The Westernization of Russia and the Intelligentsia

By Loon Goo

The Life and Legacy of Catherine the Great

By Corey Lichtman

Catherine the Great: Imperial Expansion

by Joanna Lozinska


The Westernization of Russia and the Intelligentsia
By Loon Goo


Profound changes took place during the 17th century in Russia that resulted in religious, cultural, political, and socioeconomic disarray. Efforts at reforming the church structure and modernizing the ritual resulted in the church turning into a closed estate, losing much of its moral authority, autonomy, and spiritual and cultural influence. (Columbia) The cultural gap between the elite and the people was deepened by numerous conflicts. Urban strife at times threatened the stability of the regime. With increasing trade contact with the English and the Dutch, foreigners came to Russia, and diplomatic exchanges grew more frequent as Russia became more involved in European military and diplomatic events. With the importation of Western technological innovations for military purposes, the incorporation of eastern Ukraine, foreign fashions and cultural goods came into Russia, and she inevitably experienced her first taste of Westernization, which led to changes of Muscovite tastes in architecture, church music and poetry. (Grolier) The way was paved for the forceful Europeanization that followed under the rule of Peter I.


Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, was the tsar of Russia (r.1682-1725) and the first Russian emperor (from 1721). He was an unusually powerful and prepossessing ruler: his struggle with Sweden in the Great Northern War, wars with Ottoman Turkey and Persia, and his acquisition of the Baltic province of Livonia, including Estonia and most of Latvia, drastically changed Russia's international position and marked a direct relationship with Western Europe. (Putnam) These territorial gains forced Peter to transform the institutional framework of the state and restructure the society. It was his military achievements and westernizing reforms of the Russian government, army, and society that laid the foundation of the modern Russian state. (Grolier) Two important social phenomena arose.


One of the consequences was a great negative effect on the peasants, who became the most downtrodden and oppressed group of society. Under Peter's rule, the peasantry became subjected to compulsory labor (as in the building of the new capital, Saint Petersburgh, which began in 1703), and to military service, and every individual adult male peasant was assessed with a head, or poll, tax. By these measures, the state severed the last legal ties of the peasants to the land and transformed them into peasant serfs, virtually objects, who could be moved and sold at will. (Presniakov, Grolier) The process by which the traditional peasant bondsman (attached to the land) was changed into a serf (attached to an owner) was completed, and the huge rural masses became, in effect, merely human chattel. This development not only meant economic, legal, and physical degradation of the large majority of the Russian people, but it also carried in its wake serious spiritual consequences. The peasant was threatened with becoming dehumanized and transformed into an object. The pattern of communal relationships in the family or village was undermined and threatened with extinction. The peasant found himself cast adrift, isolated, at the mercy of landlords and government institutions whose motives he could not understand, whose behavior he feared, and whose language he had ceased to speak. His alienation from the prevailing institutional pattern and from the culture of the upper classes was complete. (Brower)


At the other end of the social scale, the nobility and state servants (that is, the educated), were forced into compulsory, lifelong service to the state. Their status depended on ranks earned in military or administrative office. (Kemp)
In order to mold the educated into service for the state, Peter also introduced a system of compulsory secular, Westernized schooling for the noblemen, and so they were forced into an education focused on the acquisition of the knowledge and culture of contemporary western Europe. (Grolier) The establishment of new educational institutions, such as the Academy of Sciences in 1725, the University of Moscow in 1755, and military and private schools, sped up the process. (Grolier) By the mid-18th century, therefore, the educated Russian was inculcated with a set of values very different from those of his forbears. This cultural westernization of the Russian elites, which eventually gave rise to the intelligentsia, was a very important process that shaped 18th-century Russia.


A new kind of educated man emerged, one who was proud of his achievement in acquiring a western culture, and conscious of his dignity as an enlightened individual. Increased sophistication heightened his yearnings for free expression and implementation of enlightened Western moral and social values, and he became resentful of the controls over his life and thoughts to which a narrow-minded bureaucracy and rigid autocracy subjected him. (Grolier) This led to a conflict between state control and educated society's demand for creative freedom. At the same time, this enlightened and sensitive individual was becoming increasingly conscious of his being cut off from the ways and thought of the common people, whose culture had not shared the westernization that Peter imposed on the upper classes. This awareness, along with his newly acquired western ideals of humanity and social justice, made him want to be useful to his fellow men and to help them overcome what he regarded as being their cultural alienation. (Brower) Therefore, the more progressive and enlightened members of the upper class set themselves off from their serf-owning brethren and formed a separate social group which soon became virtually a class of its own: the Russian Intelligentsia.


