Putin`s View: What Russia Needs Is More Territory

Russia, the largest country on earth in territory, may be adding some more if it annexes Crimea. Granted, with its ice-free port, beaches, and scenery, Crimea would be fairly distinctive within Russia, but it does seem as if Russia were pretty far into diminishing marginal returns from acquiring more land.

I`m reminded of a 1914 conversation recorded in the memoirs of the French Republic`s ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paleologue. Russia`s former finance minister Sergei Witte, the formidable organizer of the Trans-Siberian railroad and negotiator of the favorable peace treaty that he conjured from the wreckage of the 1904-05 war with Japan, explains to Paleologue:

“This war`s madness,” [Witte] said. “It has been forced on the Tsar`s prudence by stupid and short-sighted politicians. It can only have disastrous results for Russia. France and England alone can hope to derive any benefit from victory. . . . and, anyhow, a victory for us seems to me highly questionable.” 

[The French ambassador replied:] “Of course the benefits to be derived from this war—as from any other war—depend upon victory. But I presume that if we are victorious Russia will get her share, and a large share, of the advantages and rewards. . . . After all, forgive me for reminding you that if the world is now on fire it is in a cause which interested Russia first and foremost, a cause which is eminently the Slav cause and did not affect either France or England.” 

[Witte:] “No doubt you`re referring to our prestige in the Balkans, our pious duty to protect our blood brothers, our historic and sacred mission in the East? Why, that`s a romantic, old-fashioned chimæra. No one here, no thinking man at least, now cares a fig for these turbulent and vain Balkan folk who have nothing Slav about them and are only Turks christened by the wrong name. We ought to have let the Serbs suffer the chastisement they deserved. What did they care about their Slav brotherhood when their King Milan made Serbia an Austrian fief? So much for the origin of this war! Now let`s talk about the profits and rewards it will bring us. What can we hope to get? An increase of territory. Great Heavens! Isn`t His Majesty`s empire big enough already? Haven`t we in Siberia, Turkistan, the Caucasus, Russia itself, enormous areas which have not yet been opened up? . . . Then what are the conquests they dangle before our eyes? East Prussia? Hasn`t the Emperor too many Germans among his subjects already? Galicia? It`s full of Jews! Besides, the moment we annex Austria and Prussia`s Polish territories we shall lose the whole of Russian Poland. Don`t you make any mistake: when Poland has recovered her territorial integrity she won`t be content with the autonomy she`s been so stupidly promised. She`ll claim —and get—her absolute independence. What else have we to hope for? Constantinople, the Cross on Santa Sophia, the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles? It`s too mad a notion to be worth a moment`s consideration! And even if we assume a complete victory for our coalition—the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs reduced to begging for peace and submitting to our terms—it means not only the end of German domination but the proclamation of republics throughout Central Europe. That means the simultaneous end of Tsarism! I prefer to remain silent as to what we may expect on the hypothesis of our defeat.” 

[Paleologue:] “What practical conclusion do you come to?” 

[Witte:] “My practical conclusion is that we must liquidate this stupid adventure as soon as possible.”

Another failed voice in 1914 against the war was Rasputin, who foresaw endless piles of dead Russian peasants.

By the way, French ambassador to St. Petersburg Maurice Paleologue is an interesting example for assessing economic historian Gregory Clark`s new book on the persistence of high-status surnames. Paleologue had the crucial and difficult job in 1914 of holding together the ideologically bizarre alliance between his own Republic of France and the Czarist autocracy. It may not have hurt that he, the son of Romanian exiles, used as his surname his grandmother`s maiden surname, a name with extraordinary dynastic resonance in Czarist circles:

The name became Paléologue in French language spellings; the family`s relation to the Palaiologos Byzantines is doubtful (Alexandru`s ancestors first claimed it at the end of the 17th century).[1]

The Palaiologos family was the last ruling dynasty of the Byzantine empire, 1259-1453. Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Orthodox emperor in Constantinople, married the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III, thus providing the genealogical link justifying Moscow`s view of itself as the rightful Third Rome, heir to the Second Rome, Constantinople.