- Change and Culture in Early Modern Russia
Russian historians and publicists have written Russian history since the 1840s as an explicit or implicit comparison with Western Europe. Most of them saw Russia as an imperfect Europe and generally lamented that fact. Some saw it as absolutely unique, and most of that camp thought that this was a good thing. A still smaller minority saw Russia as essentially or largely Asian, a fact to be celebrated. To be sure, the Asianists (Eurasianists) were never perfectly clear about what Asia they saw Russia as a part of, but most of them opted for some variant of the Mongol empire or the steppe world generally. The Near East was not a popular option, nor was China outside the Mongol context. We could say that the Asia of the Eurasianists was a myth, a creation in their heads that bore little relationship to any actual Asia, but that would also be true of most of the Westernizers as well. The Europe that Russia failed to fully imitate was a textbook Europe at best, often simply a polemical construction.
Taking a larger view and trying to place Russia in a more sophisticated European context or a wider Eurasian context, anchoring it in the reality of those places is necessarily complicated. The most successful attempts in recent years have focused on empire, the result in part of more sophisticated conceptions of empire that have evolved in Russian, Chinese, Habsburg, and Ottoman historiography. Seeing Russia and its former neighbors as empires no longer means imposing a vision of bureaucratic centralization or modern “nationality” issues on a premodern world. The imperial approach has been useful but does not exhaust the possibilities of new ideas.
The following is an attempt to introduce some new issues into the study of early modern Russia. It is not intended as a complete new framework for Russian history, and certainly not as a new academic ideology to be imposed on the past. The aim is more modest. First, it is to register the existence of trends and structures that can be traced on the basis of existing knowledge but have escaped the notice of historians. Second, the aim is to suggest possibilities of new interpretations that also arise from existing factual knowledge but [End Page 291] require much more research to be confirmed or rejected. In all cases, these suggestions come from empirical knowledge, however imperfect, not from theoretical presuppositions.
Two of these phenomena, interrelated but otherwise rather distinct, are the speed of change in general and the role of cultural change in particular in Russia in the early modern era. In the literature, cultural change in this period comes down to the impact of the reign of Peter the Great (1689–1725). Historians have normally labeled this change as “Westernization” or “Europeanization,” and by this term they mean the wholesale importation of the social customs and culture (high and some popular) of post-Renaissance Western Europe into a society that hitherto lived exclusively within the mental boundaries of Eastern Orthodoxy. Armies of historians, art historians, literary scholars, and others have traced the outlines and many details of this process for the last 150 years, but most reflection on its significance quickly ends up in banalities or (even worse) in cultural and political polemics that are about modern problems, not about the early 18th century. The questions that still need to be answered are: why did the importation of culture and customs occur, and what difference did it make to Russia as an early modern society and state?
If cultural change has attracted a great deal of writing, there do not seem to be any historians who have reflected on, or even noticed, the unusual speed of change in Russia—its society, economy, and state—in the whole period from 1500 to 1800. Scholars have pondered the institutional continuities, or lack thereof, for the whole early modern era, but not change.1 Take only the example of demography. By European standards, Russia’s demographic evolution was highly unusual. France, Europe’s most populous country in the early modern era, had about 20 million people in 1550 or so and did...