- The 18th-Century Nobility and the Search for a New Political Culture in Russia
Over the last decade following the dissolution of the Soviet system, the question of Russian national identity and political culture has once more moved to the center of public and scholarly attention. What is the specificity of Russia's national and political tradition, and how is it related to the nation's self-image? It is again a matter of acrimonious debate. In this debate neither prerevolutionary nor Soviet historiography offers much guidance, for both have always been partial – in both senses of incompleteness and ideological bias. In particular, a most formative period has been given short shrift, for it was seen through a glass darkly. I have in mind the transition from the period of empire building and creating a Europeanized modern Russian culture in the 18th century to one that, in mid-19th century, gave priority to the emancipation of the serfs and institutional reforms in preparation for industrialization. During this transition – i.e. grosso modo 1796–1848 – the previously unquestioned primacy of the service nobility began to be challenged, both by the cultivated elite in and out of government and by those elements of society that were providing the dynamic impetus to the [End Page 769] nation's cultural and economic transformation, or modernization. The transition involved a questioning of the 18th-century legacy – namely the form and manner of Petrine Europeanization – and a sense of disarray as to the nature of Russia's tradition and its future development. Little wonder, therefore, that the period stimulated critique of received opinions and discussions of basic assumptions and values.
To understand a period of transition one should first have a clear notion of what preceded it. The 18th century began in Russia with the well-nigh revolutionary transformation wrought by Peter the Great; throughout the remainder of the century the country – or more precisely its noble class – digested and assimilated the new ways and notions imported from Central and Western Europe. The assimilation was so successful that, by the end of Catherine II's reign, the noble elite was not only accepted by its Western counterparts on an equal footing, but it had "responded" with dynamic creativity, witness for example the emergence of modern Russian literature. It is now acknowledged, even in Russia, that the members of the service nobility were the almost exclusive dynamic force in this process within the framework of state service imposed by Peter the Great.1
We should, therefore, have as full a picture as possible of those service nobles and of how they fulfilled their functions of soldiers, courtiers, administrators, land and serf owners, as well as cultural and intellectual elite. Beyond this, we should endeavor to find out how they felt about themselves and how their attitudes and concerns may have undergone change in the course of the century. The process of the noble servicemen's cultural Europeanization was accompanied by significant changes in their self-image and national consciousness. Under the impact of Enlightenment notions we observe the growth of a stronger sense of individual identity – in contrast to the previously prevailing dominance of family status and group (clan) loyalties. Quite naturally, a stronger sense of one's own individual identity and worth made for a change in one's relationship to the monarch and his (or, for most of the century, her) rule. The well-nigh total submissiveness to the tsar's will and benevolence in the 17th century was gradually transformed into a personal relationship predicated on an individual's...