The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/The Recent Progress of Russia

The Recent Progress of Russia.

By Mark Villchur.

Russia occupies a peculiar position in the family of great nations. The largest country of Europe, stretching from the White Sea to the Caucasus and from the Baltic to the Pacific, Russia has remained far below the modern standard of political, economic, and industrial development. Yet, intellectually, the country is well on the level with Europe's civilization, to which she has added a wealth of ideas in the realm of literature, art, and morality.

We hear so much nowadays of the inefficiency of Russia's present social system, of her lack of ambition in the line of practical endeavor, that we are apt to overlook the really wonderful progress that Russia has made in the course of the last few decades.

The whole history of Russia's march onward represents a succession of bitter struggles between the old Muscovite Russia and the new social forces, the latter developing under the benign influence of the Western civilization that poured into Russia through the "window to Europe", cut open by Peter the Great. The country has progressed constantly, despite the fact that many battles were lost by the champions of civilization. While the progressive movement usually went on by leaps, the reactionary tendencies, when triumphant, never succeeded in making more than a few backward steps at a time.

The reforms of Peter the Great were the first leap forward, and they played havoc with the old Muscovite institutions. It took Russia almost a whole century to adapt herself to the European ideas and customs which were forcibly introduced by the first Emperor of Russia.

The emancipation, in 1861, of over twenty millions of Russian serfs, coupled with the other great reforms of the sixties, which brought forward upon the political stage new and more democratic elements, was another great advance. But it was followed by two decades of political reaction. During this unfortunate period, the whole policy of the Russian State was characterized by the protection of the gentry, which was declining despite the fact that it was the object of favorable legislation during the reign of Alexander III. The growing economic power of the industrial and merchant classes, together with the educational activities of that peculiarly Russian social institution, sometimes called "the third element" but better known as the "intelligentia", almost destroyed the social importance of the decaying gentry. For thirty years after the Act of Emancipation the gentry sold 65 million acres of land, which represents 31% of their possessions, and this despite the fact that the specially established "Bank for the Gentry" did everything in its power to help the Russian noblemen meet the competition of the new social factors in Russia.

Only ten years ago the world witnessed another attempt of Russia to make a step forward, now toward constitutional democracy. The bitter political struggle that followed this movement ended, as we know, in a few reactionary measures, but in the long run, Russia gained much more than the opposing factions probably realize, or are willing to admit. Whatever might be said of the "Electoral Law of June 3rd", that assured the gentry a leading part in the Douma, the fact remains that Russia has a kind of Parliament. Political discussion, which was formerly confined to the bureaucratic circles and was strictly forbidden in the press and society, is now possible. The Douma has come to stay,—even the worst and boldest enemies of constitutionalism in Russia do not go beyond recommendations of restriction upon its powers.

The "Europeanization of Russia" has been a process fraught with difficulties, but Russia has finally demonstrated the fact that she is just as much adapted to Europe's culture, as is any other part of the world. It is true that every reform was met with strong, and often overwhelming opposition that came, not only from the conservative authorities, but also from the social and intellectual representatives of Muscovite Russia. And this was significant. It meant opposition to the mere imitation of foreign models. It enabled old Russia to battle with Europe's influences through scores of her philosophers and leaders of thought. These men applied their gigantic intellectual powers toward an attempt to find Russia's "own way in the world", to spare her the painful transplantations of European institutions, such as capitalism, a landless proletariat class, large cities full of unemployed and prostitutes, and factories that rob the city population of fresh air. Men of the type of Chomiakov, Dostoyevsky, and Soloviev, openly despised Europe's culture, which seemed to them "unchristian and unhuman." Western civilization frightened them by its formalism, its rationalism, its lack of harmonious unity between the mind and the heart. They went so far as to assert that it was Russia's national mission to save the disintegrating West from imminent spiritual and intellectual ruin.

Life's realities soon dispersed the hopes of these dreamers. After the stormy sixties, the Government began to build railways and telegraphs and generally to utilize the mechanical discoveries and improvements of Europe. Factories and mills sprang up near the large cities, industrial centres were created, so that to-day Russia has an army of factory and mill workers numbering over three millions. The darkest prophecies of the opponents of civilization came true. "Holy, orthodox Russia" has not only a proletariat class, but even great labor problems, just as all other countries have. Russian cities are rebuilt on European style, with electric tramways, telephones, prisons, theatres, divorce-courts, newspapers, and all the other accessories of a civilized metropolis.

The bitter fight for and against civilization was transformed into the modern political struggle between the bureaucracy and the new social forces,—for and against democratic institutions.

In this new phase of Russia's internal life, the gentry, which is the last support of the bureaucracy, is gradually giving way. The gentry itself has undergone radical changes since the great European war began, and is now more inclined to consider political reforms. Only recently, a group of noblemen in the government of Tver declared itself in favor of a constitutional program and a progressive bloc in the Douma.

The industrial and commercial classes in Russia are gradually gaining more and more power and prestige. The recent conventions at Moscow of the Russian manufacturers and merchants, declared in their resolutions the necessity of putting into practice the constitutional promises of the Manifesto of October 17, 1905, since they consider the constitution an indispensable basis for the development of the great natural wealth of Russia. This call of the manufacturers soon found an echo in the resolutions of the Federations of Provincial Councils and Municipal Councils, which are playing such an important part in the organization of the Russian resources for the needs of the War.

Political struggle is, in many ways, a new factor in Russia's internal life. This, in itself, partly explains its bitterness and sharpness, especially considering the fact that not only the radical groups, but even the Constitutional-Democratic party still have no legal standing and are naturally deprived of many legitimate ways of carrying on their political activities.

There are no professional politicians in Russia. Politics is considered a sacred and highly responsible social service, which usually requires willingness to make great personal sacrifices. It is probably this peculiarity of Russian political life that has added so much to the personal integrity of the Russian politician. The short parliamentary history of Russia is already replete with names of which any European or American Parliament would be proud. Such names as those of Nabokov, Petrunkevitch, Prince Dolgorukov, Rodichev, the late Professor Muromtzev and the late Count Geiden, will not soon be forgotten. We choose these advisedly among the many Russian leaders, for they are all Russian noblemen who have deserted the caste of the gentry for the lofty ideas of democracy.

In the bitter political struggle of 1905-6, the sacrifices made by this class were scarcely appreciated by the radical elements. The latter waged war not only upon the old regime but also on the "faintly liberal" classes which refused to go to the limits of revolutionary activity. However, to-day we hear from such revolutionary leaders as G. V. Plechanov, that this treatment of the liberals was a fundamental tactical blunder, as it led the middle classes to turn their backs upon the reform movement.

There is only one logical outcome of the present political uncertainty in Russia. Constitutional guaranties will be firmly established, and this will gradually lead to a democratization of Russia's social and political system.

Such a settlement of Russia's internal problem would, undoubtedly, serve as a great impulse toward the economic and industrial development of the country, whose limitless natural gifts are patiently awaiting industrial capital and well-organized labor.

With her vast possibilities, Russia may, after all, fulfil the expectations of the early Slavophiles, whose bold motto was:

"From the East shall come the Light."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.