An illuminating account of Russia’s attempts—and failures—to achieve great power status in Asia.
Since Peter the Great, Russian leaders have been lured by opportunity to the East. Under the tsars, Russians colonized Alaska, California, and Hawaii. The Trans-Siberian Railway linked Moscow to Vladivostok. And Stalin looked to Asia as a sphere of influence, hospitable to the spread of Soviet Communism. In Asia and the Pacific lay territory, markets, security, and glory.
But all these expansionist dreams amounted to little. In We Shall Be Masters, Chris Miller explores why, arguing that Russia’s ambitions have repeatedly outstripped its capacity. With the core of the nation concentrated thousands of miles away in the European borderlands, Russia’s would-be pioneers have always struggled to project power into Asia and to maintain public and elite interest in their far-flung pursuits. Even when the wider population professed faith in Asia’s promise, few Russians were willing to pay the steep price. Among leaders, too, dreams of empire have always been tempered by fears of cost. Most of Russia’s pivots to Asia have therefore been halfhearted and fleeting.
Today the Kremlin talks up the importance of “strategic partnership” with Xi Jinping’s China, and Vladimir Putin’s government is at pains to emphasize Russian activities across Eurasia. But while distance is covered with relative ease in the age of air travel and digital communication, the East remains far off in the ways that matter most. Miller finds that Russia’s Asian dreams are still restrained by the country’s firm rooting in Europe.
“Miller’s terrific book reminds that Russia made moves toward the East five hundred years ago, and explains why ignoring the Russian factor in Asian geopolitics today would be a big mistake.” —Michael McFaul, author of From Cold War to Hot Peace
“Miller presents a Russia little known in the West: a Eurasian power that treats its eastern calling as seriously as it does its western one. Exceptionally well written and argued, We Shall Be Masters helps us understand Russia on its own terms and offers historical insight into the future of its relations with China, its main rival and occasional ally.” —Serhii Plokhy, author of The Gates of Europe
“Challenges the conventional view that [Russia] has enduring interests in the Far East…For Russia, Miller argues, Asia has been a land of unfulfilled promises.” —Foreign Affairs
“Captures the immensity, complexity, and importance of Russia’s eastern borderlands through the eyes of its explorers…Comprehensive and fluidly written.” —Publishers Weekly
Ever since Peter the Great, Russian leaders have been lured by the promise of the East. But from the tsars to Stalin and beyond, Russia’s ambitions have repeatedly outstripped its capacity. In We Shall Be Masters, Chris Miller explores why these expansionist dreams so often ended in disappointment. With the heart of the nation in the European borderlands, Russia’s would-be pioneers struggled to maintain public interest in their far-flung pursuits. But its leaders never stopped setting their sights on the riches of the East. Today, as Vladimir Putin seeks to cement his strategic partnership with Xi Jinping’s China, the East remains as elusive and attractive to Russia as ever—and is likely to be as unattainable.