A modern national literature was created along Western lines, and scientific research and discoveries began. In the forefront of the creation of modern Russian civilization, the intelligentsia found its highest expression in the literature of the 1820s and 1830s and set the tone and ideals for all educated Russians in the reign of Nicholas I and thereafter. (Pares) It was during his reign when the golden age of Russian literature came to being, with the works of Nikolai Gogol, Aleksandr Pushkin, and other prominent writers. (Grolier) Discussion circles sprang up in Moscow and Saint Petersburgh in which the intelligentsia debated Russia's identity, its historical path and role, and its relationship to western Europe. (Brower) As such, it completely cut itself off from the establishment and broke with the state and the existing social system. Unable to find a meaningful active role in Russian society, persecuted by the government and constricted by censorship (Pares), the members of the intelligentsia were finally driven into revolutionary action.


On the other hand, deep hatred and helpless anger were accumulating in the minds of the peasants. Contained as long as the nobles interfered little in the peasant routine, they threatened explosion at the least provocation. There was an increasing number of revolts directed at the nobility rather than the state, the most serious of all being the war led by E. Pugachev in the region of the middle Volga and the Urals in 1773 to 1775. (Pares) The incidence of peasant unrest grew more and more violent, and it reached an almost endemic character in the first half of the nineteenth century. The savagery of the peasants' upsurge sowed panic and deep fear in the ranks of the nobility and of the government, who had not forgotten the bloody suppression of Pugachev's revolt. Among the more enlightened members of the educated classes, particularly the intelligentsia, the uprisings aroused compassion and indignation at the condition of the peasantry. It had become obvious that serfdom as it existed, in destroying the humanity of the peasant, threatened the moral integrity of the elite as well. (Pares) This was exemplified in Aleksandr Radishchev's landmark book in 1790, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow. (Pares, 273)


The development of this situation helped explain why public life in nineteenth-century Russia was dominated, first by members of the gentry, and then by the intelligentsia that sprang from it. (Pares) The aristocratic and clerical origins of the intelligentsia left a decisive imprint upon its ideas --- and it was these ideas, rather than any precise occupational function, that served to distinguish the intelligentsia from other social groups. (Kemp) It comprised those who, having received a modern education, felt alienated from the existing political and social order. They might earn their living as professional men, zemstvo employees, or even civil servants and landowners; indeed, the figure of the "repentant nobleman" stands at the cradle of Russian intellectual history. (Pares)


The ideologies propounded by the Russian intelligentsia tended to be socially radical, democratic, and cosmopolitan, although they might have a concealed elitist, authoritarian, or nationalist streak. (Presniakov) These theories, derived from the advanced thought of contemporary Europe, often bore little relevance to the immediate problems confronting Russian society, but this seldom detracted from their appeal. Intellectuals were acknowledged to be their mentors by nearly all educated Russians, that is, by everyone not closely identified with the autocratic regime. (Pares) Their leadership was in normal times implicit, but in periods of crisis (1877-81, 1902-7), it became overt and decisive. (Pares)


Russian socialism was therefore a product of the intelligentsia --- for the most part idealistic men and women who were profoundly shocked by the backward, impoverished state of the Russian people and believed that radical improvements could come about only by violent revolution. (Pares) It was characteristic that they should hate oppression and love equality and liberty, and so their striving for the total regeneration of society came to be regarded as a hallmark of Russian radicalism. (Pares) They were contemptuous of "bourgeois liberalism" and the values it was believed to embody (formalism, legalism, gradualism), thus they took a moralistic approach to politics. (Brower) This led to acts of great courage and heroic self-sacrifice, but also to dogmatism, self-righteousness, intolerance of criticism, and the subordination of all ideas and actions to the single test of their political expediency. (Brower) This attitude was the seedbed of modern totalitarianism. (Brower)


These less attractive features of the radical intellectuals were aggravated by the difficulties that confronted those who sought to struggle actively against the autocratic regime. Obliged to operate underground, they had to adopt the methods and outlook of conspirators. (Pares) They were subject to immense psychological strain: extravagant hopes mingled with deep uncertainties; they were the vanguard of the narod (people), yet were denied the means to test or demonstrate their claims. (Brower, Pares) In normal times authority seemed omnipotent and all-pervasive; it was extremely difficult to maintain a clandestine organization, let alone spread subversive ideas among the population at large. Only when the state's power was weakened, by external wars and internal dissension, did opportunities arise to win mass support. (Pares)
Radical circles appeared among students in Moscow and Khar'kov as early as 1855-6, but they first became significant in 1861 (ending of Alexander II's reign), the year the serfs were set free, when the defects of the peasant reform aroused widespread indignation. (Pares, 366) The modern Russian Intelligentsia surfaced at this time. Protest leaflets were distributed and disturbances broke out at several universities. N.A. Serno-Solov'yevich founded an organization that claimed to embrace adherents in several cities, but it was soon broken up by the police (July 1862). (Pares) The suppression of the leading radical journal, Sovremennik ("The Contemporary"), whose widely respected editor, N.G.Chernyshevsky, was exiled to Siberia, temporarily caused the movement to lose its way. Some members, among them the student D.V.Karakozov (who in April 1866 made a vain attempt on the tsar's life), took to individual terrorism (Pares, 367); others were attracted to the utilitarian doctrines of D.I.Pisarev's nihilism (Pares, 366); many more succumbed to the appeal of the revolutionary anarchism taught by M.A.Bakunin. (Pares)


