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Enlightenmentin Russia

Inthe 17thand 18thcentury, enlightenment meant an exploration of intellectual values tomany scholars, leaders and people in Europe. Russia made franticefforts to keep pace with these new possibilities, but sorry to sayit managed only to pick the dear furniture and the habit of throwingorgies, while ignoring the finer philosophical points of this’’best of all possible worlds’’ way back in the abyss ofabandonment. Enlightenment means a ‘man’s emergence from hisself-incurred immaturity’1.In this light, enlightenment is a move towards an era of criticalthinking, a process where dogmatic views and ancient superstition isconfronted with political and social thoughts. In totality,enlightenment should improve all the facets of a man’s lifehealthcare, human rights and even education. In this regard, it woulddo a lot of harm to confine enlightenment to the realms of politicalabsolutism.

Enlightenedpolitical absolutism is a term used to denote a political ideologythat holds the view that, a monarch should wield total power but thatthe monarch should exercise the power for the benefit of thesubjects2.However, the notion of accretion of power without the consent of thepeople through a democratic process undermines the whole idea ofstriving to create a better society, because changes and reformsmeant to benefit the people can only be done in an environment whereall have equal rights. It is this premise that informs my view that,in Russia there was no enlightenment but dark enlightenment.

Inthe18th andthebetterpartof the19th century,theRussian werea fusionof culturesandglobal views,andsawthemselves as neithercontinuouswith theAsians in theEast, theEuropeans in theWestandtheMuslims in theSouth.

Itis perhapsfairto saythat,Russians viewedthemselves as havingmorein commonwith Asians than theEuropeans in theWest. In themiddleandearlymodernera,theyprimarilyviewedthemselves as a separate peoplewith their owncultureandtraditions.During thisperiod,theRussian statewascomparedto European standards-politically, economically andtechnologically ‘backward’.Whilethismight appearby farandlargeas an unfairassessmentof thestateof affairsof medieval andearlymodernRussia, itis a judgmentthatPeter theGreat totallyaccepted.WhenPeter theGreat becametherulerof Russiain 1682,theRussian Empirewasa verydisjointedaffair3.Thevariousgroupsof peopleunder thecontrolof theempireat thistimewereverydiverseandfrequentlyhostileto one another.Ukraine (Kiev) andRussian, anda largegroupof itinerantpeoples,werefrequentlyat crossroad.Itwasnot thattheydidnot wantto be ruledby theemperor,butthesituationwassoexplosivethatitjeopardizedtheexistenceof theempire.Thiswasone of themainfactorsthat propelledPeter theGreat to adopttheEuropean culture,the politicalmanagementandindustriesin a bidto preservetheempire.His firstundertakingwasto bringWestern industrieshome,andin thisrespecthetraveledto England andHolland andinvitedskilledworkersto Russia. Peter alsodemandedthatallnobles should wearshortbeards,adoptwesternmannerismincludingclothesandutensilsandengagein politespeech4.Thiswaswhatenlightenmentmeantto Peter theGreat. Morethan anything, hewasdeterminedto bringto Russia newpoliticalpractices,morespecificallythetheaterof absolutemonarchy.Asmentionedabove,Peter thegreatintentionwasto consolidatehis positionby bringinginto Russia Western European practicesto shapethecultureof thenation.Butunlike in Western Europe whereenlightenmententailedinstitutional changesmeantto yieldmorebenefitsto thecivilian,Peter theGreat intentwasto createa monarchabove thelaw.

PetertheGreat wieldedabsolutepowerwith a purpose:his maingoalwasto transformRussia into a Western European culture.But,unfortunately, hisdesireto createan absolutemonarchyundertheguiseof enlightenmentcreateda gargantuanburdenon thepeasantswhowerethemajority5.Toattainhis agenda,heimitatedtheWestern European armiesby buildinga standing armedforcethat wasonlyanswerableto him menservicingin thearmywereconscriptedfrom theRussian malepopulationandweresupposedto servehim fortheir entirelife.Thelargearmywassuppliedby factoriesrunby thestateandwhich werestaffed by peasantswhohadbeenconscriptedto workin suchfactories6.In additionto this,hecentralizedthetaxsystem,by imposingdirecttaxeson thepeasantsof Russia. Before thisperiod,peasantwould paytaxesindirectlythrough thenobles, butafter thesechanges,thenobles, justlike in othermonarchiesin European, wereexemptedfrom thistax.Itis evidentthat,inhis pursuitPetertheGreat applieda level of severitythat almostbeatsenseandlogic.

Thepeasantswhoservedin thearmyandwhoofferedlaborin thefactorieswereforallpragmaticpurposes,slaves.Peter suppressedtheby dissentgroupwith harshandheftypenalties.His agendawasto orientRussia to theWest,andanymovethat hemadeincludingforeignwarswasallmeantto achievethisgoal7.AfterconqueringSweden,hebuilthis capitalinSt. Petersburg, which wasintendedto rivalthatof Louis XIV`s at Versailles. Itistherefore evidentthat,Peter theGreat pursuitwasto createan absolutemonarchyby forcingRussian to adoptWestern European cultureandwayof life.Theemperorandempressesthat cameafter him werenot ableto wieldsomuchpowerandto rulesingle-mindedly as Peer theGreat, only Catherine thegreatwasableto achievesuchfate.Evenso,Peteractionsandchangescould not be fallunder thebracketof enlightenment8.

DarkEnlightenment in Russia

Catherinethe Great was one of the leaders who made tremendous changes in thecultural facet of Russia, but who totally failed to make anymeaningful reform in the social life of Russian. Catherine receivedher education in France and as such she knew all too well the newenlightened ideas. It was apparent that, she was not impressed bythe manner in which institutions in Russia operated, and she soughtto make radical changes to improve the life of all Russians andconsolidate her rule9.

Inthis light, Peter and Catherine introduced numerous reforms andadministrative changes that significantly improved the legal system,and played a huge role in aligning the differences that existed amongthe provinces. Secondly, both invited Western thinking and paintinginto Russia, and maintained a frequent contact with a Europeans fromthe West. Catherine also supported religious toleration to a certaindegree and restricted the use of torture. Finally, she improvededucation for Russian and foresaw the creation of new code of laws.All the aforesaid policies were squarely with the new idea ofenlightenment that pervaded Europe in this era. Nonetheless, justlike Peter the Great, Catherine failed to institute reforms in themost important facets of the state.


Moss,Walter. Ahistory of Russia.London: Anthem, 2002.

Darraj,Susan. Thecollapse of the Soviet Union.New York: Chelsea House, 2010.

Cracraft,James. MajorProblems in the History of Imperial Russia.University of Illinois, Chicago, 1994.

1 Muaddi Darra . The collapse of the Soviet Union [New York: Chelsea House, 2010], 17

2 Walter Moss. A history of Russia. [London: Anthem, 2002],187

3 James Cracraft, Major Problems in the History of Imperial Russia [University of Illinois, Chicago, 1994] , 115

4 Ibid,110-111

5 Ibid , 115

6ibid, 113

7 Ibid,114

8 Walter Moss. A history of Russia. [London: Anthem, 2002],289

9 Muaddi Darra . The collapse of the Soviet Union [New York: Chelsea House, 2010], 18

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