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Barbarous Westernization


Force, repression, coercion, and violence became the chief means by which Russia was modernized. Its productive forces were developed by becoming still further enslaved. This paradox is central to an understanding of Russia’s modernization attempts. The apparent contradiction between the progressive aims of the reforms and the barbaric means by which they were implemented was probably best expressed by Karl Marx, who characterized Peter the Great’s Reform thus: “Peter the Great smashed Russian barbarism by barbarism.” 

Peter I. Painting by V. Serov

Peter’s reform had also set one more enduring pattern of Russian modernization:  one-sided, “technocratic” Europeanization. Peter’s emulation of the West was discriminating and selective, and showed that Peter’s main concern was the acquisition of Western technical knowledge and the importation of modern technological expertise and skills. His chief ambition was to turn Russia into a great military power capable of holding its own against any combination of its neighbors.

Russia had the size, the population, the abundance of natural resources, and above all, the unlimited authority of the state. What was needed was European technology, the “instrumentality” of European civilization and, primarily, Western know-how in military organization and civil administration. That was all, as far as he was concerned; for the rest, Europe remained an object of hostility and distrust.

Among the first to notice the one-sided nature of Peter’s Westernization was the Russian historian Klyuchevsky, who wrote about Peter that “In adopting European technology he remained rather indifferent toward the life and peoples of Western Europe. That Europe was for him a model factory and workshop, while he considered the concepts, feelings, social and political attitudes of the people on whose work this factory relied to be something alien to Russia. Although he visited the industrial sights of England many times, he only once looked in on the parliament.”

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