Another voice was that of P.L.Lavrov, who took a more ethical stand. (Pares) His followers began to form discussion circles that soon attempted to spread the socialist gospel more widely. In 1874-5 some two thousand young radicals "went to the people", but with disappointing results: they found the peasants largely indifferent to their message, and several hundred propagandists were arrested. (Pares, Brower) The narodniki (Populists), as they came to be called, learned their lesson and adopted more sophisticated tactics, setting up small groups of resident agents and founding a new potentially national organization in 1876, which took the name Zemlya i Volya ("Land and Liberty"). Its leaders, notably A.D.Mikhailov, were skilled conspirators and insisted on the need for discipline, but they soon quarreled over questions of tactics. The more experienced and reflective Populists emphasized the need for steady propaganda work (particularly among factory workers, who were more responsive to socialist teaching), and for collaboration with liberal "society" for constitutional ends. (Pares) The zealots, however, wanted to bring about immediate reforms, and even revolution, by terrorist methods. In 1879, this group prevailed and set up a new clandestine organization, Narodnaya Volya ("The People's Will"), which concentrated its energies on attempts to assassinate prominent officials, and ultimately the tsar himself. (Presniakov, Pares) Its dramatic coup of March 1st, 1881, was a technical success but neither ensued in a constitution nor a revolution, and the surviving terrorists, lacking any significant popular support, were easily mopped up by Alexander III's police. (Pares)


During the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II, new political activity contributed to another upsurge of artistic and intellectual creativity that led to Russia's Silver Age. (Grolier) This marked Russia's coming of age as a contributing participant in Western culture. The high level of professionalization attained by its scholars, artists, and scientists, the take-off in science and scholarship in the universities and in the Academy of Sciences, the recognition of prominent Russian scientists such as N.I. Lobachevsky, occurred in this era. (Grolier) It was universally recognized that the intelligentsia had contributed significantly to chemistry, aeronautics, linguistics, history, archaeology, and statistics. (Grolier) The arts flourished, bringing to stage composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and painter Wassily Kandinsky, who influenced and contributed to the emergence of avant-garde modernism and abstract art. (Grolier) This feverish intellectual creativity, set against a background of social unrest, industrial discontentment, and revolutionary agitation, was a sign that the imperial regime was coming to an end.


Before the First World War the intelligentsia's dominance began to wane, and they were discriminated against in the early days of the revolution and during the Stalinist period. However, during later communism, they were worshipped --- it was partly because of the intelligentsia, in the form of people like Shcharansky, Sakharov (Nobel laureate), Solzhenitsyn (Nobel laureate), and Pasternak (Nobel laureate), that paved the way for the free thought that finally toppled communism.


  • Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1926, third edition revised.
  • Kemp, W.A. Stalin and the Literary Intelligentsia. Saint Martin, 1991.
  • Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, copyright 1994.
  • The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Interactive Inc, copyright.
  • Putnam, Peter B. Peter, the Revolutionary Tsar. Copyright 1973.
  • Presniakov, A.E. The Formation of the Great Russian State. Translated by Moorhouse, A.E., reprint of 1970 edition.
  • Brower, D.R. The Problem of the Russian Intelligentsia. Copyright 1967.





