Thursday, August 06, 2009


One of the problems of the historiography of modern Europe is the “westernization” and “modernization” of Russia and why this process which started with Peter the Great seems to have had at best only a partial success? Why as Russia in so many ways proved to be resistant to the process of “westernization” and “modernization”?

Maybe the question should be phrased differently; perhaps the reason why Russia failed to “westernize”, “modernize” more than particially is precisely the effects of the process of “westernization” and “modernization”.

Yet if the Russian experience warns against any single, linear theory of modernisation, the concept nevertheless helps to bring into focus crucial interrelationships between government, economy, and society. Russia’s kinship-dominated peasant communities were not the casual detritus of government-led modernisation: they were its direct consequence. As the state counted the cost of its new standing army, its extensive multi-national territories, its administrative institutions, and its glittering cosmopolitan capital, the people paid the price. Risk-averse peasants relapsed into intensified collective responsibility as the only safe way to meet the government’s increasing fiscal demands. The more Russia’s rulers tried to modernize their state, the more backward their empire became.1

This opens up a whole new area of thought. Usually the “modernizers” of Russian History like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, are celebrated has great visionaries and bearers of progress and enlightenment. The above quote asks us to think again about the real legacy of such reform from above.

Aside from the issue of exaggerating Russia’s isolation from the “west” and Russia’s “backwardness”, and locating “all” “good” in adopting the attributes of the “west”, this approach systematically ignores certain features of Russian development. Of course such an approach flatters the chauvinistic assumptions of “westerners” and also plays into the assumption that some how Russia really isn’t part of the “west”.

For example Peter the Great’s reformation of Russian society, economy and culture was accomplished through a vast strengthening of the forces of coercion and violence. It was a top down operation. Even today we have little idea of the sheer scale of violence and bloodshed required to effect these changes. Peter the Great used a vast Secret Police network and mass terror. I could give a long list of Peter’s myriad atrocities. I will simply mention that the building of St. Petersburg on a delta of the Neva river cost the lives of who knows how many forced labourers.2

Peterof palace near St. Petersburg

In fact due to violent oppression, massive fiscal demands etc., it appears that the population of Russia actually fell during Peter’s reign.3 In many respects Peter was similar to Stalin in that much of the modernization accomplished was through violent, coercive means in a process that was frequently costly and wasteful in lives and money. It was also accompanied by a massive extension of state power. If anything society became far more rigid, intrusive and authoritarian than before.4

Russia under the old regime was in many ways a centralized, authoritarian state with some truly unpleasant features, but it appears in many respects Peter the Great’s reforms massively strengthened these features of the state.5

The creation of a bureaucratic system of police surveillance with a vast array of police spies and intrusive bureaucratic system went hand in hand with a systematic regularization of procedure, including the systematic use of torture. Hand in hand with this process went the vast expansion of the internal passport system and similar measures to control internal movement. Censorship and other forms of detecting and destroying thought-crime also were regularized. And of course the use of such means of punishment has exile; forced labour and execution were also systemitized.6

To quote:

The Peterine reforms were also the apotheosis of statism that in practice left no place until now for other (nonstate) forms of social existence. The era of the Peterine reforms was the time of the foundations of the totalitarian state, the graphic preaching and inculcation into mass consciousness of the cult of the strong personality – the boss, “the father of the nation,” “the teacher of the people.” It was also the time of the start-up of the “eternal prime mover” of a native bureaucratic machine that worked until now according to its own internal laws alien to society.7

If Peter the Great left behind a legacy that can be described as ambiguous what can one say about Catherine the Great?

