Chapter 7 of the history course A New Imperial History of Northern Eurasia is titled “The Long Eighteenth Century and the Rise of Modernizing Empire.” In the course of the eighteenth century the newly founded Russian Empire had consumed almost the entire region loosely defined as Northern Eurasia, from the Far East to the Baltics. It conquered and annexed former rival regional powers, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Crimean Khanate, and became the sole, overwhelming political force in place of the hitherto decentralized system of polities. This brought about an unprecedented situation: the process of political and cultural self-organization of the “ahistorical” region of Northern Eurasia became largely confined to the borders of one political entity. The structural “imperial situation” of overlapping and contesting local cultures, social hierarchies, and regimes of difference coincided with an actual empire. From then on, the stability of the imperial regime became conditioned by its ability to accommodate and rationalize spontaneous self-organization processes of the societies and cultures that it had incorporated. This predetermined the systematically reformist and modernizing character of the Russian Empire, regardless of the reactionary political views of some of its rulers: only constant customization of the social and political order sustained the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of various social elites.
Part 2 of the chapter, “From a Modern State to a Modern Empire,” picks up the story from the middle of the century, when it became clear that the ideal model of a Cameralist (modern) state did not equally fit a small German principality and the vast and heterogeneous Russian Empire. At about the same time, the very meaning of empireness in Russia was problematized: equally alien to all native political traditions of the region (including the Muscovite one), empire lacked a clear goal and cultural identity that frustrated even the members of its ruling elite. The initially spontaneous improvisational search for distinctively imperial principles of government became self-conscious attempts at social engineering under Catherine II. Motivated by the ideas of Enlightenment (first of all, by the writings of Montesquieu), Catherine embarked on an ambitious mission to prove that an empire can be reformed into a modern state governed by the rule of law. Her failures and successes owed as much to her abilities as a ruler and historical circumstances, as to the merits and misconceptions of the ideas that motivated her. Eventually, she produced a distinctively imperial design of the modern state, and a new vision and ideology of a modernizing empire that would last for another century. In the structurally imperial situation, by solving some problems, the legislator unwittingly created no less serious new ones, which made constant reformism a built-in component of the entire construction.