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Civic Awakening

 

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.  

 
Peter cuts out a window on Europe. Tapestry by V. Guseva

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. 

In the 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.

Peter the 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.

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Alexander I

 

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