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Oriental Despotism

Peter the Great

The greatest paradox of Peters Reform was that by shaking up Russian society, by introducing efficient and up-to-date methods, by equipping Russia with military and economic might Peter not only preserved the most salient features of traditional Muscovite society, but actually strengthened and reinvigorated them. In other words, his version of Europeanization served only to reinforce the oppressive character of the state.


This paradox was forcefully expressed by the Russian philosopher George Plekhanov: In his Europeanization of Russia Peter developed to its final, logical conclusion the condition of complete helplessness of the population vis-à-vis the State that is characteristic of Oriental despotism. The rationalization and modernization initiated by the state unchecked by any kind of control from society led in practice to the creation of a police state. 

This is, perhaps, the most tragic contradiction of Russian modernization attempts. The coercive and brutal nature of these transformations meant that Russias modernization attempts often defeated their main purpose: that of creating conditions for unfettered modern social and economic development. On the contrary, the state, which remained, to a great extent, the embodiment of Oriental despotism, used modernization and westernization in order to preserve and strengthen its autocratic prerogatives and its dominance over society.

Only the ruling classes enjoyed the benefits of modernization whereas the masses remained oppressed and saw the governments reforms as something alien to them and thrust upon them by the state against their will. 

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