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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 313-319
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Something Old, Something New:
Continuity and Modernization in Eighteenth-Century Russia
The Huntington Library, San Marino
James Cracraft. The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Pp. xxiv + 375. $50.00 cloth.
Simon Dixon. The Modernization of Russia, 1676-1825 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 267. $ 16.95 paper.
Lindsey Hughes. Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Pp. xxx + 602. $40.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.
Aleksandr B. Kamenskii. The Russian Empire in the Eighteenth Century: Searching for a Place in the World, trans. David Griffiths (Armank, N. Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997). Pp. 320. $28.95 paper.
Marcia A. Morris. The Literature of Roguery in Seventeenth- and Eigtheenth-Century Russia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000). Pp. 184. $79.95 cloth.
Faith Wigzell. Reading Russian Fortunes: Print Culture, Gender and Divination in Russia from 1765 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. 265. $64.95 paper.
The eighteenth century in Russia is primarily defined as the era of "modernization" or "Westernization," with the two terms often used interchangeably. Accordingly, eighteenth-century Russia is usually discussed in comparison with the previous, post-Petrine history, and the discussion focuses on the nature, degree, and effect of the changes brought about by the two greats--Peter and Catherine. Any recent work on Petrine or Catherinean Russia is bound to be revisionist-- [End Page 313] too much historiographical debris has piled up as a result of more than two hundred years of heated debates over the political, social, and cultural implications of Russia's eighteenth century. The books under review here are no exception, yet each takes a provocative and fresh approach.
Aleksandr Kamenskii is the leading Russian authority on Catherenian Russia, a pioneer of the post-Soviet historiography of pre-revolutionary Russia and one of the few who "were eager to deliver Russian history from the constraints of the official paradigm" (xi). For anyone familiar with the works of Soviet historians this highly readable and creative attempt to revise the chief paradigms of Soviet eighteenth-century studies shows the beneficial effects of glasnost on the realm of historical narrative. Kamenskii's point of departure is the assumption that in the eighteenth century progress meant Russia's incorporation into Europe, an equation where modernization was thought equivalent to Westernization. The pre-Petrine Russia, characterized by self-imposed isolation, lack of social representation, serfdom, and above all a centralized government with "a strictly hierarchical, militarized social structure, a despotic regime, and an infrastructure developed specifically to assist in repressing and governing the population" (17), found itself in a deep crisis of traditionalism that could be resolved only through radical reforms. Kamenskii primarily concerns himself with the reforming authority, reflecting Russian scholars' fascination with the "revolution from above." When considering reforms of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, he opts for chronological rather than thematic narrative, thus reconstructing the logic of the reformer.
Kamenskii argues that Peter correctly diagnosed Russia's illness, and prescribed the correct medicine--Europeanization. The policy of his successors more or less followed his guidelines, albeit without resorting to their predecessor's cruelty. The main result of the reform was a new secular society, dominated by the image of the reformer on the throne. The new Europeanized culture, however, became the domain of a "terribly narrow stratum of the Russian society" (121), which also happened to be the most politically active. According to Kamenskii, Russia's modernization was partial and highly selective, significantly failing to abolish serfdom. The limited modernization could not alter the core of Russian problems and thus thwarted a genuine modernization and incorporation into the European community.
Somewhat ironically, the book continues the old quest for a "usable past," seeking in the eighteenth century the roots of Russia's current frustrated desire to "extricate herself from the communist past." Despite the terse references to primary sources and the absence of a comprehensive bibliography (apparently, an attempt to reduce publishing costs), the...