FRANCE and Austria,” wrote Talleyrand in 1816, “… would be the strongest powers in Europe if, during the last century, another power had not risen in the North, whose terrible and rapid progress must make one dread that the numerous encroachments by which she has already signaled herself are but the prelude of still further conquests, which will end in swallowing up everything.”1
Space can make history. Run the eye across a map of the world from Kaliningrad (which Kant knew as Königsberg) on the Baltic to Kamchatka on the Pacific; then from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, the Himalayas, Mongolia, China, Japan: all between is Russia. Let the map speak; or hear Mme. de Staël, driving from Vienna to St. Petersburg in 1812:
There is so much space in Russia that everything is lost in it, even the châteaux, even the population. You might suppose you were traveling through a country from which the people had just taken their departure…. The Ukraine is a very fertile country, but by no means agreeable…. You see large plains of wheat which appear to be cultivated by invisible hands, the habitations and inhabitants are so rare.2
The inhabitants huddled in scattered villages because memory had not died of Tatars who had ravaged there, killing joyfully; they had gone, but their like might come again; and they had left some of their violence in Russian ways, tempered by toil and discipline. Natural selection had been merciless, and had favored those men who had hungered and labored tirelessly for land and women. Peter the Great had made some of them into soldiers or navigators; his successors had brought in venturesome Germans and clever Czechs to help people the plains. Catherine the Great had pushed swelling armies and swilling generals ever farther south, driving Tatars and Turks before them, conquering the Crimea, and triumphantly sailing the Black Sea. Under Alexander I the expansion continued; Russians settled in Alaska, set up a fort near San Francisco, and established a colony in California.3
The hard climate of European Russia—unprotected by forests or mountains against arctic cold or tropical heat—made a tough people, ready to accomplish the impossible if given bread and time. They could be cruel, for life had been cruel to them; they could torture prisoners and massacre Jews. But these barbarities rose in part out of their own experiences and memories of insecurity and hostility; they were not irrevocably in their blood, for the increasing security of organized communal life made them gentler, pitying, wondering, like a million Karamazovs, why they killed or sinned. They looked with an abiding melancholy upon a violent and unintelligible world.
Religion appeased their wonder and tamed their violence. The priests played here—as Roman Catholic priests had done in the early stages of West European communities—the role of the “spiritual arm,” buttressing the forces of the law with the secret and diverse powers of the myth to mystify or explain, to terrify or console. The czars knew how vital these myths were to social order, patient labor, and self-sacrificing heroism in war and peace. They paid the higher clergy well, and the lower clergy enough to keep them alive and patriotic. They protected religious dissent if it remained loyal to the state and kept the peace; Catherine II and Alexander I winked an eye at Freemasonry lodges that cautiously proposed political reforms.
The Russian nobles claimed and used all feudal rights, and controlled almost every element in the life of their serfs. The feudal lord could sell his serfs, or lease them to work in town factories. He could imprison them, and punish them with rod or whip or knout (a knotted rope). He could hand them over to the government for labor or imprisonment in Siberia.4 There were some mitigations. The sale of a serf apart from his family was rare. Some nobles contributed to a serf’s education, usually for technical work on the owner’s property, sometimes for wider use; so we hear (c. 1800) of a serf who managed a textile enterprise employing five hundred looms—but most of these were in houses on the vast estates of the Sheremetev family. A census of Russia in 1783 reported a total population of 25,677,058; of the 12,838,529 males 6,678,239 were serfs of private landowners—i.e. (including one female for each male), over half the population. Russian serfdom reached its climax at this time; it worsened in the reign of the great Catherine, and Alexander I gave up his early attempts to lessen it.5
The same census reckoned Russia’s population as 94.5 percent rural, but this included peasants working and living in the towns. The towns were growing slowly, having only 1,301,000 inhabitants in 1796.6 Commerce was active and growing, especially along the coasts and the great canals; Odessa was already a busy center of maritime trade. Industry was growing more slowly in the town factories, for much of it was practiced in rural shops and homes. Class war was much less between a proletariat and its employers than between rising merchants, groaning over taxes, and the tax-free nobility.
Class differences were sharp, and were defined by law; nevertheless, they were blurred as the economy grew and education spread. Russian rulers before Peter the Great had usually frowned upon schools as opening avenues to West European radicalism and impiety; Peter, admiring the West, established lished schools of navigation and engineering for sons of the nobility, “diocesan schools” to prepare priests, and forty-two elementary schools opened to all classes but serfs, and oriented toward technology. In 1795 P. A. Shuvalov founded the University of Moscow, with two gymnasia, one for nobles, one for free commoners. Catherine, inspired by the French philosophes, spread schools widely, and advocated the education of women. She allowed private publishing firms; eighty-four percent of the books published in eighteenth-century Russia were issued during her reign. By 1800 Russia had already developed an intelligentsia that would soon be a factor in the nation’s political history. And by 1800 several merchants, or sons of merchants, had made their way into positions of influence, and even into the court.
Despite the fire-and-brimstone theology of the bishops and the papas, or local priests, the level of morals and manners was generally lower than in Western Europe, except in a minority at the court. Almost any Russian was at heart kind and hospitable, perhaps from seeing others as fellow sufferers in a hard world; but barbarism simmered in the soul, remembering times when one had to kill or be killed. Drunkenness was a common relief from reality, even in the nobility, and the precarious life of authors brought several of them to alcoholic addiction and an early death.7 Cunning, lying, and petty theft were common in the plebs, for any trick seemed fair against cruel masters, dishonest merchants, or inquisitive taxgatherers. Women were almost as tough as men, worked at least as hard, fought as fiercely, and, when accident allowed them, governed as well; what czar, after Peter, ruled as successfully as Catherine II? Adultery rose with income. Cleanliness was exceptional, and was especially difficult in winter; on the other hand, few peoples have been more addicted to hot baths and merciless massage. Venality ran its full course from serf to nobleman, from town clerk to imperial minister. “In no other country,” wrote a French ambassador in 1820, “is corruption so general. It is, in a sense, organized, and there is, perhaps, not a single government official who could not be bought at a price.”8
Under Catherine the court reached a degree of ease and refinement second only to Versailles under Louis XV and Louis XVI, though in some cases barbarism hid behind the bows. In Catherine’s court the language was French, and the ideas, barring ephemera, were those of the French aristocracy. French nobles like the Prince de Ligne were almost equally at home in St. Petersburg and Paris. French literature circulated widely in the northern capital; Italian opera was sung and applauded there as properly as in Venice or Vienna; and Russian women of money and pedigree held their heads and wigs as high, and pleased their men as variously, as the duchesses of the Ancien Régime. Nothing in the social festivities along the Seine surpassed the splendor of the gatherings that, in the sumptuous palace on the Neva, saw the summer sun lingering in the evening sky as if loath to leave the scene.9