Russian Empire From Peter the Essay

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Petersburg in the square in 1825. The Tsar put down the protest, which took place in December, and for which the group was later labeled The Decembrists.

The uprising failed to unseat the Tsar -- that would not happen for another century -- but it cemented the new ideological undercurrent that would eventually overwhelm Russian society from top to bottom. Essentially, all of this was the result of Peter the Great's challenge to the Russian classes to make Russian a Great Power. From Chaadayav to Kakhovsky, the plea for insurgency was soon ringing out. Peter the Great may have had great social ambitions -- but they were at the expense of the nation's religious orthodoxy which was essentially, as Gogol and Dostoevsky would say, the only restraint truly holding Russia's passionate populace together.

Peter the Great must not receive the entirety of the blame, of course, for Russia's spiral toward twentieth century Stalinism. His ambitions were great and genuine: he restored the nation's military to prominence; he brought prestige and honor to the country; he gave them a hero that appeared to be incorrupt. But the worm at the heart of Peter's challenge was that it was rooted in a new doctrine -- the same new doctrine that Belinsky would recite in his letter to Gogol -- only here it would be recited more loudly and more forcefully and more explicitly than in Peter's time.

The new doctrine was based on French liberalism, but, typically, Christ was used as its messenger -- not Rousseau, who actually spun the narrative. A portion of Belinsky's letter is worth quoting in full, for it gets to the heart of what was to lead to Russia's loss of identity: it was rooted in a new interpretation of the Christian ethos -- the doctrine of the saints was replaced by the doctrine of Voltaire, as Belinsky himself states. On the contrary, Belinsky belittles Gogol for wishing to cling to the ancient sense of morality and the wisdom of the Dark Ages:

Proponent of the knout, apostle of ignorance, champion of obscurantism and Stygian darkness, panegyrist of Tartar morals -- what are you about! Look beneath your feet -- you are standing on the brink of an abyss!... That you base such teaching on the Orthodox Church I can understand: it has always served as the prop of the knout and the servant of despotism; but why have you mixed Christ up in it? What have you found in common between Him and any church, least of all the Orthodox Church? He was the first to bring to people the teaching of freedom, equality, and brotherhood and to set the seal of truth to that teaching by martyrdom. And this teaching was men's salvation only until it became organized in the Church and took the principle of Orthodoxy for its foundation. The Church, on the other hand, was a hierarchy, consequently a champion of inequality, a flatterer of authority, an enemy and persecutor of brotherhood among men -- and so it has remained to this day. But the meaning of Christ's message has been revealed by the philosophical movement of the preceding century. And that is why a man like Voltaire who stamped out the fires of fanaticism and ignorance in Europe by ridicule, is, of course, more the son of Christ, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, than all your priests, bishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs -- Eastern or Western. (Belinsky 3)

Belinsky hits upon the very heart of the matter upon which Russia was severed: Peter's challenge essentially allowed such a redefining of the Christian ethos to be possible. Russia's writers like Gogol and Dostoevsky attempted to draw attention to the fact. Others, like Tolstoy, were more on the side of liberalization -- despite an attachment to the old world that was disappearing. Such was the extent of the societal confusion that Peter's challenge effected: the old rules and lines of delineation were gone. All that represented the past (Church, hierarchy, orthodoxy doctrine, patriarchy, authority, morality, and true Christianity) was replaced with individualism, "equality," "liberty," "fraternity," liberalism, modern philosophy, a re-interpretation of Christ's Redemption, and idealism.

In conclusion, Russia from the time of Peter the Great to Nicholas I saw a fundamental transformation in its societal ethos that, in the long view, would end in Russian Stalinism. However, from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, the transformation effected both military reform and discipline and prominence (which gave the nation a sense of order and greatness), and radicalism which called for emancipation from that same order and discipline all the way across the board. Such were the good and bad effects of Peter's challenge to Russia: on the one hand, it gave Russia a sense of pride; on the…[continue]

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