Jul 24, 2007

Book Review: Understanding Imperial Russia

Understanding Imperial Russia, Marc Raeff Raeff, Marc (translated by Arthur Goldhammer)
New York: Columbia University Press, 1984

Marc Raeff received his doctorate from Harvard in 1950, and from 1961 to 1988 he was a professor of Russian history at Columbia University. The author was one of the leading experts on pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his books remain important contributions in the historiography of Imperial Russia. Based on a series of Raeff’s lectures, Understanding Imperial Russia is the author’s attempt to describe some of the social and political forces that shaped the evolution of the Russian autocracy and, ultimately, led to the Empire’s downfall in 1917. The social and political forces at work in Russia, maintained Raeff, should be thought of as an ellipse, with the autocratic sovereign on one pole and Russian society on the opposite side of the ellipse. This concept of oppositional poles runs throughout Raeff’s work, and he uses this idea to describe the ways in which Russian society and the monarchy gradually pulled apart from one another.

The author began with an examination of mid-seventeenth century Muscovy, and he described a series of factors that led to late-century decline in Muscovite society. Chief among these, argued Raeff, was the religious schism between the Old Believers and ecclesiastical reformers led by Patriarch Nikon; this split created an isolated demographic subset in Russian society that became an “enormous human potential that was allowed to go to waste” until the nineteenth century. Raeff believed that seventeenth century rebellions – especially those in 1648, 1662, and 1682 – reflected deep economic and cultural unrest in Muscovite society, and that the resultant imperial repression forced increases in government expenditures and heavy tax burdens on Russian peasants. The rise of foreign trade, argued Raeff, brought an increased awareness of Western cultural norms, and led to a tendency by Russian elites to reject traditional values. Finally, noted the author, expansionist tendencies of seventeenth-century Russian monarchs – especially the extension of Muscovite dominion to the Ukraine – led to an infusion of Western values as Ukrainian nobles assimilated into the imperial hierarchy. Due to these factors, Raeff argued that interpretations of Peter the Great’s Westernization and modernization efforts as “revolutionary” fail to consider the historical context of earlier movements away from traditional Muscovite cultural and political customs.

Russian Tsar Peter the GreatRussian Tsar Peter the Great

Moreover, argued Raeff, Peter was not alone in his attempts to model a reformed Russia on Western and Central European models. Members of boyar families joined the Tsar in his modernization endeavors, as did members of the burgeoning service nobility, who owed their continued livelihood to Peter’s efforts. Other important, though often overlooked, contributors to the dispersion of the ideas of Westernization and modernization included army and navy officers, military provisioners, and other state suppliers.

Yet it was these very Westernization and modernization efforts, argued Raeff, which led to a furthering of the distance in the conceptual ellipse between the Tsar and the Russian population, and this took the form of “psychological insecurity” among members of the various social groups in eighteenth century Russia:
Should the culture of the elite be Russian (i.e., Muscovite) or European? Until this question was resolved, members of the ruling elite wavered between two worlds and two systems of value and hence felt psychologically insecure and intellectually in disarray. The ravages of this situation proved traumatic for many intelligent, cultivated, and enlightened individuals who saw clearly enough that Muscovite culture was done for and yet, even though they took on Western ways, ideas, and values, continued to feel different from other Europeans – to feel, in a word, Russian, if only by dint of their religion.
The 1825 Decembrist uprising, argued Raeff, has been viewed by many historians as “a definitive repudiation of the state by educated public opinion.” Despite the fact that this thinking might dovetail with his ellipse theory, Raeff remained skeptical that the Decembrists represented a full-blown breach between Russian society and the government. Instead, the rebellion symbolized “the end of attempts by the educated elite to carve out for itself a useful public role.” This began the rise of an alienated intelligentsia that would prove to be a segment of Russian society both influential and difficult for nineteenth-century Russian autocrats to reconcile.

Russian Tsar Nicholas IRussian Tsar Nicholas I

Under Nicholas I, argued Raeff, there occurred an irreparable divide in the nobility. The Decembrist revolt, he maintained, “alienated a segment of the nobility from the government and raised again the old specter of tyranny and autocracy.” The growth of agriculture in the South – especially in grain – caused many nobles to drift away from the traditional centers of power in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Finally, noted Raeff, the growth of a professional bureaucratic class created a new social group that, conversely, rejected “the class into which they had been born” :
The result was a split in the nobility, which exacerbated the feeling of nobles living on their estates that they were cut off from the government, bottle up within their own families, confined to the provinces. The middling nobles felt more and more acutely that the conflict of interest had become irreconcilable and, worse, that they had been betrayed by their own brothers, who had gone over to the state: by and by, this feeling became a settled conviction. Relations between the governmental apparatus and the provincial nobility that lived by its ownership of land became increasingly acrimonious…
Following an approach that is both chronological and thematic, Raeff provided occasional footnotes in the text, but the emphasis in this work is on the theoretical models the author developed to explain trends in the history of imperial Russia. Included are categorized bibliographies of aspects of the Russian Empire as well as a useful chronological table of important dates, and readers will find valuable Raeff’s index to the book.

There is much to recommend in Understanding Imperial Russia, as the author’s willingness to reexamine long-held assumption about Russian history – as well as his ability to develop insightful explanations for seemingly disparate phenomena – makes this book an essential read for anyone desirous of understanding the period. Yet there are throughout the text a number of annoying factual errors, such as his crediting of the quote “Es ist der Geist ser sich den Körper baut” to Goethe (it was actually Schiller), or his comment that “the decree of February 18, 1762, whereby Peter II freed the nobility from the obligation to serve the state” (this was Peter III). Finally, there is a sense of disconnection in the text, as Raeff moved from theme to theme with the briefest of transitions. This makes Understanding Imperial Russia difficult to recommend to readers who lack a basic knowledge of Russian history, though students in the field would most certainly benefit from reading this challenging and perceptive text.


Anonymous said...

You've posted a portrait of Nicholas II next to your text about Nicholas I

historymike said...


Thanks for the heads-up. I have switched for the correct image.