Book review

by Andrew A. Gentes

The Petrine revolution in Russian culture
James Cracraft

Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004
ISBN 9780674013162

This is the third in a series of volumes by Cracraft which includes The Petrine Revolution in Russian Architecture (Chicago, 1988) and The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery (Chicago, 1997). As these three titles suggest, Cracraft quickly moves beyond the debate, dating since the early nineteenth century and which originally pitted Slavophiles against Westernizers, over the merits of Peter’s reforms, to focus instead on their mechanics. Coinciding as they do, first, with Gorbachev’s reforms, and now those of Putin, his works indicate a renewed interest in Russian statecraft rather than supposed ideological signifiers. Cracraft’s approach owes much to the modernization paradigm, although he offers many qualifications of it. Despite its problems (most notably its ethnocentricity), modernization is justified for a reading of the intention behind Peter’s reforms. The emperor explicitly compared Russia to Western Europe and consciously imitated many aspects of European statecraft, from his establishment of the collegial system of government down to that of a penal labour regime known as katorga. Cracraft’s work therefore amounts to a detailed examination of the State’s development of techniques for the purpose of organizing and modifying society. In this latest volume, he ‘recounts in detail the verbal transmission to Russia under Peter of contemporary European naval, military, bureaucratic-legal, scientific, and literary practices, values, and norms, thereby documenting the crucial first stage in the constitution of a modern Russian verbal culture, one that necessarily included a standardized written language’ (xi). Church Slavonic’s eclipse by a ‘new civil type’ of language (181) whose very orthography and characters Peter personally oversaw and approved had, as Cracraft acknowledges, begun prior to his assumption of the throne, yet the explosion in print publications under Peter greatly accelerated this process. Peter’s commissioning of translations of numerous monographs on science and military affairs necessitated the incorporation into Russian of thousands of foreign terms. Cracraft’s long lists of them within the body of his text and in appendices become wearisome to read after some time, but nevertheless substantiate his case that there was a revolution within at least what might be called Petrine Russia’s printed linguistic culture.

However, the extent of this revolution beyond the borders of this linguistic culture was limited for a considerable period of time and therefore necessitates several qualifications of the term. If revolution is defined as rapid change within no more than several decades, then Cracraft’s argument holds true for only a small percentage of Russia’s population. The church’s continued prominence combined with the dispersed rural majority’s illiteracy and impoverishment meant that Peter’s revolution from above took a very long time to permeate throughout society. Indeed, Cracraft’s evidence suggests one explanation for how ‘modern’ Russia became such a bifurcated society, with an essentially European elite ruling over a static, landed peasantry which arguably demonstrated little cultural development as late as the 1920s. In other words, Petrine-inspired modernization allowed for the hyper-development of an elite caste which then used its print-based ‘knowledges’ to restrict the development of much of the rest of Russian society. Cracraft deals only glancingly with this question, and a fuller and more conceptual approach would have been helpful.

In chapters dealing separately with naval, military, bureaucratic, and scientific and literary developments, Cracraft meticulously summarizes individual texts, but his lack of any kind of linguistic theory renders his insistence on a ‘verbal transmission’ of norms, etc., from Europe to Russia problematic, and suggests a dated faith in nomenclature’s supposedly prescriptive power to serve as a vehicle of cultural transmission. This is where his explanation of the reforms’ mechanics breaks down, given that ‘verbal transmission’ is not synonymous with ‘cultural transmission’, as he implies. Context matters, after all, and during the early eighteenth century the context (political, cultural, intellectual) in Russia was considerably different than in Europe. The different interpretations Russians made of the Western notions of ‘a state ruled by law’ (i.e., the German Rechtsstaat) and ‘liberalism’ (liberalizm), as historians Marc Raeff, Anna Geifman, and others have shown, are two, somewhat later, examples of this.

Cracraft’s scholarship is however erudite and capacious, reflecting his overall expertise on Petrine Russian. Whereas his study may disappoint discriminating literary scholars, similar to Richard Wortman’s recent two-volume study of ‘scenarios’ it demonstrates for historians and political scientists how new avenues might be taken to illuminate the State’s exercise of power in Russia. Furthermore, it should serve as a spur for novel approaches in the study of statecraft in general. Cracraft’s work is best suited for experts and advanced post-graduate students.