining Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews and the erudite A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada by Edyta M Bojanowska to the scholarly Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power by Gregory Afinogenov, Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border by Sören Urbansky and Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910 by Alexander Morrison, as well as the newly-published Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present by Abeed Khalid; there is even a view from Russia itself: The Bear Watches the Dragon: Russia’s Perceptions of China and the Evolution of Russian-Chinese Relations Since the Eighteenth Century by Alexander Lukin. Miller’s new book however has the merits of not just being engagingly-written, but also of covering both Central and East Asia in one volume (albeit the latter more than the former) and running all the way to the present day.

We Shall Be Masters is, like the best of such books, filled with interesting anecdotes and facts, from Nikolai Rezanov’s courtship of Conchita Argüello, the 15-year-old daughter of the Spanish Governor in San Francisco; that because the Russians were by treaty banned from Canton, they had to rely on American traders to sell their Alaskan furs—an arrangement that ultimately resulted in the Americans cutting them out; and that once maritime trade was established with China, “it was cheaper to smuggle Chinese tea from England to Russia than to ship it overland from China to Russian cities.”

Russia has been always been pulled politically as well as economically toward Europe.

I was involved as a consultant and sometimes commercial partner in some of Russia’s late perestroika and post-Soviet pivot to Asia, helping to coordinate trade and investment via a base in Hong Kong. I met some of the people mentioned in the latter part of Miller’s book, notably Yevgeny Primakov. In 2012, some ten years after that engagement wound down, I wrote in the South China Morning Post:

 

Russia’s head lies in Europe while its feet paddle in the Pacific. It is the only European country that is also a Pacific nation, an attribute reflected in its former imperial, and now resurrected, emblem. “The Russian eagle has two heads, looking in two directions at once,” the late Arkady Volsky, leading Soviet and post-Soviet industrialist, told me in the late 1990s. “It is just as important for Russia to look East to Asia, as West to Europe and the United States.” … Yet Russia has seemed curiously detached from the rest of Asia… The eagle, it seems, has generally been content just to look at Asia rather than build much of a nest here.

 

This forms part of a pattern that may be slowly changing, or may not. Miller points out that Russia has been always been pulled politically as well as economically toward Europe:

 

In economic terms, too, Asia has always been relatively unimportant for Russia. On a regular basis over the past several centuries, many Russians have expected this to change, pointing toward Asia’s massive markets, vast populations, and rapid growth rates. But no level of Asian economic growth in the past has ever succeeded in re-orienting Russia’s economy to the East—neither Japan’s industrialization after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, nor the entry of China into the global economy in the late nineteenth century, nor Japan’s post-1945 economic boom, nor China’s extraordinary economic ascent in recent decades.

 

Nor, despite the ongoing rapprochement with China, does Russia have anything like the on-the-ground involvement that it has in, say, the Middle East via its presence in Syria.

With the breakup of the USSR, “Russia” is now geographically smaller than it has been since perhaps the mid-19th century; Russia’s imperial possessions in Central Asia lasted little longer than did those of Britain and France, and seem to have broken off just as irrevocably. However, another merit of We Shall Be Masters is its longue durée: Lobanov-Rostovsky’s pendulum has a period of oscillation of a half-century or more, with Central and East Asia often out of synch. Pendulums have a tendency to swing back.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.