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In the early modern era several European nations dramatically expanded their territory through conquest. All of them used violence and coercion to push their frontiers forward.

The notion that Spain's conquest was uniquely brutal and immoral became a meme called the Black Legend. Even now the neutrality of the preceding Wikipedia article is being disputed. Some people see it everywhere and some think it never existed. Certainly more writers claimed to identify it than claimed to accept it.

Is there a similar dispute about the morals and methods of Russian expansion? If so, what is the name of that debate, and in which countries and eras did the key narratives arise?

  • Why would any country other than Spain have a black legend. Why not France or Britain or one of the German states instead of Russia? – Tom Au Oct 17 '17 at 4:01
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    The Aragonese crown (current Aragon, catalonia, valencia and mallorca regions of spain) has a black legend on it's 1400bc conquest of Greece and the Balkans, if that serves you as example of other black legends. people there still have fairy tales and fear stories about the invaders. – CptEric Oct 17 '17 at 9:14
  • Are we talking about Anglo / European centered critics or also include eg. far easterns, too?Russia definitely has a bad reputation in Japan as colonial force e.g. in Siberia. – Greg Oct 24 '17 at 16:56
  • @Greg there are no constraints on where the legends come from; Japanese narratives are totally germane. – Aaron Brick Oct 24 '17 at 17:41
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I can give two reasons.

  1. Black Legend is so well known because it originates in English literature. At some time Britain competed with Spain, and later it essentially won this competition. It was important to represent Spanish conquests in the darkest possible colors. As English-written history is the most popular history in the English-speaking world (surprise!) this Black legend is well known among English readers.

British interests did not collide with Russian interests that much. But they did few times. And we have another meme "Great game". (See Wikipedia). This is about British-Russian competition in Central Asia in 19th century. We also have a similar meme "Cold war" about another period. The term is also of British origin.

But other aspects (and periods) of Russian expansion did not interfere much with the British interests, so we do not have he corresponding meme. The English writers just did not care much about Russian expansion.

  1. Another explanation of the same is that history is mainly written by the victors, not losers. In the case of British-Spanish competition the British were victors. So they wrote most of the history that we read. In the case of Russian expansion the only victor was always Russia. (Perhaps the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 is the only exception!) So who is expected to introduce a negative meme about Russian expansion? Swedes? Finns? Poles? Ukrainians? Lithuanians? Balts? North Caucasus? Central Asia peoples? Unfortunately these people do not write much of history which is read by the rest of the world. How many of us read history in their languages? How much of it is translated into English? Not much. Much more is translated from the Russian. For this reason the Russian point of view dominates. And there is no "Black Legend" about Russian expansion for the English-speaking world.
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    It's easy to imagine Persian or Chinese historiography including such a legend; whether such works have been translated into English shouldn't matter. – Aaron Brick Oct 23 '17 at 6:36
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    There are themes of fearing the threat from the East in German and Hungarian histories, because repeated incursions by Mongols, Turks, and Russians. Even epidemics affecting man and livestock were often ascribed as coming from the east. These regions were not part of the permanent Russian expansion, but the attitudes were certainly present and heightened during the world wars. – bgwiehle Oct 23 '17 at 13:47
  • Yes, there is certainly a "black legend" about the Mongols. And probably it is not just a "legend". – Alex Oct 23 '17 at 14:09
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Yes, there was a forgery literally claiming that Russia wanted world domination, called The Will of Peter the Great. Interestingly, this was cited by Napoleon as evidence that the Russian regime had to be destroyed. I think that would be enough to give the forgery the same power as a "black legend," although there is no historiographical term for it.

  • Fascinating! +1. – Aaron Brick Oct 23 '17 at 18:04
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In what I can only hope is a coincidence, Lydia Black described a Black Legend about Russian Alaska, which was both started and countered in the United States. The introduction to her "Russians in Alaska" includes this story:

In literature and political speeches, the period when Alaska was under the Russian scepter is stereotypically represented as a time of unbridled exploitation -- indeed enslavement -- of Native peoples, and wanton rape and robbery of Alaska's natural resources.... The origin of the stereotypic view of the Russian period may be safely laid at the doors of Hubert H. Bancroft and William H. Dall, who desired Alaska's rapid Americanization. This view was challenged by the end of the nineteenth century by a pioneer historian of Alaska, Clarence L. Andrews.