The Life and Legacy of Catherine the Great

By Corey Lichtman

Even though Russian Empress Catherine the Great was a German native and ascended to the throne via a coup d'état (her husband was the heir to the throne), she was a fairly successful ruler who deeply influenced Russian culture and society.
She was born into the family of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst on April 26, 1796 in Stettin (now part of Poland) and christened Sophia Augusta Frederica (Levykin). Although little is known about her childhood, for she later wrote several different versions of her youth, her governess noticed her independent young mind, her aspiration to be the center of attention, her ability to hide feelings, and her desire to inspire others (Alexander 21).
Princess Sophia married Grand Duke Peter on August 21, 1745. She was chosen to be his wife by his aunt, Empress Elizabeth I of Russia. Princess Sophia arrive in Russia with her mother on February 9, 1744 to meet her future husband and family. At this point, Princess Sophia started an intensive education of Russian and Orthodoxy. She repudiated the Lutheranism for Russian Orthodoxy and was re-christened Yekaterina Catherine (Atchison). She also studied philosophy and history; one of Catherine's main influences was Voltaire (Levykin).
Catherine and Peter had an unhappy 17-year marriage. She endured threats of divorce and public humiliation (Czap 17). Peter was "sickly, mean-spirited, and ill-equipped mentally or physically to rule a vast empire like Russia" (Atchison). They had one son, Paul, but it is now argued that his biological father was not Peter, but an officer, Serge Saltykov (Atchison).
When Empress Elizabeth died on December 25, 1761, Grand Duke Peter inherited the throne as Peter III. A despised ruler, he showed contempt for all things Russian and a love for all things Prussian. He tried to use the Prussian army as a model for the Russian army, which he sent fight Denmark as a favor for the duchy of Holstein. Meanwhile, Catherine showed sympathy for the Russian subjects. Perhaps it was because of Catherine's sympathy and Peter's evil that caused the Imperial Guard to help her overthrow him on June 28, 1762. She formally took the throne on September 22, 1762 (Czap 17, Atchison).
Catherine the Great's reign was a blend of increasing autocratic political reform, ambitious foreign policy manoeuvres, and an enriching cultivation of the arts. Although she did not use violence to strengthen her power over the Russian empire, she chose a more a "patient path" (Atchison). For instance, she weakened the influence of the Church by seizing its wealth and turning its clergy into state employees (Atchison). Also, she did not carry out her claim as a ruler influenced by the French philosophers of the Enlightenment and the Roman thinkers of the ancient times. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, her enlightenment philosophies were "little more than rhetorical flourishes when the time came to implement progressive programs or abolish the worst social abuses in the realm" (Czap 17). Moreover, reforms were introduced in 1775 and in 1785 to accelerate the move to self-government for the urbanites, but in reality, they did not raise government standards. Finally, a Charter of the Nobility of April 1785 was created, which gave noblemen more power over serfs (Czap 18).
Another aspect of Catherine the Great's reign was an ambitious foreign policy. During her rule, there were two wars against Turkey, which ended with the annexation of Crimea, parts of Caucasus, and territories between the Dniester and Bug rivers (Czap 18). Also. the empire was extended to the Black Sea (Levykin).
Finally, part of Catherine the Great's reign included a cultivation of the arts. She built monuments all over the empire, patronized music, education , and the arts, and spent millions of rubles on the Hermitage art collection (Atchison). Indeed, Catherine, herself, corresponded with leading philosophers and politicians and wrote plays, fables, satires, and a a memoir (Czap 17-18).
Catherine the Great died on November 6, 1796. She lead a full life, as exemplified above. It is interesting to note, after examining her life, that early childhood qualities emerged when she ruled Russia. Even though her policies and actions are seen as a mix of giving and selfishness, she was able to successfully influence and shape Russia, especially through culture and territorial expansion.
  • Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Atchison, Bob. "Catehrine the Great." Web page: www.pallasweb.com., 1997.
  • Czap Jr., Peter. "Catherine II." Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury: Grolier Inc., 1991, p. 17-18.
  • Levykin, Alexei K. "Catherine the Great, 1729-1796; Empress of All Russia, 1762-1796." Web page: www.sptimes.com., 1995.


Catherine the Great: Imperial Expansion

by Joanna Lozinska


Catherine II’s reign was notable not only for her domestic reforms, pertaining to class structure and education, but mainly imperial expansion and internal consolidation.  The Russian Empire which she ruled from 1762 until her death in 1796 acquired vast territories in the south and west of  the main Russian state.  Because of her strong interest in the foreign policy, Catherine took an active role in shaping Russian diplomacy.  “I want to do the governing myself, and let Europe know this!”, she proclaimed once[1].  Indeed, from the very early age Catherine had been involved in major politics through court intrigue, and she had a good deal of experience in diplomatic affairs.  Subsequently, she developed her considerable diplomatic capabilities to perfection. 

