Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Abbott Gleason's Young Russia

Although this blog is officially on hiatus, I can’t help but sneak back to writing about Russia from time to time.  Lately, I’ve been delving a little deeper into Russia’s past to provide some kind of historical framework for the violence and authoritarianism of Russia’s twentieth century.  I’ve looked in particular at Peter the Great’s reign, and thought about the extent to which a single sovereign was able to shape the course of events for his nation.  It seems hard to imagine a monarch in another European country who made such a profound impact on his people as Peter the Great had on his.  Of course, this begs the question of whether Peter the Great was in fact really ruling a European power, something many Russians, both then and now, dispute.  In any event, Peter the Great moved his capital, built a navy, defeated Sweden in a prolonged struggle, open some administrative careers to talent, and spread many Western ideas far and wide in his immense nation.

Peter the Great remains a deeply controversial figure in Russian history, and rightly so.  It’s difficult to know for sure whether the energetic man is a reflection of Russia’s ancient autocratic traditions, or the inventor of new, modern forms of despotisms.  Peter introduced Western military ideas and cultural fashions, but also demonstrated once and for all that aristocrats, churchmen, or other societal forces could not challenge the Russian state.  Paradoxically, Peter wanted reform, but this reform was meant to preclude the possibility of any other source of non-state-driven change.  Such at least is the lesson I drew from reading Robert Massie’s magnificent biography of Peter.

If we look at the birth of Russian radicalism in the middle of the nineteenth century, Peter’s shadow seems all the darker.  Abbott Gleason’s much more succinct—but equally fascinating--version of Franco Venturi’s seminal work on the same subject, The Roots of Revolution, helps us to understand the long-term impact of Peter’s autocratic traditions.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia largely lacked a politics.  Part of the problem was that Russia’s aristocracy was dependent on the autocracy to an unusual degree.  Peter had ensured that nobles retained their status in return for their service to the state.  This changed a little over time, but the servility of Russian nobles vis-à-vis their European counterparts was notable.  Russia’s small aristocracy depended on the tsar for status and employment.  This tradition of service isolated its members from other classes, small as they were in a Russia’s relatively backward farming economy.  But more than this, Russia’s aristocracy was isolated from the peasantry by its European culture, French language habits, etc.  The truth is that Peter helped to cement the sharp distinctions between the Russian aristocracy and all other Russian classes, with the peasant class remaining by far the largest segment of Russian society right up until 1917, and beyond.

At first, a critique of the Russian autocracy emerged indirectly, through a literary tradition that acknowledged, or even glorified, aristocratic indolence.  See Pushkin and Lermontov and Gonchorov.  Over time, the critique became more pronounced, more radical.  Interestingly, Abbott sees a unified political culture in nineteenth century Russia, broad enough to encompass both Slavophiles and Westernizers.  In a culture without open politics, the difference between Right and Left policies meant little.  But ideologically, both Slavophiles and Westernizers believed somehow that Russian peasants would somehow liberate Russia from despotism, and perhaps the world as well.  What allows us to group Slavophiles with Westernizers, is their mutual ignorance of the real economic conditions or culture life of the vast majority of the Russian people.  In a sense, perhaps this ignorance is also the legacy of Peter the Great, a tsar whose legacy was always hotly debated in the nineteenth century. 

Abbott’s ultimate argument seems to be that even Lenin was a product of this overwhelming ignorance of the Russian people.  Russian radicals retained Peter the Great’s commitment to transform Russia without consulting, or even attempting to understand, its common people.  This crash course in modernization seems even today to affect Russia.  Its current ruler seems content to rule without reference to a real politics.  One interesting analogy between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century is that in both cases the country’s master was supposedly popular with ordinary people.  Over and over again, Russian radicals tried to account for the mystery of the Russian people’s ostensible love of the autocrat.  The common people hated the Russian state’s representatives, including clergymen and local officials, but they always seemed to preserve their love for the tsar.  If only he knew the horrid abuses that went on in his blessed name, they reasoned, he would surely put a stop to everything and bring about a new and better era. Whether this love for the tsar was ultimately a myth is difficult to say, and needless to say, still bears examination.