Orienting the Empire: Russian Identity and East Asian Imperialism in the Conservative Press, 1894-1905

Hoffman, Zachary, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Geraci, Robert, History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores how the Russian Empire’s expansion into East Asia in the 1890s and 1900s sparked public discussions about its national identity and status as a global imperial power. It shows that segments of Russian society saw military conflicts in this region, such as the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Boxer Uprising (1900), and Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), as opportunities to demonstrate their country’s supposed moral superiority as a civilizing power in contrast to its European imperial rivals. By 1900, East Asia had become a meeting point for nearly every major global empire. The region, thus, offered a stage for Russia to prove itself in full view of its detractors. Its highest-selling conservative newspaper, publishing magnate Aleksei Suvorin’s Novoe vremia [The New Times], served as a principal venue for this identity-crafting. At the turn of the twentieth century, the paper offered a point of contact for journalists and readers from among both government circles and the general population where they could exchange ideas. This type of discursive space was largely lacking in Russian autocracy. This dissertation employs Novoe vremia’s content together with archival caches of unpublished letters to the editor and memoranda between the Russian Foreign Ministry and censorship bureau to explore how ideas of nation and empire circulated among these various levels of Russian society during this period.

As I argue, the flow of opinions between these audiences and the newspaper resulted in a distinct narrative of Russian identity in the conservative press. As the only moral actor among the great powers, Novoe vremia argued Russia offered an alternative to European imperialism in its supposedly benevolent relations with the weakened Qing Dynasty. Using national stereotypes and hyperbolic language, the newspaper denigrated its imperial rivals and built an image of Russia as upright force in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, in conversation with its various readerships, the newspaper presented Russia’s expansion into Manchuria, war with Japan, and eventually even the Revolution in 1905, as part of the same national and imperial narrative. It portrayed Russian actions in the region and war with Japan as a way to redress damage to Russian prestige in the Crimean (1853-56) and Russo-Turkish (1877-78) Wars. When the Russo-Japanese War exposed the inefficiencies and volatilities of the Russian homeland this internal conflict became part of the national project as well. Faced with military defeat and revolution at home, the usually loyal newspaper criticized governmental ineptitude in the name of national honor.

Novoe vremia’s reportage and opinions on events in Northeast Asia, and the foreign ministry’s repeated attempts to censor them, show both the public sphere's ability to affect foreign policy and how the regime had come to alienate many staunch nationalists by 1905. Reader engagement with Novoe vremia’s ideas elucidates the nature of popular enthusiasm for the Russo-Japanese War effort and demonstrates a heretofore-understudied awareness and engagement with imperialism among the Russian public.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Russian History, Empire, Newspapers, Nationalism, Sino-Japanese War, Boxer Rebellion, Russo-Japanese War
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