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One-Sided Europeanization


The influence of Western Europe on its eastern neighbor, which became so strong at the time of Peter the Great, had a character entirely of its own. It was discriminating and selective, and showed that Peters main concern was the acquisition of Western technical knowledge and the importation of modern technological expertise and skills.  

Peter and his generals. Painting by N. Ovechkin

His chief ambition was to turn Russia into a great military power capable of holding her own against any combination of her 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 a one-sided nature of Peters Westernization was the Russian philosopher Michael Fonvizin who, in the 1840s, observed : If Peter sought to introduce European civilization into Russia, then he was attracted  more by its external  aspects.  The spirit of this civilization - the spirit of legal freedom and civil rights - was alien and even repulsive to him, a despot as he was. This view was echoed later by Klyuchevsky who wrote about Peter that: ....In adopting European technology he remained rather indifferent towards 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... Peter himself expressed his attitude to the West with utmost clarity and bluntness when on one occasion he told an intimate companion: We need Europe for a few decades, later on we must turn our back on it.

As a result of Peters Westernization, industry and science began to develop rapidly in Russia. Within a short time the country could compete with its Western neighbors in matters maritime and in the art of building fortifications.  A great surge took place in many branches of technical learning, manufacturing industries sprang up and were improved, trade expanded. Yet any suggestions on how to make the life of society more humane and democratic remained as before completely neglected and  were unable to reach the hearts and minds of the Russian rulers.

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Peter the Great


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