Somewhere between the hard lines of West and East lies Russia, a country that has long struggled to find its place in a maelstrom of conflicting cultures. Due to its proximity to Western Europe and the many wars and political scuffles that European nations have inflicted on its soil and its people, Russia has slowly and stubbornly followed the suit of Westernization.
Although the road to Westernization was never an easy path for Russia, one day, history will show that despite the stumbling blocks that occasionally tripped the nation, it has flourished in a way that no Western European country would have imagined. However, Russia did not quite fit the mold of the diligent follower in terms of Westernization, and instead carved its own path to Modernization, using Western Europe’s experiences as a rough suggestion, not a tablet of commandments. Russia can be considered a microcosm of Western Europe, especially with the Westernization of Russia under Peter the Great, the late wave of Industrialization, and the Revolution of 1905, all things that echoed of Western Europe’s own past.
The events that occurred in Russia under the reign of Peter the Great in the 18th century can be classified as either Westernization or Modernization. The two terms have developed identical meanings in relevance to Russia. Under Peter the Great, Russia developed a central capitol, named after none other than their leader, and began fully exploring the ideas of art and science, imitating the Renaissance values that had struck Western Europe almost two centuries before. The culmination of the Russian Modernization was the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera, an early museum that contained not only the heart of a bourgeois’ heart and stuffed body, but also the complete literary and scientific library of Peter the Great (Anemone, 2000). As Anemone states in his article, the Kunstkamera was intended to be a “library, museum, anatomical theater, scientific research center, and astronomical observatory in one state of the art institution.(586)”
The 18th Century was a full-blown attempt to catch up to the West, whom Russia saw as being far technologically advanced. Russia began taking giant steps in order to match up with the intellectual and militaristic gains that Western Europe had been making for centuries. In the course of one hundred years, Russia sped through the equivalent of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, and began working their way through the period of Industrialism, bringing them ever closer to their more advanced neighbors.
As the march of time continued to urge civilizations forward, Russia began to develop a clear working class. Of course, as that working class grew, so did frustrations with the social infrastructure and the conditions of the workplace. According to Suny (1982), while there are many debates as to when the “working class” actually became a concrete reality, says that “In time, as the multi-class crowd was forged into an urban working class, the food riot, so characteristic of pre-industrial protest, was replaced by the strike”(437). It is clear here that the violent reaction of the Russian working class is due to the changes that were occurring in society and affecting every aspect of the working man’s life. This is a situation that echoes the sentiments of the French and British working class during their own respective industrialization periods, where gin became the salve of the emotional and physical damage to the industrial workers. The formation of the working class in France and Britain was fraught with violence and alcoholism, and it is only logical to assume that the influx of violence in Russia during the 19th century was due to the formation of the working class and the issues that it brought to the country.
The beginning of the 20th century skyrocketed Russia into the realm of modern countries. With the Revolution of 1905 and the subsequent creation of the Dumas, Russia began a path towards a people-based political ideology. In January of 1905, several hundred working class citizens marched to the palace in an attempt to have their voices heard, and were brutally massacred by the Russian secret police. After that event, public pressure increased dramatically on Nicholas, and he promised the public a National Assembly. (Walsh, 1949; p.111) However, according to Walsh (1949), there were many problems with the first assembly. Elected members were drawn from a very small pool, and used only for consultation; they were given no real powers. This is very similar to the beginnings of Parliament. In the early stages of British democracy the only people who were allowed to vote for their elected officials or be elected, were white male landowners. In both Britain and Russia, the oppressed classes, the ones who were demanding the representatives in the first place, were the very ones who were denied any say in the selection of their representation.
The history of Russia during the last three centuries has been tumultuous to say the least. It’s been covered in hundreds of non-fiction books, magazine articles and journals. However, one creative approach to the history and issues that Russia has faced over the years is Ivan Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons. Throughout this text, Turgenev explores the ideas of class, revolution and dissatisfaction in context with Russian history. The beautiful thing about Father’s and Sons is that the observations of the characters can be transposed over nearly any event in recent Russian history. . For example in the scene where Bazarov, Sitnikov and Evdoksya are discussing the merits of the pretty women in town, Evdoksya questions the opinion that Bazarov holds concerning the idea that pretty women need not understand a conversation between men, and Bazarov haughtily replies, “I share no one’s ideas, I have my own” (Turgenev, 1996; p. 65). While this quote fills the text perfectly, it can also be put into the context of the Russian period of Enlightenment under Peter the Great. While the ruler clearly subscribed to the idea of benefiting from other’s research, Bazarov’s quote can be interpretively taken to be an encouragement of individualized thinking.
Another prime example of Turgenev’s ability to write interpretable text lies, in regards to the violence that signified the formation of the working class in the 19th century, according to Suny (1982), Bazarov would have the following to say, “Your sort, the nobility… you unconsciously admire yourselves and you enjoy finding fault with yourselves; but we’re fed up with all that–we want something else! We want to smash people!” (Turgenev, 1996; p. 60). Although Bazarov is speaking about Arkady’s betrayal to the cause in order to settle down with a woman, it can easily be seen as a reference to the violence that the working class indulged in as an outlet for their feelings of confusion and their disrupted lives. The final interpretation can be seen in the scene where Pavel, Arkady and Bazarov are talking about the power of force and it’s role in the world. Bazarov replies to Pavel’s insistence that his belief system and following shall be crushed by the majority by saying, “If we’re crushed, that’s in store for us, but it’s an open question. We’re not so few as you suppose. (Turgenev, 1996; p. 67). This lends a foreshadowing to the massacre in January of 1905, and the subsequent revolution and the formation of the Dumas.
In conclusion, with the works of Turgenev fresh at hand, it is easy to see how Russian history can be manipulated to suit one’s purposes. However, with the examples listed; the Kunstkamera, the formation of the working class, and the introduction of the Dumas, it is obvious that Russia is indeed following in the footsteps of its Western big brother. Perhaps Russia cannot simply be classified as a microcosm, but rather must be referred to as a microcosm in fast forward, making many mistakes in a short amount of time, but also achieving greater success than Western civilization could have ever gained in such a small period.
Anemone, A. (2000). The monsters of Peter the Great: The culture of the St. Petersburg
Kunstkamera in the Eighteenth century. The Slavic and East European Journal, 44 ( 4), pp.583-602.
Suny, R. (1982). Violence and class consciousness in the Russian working class. Slavic Review,
41 ( 3), pp.436-442. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from JSTOR database.
Turgenev, I.(1996). Fathers and Sons. Hartfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.
Walsh, W. (1949). The composition of the Dumas. Russian Review, 8 ( 2), pp.111-116.