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The Impact of the "Great Debate"


Despite their different visions of Russia’s past and future, and their sometimes mutually incompatible views, representatives of the three different trends within the intellectual opposition were, in effect, pushing in the same direction. All of them were unanimous that any reform had to start by resolving Russia’s two cardinal issues.  

The Decembrists trying to prevent the oath of allegiance to Nicholas in St Petersburg

The abolition of serfdom and the reform of the autocratic system of government were the chief twin objectives which the progressives of all persuasion set out to achieve. The opposition’s activities were strictly legal, but they were wide-ranging and diverse, and produced a much greater impact on society than the conspiratorial Decembrist movement.

Through the medium of university lectures, journalistic and literary work, salon debates, the opposition was gnawing away at the old foundations of society, raising grave moral concerns about serfdom, instilling wide-spread condemnation of the autocratic-serfdom system, and mobilizing public opinion in support of reform. The results of this ‘quiet work’, to use Herzen’s phrase, would bear fruit in the next reign. Through schools, clubs, salons and personal friendships reformist ideas, aired and developed in the 1830s and 1840s, would spread from educated society to reach these key decision-makers in the government, who in the 1850s and 1860s were to spearhead Alexander II’s reforms. The great liberal modernization of Alexander II’s era had been intellectually prepared by the ‘Great Debate’.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of Westernizer-Slavophile controversy on the future intellectual and political history of Russia.  Many of the later disputes and divisions between different factions, schools of thought and political parties in Russia can be analyzed in terms of those who saw Western orientation as a single solution to Russian problems and those who professed their belief in Russia’s own distinct path of development. Indeed, the debate about the correlation between national and ‘adopted’ elements within Russian civilization is still alive and readily detectable in the intellectual discussions and political confrontations within Russia in the last decade of the twentieth century.

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