Russia has always played a major roll in global politics, economics and thought. However, in the past two centuries, Russia has had probably the greatest influence on the international world in modern times, surpassed only by the United States. The Russia that we’ve known this century though, has its roots in last centuries Russian. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russia experienced great changes internally, politically, socially and spiritually. The half century leading up to the Communist revolution in 1917 was a time filled with sweeping changes, literary triumphs and military defeat. All of these factors played in the eventual revolution and not only affected politics and thought in Russia, but in every nation on earth.
After the defeat of the Russian army in the Crimean War, Russian realized that it needed to modernize its country, socially and militarily. Alexander II realized that to modernize mean that Russia needed to westernize. So in 1861 he emancipated the serfs from bondage. The emancipation was mean to bridge the gap between the elite and the general population, but was not the first of such liberal western type reforms. Catherine and Peter the Great had also made western type reforms during their respective reigns. All of their reforms, and especially Alexander’s, were influenced by western thought. These thought were introduced into Russia by its Western European educated ruling class. Under Alexander II, the ruling class began to see serfdom as an immoral part of society. This moral problem was accompanied by the economics of the day, and the ethical conclusion was that serfdom must be dismantled.
The abolition of serfdom was Alexander II greatest contribution to history. However, the ‘Liberating Czar’ enacted a whole series of fundamental changes including; comprehensive reform of the judicial system that finally introduced the unheard of idea of equality, trial by jury, public proceedings in legal matters and the impartiality of the courts.
In the end though, none of these reforms really solved any of Russia’s social or economic problems, eventually called the ‘accursed questions’. These were taken up by the various political groups and writers of the time. The writers however were the most important. To Russians, the writer is not only looked upon as an artist of the word, but also as a guide and teacher in a deeper sense. The writer is supposed to understand life better than ordinary mortals, so it’s his duty to impart this knowledge to others in appropriate shape and form.
The reign of Alexander II was an age of great literary achievement, the ‘Golden Age’ of the Russian novel. Almost all of the great works of Russian fiction were produced during this time. The best minds were attracted to the novel, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Asakov all produced some of the greatest literary works of all time during this period.
All of the writers during this time belonged to a political school of thought, and while some of the schools worked for similar aims, they were all different and each one possessed its own unique ideals.
The Slavophiles were probably the oldest of the political schools at the time. The Slavophiles during the reign of Alexander II were of the second generation, and they were the ones to turn the Slavophile myth of old into a real modern political program. This program included the endorsement of the Orthodox religion and a patrimonial monarchy. The Slavophiles believed in the inherent virtue and goodness of the Russian people and culture. A main part of this culture was the ideal of ‘sobornost’, that is, the communal spirit. The Slavophiles saw this in action in the peasant communes, and believed that communalism in conjunction with Christian communal worship would become the source of Russia’s sorely needed moral and cultural regeneration. In accordance with Russia’s regeneration, Slavophiles saw the west as corrupt and immoral. They saw Russia’s destiny as one in which it would save the west from spiritual decay.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was Slavophilisms more down-to-earth and democratic member. He was also the movements’ most effective proponent. In his book Discourse on Pushkin, Dostoevsky describes the Slavophile position.
The major opponents of the Slavophile position were the western influenced Nihilists. These leftist radicals rejected religion, the authority of the state, the family, social conventions and aesthetic values as irrelevant. They were highly influenced by Western Europe in their atheism and material positivism. They flaunted the social rules and conventions of the day, they wore dark sunglasses, men wore their hair long and the women short. They were also socialists, but unlike their Slavophile counterparts, they did not believe in a utopia. The nihilists had many sympathizers in the literary and journalistic worlds, but most importantly Turgenev, who’s novel ‘Fathers and Sons’ expressed the nihilist point of view, and was widely acclaimed.
The other main political force of the day was the populists. This relatively new ideology was based in socialism, and shared some views with nihilism. They were anti-orthodoxy and steeped in the scientific thinking of the west. However, instead of the material positivism of the nihilists, the populists relied upon idealist moral principals of social justice, social duty and human integrity. The populists wanted Russia to achieve socialism, but without passing through the capitalist stage like many of the western nations were currently in.
During the summer of 1879, many young and rich populists went to the countryside to follow their idealistic instincts, and teach the peasantry about socialism. However the peasants saw these socialists as troublemakers and turned in many of them to police. Populism though, did not die. Eventually the Populist Party turned into the Socialist Revolutionary party, and would have an integral part in the 1917 revolution.
The one downfall to this great period of social, literary, and political breakthroughs was that its leaders and prominent figures were of an older generation and they had no worthy successors. Not one of the young writers for example, was seen as worthy to stand beside the masters, and as the old men disappeared, no one was left to take their place. The end of the era came soon after 1880. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, the same year that Dostoevsky died. Turgenev died in 1883 and Tolstoy withdrew from literature a year later.
In this short period of fifty years, the world saw a literary and political output like nothing even experienced before. The accomplishments of the Russian writers were fueled by deep political ideologies and in some cases deep spiritual conviction. Russia would enter the twentieth century as a powerful and complex nation, and soon would soon emerge as the world’s first socialist-communist entity. Owing thanks to the political and literary changes and advances of the late nineteenth century.
A Cultural History of Russia by Joel Carmichael
Weybright and Talley; 1968
A Panorama of Russian Literature by Janko Larvin
Barnes and Noble; 1973
A Concise History of Russian Literature by Thais Lindstrom
NYU Press; 1966