Growing up I always thought of Russia as big. I’ve also usually viewed it through the lens of Bolshevism and the Cold War. I don’t know much about how it became a “horse empire” (can’t find the page I first read the term at, wish I could). I’ve often heard it’s expansion to the East compared to our Western frontier, though Texas and gold-rush California turned out mighty different from Russia past the Urals. I was reminded of that today as I finished volume 1 of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he says both Russia and America emerged from obscurity to grow more rapidly than any other country. Seeing as how Russia has existed for a long time and did not have anything like our Revolution/War of Independence that sounded odd to me. So is there a de Tocqueville of Tsarist Russia?

Also, Alexis says that Americans expanded in the teeth of nature and barbarians, while Russians did so against man and civilization. It was my impression that the eastern areas were relatively uncivilized, containing the distant relatives of our native americans as well as Cossacks, rather barbaric horse-backed nomads. Perhaps he was thinking of Russian expansion to the west, into Poland and the Baltic areas. Also, whatever ever happened to the Cossacks and a distinct ethnocultural group? They weren’t wiped out by disease or stuck in reservations like our natives. The Soviets really had it in for groups like the Ukranians or Chechens, but they’re still around and in the news. The Cossacks seem to have gone the way of the Ainu.

On a final note, it seems Alexis was dead wrong about the trend against centralism in America. Near the end he also says any states could easily secede if they merely wished to, and a year after his death he was proved wrong. He even thought the presence of slavery would make the South to afraid to be without the assistance of the North to prevent any slave uprising! Tying into my earlier point about the similarity between 19th century Russia and America, one parallel he declines to make is the endurance of serfdom in Russia.