Review: "Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Society in the Old Regime"
Throughout Marc Raeff’s book, Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Society in the Old Regime, the author traces the development of Russia from its Muscovite beginnings to the end of the Imperial era. In doing so, Raeff demonstrates multiple aspects of Russian society that reflect an often chaotic and transitional time frame in its overall history. Following the collapse of Muscovite culture, Raeff details the disorder and disarray that faced the central government as well as the nobility and populace. Why did this occur? Raeff argues that Russian society faced a great identity crisis during the 18th and 19th centuries. As he shows, Russian society faced great uncertainty in regard to the economic, political, and social direction it should follow. Questions on the forefront of Russian society included the role of government (in regard to both its authority and relationship to the population); whether or not Russia should abandon its Muscovite origins in favor of a Europeanized set of concepts and ideas; and finally, what should be the role of elites and peasants within this newfound society?
Raeff argues that many of these questions arose as a result of Russian backwardness, and its need to catch-up to the more modernized European nations of the West. Although Russia did eventually enter into the “concert of modern European powers” with its reforms and modifications (first undertaken by Peter the Great and continued by his successors), these changes failed to appease the growing discontent of the populace in the final years of Imperial Russia (Raeff, pg. 24). Because of the failures of the tsarist regimes to recognize and reform to the needs and wishes of the populace, the tsarist form of government, ultimately, collapsed in the 1900s after centuries of unchallenged rule.
All in all, Raeff does an excellent job at providing a detailed analysis and overview of the Imperial era in Russian history. His decision to focus on Peter the Great and Catherine II is crucial for understanding the later years of Imperial Russia, especially when examining the origins of discontent and revolutionary thought patterns espoused by the Russian people.
As Raeff demonstrates, the policies and eventual demise of the tsars and Russian empire can all trace their origins to these prior years of uncertainty and turmoil. While Raeff gives an excellent analysis of the social, political, and economic forces at work in the early years of the Russian empire, however, his final chapters on the late 19th and early 20th centuries feels a bit short and rushed. Several decades worth of information are condensed and examined in a terse manner. Although his main points remain intact and are not affected by this short handling of later Russian history, more analysis of this period would have been a welcome addition to his overall book.
The author also assumes that the reader is well versed in Russian history, and does not provide a great deal of background information within his work. This is not particularly a bad element of his book, as it is clear that his work is geared toward a more scholarly audience. However, more background information for each period discussed would have certainly added more clarity to his arguments.
Overall, Raeff’s book is well written and scholarly in its approach to Imperial Russia. Written during the era of the Soviet Union, Raeff’s book is crucial for understanding the collapse of the tsars and the eventual rise of the Bolsheviks during the early 1900s. It is clear that this book will continue to play a major role in modern scholarship for years to come. I give this work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a brief examination of Imperial Russian history. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!
Does history repeat itself?
Questions for Further Discussion
If you decide to read this book for yourself, attached below is a list of questions to help facilitate a deeper understanding of the text:
1.) What was Raeff's overall thesis/argument? Did you find his argument to be persuasive? Why or why not?
2.) What was Raeff's objective in writing this book?
3.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Are there any particular areas that the author could have improved?
4.) What type of primary source material does Raeff rely on in this work? Does this help or hinder his overall argument?
5.) What type of audience is this book intended for? Can both scholars and general audience members, alike, benefit from the contents of this work?
6.) What did you like most about this work?
7.) What type of scholarship was Raeff challenging when he wrote this book?
Raeff, Marc. Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Society in the Old Regime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.