The start of the nineteenth century in Russia marked the birth
of a movement which had as its aim the emancipation of society
from the strangling grip of the autocratic regime. Its rise had
been stimulated by the already existing ‘pockets of freedom’,
which were either sanctified in traditions, or appeared as
consequences of certain policies introduced by the government.
Indeed, the tsarist
government itself was responsible for the emergence of the
elements of freedom and for the appearance of an ever growing
number of free-thinking individuals among its subjects. Peter’s
Reform had given some of the earliest and powerful impulses to
the emergence of these liberalizing trends.
He had encouraged them by, for instance, taking the decision
to ‘cut out’ a window on Europe and introducing Western
customs and education into everyday life of the nobility.
His successors developed them by, for example, allowing
public opinion to discuss issues concerned with state
institutions and the condition of lower estates, as happened
during the work of Catherine’s Legislative Commission.
nineteenth century the autocratic government would continue to
contribute by its policies to the process of a gradual emancipation
of society from the tight control of the State. On the government’s
initiative, the personal bonding of peasants to landowners would be
abolished, an independent judiciary would be introduced and local
government bodies, comprised of representatives of all major social
classes, would be set up. By sanctioning these developments, the
autocratic regime was itself an agent of change, an active party in
the process of civic emancipation. There were other players also
involved in this process, represented by social forces which were
actively pressing for change. However, most of these forces had
themselves appeared as a result of the government’s policies.
Great’s Reform, in particular, had generated numerous sources of
future social conflicts. It had enforced complete subordination of
the individual to the State. Yet, it had also brought forth an
ideological uncertainty over the nature of this State. From the
time of the Petrine Reform the government combined within itself two
conflicting and incompatible elements: the sacred inviolability of
the supreme autocratic authority, on the one hand, and the spirit of
the European Enlightenment, on the other. It was the Enlightenment
which had introduced into Russian society not just Western standards
of education but, more importantly, the European spirit of freedom.
It provided an ideological base for the appearance of the
intelligentsia - a
community of people independent from the State and in opposition to
it. This group within Russia’s educated elite upheld the
pro-Western trend for enlightenment and liberalization and actively
opposed the conservative tradition of autocratic government.