Of course Catherine the Great has a huge horde of modern “western” fans who once again, like with Peter, writhe in ecstasy at the “reformer’s” feet. The legion of biographies taken in by her posturing and building, and very successful wars of conquest are characterized by fawning hero worship.8

The fact is Catherine continued the process of enforced “westernization” of Peter although with vastly less overt brutality. The power of the state was largely undiminished and so was the way in which the state operated. What changed was that Catherine decided to make the nobility her ally in the ruthless exploitation of Russia. Her “reforms” and “freeing” of the nobility were accompanied by giving to the nobility vastly greater autocratic powers over the peasantry. These powers already very large before Peter were increased by Peter and reached their apogee under Catherine. Even her founding of hospital’s orphanages etc., and of course the Noble Bank, which was basically nothing more than means to allow the nobility to loot the treasury.9

It is the peasantry that paid most of the price for the “westernization” of Russia and Russia’s development into a great power.

The fiscal and social exploitation of the peasantry by the state increased massively under the “westernization” regimes. This was accompanied by an increase in exploitation by the nobility, who like the state had to pay for their efforts to “westernize”.

Before Peter the Great became Tsar the overwhelming majority of Russian peasants had through state coercion become Serfs. Either serfs proper, bound to particular nobles, or state peasants. They had gradually over a period of several centuries been striped of their rights and partially enslaved. Eventually in fact serfs could be bought and sold.10

The great symbol of fiscal oppression by the state was the soul tax, which flagrantly disregarded the ability to pay, which each adult male was required to pay to the state. It was regressive and each village community or Mir was made responsible for the tax. The tax was devised and was implemented in the reign of Peter the Great. It was part of a whole series of taxes and impositions (labour, men for the army etc.) that imposed themselves on the peasantry and which the peasantry dealt with by reinforcing and strengthening ideas of communal responsibility. Further this constant and quite sustained fiscal etc., pressure from the state and landlord created among the peasantry a situation in which individual initiative was not rewarded but in fact punished. The result was the creation of a risk adverse culture among the peasantry, a lack of interest in rural development and especially agricultural development. The result was the backwardness of Russian agriculture.11

One of the most interesting features of the development of Russia during this time is the lack of interest by the state in developing roads. Why this is so is subject to much debate. It was perhaps the huge cost radically improving the road system combined with a reliance on water transport.12 It is possible that this neglect was in part because an improved road system although it would reduce the cost of moving goods considerably would also ease the flight of peasants away from their bondage.

The other taxes imposed by the state were similarly regressive and fell heavily on the peasantry that took refuge from the onerous obligations to state and landlord through collective responsibility. The fact that the state later on created institutions that gave massive largess to the nobility in return for their support further increased the fiscal oppression of the state. If you add in labour corves etc., the fiscal oppression of the peasantry was severe. To add to the peasantries woes the soul tax and other taxes increased substantially over time as well as the landlord’s demands.13

Everything else in Russian society was coloured by the ruthless fiscal oppression of the peasantry. The idea that the west could be emulated by obedience and coercion, that people could be regimented to be free was omnipresent. The habits of pre-peterine Russia of slavish obedience and the capricious and oppressive nature of authority that was not bound by agreed upon rules was if anything increased under the “westernization” regimes. Education produced not the autonomous individuals of the west but technocrats whose basic attitude was slavish subordination. The result was a continual need to import experts from the west. In many respects the backwardness of Russia was noticeably increased as “westernization” including a dynamic and expensive foreign policy, created such demands on society as to drain away the money and initiative to actually transform society.14

A classic example of the massive extension of state power under the “westernization” regimes was the treatment of the Church. In the pre-peterine period the Church had a certain degree of real autonomy; the result of Peter’s “reforms” and the actions of certain of his successors, especially Catherine the Great, was to turn the Church into a adjunct of the state and to greatly if not fatally damage the Church in spiritual terms. Basically the Church became an object of manipulation and abuse by the state. It became a cash cow of the state and another way of squeezing the population. If the Church had serious problems before Peter they became immeasurably worst under Peter and his successors.15

Economic and commercial development proceeded to a large extent without the creation of a self aware, self confident middle class / bourgeoisie, dependence on state help and manifold interference by the state was omnipresent and oppressive.16

The end result was a state and society whose “westernization was to a large extent superficial and based on intense coercion and oppression. In many respects features of pre-peterine Russia were intensified by “westernization”. Certainly not intended, but the actual results of the reformers efforts. Instead of freeing their society from the straight jacket of the past Peter and Catherine in fact basically reinforced and added new and brutal features to the oppressive system they had inherited. Behind the glitter was a rigid authoritarian system that was by the standards of the day uniquely oppressive, coercive and wasteful. And in the end it in the long run added further impediments on Russia’s ability to modernize.

