UNDERSTANDING IMPERIAL RUSSIA: State and Society in the Old Regime by Marc Raeff

UNDERSTANDING IMPERIAL RUSSIA: State and Society in the Old Regime

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One of the continually fascinating aspects of Russian history is the central importance, for good or ill, of ideas. Russian-born historian Raeff (Columbia Univ.) can't get away from the power of ideas in Russia's imperial regime, though his focus is on the more tangible power of the state. From the mid-17th-century, Raeff describes an autocracy that personified the unity of church and state. The tsar seldom left the Kremlin except for pilgrimages, or appeared in public except for religious ceremonies, symbolizing the lack of contact between state and society. But by the end of that century, new ideas began to penetrate Russia's venerable institutions, particularly new theological doctrines embodying western European advances in logic and rationalism. After Peter the Great's first trip abroad in 1698, he was determined to transform Russia along western lines, and especially to create a state service class of nobility. So began the Russian tradition of attempting to transform society from the top down--efforts motivated by some idea or other of what the relationship between state and society should be, but efforts that had unanticipated results because of the distance separating Kremlin and country. Peter's highly centralized bureaucracy, with himself at the apex, was followed by Catherine the Great's attempt to create estates, again along western European lines, that could mediate between the autocracy and the village. But the nobility who comprised these estates were already financially crippled by the obligations of state service (to serve the bureaucracy, they had to sacrifice personal control over their properties) and fearful of the peasantry, so they preferred the shield of state power to the appropriation of power by the estates. Thus Catherine's attempt did not produce autonomous power centers, as in western Europe, but merely reinforced the power of the central authority. Disaffection with the autocracy led to the growth of a radical intelligentsia in the 19th century, but they, too, were cut off from society and unable to provide meaningful social leadership. A power vacuum grew at the center of imperial society, leading ultimately to its disintegration. Raeff's narrative presents all this economically, but the emphasis is heavily on the state, making it of less value as an introductory summary of the period than it could have been. Still, readers with some knowledge of the period will find a strong interpretive structure here to grab onto.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press