PETER THE GREAT'S REVOLUTION FROM ABOVE
I'm finding that I share a number of interests with Lexington Green
of Chicago Boyz
, including it seems, a fondness for scholarship in Russian history. If you like that subject and know it well enough to see the salience between Russia's past and the problems Russia and the West face today, then you should like Lex's post, "Russian Backwardness Revisited
Green quotes University of Chicago historian Dr. Richard Hellie's
review of Russia in the Age of Peter the Great:"Regrettably, neither Peter nor his admirers and imitators had the slightest understanding that human rights and dignity and personal autonomy were and are absolutely essential to sustain a cohesive, responsible, self-generating, productive society. For half a millennium autocrats, absolute rulers, and dictators in Russia (and elsewhere) have been picking and choosing from the Western technological and cultural package in hopes of surviving, maintaining independence, or overtaking and surpassing the West. The lesson would seem to be that anything less than the entire package will yield disappointing results in anything other than the short term. "
And Lexington himself goes on to add:"It is noteworthy that Peter the Great himself contrasted Russia with England. It is noteworthy also that Hellie elaborates that by noting the absence of "social cohesion", the rule of law and the sanctity of contract
. Alan Macfarlane
, picking up from F.W. Maitland has shown the central place of the law of trusts in the growth of civil society in England. (Macfarlane video of a lecture on Maitland here
.) The peculiar freedom of the English courts from monarchical control was also uniquely English. And a society based on contract not status was much more elaborated in England than elsewhere. These Anglospheric inheritances were distinctly Western, and spread reasonably quickly and took decent root in Western Europe. Alas, for the poor suffering people of Russia, they have not transplanted so well in the foreign soil of their Byzantine-derived civilization, with -- as John points out -- the additional historical baggage of its period of Mongol rule. "Interesting analysis.
It is certainly true that the lack of personal autonomy in Russian culture has proven to be a primary stumbling block in terms of retarding national development. It is a phenomena that went beyond a mere absence of freedom - the concept of individualism was simply alien and incomprehensible in the Russia of Peter's time and long, long after that. The Russian nobility, the Muscovite boyars and the later Petrine dvoriane, were never " free" men in the modern sense. Instead, the nobles were "Raby
" or slaves, of the Tsar. Titled slaves, exalted slaves but still, theoretically speaking, slaves. Of all the peoples of Old Russia only the Cossacks, who owed feudal military service to the Tsar as a collective host under their Atamen, could consider themselves free .
Peter the Great's westernization policy, as limited as Hellie may describe it, was nonetheless radical. Peter was attempting to impose a secular state structure on a people for whom the only conception of government was personal, patrimonial and holy and for whom Russia itself was a vague abstraction. To give you some idea of how drastic a change of mentality Peter tried to impose, when Peter forced the nobility to adopt Western modes of dress and shave off their beards, not a few of this class, the most advanced in Russia, saved their shorn beards in little boxes for fear of not being able to enter Heaven without them.
Moving such men in a single generation to the worldview of the West, with its more individualist conceptions and complex civil society was for all practical purposes, an impossible task. Which is why Peter had to surround himself with foreigners like Francis LeFort and parvenu creatures like Alexander Menshikov in order to carry out his reforms. In all likelihood, Peter's transformation of Russia was understood by most of his Russian comtemporaries only as the inexplicable whims of the Tsar, something to be endured. Which is why a person like England's Lord Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke
, arguing the necessity of judicial independence with King James, had no Russian equivalent.
Such a thing was beyond imagining to the Russian mind, including Peter's, who saw himself as the first servant of an all-powerful state.