A parallel "white legend" within the Soviet Union was described by Bolkhovitinov (machine translation):

... the thesis of a special "progressiveness" of the development of Russian Siberia and North America by Russians, the democratic composition of Russian settlers and their friendly relations with the local population has become increasingly widespread in our literature. It is significant that the word "Russian colonization" practically disappeared from the pages of Soviet publications, and it was increasingly replaced by the neutral term "mastering".

  • I don't know about Alaska in the 19th century but the Russians do seem to have made a dog's breakfast out of their own North and it's indigenous peoples. – Felix Goldberg Oct 27 '17 at 4:44
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There is no such unified term regarding Russian excesses during colonization as Spanish Black Legend. Definitely, there was a lot of cruelty during Russian conquests, particularly, the massacre of Novgorod (which was not a colonial war though as Novgorod was located in Europe and was an advanced city-state at the time). There was a lot of cruelty against the Chinese in the Far East, in the Caucasus, Central Asia, during conquest of Kazan and Siberia, etc.

If you want a thing that is politically similar to the Black Legend accusations, that is demonizing Russia, the most of accusations against Russia are centered around Stalin's time and early Soviet times. These include

  • Accusations of cruel repressions against some ethnicities during WWII (Tatars, Chechens, Baltic peoples).

  • Accusations of war crimes, such as rapes, marauding, committed by the Red Army in Europe, particularly, in Germany.

  • Accusations that the hunger in Ukraine in the 1930s was artificially organized.

Other accusations include the Red Terror during Russian civil war, the Great Purge of 1937-1938, Moscow show trials, antisemitic doctors' affair in 1952-1953 and alleged plans to resettle the Jews.

The accusations may go as far as claiming that the whole Russian culture and mentality is inclined towards undemocratic, autocratic, totalitarian government, that Russian culture and/or genetics are polluted by the Mongols during the Tataro-Mongol yoke, that Russian culture is collectivistic, state-centered and opposed to European culture that values personal freedom and human rights, etc.

There is also an anti-Russian ideology, originated in Poland, and called "Prometheism" that alleges that many peoples conquered by Russia are suffering oppression by the Russian state (which is called a prison of peoples), and that those nations should help each other in combatting Russian imperialism.

  • 1
    Well Russia never managed to become a democratic country. – quant_dev Oct 23 '17 at 10:31
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    Anti-Russian feelings actually dominate on the whole perimeter of the Russian border, not only in Poland. And there is a good, evident reason for this. – Alex Oct 23 '17 at 14:11
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    The word “accusation “would suggest these things didn’t happen. Unfortunately many did. – Greg Oct 24 '17 at 17:01
  • +1 for the reference to Prometheism. – Aaron Brick Apr 15 '18 at 17:14
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You will long search for a black cat in a black room. Because it is missing.

Russia fought with different nations. The Far East - the Chinese, the Caucasus - the Chechens, Finland - the Swedes :) , the Baltic - the Germans :). But after the "occupation" this territory received bonuses. Finland is captured - maximum autonomy, the Caucasus is conquered - resorts are built, Asia is conquered - the first railways, the Baltic states are annexed - industry is built. Russian joke: hordes of Russian barbarians broke into peaceful Asian auls and left behind factories, theaters and libraries.

Do you want a black legend? In the Far East, the Russian Cossacks (Gurans) brutally fought against the Chinese. China still remembers who are the Gurans.

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    This is the Russian white legend.... – Felix Goldberg Oct 17 '17 at 14:02
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    Russian occupation of Poland did Poland no good. – quant_dev Oct 23 '17 at 10:31
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    Same can be said about every colonial power. – Alex Oct 23 '17 at 14:07
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    I am sure all the former exSoviet Block nations share this view on the great Russian influence. Not. – Greg Oct 23 '17 at 15:53
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    Upon reading I am actually downvoting. Sorry, but this is just propaganda. Besides, you are conflating different eras in your "factories, theaters and libraries" spiel. The factories were built mostly in the Soviet era and I doubt that they are the unalloyed good you make them out to be. Most of them produced weapons or ecologically woeful inferior products. It is not a coincidence that few of then survived the collapse of the planned economy. But the conquest and annexation was done by the Czars, who did build theaters and libraries - for the "settler elite". – Felix Goldberg Oct 27 '17 at 4:56

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