The Russian Empire Before Nicholas II: Westernisation of the Empire under Peter I(2/?)

In the previous post we looked at the start of political and economic Westernisation that had occurred as a result of Peter I’s reforms.

In this post we will take a look at the cultural changes that had happened as the result of Peter’s Westernisation reforms. Given that the term ‘culture’ has very broad implications (and is still debated by historians what it actually means), we decided to focus on the literary and theatrical sources to seek evidence for cultural changes as these type of sources provide the most insight into the various societal groups that had lived on the territory of the Russian Empire and their perception of ‘the West’.

Think like a Historian:

What is culture? Do you think that ‘culture’ can be seen as a unified entity?
Culture before Peter I’s Westernisation policy

As it had been mentioned in the previous post, Russia did make some contact with the West before 1698. However, such contact had a limited effect and was mostly visible in the cities as most of the Western cultural influences was brought over by merchants and clerics. The latter often brought over Western and Latin culture with them. For example, by 1670s a so-called German Quarter was well-established in Moscow to such an extent that its inhabitants performed the first court play in Muscovy, called the Action of Artaxerxes, in 1672. The play and its first production are both interesting to cultural historians for three reasons: because the theatrical troop was made out of mostly German-speaking individuals; because the plot is based on the Catholic Counter-Reformation tradition of plays; and because it was the first Russian play ever produced.

Please accept a niche meme to ease your existence. For education purposes- a ‘bilina’ (pl. ‘biliny’) was a traditional form of entertainment at a Muscovite court, which involved a small group of entertainers singing songs about the old heroes and their mighty deeds. (cc: Rimma)
Although this video does not talk about theatre at the time of the European Counter-Reformation, it discusses what this religious phenomena was all about.
General Influences on the Russian society after Peter I’s Reforms

Given that Peter’s reforms were implemented very quickly and aimed to change Russian Government, economy and the army quite radically, the society itself started to change. Such changes had led to an enhanced split between different social classes. For example, the nobility was made to conform to Western ideas about fashion, education of the youngsters and state service, which seemed to have a positive effect at first as the diplomatic and cultural links with ‘the West’ had been strengthened; such changes led to a divide within the Russian society. This could be seen in the cultural differences between the nobility and the serfs. For instance, whilst by the end of 19th century most of the Russian nobility had French as their first language, a large amount of the serfs remained illiterate. This became a prominent theme in Russian literature by the end of the 19th century.

Think like a Historian:

Can a language be used as a unifying social force and why would it be particularly useful/not useful?
Establishment of St. Petersburg as a New Cultural Capital of the Russian Empire

Nevertheless, the most important outcome of Peter’s reign was the establishment of St.Petersburg, which became the new capital city of the Russian Empire in 1713, only ten years after its foundation. The city itself was very different to the rest of Russia’s major cities in both appearance and the way of life. Indeed, the city became known as a ‘Window to the West‘ due to its contrasting appearance from the rest of the Russian Empire and due to its close geographical position to Sweden. Peter aimed to make St.Petersburg architecturally as ‘Western’ as possible. He went as far as to employ foreigners, such as the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond to guide the construction of the city itself and the Swissman Domenico Trezzini to help with the construction of the St.Peter’s and Paul’s Cathedral.

Think like a Historian:

Can buildings only tell a historian about the preferred architectural style of the time it was build in, or can the architecture tell a historian something more about the society overall?

Just as the appearance of the city differed from the rest of the Russian Empire, so did the cultural life. Although by the mid 1720s, the culture of St. Petersburg was not particularly different from the rest of Russia, within a century the city became a cultural hub for all kind of writers, actors, playwrights and critics. Whilst the ‘why did this happen?’ would be answered in the future posts, it is important to briefly describe the cultural life of the city in the early 18th century. Generally, the inhabitants of the city were fond of strolling down the newly build Summer Gardens, which were modelled from the French Versailles’ gardens; enjoyed riding gondola-styled boats in the city’s multiple canals; enjoyed popping into operas and libraries and probably wondered about what the tsar and his ministers were doing when they passed the Peterhof and Monplaisir Palaces.

Consequently, by the end of Peter’s reign St.Petersburg was already seen as a controversial city that became a symbol for Russian Empire’s modernity, whilst the old capital city, Moscow, became synonymous with backwardness and conservatism.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent is it important for a country that is undergoing Westernisation to have a cultural ‘jumping block’ between its own culture and the more Western one?
Important vocabulary
  • Serf: an unpaid agricultural labourer
  • ‘Window to the West’: a nickname for St.Petersburg
To explore the topic further…
  • Watch this short clip made by National Geographic that takes us across the gardens of the Peterhof palace.
  • Read a biography of Peter I by Robert K. Massie, which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It is very comprehensible and contextualises Peter’s reign very well.
  • Read a poem by a Russian poet A. S. Pushkin called The Bronze Horseman, which is about Peter I’s statue driving a young man, Evgenii, insane. It’s a top-tier read if you’re either into Russian Literature, or want to read about statues coming to life.
  • If you speak/ read Russian, you can find Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow and Fonzivin’s The Minor (Russ. Nedorosl’). Unfortunately, these texts have not been translated to English just yet. 😦
  • HOWEVER, dear English-speakers, do not fret as there is a very awesome documentary about Catherine the Great, who was a massive patron for the arts.
Here is the video about Catherine the Great.

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