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Russia’s Role in European Society

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Long before the Cold War divided Europe and pitted communist dictatorship against capitalist democracy, Russia occupied a precarious position in European society. The suspicions and recriminations that characterize present-day relations between Europe (including the Anglo-American world) and Russia have a long history that scholars do not fully understand.

Following the final military defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Russia played a key role in peacemaking and the reconstruction of Europe. As a Christian culture with ties to Greek antiquity, Russia belonged to European society and the European political system. From at least the late seventeenth century, Russia participated fully in the progress of European letters, arts, and sciences.

Generations of historians have recognized Russia’s European identity during the Napoleonic Wars and the peacemaking that followed. Historians also have highlighted Russia’s developmental and political divergence from liberal democratic Europe starting in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day. Given this trajectory, it is important to focus attention on the intersection of Russian political culture and the European state system during the years following the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). What were the priorities, characteristics, dynamics, and achievements of Russian foreign policy that made integration into European society and the international order so meaningful?

Historians also have highlighted Russia’s developmental and political divergence from liberal democratic Europe starting in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day.

It is clear from Russian sources devoted to war and peace in the first quarter of the nineteenth century that Emperor Alexander I (ruled 1801-25) and his associates believed in the reality of a European political system and viewed Russia as a full-fledged member of that system. So how and why did Russia end up on the intellectual and psychological periphery of European society and politics? Is this something that happened later in the nineteenth century, perhaps because of Slavophilism (a Russian form of romantic nationalism), conservative retrenchment in the Russian Orthodox Church, Eurasianist political thought, or economic development? Or is it simply a conceptual or ideological product of the Bolshevik Revolution and Cold War?

Many unanswered questions remain, and many more will arise, as historians working in the relatively free conditions of post-Soviet Russia rewrite their country’s history. At this juncture, study of Alexander I’s European diplomacy illuminates a critical dynamic in the political culture of the nineteenth-century Russian empire.

From the perspective of the Russian monarchy and loyal service classes, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had little impact on fundamental religious and political institutions. Notwithstanding the devastation and trauma caused by Napoleon’s 1812 invasion and the subsequent wars of liberation, the Romanov tsardom and Russian Orthodox Church emerged from the period of crisis as strong and legitimate as ever.

Not only did Napoleon’s invasion fail to unleash popular revolt or widespread support for political change, Russia’s conscript army of legally “emancipated” serfs and state peasants, a creation of reforms initiated by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, prevailed over France’s dynamic citizen army. The strength and stability of Russia’s institutions during a quarter century of revolution and war reinforced, and justified, longstanding practices of enlightened reform.

Combined with uneven censorship and severe punishment of rebellion, moderate reformism carried Russia into the modern world.

Combined with uneven censorship and severe punishment of rebellion, moderate reformism carried Russia into the modern world. Not until 1905, more than a century after the French Revolution, did Russia’s old regime face a revolutionary onslaught that forced the monarchy and government to begin systemic change.

*Featured photo by Markus Winkler.


Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter is Emeritus Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. She is author of From Victory to Peace, Religion and Enlightenment in Catherinian Russia, Russia’s Age of Serfdom 1649-1861, The Play of Ideas in Russian Enlightenment Theater, Social Identity in Imperial Russia, Structures of Society, and From Serf to Russian Soldier.

This book was published under Cornell University Press’s NIU Press imprint. Find out more.

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