A comparative historical analysis of modern Russia and eighteenth century India turns up some remarkable parallels. Moscow might find it useful to take into account lessons from the end days of the Mughal Empire.
Indian Muslim men perform ablution before offering prayers on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan at an old Mughal era mosque in New Delhi, India, Friday, July 12, 2013. Photo: AP
The surprising revanchism in Russian foreign policy ever since the 2007 Munich Security Conference can be best understood using comparative historical analysis. For example, there are some remarkable parallels between contemporary Russia and the Mughal Empire in India just immediately prior to the rise of the British Raj. Understanding these similarities could help policymakers from the West as well as Russia make better foreign policy choices going forward.
In short, the situation in contemporary Russia is strikingly similar to that of the end days of the Greater Mughal Empire. Yes, Russia is a modern society compared to the feudal structure of the Mughal period, but that is a superficial critique. The deeper systemic similarities between modern Russia and the Mughal empire are important, especially in terms of society, the capacity for internal dissent and approaches to foreign policy. Such an analysis will clarify and give rise to further policy arguments, as well as chart a course for what both Western and Russian policy makers should do going forward.
The end days of the Mughals
The Mughal Empire in the last days of the Great Mughals, during the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-1658) and Aurangzeb (1658-1707) stretched from the Balkh province on the Uzbek-Afghan border to the Arakan, in present-day Burma. The western borders of the Mughals were sealed with tactical alliances with the Persian Empire, and Aurangzeb married a princess of the Safavid dynasty, using a common method by which alliances were formed at that time. Securing his western border was important, as the empire, though superficially strong, was breaking up internally.
The Mughals were overstretched and fighting wars with forces, which were not important for the empire to function, but were wrongly perceived to be of vital imperial interests. Mughal forces were battling Portuguese pirates raiding the coastline of modern Bangladesh, and trying to subdue Afghan tribesmen infighting, when neither of them was directly related or in any way affected the imperial trade or governance.
The Mughal Empire was also expansionist when it came to Southern India and the Hindu and Sikh kingdoms. While previously during the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), the Mughal Empire was influenced by a liberal Sufi form of Islam, and the Hindu and Sikh subjects enjoyed relatively religious and political autonomy, the later years of Shah Jahan, and the reign of Aurangzeb was marked by a return of societal conservatism, heavy taxation and state repression and censorship of ideas.
Aurangzeb viewed himself as a millennial man, a defining hero, who was austere and there to protect and salvage the conservative roots of the empire and traditional society, and took upon himself the role of the “defender of the faithful.” That resulted in extreme repression and austerity for his subjects, and the censorship of ideas resulted in a neglect and lack of science and education, around the same time when Europe was undergoing a Renaissance and Industrial Revolution.
The Mughal Empire also had a tendency of humiliating its opponents. The English and the French traders, and their respective East India company forces and officers had to genuflect in front of the emperor after lost battles, and the Sikh and Maratha rebels were publicly beheaded, thus alienating a large number of the population in ungovernable provinces, completely unlike the early Mughals who were secular and liberal and use to marry off their kids with Hindu Rajput princesses to form alignments and had special rights for transgender subjects.
This also had a causal reaction on the number of secessionist movements and rebellions within and on the outskirts of the empire. The Hindu Rajput kingdoms and the Marathas rebelled against the imperial authority and taxation, and bogged the imperial forces down in quagmires both near the vital trade routes. The Mughals established figurative heads, paying tribute to the central authority but in reality ruling with extreme oppression in these provinces to quell the mass rebellions with heavy-handed measures.
That did not help in the long run. The Europeans also took advantage of these dissenting forces against the increasingly brutal centralized imperialism, and helped finance more and more rebellions. The external powers, like Nadir Shah of Persia, started gnawing at the western borders and eventually marched up to Delhi. Aurangzeb died in 1707, leaving an empire in flames, with no authoritative figures to rule over it, as everyone capable and competent during his reign were either purged or fled and joined rival forces. Within 50 years, the British had their first major victory in Plassey and formed what went on to become the largest ever empire in the history of the planet. Within a hundred years, the Mughals ceased to exist, after the failed mutiny of 1857.
How modern Russia is similar to the Mughal Empire
As one can observe, the similarities between the governance of Putin’s Russia and the end days of the Mughals are fascinating. Russia is on a reverse course from economic liberalism towards semi-autarky, and ever growing homegrown conservatism and regressive laws. There is no credible governing alternative in Russia, with possible opposition either purged or otherwise marginalized. As a result, no one can fathom what will happen in the eventuality that Putin is unable to lead.
Some regions such as Chechnya are ruled by elites and cronies, paying lip service to Russia but essentially a free-for-all when it comes to policy and principle, which stands in utter contradiction of President Putin’s rhetoric of portraying himself as a vanguard of Christian conservatism, and savior of the Slavic way of life.
The population is suffering extreme economic stagnation and austerity and there are symbols of dissent as observed by the latest truckers’ protest. Policies like trade embargoes and destruction of food items do not even make practical sense. When it comes to foreign policy, this current Russian administration’s penchant of standing up to the West, or the annexation of economically stagnating regions and deliberate involvement in costly quagmires in ungovernable regions looks similarly unsustainable and ludicrous.
There are forces beyond Russia’s control, in the Middle East and East Europe, and heavy-handed policy is only fomenting mass dissent, and alienating the rival powers and, more importantly, the local populations. It is draining the economy, and straining the military in a modern version of an imperial overstretch.
The current situation, therefore, cannot continue for long and sooner than we imagine, we might observe an implosion of the current Russian strategy. Of course, it is puerile to predict that Russia will cease to exist, but new rulers and policymakers may be forced to reverse course again and take correct economic and foreign policy steps to take the country back to its rightful future.
Also, no academic or even neo-realist worth his or her salt would argue an eighteenth century colonial British strategy of taking advantage of this situation and bleeding Russia with a thousand cuts or circling it and pushing it too far, as this is simply not the eighteenth century, and it might even lead to several destructive forces being unleashed on which no one will have any control. But one might still wonder if Russian adventurism has reached its zenith.
It is also understandable that Western policymakers might be prudent enough to follow Napoleon’s rule of thumb and “let an adversary continue with their mistake,” while Russian policymakers might want to focus on solving their structural problems, and not follow the Mughal Empire in their modern 21st century version of an imperial overstretch.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.