Those undeniable diplomatic skills secured Russia’s position in late eighteenth century.  The Empire had a greater control of its southern border by the acquisition of the northern shore of the Black Sea and by eliminating the troublesome neighbors in the southwest and west.  For instance, a war that broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1768 was settled by the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji in 1774.  Because of Catherine’s persuasive tactics, the Empire gained an outlet to the Black Sea, and the Crimean Tatars, longtime enemies of the Russian Empire, were made independent of the Ottomans, which weakened their military position.  In 1783, Catherine annexed Crimea, helping to spark another war with the Ottoman Empire in 1787.  By the Treaty of Jassey in 1792, Russia acquired territory south of the Dnestr River[2].  Although the terms of the treaty fell short of the goals of Catherine’s project to expel the Ottomans from Europe, her desire to significantly reduce the Ottoman Empire came true.  In addition to decreasing the size of the Turkish Empire, the Turks were forced to tolerate an increasing Russian influence in the Balkans. 
Undoubtedly, Catherine seized many opportunities throughout her reign to expand the Empire.  She found another one to expand to the west, which became possible as a result of partitioning of Poland.  As Poland became increasingly weak in the eighteenth century, each of its neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, tried to place its own candidate on the Polish throne.  In 1772, the three agreed to the first partition, by which Catherine was now ruling over some parts of Belorussia and Livonia.  In 1793, Russia participated in the second partition of Poland, gaining most of Belorussia and Ukraine west of the Dnepr River.  Two years later, the third partition advanced Russia the rest of Belorussia.  Strategically, Polish territories were vital to Russia.  It commanded the flat, open approaches from the west, across which European powers over the centuries repeatedly invaded Russia.  Applying the logic of power diplomacy, Catherine managed to put Poland under its thumb, something that had to be done in order to prevent further enemy attacks[3]. 
Although the partitioning of Poland and other conquests greatly added to Russia’s territory and prestige, it also created new internal difficulties.  Russia, having lost Poland as a buffer, had to share borders with both Prussia and Austria.  In addition, the Empire became more ethnically heterogeneous as it absorbed large numbers of Poles (26%), Ukrainians and  Belorussians (40%), Lithuanians (20%), and the Jews (10%).  Among them 38% were Catholics, 40% Uniate, 10% of the Jewish faith and 6.5% Orthodox[4].  More fateful was the fact that the Poles and the Jews, she had taken in, would be a source of bitterness and conflict for the Russian rule.  She could not, at first, satisfy the Ukrainians and the Belorussians who grew more frustrated with her lack of policy to improve their status as serfs.   Catherine persuaded laws and decrees that would develop the economic resources and potential of the Empire, helping to bring into play all the economically creative forces of the population.  However, she believed that this had to be done without touching at the foundation of Russian society.   In fact, Catherine’s goal was to give full security to the private property of nobility, including the right to exploit at will whatever was to be found on their estates, which meant more labor for the serfs[5].
In many respects, Catherine brought the policies of her predecessor, Peter the Great, to fruition and set the foundation for the nineteenth century Empire.  Russia became a power capable of competing with its European neighbors on military, political, and diplomatic grounds.  The organization of society and the government system, however, remained basically unchanged until almost the end of Catherine’s rule.
Despite such accomplishments, I think that the Empire built by Catherine II, and Peter the Great before her, was beset with some fundamental problems, which set the stage for future nationalities problem, and ultimately caused the complete division of the Russian Empire into many republics in the twentieth century.  It appears that Catherine tried to create a supra-national elite with a strongly military ethos to integrate and rule the various subordinate peoples.  At some point, a small Europeanized elite, alienated from the mass of ordinary Russians who were mostly serfs, raised questions about the very essence of Russia’s history, culture, and identity.  Because the survival of the Empire and the maintenance of its territorial integrity were the paramount priorities of Catherine’s, she neglected to foresee increasing religious and national conflicts[6].  Although in retrospect, during Catherine’s reign, Russian became one of the most powerful Empires of the eighteenth century, it is also evident that Russian national identity tented to be subsumed in that of the Empire, whose values were in principle multi-national.  That seemed to work well enough until the other great powers of that time, Russia’s bitter rivals, started to become nation-states.


1.  Hasking, Geoffrey, “Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917”. (Harvard Univeristy Press: Cambridge, 1997)

2.  Raeff, Marc, “Catherine the Great: A Profile”. (Hill & Wang: New York, 1972)

3.  Wandycz, Piotr S.  The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe From the Middle Ages to the Present”.  (Routledge: London, 1992)

4.  Web page: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sutoc.html

[1]Raeff, Marc.  Catherine the Great: A Profile. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) p. 182.

[2]Web page: http://www.lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sutoc.html

[3]Wandycz, Piort S.  The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe From the Middle Ages to the Present. (Routledge: London, 1992) pp. 78-81

[4]Raeff, 181-182

[5]Hasking, Geoffrey, Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1997) pp. 315-317

[6]Raeff, 197-198


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