Russia's foreign relations during the isolation of Tokugawa Japanby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Compare Russia's interactions with the west and the east during the time of Tokugawa Japan.
During the Romanov Dynasty, Russia was modernized along a European model. It also expanded Eastward as Japan withdrew influence.
Russia expanded into Siberia during the sixteenth century, bringing themselves into contact with countries such as China and Japan. From the Opium wars, Russia obtained many trading privileges with China. The three most successful Russian rulers were Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Alexander I. Peter encouraged modernization and westernization, bringing western arts, culture, and literature. He was also the first Russian ruler to travel aboard. Catherine continued Peter’s ideas, including confiscating the property of the Orthodox Church and giving it to nobles. Catherine was the one that wiped Poland off the map with Prussian and Austrian help. Alexander took those ideas further, placing a higher emphasis on education, intellect, and exploration. Though these rulers embraced the church, they used it for secular gain.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, Russia's interaction with areas beyond its own borders increased. Russians began to travel eastward and conquer more land for their country. This resulted in the area now known as Siberia, which provides Russia with its access to the Pacific Ocean and the eastern Asian countries such as Japan and China.1 Furthermore, during this time period the Russian leaders began looking outward beyond their own country and even traveling beyond their borders.2 All of these opportunities culminated in the expansion of Russia's foreign relations to the east and the west.
Expansion into modern-day Siberia brought the Russians into contact with a previously relatively inaccessible Far East. At this point in time Japan maintained an isolationist policy towards foreign relations. By the mid-seventeenth century, Japanese citizens could not travel outside their country and only China and the Netherlands maintained any kind of political or economic contact with Japan.3 From 1587 to the fall of the Tokugawa empire in Japan in 1867, not only did the country forbid entrance new missionaries but they also ordered all current missionaries out of Japan. Active religious persecution abounded during these years4 and the government banned any foreign literature from entering the country until 1720. At the end of the eighteenth century the Russians attempted to establish political and diplomatic contact with Japan with no success. The pressure to open the country of Japan to relations with foreign countries played a role in the downfall of the Tokugawa government in the mid-nineteenth century.5 During the time of the Romanov Dynasty in Russia (1613-1917 AD) and the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) in China the two countries interacted a number of times. Most of this occurred sometime after the mid to late nineteenth century. During the two Opium Wars fought between 1839 and 1860, Russia obtained many trade privileges with China. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Russia continued to seek "the riches of trade and commercial enterprise."6
Peter the Great belonged to the third generation of the Romanov Dynasty in Russia. But he perhaps had more influence in Russian foreign politics than any Russian ruler before or since. He was the first Russian tsar to travel abroad. And with only a single exception, every year of his rule housed a war of some kind. Peter wanted to modernize and westernize his country, and to do that he had to bring Russia out of political isolationism.7 Much of what Peter did included bringing western arts and culture to Russia. For instance, he founded St. Petersburg, establishing it as the new capital of Russia and a center for European culture. St. Petersburg probably bore a strong resemblance to Italian or French cities of that era because Peter utilized many architects and artists from those countries. He established arts and science foundations and built up the Russian military. Unlike Tokugawa Japan, Peter encouraged and supported the translation of famous western works of literature so that his subjects could become familiar with them.8 Peter westernized aspects of Russian politics as well by removing the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. He even went as far as to passively attempt to remove the Orthodox Church in its current form by refusing to reappoint a patriarch when the last one died; he essentially tried to transfer the Church into his governmental jurisdiction.9
Three generations after Peter the Great came Catherine the Great (reigned: 1762-1796), who conspired with one of her many lovers to murder her husband, Peter II, who had converted to Lutheranism. Catherine continued extensively the work begun by her great-grandfather by sending explorers and researchers to places like Alaska and California that lay in relatively easy reach from the Russian land of Siberia. Even more perhaps that Peter, Catherine's interest in western culture lay in the philosophical trends that ran throughout the politics and literature of Europe and the United States. However, she was alarmed that the American Revolution and impending French Revolution might influence her subjects so she ordered an empire wide censorship in 1787 which decimated the print industry. Since she ruled during the "Enlightenment" period her actions reflect the Enlightenment philosophy and its heavy emphasis on human reason and intellect. She confiscated church property and gave it to nobles to consolidate her power. Perhaps for this reason Catherine established "human rights" laws, elected government positions, and a better educational system for the noble gentry who expanded their power over their serf slaves. Like many other Russian rulers before her, Catherine continued to try to acquire land, particularly in the Ottoman Empire.10 After a six year war against Turkey (1768-1774), her expansionist claims set the stage for the Crimean War (1854). In 1788 she declared war on Sweden and also conspired to acquire Poland which she effectively eliminated from the map in 1795 (until 1921) with the help of Prussia and Austria.
Catherine the Great's grandson, Alexander the I, took the ideas of his grandmother and his great-great-great-grandfather one step even further. He placed an even higher emphasis on education and intellect; "scientific, literary, and scholarly societies flourished; and journals reflected the diversity of cultural and intellectual interests of the literate public."11 Alexander also supported explorations and led troops into Paris in 1814 and 1815, which provided the "symbolic" peak of "Russia's europeanization."12
Unfortunately, as flawed human beings, even these rulers who accomplished vast amounts did not foresee every potential problem. Perhaps they did not stop to consider the ramifications of all the changes that they had enacted or the physical land that they had obtained. Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus says, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (NKJV)
The Russian rulers were wise in that they sought to learn the secret of western prosperity. Yet they were only learning for material gain and overlooked the spiritual basis of true success as they stored up treasure on earth rather than heaven. The greed of the Czars ignored the trouble that the serfs were having and only enriched the nobles. Though the Romanov Dynasty acquired much material wealth, they had manipulated the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool of political ends, and thus lost the support of the people in the successive revolutions. When Jesus said, "...seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mat. 6:33), would that not also apply to national leaders? Piety as a priority had well served Constantine, Charlemagne, and others but it was the missing ingredient that led to the fall of Czarist Russia.
By focusing their envious greed on the west, the potential influence Christians might have had on China was minimized. Russia's move to the west led to the destruction of Poland and cut alliances with the west. The eventual overthrow of the dynasty in 1917 was also a rejection of the church with whom Russia had became politically enmeshed. Any treasures the Romanov's had laid up for themselves on earth were destroyed during the decades of communism. Fortunately, true treasures are being obtained by thousands as the Christian gospel reaches out to those once trapped behind the iron curtain.
1. Beginning in the sixteenth century Russia began expanding by traveling:
a. West towards Europe.
b. South towards Asia.
c. East towards Siberia.
d. North towards the North Pole.
2. Russia did not have much interaction with Tokugawa Japan because:
a. Russia preferred to maintain an isolationist foreign policy.
b. Tokugawa Japan preferred to maintain an isolationist foreign policy.
c. China would not let Russia interact with other countries in Asia.
d. Russia did understand how to develop a foreign policy to interact with other countries.
3. Peter the Great was the _____ Russian tsar to travel abroad.
4. Catherine the Great ruled during the _______ period.
1c 2b 3d 4a
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