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The "Great Debate"

 

Having turned away from radical reform, the government of Nicholas I endeavored to maintain political order and social stability by police repression and by promulgating the official doctrine of ‘Orthodoxy - Autocracy - Russian Nationality’. The doctrine’s first component proclaimed the essential role that the official Orthodox Church and its teachings occupied  in Russian life - in spite of the fact that Orthodoxy enforced by police and other compulsive measures could hardly cement together peoples of many faiths collected into one empire. The Church itself was firmly under control of the state so that even sermons were vetted by the police.  

 
Photo: kommersant.ru

The second component proclaimed that Russia needed an absolute monarch as the central element in its political system. The tsar was not merely an absolute ruler but one whose authority was derived from God. The final component proclaimed the special  character and value of the Russian people. In practice this principle was translated into the enforced policy of Russification which could only damage ethnic relations in a multinational state. It contributed nothing to improving the lot of ethnic Russians.

Despite the reactionary and militaristic nature of Nicholas’s rule and the rigor of censorship enforced by the Third Section of his Chancery, some remarkably vigorous intellectual activity did take place during his reign resulting in the emergence of oppositionist ideologies and attitudes which sharply contrasted with the patriarchal-conservative view of Russian society promulgated by the three-pronged official doctrine. One of the most significant manifestations of this activity took shape in a debate centered on the legacy of Peter the Great and the desirability of following the West or  retaining Russia’s special traditions and characteristics.

The debate was prompted by a general feeling spreading among the educated classes that before starting to draw up concrete programs of reform it was necessary to air broader issues of Russia’s destiny,  possible paths of her future development, peculiarities and moving forces of Russian history. These issues became dominant in Russian literature, social and political journalism, they animated drawing-room discussions and sparked lively debates in small circles of like-minded friends. By the late 1830s a number of distinctive strands of social thought had emerged which offered their own interpretations of Russia’s past and future. Their representatives became known as Slavophiles, Westernizers,  and  Radicals. 

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Nicholas I

 

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