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2 People’s Theater and Cultural Politics The concept of a theater that would serve as an instrument of popular enlightenment first attracted widespread attention in the 1860s, a decade of unprecedented social and political change in Russia.Alexander II (1855–81), who ascended the throne in the midst of Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Crimean War, soon embarked on a series of “Great Reforms” that fundamentally transformed Russian society. To mobilize public support behind his reform initiatives,Alexander introduced a policy of glasnost’, encouraging , within limits, more open discussion of social and political issues in the press and unleashing a flood of public interest in improving almost every aspect of Russian life. The keystone of the reform program was the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, which liberated millions of peasants from serfdom and paved the way for further reforms. A new system of local government was set up beginning in 1864, creating first rural zemstvos and then urban dumas, whose elected representatives were given authority to attend to various local needs, including education, roads, and medical services. Legal reforms, introduced in 1864, separated the judiciary from the executive and established the principle that all Russian citizens, regardless of social rank, were equal under the law. Alexander made a partial retreat from his early reformist ambitions in the wake of the 1863 Polish Revolt and an attempt by a student to assassinate him in 1866, but the reforms begun were carried through. In 1874 the reform era came to an end with the last of the Great Reforms, when the Russian military introduced universal eligibility for conscription irrespective of social status.1 Alexander’s reforms failed to satisfy the high expectations glasnost’ had aroused. The peasants received only about half of the land they tilled and were saddled with redemption payments to the government. The authority 39 of local government institutions was carefully circumscribed to prevent them from becoming a voice in national politics, which remained the exclusive prerogative of the tsar and imperial bureaucracy. By the end of the 1860s rough political positions had crystallized around different attitudes toward the reform legacy and the desirability of further reform. Conservatives felt that the reforms had gone far enough or even too far, liberals wanted to push the government further in the direction of constitutionalism , while radicals wanted to abolish the autocracy altogether and introduce some form of popular democracy. In the absence of national representative institutions and with the press constrained by censorship, cultural and educational issues became substitute political battlefields. Liberals and radicals called for initiatives to serve the people by raising their cultural and educational level and saw realistic art and literature dealing with social questions as a force for progress. Conservatives, on the defensive, rejected attempts to enlighten the people and criticized the subversive tendencies of artistic and literary realism. The emancipation of the peasantry and the other reforms put the spotlight on the issue of popular education, which had received scant attention under previous tsars. Peter the Great, while making education a key element of his Westernizing reforms, had focused on training people to serve the state rather than educating the general population. Catherine the Great toyed with the idea of making some education compulsory for the entire male population, but the Pugachev uprising dampened her enthusiasm for popular education, and her educational reforms were largely directed at the upper classes. During the reigns of Alexander I (1801–25) and Nicholas I (1825–55) there was talk of creating parish schools and offering basic education to the common people, yet these discussions were not translated into concrete measures. So long as the overwhelming majority of the common people remained enserfed and under the direct authority of landowners, the issue of popular education remained on the back burner. In 1864, however, having freed the peasants and transformed them from serfs into citizens, Alexander II’s government enacted a new Education Statute, which made various state and local institutions responsible for ensuring that the common people had access to primary schooling.2 The cause of popular enlightenment was taken up with enthusiasm by educated Russian society. The glasnost’ of Alexander II’s early reign, together with the establishment of elected local government institutions, aroused society’s hopes that it would be permitted to take a more active role in public affairs and sparked interest in the establishment of grammar schools, evening courses, libraries, theaters, and other measures designed to 40 / People’s Theater and Cultural Politics improve the...


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