From the Womb to the Body Politic: Raising the Nation in Enlightenment Russia by Anna Kuxhausen (review)
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Reviewed by
Anna Kuxhausen. From the Womb to the Body Politic: Raising the Nation in Enlightenment Russia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. xiii + 228 pp. Ill. $29.95 (978-0-299-28994-2).

Although much has been written about Catherine II’s project to transform the Russian Empire in keeping with the principles of the Enlightenment, the role of vospitanie (upbringing) in reforming Russian society has drawn less attention. Vospitanie—a term that embraces both physical and moral upbringing—was central to Catherine’s vision of a new Russia: as Anna Kuxhausen observes, the goal of Catherine’s reforms “was nothing less than to raise a ‘new breed’ of Russians” (p. 12). Kuxhausen’s contribution to this literature is to focus on how Catherine and her fellow “Enlighteners” conceived of a proper upbringing from conception through young adulthood, culminating in the creation of “ideal” citizens of both sexes who would “serve the autocracy through industriousness,” honesty, and virtue (p. 40).

The protagonists of Kuxhausen’s work include both the self-proclaimed “Enlighteners” of the era, such as Nikolai Novikov, Ekaterina Dashkova, and [End Page 346] Alexander Radishchev, as well as lesser-known physicians, most of whom had studied abroad. In contrast to their European counterparts, the impulse behind the Enlighteners’ “civilizing project” was virtually inseparable from the goals of the autocracy: as servitors of the state, they, like the Empress, sought to create “a healthy and strong body politic” (p. 92). Inevitably, these reformers relied heavily on the work of European thinkers to lay the groundwork for their agenda; at the same time, they adapted the ideas they borrowed to suit the perceived shortcomings of their native land. Through the cultivation of scientific methods in midwifery, the promotion of breast-feeding among mothers, and increased attention to the physical health of young children, Russian society could overcome its “backwardness” without violating Russian tradition. As was the case in Western Europe, the application of these Enlightenment principles required a shift in the role of women: mothers were not to be excluded from the process of child-rearing, rather they were to be instructed and supervised by male professionals.

Two themes in particular unite the chapters of Kuxhausen’s work: the significance of instilling “Russianness” in the multiethnic empire’s young charges, and the reinvention of masculinity and femininity in an era that witnessed a reevaluation of Russia’s place in Europe and the role of foreign influence in undermining national identity. The influx of French émigrés, many of whom became tutors and governesses in noble families, led to widespread concern about moral decay among Russian youth. The result was a renewed emphasis on the role of Orthodoxy spirituality and moral instruction as an antidote to the “demasculanizing” effects of French upbringing. In contrast to the traditional view of Russian historians that Orthodoxy was pitted against a competing secular, Enlightenment version of education, Kuxhausen argues that reformers instead advocated instruction that unified Orthodox values with “an Enlightenment notion of human nature as moldable and influenced primarily by environment” (p. 101).

The upbringing of girls occupies a central place in Kuxhausen’s book; indeed, the most original chapter of her book is devoted to Catherine’s Society for the Upbringing of Well-Born Maidens, or Smolny Institute, which she founded in 1784. On the basis of thorough archival research, Kuxhausen traces the education of the smolianki from age five, when their parents relinquished all claims to their daughters until the completion of their education, through their emergence from the Institute over a decade later. Kuxhausen examines the curriculum of the school (an abbreviated form of the education offered to boys at the Corps of Cadets), the social and ethnic composition of the students, and the subsequent fate of a number of Smolny graduates. Here she concludes that Smolny offered “a respite from patriarchy” (p. 135) for some of its graduates, who received pensions when they left, went on to hold positions at court, and had the chance to remain at the institute for up to three years after graduation. Significantly, Kuxhausen argues that the “content and style of education” of Catherine’s institute differed dramatically from that of...