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Russian Europeans
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.2 (2003) 383-394



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Russian Europeans

Marc Raeff


Ekaterina Eduardovna Liamina and Natal'ia Vladimirovna Samover, "Bednyi Zhozef": Zhizn' i smert' Iosifa Viel'gorskogo. Opyt biografii cheloveka 1830-kh godov ["Poor Joseph": The Life and Death of Iosif Viel'gorskii. A Biography of a Man of the 1830s]. Moscow: "Iazyki russkoi kul'tury," 1999. 559 pp. ISBN 5-7859-0089-0.
Petr Vladimirovich Akul'shin, P. A. Viazemskii: Vlast' i obshchestvo v doreformennoi Rossii [P. Viazemskii: Power and Society in Pre-Reform Russia]. Moscow: "Pamiatniki istoricheskoi mysli," 2001. 235 pp. ISBN 5-8841-109-4.
Vladimir Karlovich Kantor, Russkii evropeets kak iavlenie kul'tury: Filosofski-istoricheskii analiz [The Russian European as a Cultural Phenomenon: A Philosophical-Historical Analysis]. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2001. 700 pp. ISBN 5-8243-0242-1.

The last couple of decades are witness to a "revisionist" revival of interest in Russia in the history of the first half of the 19th century — not that the period had been ignored in Russian historiography in the 20th century, either in Russia or abroad. On the eve of, and during the so-called Silver Age, the first half of the 19th century was at the center of attention of historians and archivists. Their combined efforts showed quite clearly that the reigns of Alexander I and Nicholas I had been crucial by putting in place Russia's political and institutional culture for the remaining decades of the imperial system (and in some respects even beyond 1917). Even more importantly, the sons of Paul I saw the birth pangs of modern Russian literature and thought as well as an educated Öffentlichkeit (public opinion), all striving to define the characteristic traits of a "European Russia" and to chart its future progress.

By the outbreak of World War I, thanks to the loosening of censorship after the revolution of 1905, much important scholarly work already had been done on this period. The war, revolution, and Civil War put a halt to these historiographic efforts. They resumed in the 1920s, along with a flood of studies and source publications to mark the centenary of the Decembrist uprising. A number [End Page 383] of monographs and published documents (mainly epistolary) called attention to the intellectual scene of the 1800s that served as backdrop to the Decembrist movement. The lead was taken by scholars of literature who "discovered" in the process a number of writers and works they grouped under the rubrics of "Radishchevtsy" (followers of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev in the first decade of Alexander I's reign) and "links to the Decembrists" (in the years 1815—25). In the latter case, the emphasis was on the relationship future Decembrists might have had with the most illustrious writers of the period — Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin and Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov. 1

With the initiation of Stalin's undisputed dictatorship this historiographic spurt petered out. True, work on the Decembrists continued, but in a prescribed, rigid ideological mode — i.e., always emphasizing the "revolutionary" and progressive nature of the December uprising — while "pushkinovedenie" acquired a narrow, chauvinistic coloring. 2 Two other topics, however, also came to the fore at that time: "1812 and all that," to reinforce the patriotic and nationalist fervor preceding, accompanying, and following World War II; and, with particular reference to the reign of Nicholas I, the peasant or serf question. 3 The implicit purpose of the latter was to explain (away?) the abolition of serfdom and Russia's turn to capitalism in the following reign. Only in the very last decades of the Soviet Union do we encounter again some works dealing with the domestic policies of the two sons of Paul I — works that attempt, albeit hesitatingly, to point out the modernizing and progressive features of the government establishment. 4

The historians in emigration could do little more than underline the European liberal character of some aspects of the period, and add a detail here or there to the picture that had emerged on the eve of World War I. There was one very important exception: the seminal and magisterial Puti...