Understanding Imperial Russia
Book Review by John Rocco Roberto

Understanding Imperial Russia by Marc Raeff
248 pages.
Columbia University Press, New York; 1983  
$19.95 soft.
ISBN # 0-23-1058438

In his forward to Marc Raeff’s work, University of Toronto Professor John Keep writes, “Raeff…offers nothing less than an original conception of the motive forces that have determined [Russia’s] past.”   Marc Raeff, Professor of Russian Studies at Columbia University, is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Russia, and an expert on pre-revolutionary Russia, and in his 1983 monograph; he lays the groundwork for understanding the turmoil that was Imperial Russia.

Understanding Imperial Russia is based on a series of seminars the Professor gave in Paris in the 1980s, and is a look at the political and social pressures that pulled Russian society apart, and lead to the revolutions of the 20th century.

In the first chapter, The Muscovite Background, Raeff explores both the changes brought about in law and social structures imposed by the Tsars of the 1600s.  “The governments,” the author states, “[acted] without regard to any distinction between the temporal…and…spiritual realm.”   Law codes, like the Code of 1649, took peasant affairs out of the hands of the government, thus creating both social and economic conflicts, which resulted in “protest by both peasant and townspeople”  alike.  While ready to accept and incorporate Western European ideas, the social unrest caused at this juncture in Russian history, acted to undermine Muscovite Civilization and lay the foundations for Peter the Great’s radical and oppressive changes.

The next two chapters Raeff devotes to these radical changes Peter the Great brought about.  The second chapter, Peter the Great’s Revolution, looks that the ambitious and energetic policies Peter used to transform Russian society.  Unfortunately while Peter’s reforms “attracted…members of the elite,”  Raeff points out that Peter’s greatest shortcomings “was his failure to involve large numbers of the common people.”   Demanding great efforts from his people, Peter’s reforms changed the social and legal relations in Russia, making “state service…the only avenue of social advancement.”    This brought about great stress on the social order of the system, and Raeff explores some of these “shortcomings” in the third chapter, Peter’s System in Difficulty.  The author explores the policies of trying to move Russia’s agricultural society towards an industrial based one, resulting in the “administration [taking on] a more active role in daily life.”   This however, brought about great psychological and cultural tensions, which did not exist under the old system, and caused further separation between the classes.

Chapter Four, The System of Peter the Great: To Reform or Not to Reform, looks at the somewhat doomed policies of Peter’s successor, Catherine II, or Catherine the Great as she has gone down in history. [Peter’s eventual successor was in fact Peter III, Catherine’s husband, whom she overthrew in June of 1762]   According to Raeff, Catherine’s polices including the setting up of a “legislative commission [which] had a quite ‘medieval’ conception of society.”   This conception, included the notion that the structure of society was based on an “organic: model, consisting of a “hereditary division of function.”   This view however, doomed these policies to fail because Russian society was not organized enough to implement these types of changes without direct government involvement.  “A void opened up,”  the author states, between civil society and the intelligentsia on the one side, and the autocratic state on the other.

Chapter’s five and six examine Russia in the 19th century, looking at the regimes of Paul I, Alexander I (The Dawn of the Nineteenth Century), and Nicholas I (The Regime of Nicholas I).  Paul I’s regime, Raeff describes as “repressive and capricious,”  in which minister and government officials feared for both their careers as well as their lives.  Alexander I’s rein however, looked to create a stable efficient form of government.  “The government of Alexander I,” Raeff writes, “followed the course first set by Catherine II and attempted to create conditions favorable to economic growth.”   It is unfortunate that the December 14th, 1825 uprising, fostered by the death of Alexander I (and his failure to clearly name a successor), and the repression that followed, would put a halt to these changes, and mar the days of Nicholas I rein.  Nicholas’ government, as Raeff explains it, repressed any spark of dissidence and criticism, leading historians to condemn “Nicholas as an enemy of progress and modernization.”  The author however, does not agree with this judgment, stating that the positive side if Nicholas’ rein “involved the bureaucracy in laying the ground work for social and economic transformation.”

The final chapter of the book, The Transformation of Imperial Russia: Continuity and Change, provides an overview of the events that led to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, in which Raeff feels that “interpretations of [these] periods have been markedly teleological in character.”   It is also within this chapter that Raeff’s thesis becomes apparent.  The author sees Russian political and social society as forming two distinctive poles.  “Think of the social and political forces…as forming a short of ellipse,” the author writes.   The poles of this ellipse consist of constant conflict and tension, a “struggle to the death,”  so to speak.  On one end we find the emperor, the “cornerstone of the Russian political, social and ideological system,”  while on the other side is the radical intelligentsia, whom the author describes as having a need to “define its own position vis-à-vis history and the Russian people.”   Unfortunately it was the common people caught in the middle of these two “poles” which “lay in flux,” and as the author puts it, were “constantly tossed back and forth by social, cultural and political forces.”   These were the people who could not adapt to the ever-increasing pace of change, resulting, as Raeff sums up, in creating “a void that ultimately engulfed the imperial regime.”

The work ends with a very informative chronological listings of Important Dates in Russian history, and an extensive Bibliography.  In addition the books is littered with footnotes as opposed to endnotes, which makes the understanding of the historiography easier to follow.  

In support of his argument, Raeff relies on his extensive Bibliography and series of footnotes to both expound on his theories as well as point the reader to further fields of research.  Unfortunately Understanding Imperial Russia, while well organized and an easy read, suffers from the same drawbacks other monographs written from lecture-based materials encounter.  While filled with important information, the book has a much-disjoined feel to it.  While each chapter is filled with interesting and easy to follow facts, Raeff’s narration mistakenly assumes that the reader already knows a fair amount of Russian history.  Nowhere in the chapters does he explain how Muscovite society came about, nor does he elaborate on Catherine the Great’s rise to power in any great detail. And this is the sole drawback of the work.  Putting these issues aside however, Understanding Imperial Russia is an excellent work if the reader has some understanding of Russian history.  For a novice however, understanding some of these events in context may be difficult, and would not be recommended to the reader interested in general Russian history.

Review © 2005 John Rocco Roberto/Visagraph Films International.