Early Thoughts: “Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Kiva, 1865-1924” – Seymour Becker

Seymour Becker’s analysis of Russia’s conquests of the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva is considered the book on the subject. Although I am only about 70 pages into the book, what I find most striking about this book is Becker’s inability to understand Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his determination to prove that Russia’s motives in conquering the Central Asian khanates was not due to imperialism.

According to Becker, while the search for raw materials (mostly cotton) and a market for Russian commodities were important factors in tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, they weren’t the only factors, much less the most important ones. “Although Central Asian cotton had acquired a new importance for Russia on the eve of the conquest,” writes Becker, “and considerable sentiment existed for an advance into Central Asia to protect and promote Russian manufacturing and trading interests, the influence these factors had on policy-formation was minimal” (p. 23). Becker instead argues that “Russia was spurred on in Central Asia by a whole complex of motives — the quest for secure frontier, the provocations offered by unstable neighbors, the fear of being excluded from the area by England, and the temptations of diplomatic leverage, economic profit, and military glory” (p. 23).

None of those motives are incompatible with imperialism. Becker seems to think that imperialism occurs only when there are direct economic gains to be made. However, I don’t believe this is an accurate reflection of imperialism. As Parenti wrote in Against Empire, “Some critics have argued that economic factors have not exerted an important influence on U.S. interventionist policy because most interventions are in countries that have no great natural treasures and no large U.S. investments, such as, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. This is like saying that police are not especially concerned about protecting wealth and property because most of their actions take place in poor neighborhoods. Interventionist forces do not go where capital exists as such; they go where capital is threatened” (p. 87). Moreover, “The imperialist state’s first concern is not to protect the direct investments of any particular company, although it sometimes does that, but to protect the global system of private accumulation from competing systems” (p. 42).

Becker devotes a considerable number of pages in the first few chapters to contrasting the official non interventionist policies of the tsar with the unauthorized faits accomplis of Russian military leaders, namely Major General M. G. Cherniaev. His intent seems to be that tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia was accidental, created by rogue military elements, and thus not due to any kind of imperialism.

It is absolutely absurd to claim that an empire can be formed accidentally, so I won’t waste time addressing that. However it is almost equally absurd in my opinion to claim, like Becker seems to do, that imperialism is inconsistent with official non-interventionism. Indeed, in arguing that tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia was not imperialist, Becker seems to in fact describe what I would call imperialism: “Nonintervention in the internal affairs of the khanates so long as the latter proved peaceful and compliant was to remain the guiding principle of Russia’s policy down to 1917” (p. 25). The non-intervention in the internal affairs of one state so long as it is “peaceful and compliant” with the demands of another state sounds a lot like imperialism to me. In fact, that is something that makes imperialism distinct from colonialism. Imperialism is more efficient and cost effective than imposing foreign rule on hostile territories! I can’t think of any imperialist state that would prefer to expend resources on brutal military occupations if it could achieve the same result without such expenditures.  

I’ll keep reading the book but so far I am less than impressed with this book.

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