Jul 17, 2007

Book Review: Russia in the Eighteenth Century

Russian Tsar Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, Пётр I АлексеевичLentin, Antony
London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973, 139 pages

Left: Russian Tsar Peter I, also known as Peter the Great

Lentin is a Professor of History at the Open University in Buckinghamshire whose areas of specialization include eighteenth-century Russia. Lentin’s goal in producing this text was to offer a relatively short synthesis of Russian history from Peter the Great through Catherine the Great for non-specialists, and the book follows a chronological approach to the topic. While relying more on political and military history, the text nonetheless incorporates some elements of cultural, social, and economic history in its coverage of Russia’s emergence as a European power in the eighteenth century.

After a brief introduction that included an overview of events in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lentin moved into an examination of the reign of Peter the Great, who the author described as “both the agent and symbol of change” from a Russia isolated from the West to an empire that was to become an integral part of European politics. The aftermath of Peter’s defeat in 1700 at the Battle of Narva to Swedish king Charles XII, noted Lentin, was an example of the Russian monarch’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances:
He lacked the spectacular flair or personal magnetism of Charles. But he had the qualities that ultimately brought complete success: boundless energy and resilience, realism, singlemindedness and enterprise, the ability to learn from his mistakes, to husband his resources, to await the opportune moment and to strike only after long and thorough preparation.
Russia was at war for nearly the entirety of Peter’s reign, and the fact that the Russian tsar was often occupied with military matters created what Lentin described as a “serious problem of continuity” in government. Peter created a nine-member Senate that was expected to rule in his absence, but Lentin argued that its complete subordination to the monarch – and conflicts with the existing prikazy system Peter inherited – meant that the Russian government became an even more cumbersome, inefficient bureaucracy. The Russian tsar then created in 1718 a system of Colleges to replace the prikazy, but this approach also bogged down in “procrastination and squabbling” between state officials and between foreigners and Russians. In response to these bureaucratic logjams, Peter created a network of officials known as fiskals, or secret government agents, whose responsibility it was to bypass bureaucrats to assist the Tsar in carrying out the business of government. Ultimately, though, Lentin argued that the government’s problems could be traced to corruption:
Even so corruption proved to be a seemingly ineradicable evil. Not only was it firmly rooted in Muscovite practice, but it was an inevitable consequence of the low salaries which lack of funds made necessary. Corruption was the lubricant which kept the creaking machinery of government in motion.
Lentin argued that Peter’s views on the Russian Orthodox Church “smacked of Lutheranism,” and that he viewed the Church as a divisive force in the modernization of Russia. By leaving the office of Patriarch vacant after the death of Adrian in 1700, and then by abolishing the office altogether in 1721, Peter diminished the role of the Church in the Empire. Lentin held that Peter transformed the Church into merely an “agency through which the state extended its control over the minds of its subjects.”

Lentin disagreed with the view of the reign of Peter the Great as a revolutionary figure, arguing that the Tsar acted more in the manner of a “catalyst, speeding up policies already slowly under way.” While reforming government and introducing elements of Westernization, Russia under Peter remained an autocratic regime. Still, admitted Lentin, Peter’s methods must have seemed “revolutionary in the eyes of the vast body of the nation,” especially those policies that came into conflict with traditional beliefs and practices.

By changing the Russian succession law and with his role in the 1718 death of Tsarevich Alexei, Peter doomed Russia to what Lentin referred to as the “Age of Palace-Revolutions,” which lasted from 1725 until 1762. Moreover, Lentin argued that the Imperial Guards – created by Peter to support the autocracy – turned out to be a “sword of Damocles to his successors.” The Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky thus became agents of coups, and their support could make or break a given Russian monarch. This period saw rulers as diverse as the Germanophile Anna Ivanovna, the beloved Yelizaveta Petrovna, as well as Ivan IV and Peter III, tsars with obvious limitations.

Russian Empress Yelizaveta PetrovnaLeft: Russian Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna

Lentin, however, disagreed with traditional assessments of the period as “abysmal decline, or a stagnat lull between the reigns of Peter I and Catherine II.” The effects of the coups, argued Lentin, were far less than those outside of Russia might have believed, and he noted that the organizers of the revolutions were more concerned with obtaining patronage and power than in restructuring the government. Moreover, added the author, by mid-century the old and new nobilities formed a “virtually united homogeneous class, firmly wedded to autocracy.” In addition, Lentin noted that earlier assumptions about widespread economic decline during this period have not held up to closer scutiny, and he pointed to the growth in the metallurgical industry and the overall growth in exports to buttress this argument. Finally, Lentin pointed to the overall strong performance of the Russian military during the Seven Years’ War as another contradiction in the “abysmal decline” theory.

The lengthiest section in Lentin’s book examined the reign of Catherine the Great, beginning with a question as to how a “German upstart and usurper without a drop of Russian blood in her veins” could become one of the most heralded and successful of Russian rulers. Catherine II, argued Lentin, possessed the qualities of “sparkling intelligence, energy, boldness, and exceptional personal magnetism,” characteristics that – in conjunction with her shrewdly calculating nature – allowed her to succeed where other sovereigns might have failed.

Catherine II of Russia, also known as Catherine the GreatLeft: Catherine II of Russia, also known as Catherine the Great

Not surprisingly, Lentin maintained that Catherine’s greatest triumphs were in the sphere of foreign policy, and the author noted that the territorial gains during her reign were the greatest since Ivan the Terrible. The drive by the Empress to the Black Sea certainly created new economic opportunities, observed Lentin, but more important was the Russian rise to a position in Europe as “first among equals.” Catherine also showed a willingness to pursue and shed alliances based on what she perceived as the best interests of the state, and avoided the sort of political and diplomatic stasis that accompanies obdurate adherence to tradition.

The author did not shy away from examining the seeming contradiction between Catherine’s reputation as an enlightened monarch and the plight of Russian serfs. The population of serfs, he noted, nearly doubled during her reign, in part due to territorial expansion and also a function of Catherine’s tendency to reward favorites with “lavish distributions” of serfs and land. Like many interpreters of the legacy of Catherine the Great, Lentin argued that the Pugachev Rebellion was the turning point for the Empress, as any of her dreams of enlightened reform with regard to serfdom crumbled in the face of widespread peasant revolt.

The text provides little in the way of notes, with just an occasional asterisked comment next to items that need further elucidation. Lentin provided an eight-page bibliographical essay for further reading, and the book includes several sections with illustrations and portraits of historical figures. The index is adequate to the needs of the book, but lacks much in the way of cross-referencing. While prior knowledge of Russian history is not necessary, readers should be aware that Lentin frequently quotes in French from the contemporaneous documents, and keeping a French dictionary nearby would aid in comprehension.

Russia in the Eighteenth Century lives up to the billing of its straightforward title, providing a solid overview of the century that saw the empire of the Tsars rise to become one of the great powers of Europe. Lentin’s writing style is succinct and accessible to general readers and non-specialist scholars, and the book is an excellent source to begin a program of study into the history of modern Russia. Unfortunately, the text is out of print, although used copies can be found at online retailers, and the book is carried by many public and university libraries.

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