In 1839 a Frenchman, the Marquis de Custine, visited Russia for a few months. Despite the brevity of his visit he produced what many regard has one of the greatest travel / political science books of all time.17 He also produced this verdict on the work of the “westernizers”:

Peter I. and Catherine II. have given to the world a great and useful lesson, for which Russia has had to pay: they have shown to us that despotism is never so much to be dreaded as when it pretends to do good, for then it thinks the most revolting acts may be excused by the intention; and the evil that is applied as a remedy has no longer any bounds. Crime exposed to view can triumph only for a day; but false virtues for ever lead astray the minds of nations. People, dazzled by the brilliant accessories of crime, by the greatness of certain delinquencies justified by the event, believe at last that there are two kinds of villainy, two classes of morals,, and that necessity, or reasons of state, as they were formerly called, exculpate criminals of high lineage, provided they have so managed that their excesses should be in accord with the passions of the country.18

Also Custine says:

In Russia, the government interferes with every thing and vivifies nothing. In that immense empire, the people, if not tranquil, are mute; death hovers over all heads, and strikes capriciously whom it pleases: man there has two coffins, the cradle and the tomb.19


I must correct myself — there is no people of Russia: there is an emperor, who has serfs, and there are courtiers who have serfs also; but this does not constitute a people.20

De Custine went to Russia in the hope of finding an Autocracy that worked, what he instead found was an autocracy whose glittering surface features disguised and in fact reinforced it’s backwards autocratic features.

When in 1725 Peter the Great died someone produced a woodcut of mice burying the cat. The cat is clearly Peter and the sense of relief of the “mice” that the tormenting cat was no longer around is palatable.21 Like the rule of Stalin Peter’s reign had had great accomplishments but at a truly terrible price.

The people of Russia paid in spades for the “modernization”, and “westernization” of Russia because it was done as the first quote emphasizes by means which at the same time it pushed Russia forward pushed Russia backwards.

The Mice bury the Cat

1. Dixon, Simon, The Modernization of Russia 1676 – 1825, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 256.

2. See Anisimov, Evgenni V., The Reforms of Peter the Great, M. E. Sharpe, London, 1993, for a detailed description of this process. For St. Petersburg see pp. 239-243.

3. Anisimov, p. 177-178, 291-292.

4. Anisimov, p. 184-202, and Pipes, Richard, Russia under the Old Regime, Penguin Books, London, 1974, pp. 112-138.

5. For an overview of the pre-Peterine state see Pipes, pp. 85-111.

6. Anisimov, pp. 217-243.

7. IBID, p. 296.

8. Just Google you will find acres of such “biographies”, although hagiographies is more accurate.

9. Blum, Jerome, Lord and Peasant in Russia, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1961, pp. 382-385, 424-425, 428-431.

10. See IBID, pp. 247-276, 414-441.

11. Dixon, p. 64, Anisimov, pp. 170-183.

12. IBID, pp. 240-241.

13. IBID, pp. 64-65.

14. IBID, pp. 152-156, Anisimov, pp. 184-202.

15. Dixon, pp. 209-220, Blum, pp. 364-366, Pipes, pp. 221-248.

16. Dixon, pp. 225-255, Anisimov, pp. 170-183.

17. de Custine, Astolphe, The Empire of the Czar, (in three volumes), Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London, 1843.

18. IBID, v. 3, p. 317.

19. IBID, v. 3, p. 305.

20. IBID. v. 3, p. 328.

21. Anisimov, pp. 288-290.

Pierre Cloutier

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