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Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World

From Peter the Great to Karl Marx

James Cracraft

Edited By William Benton Whisenhunt

Professor James Cracraft is an established specialist on early modern Russian history, particularly the era of Peter the Great (1682-1725), tsar and first Russian emperor. This volume gathers some of the many key articles and reviews published by him over the last forty years and more in a wide variety of scholarly venues, some of which are not readily accessible. They constitute in sum important contributions not only to Russian history broadly understood, but also to the study of history itself. The collection will include a preface by the editor and an introduction by the author, where he will sum up his decades of historical work and point to new avenues of needed research, all the while emphasizing that "history" properly understood does not exist somewhere on its own but is the creation, however imperfect, of professional historians (as "chemistry", say, is properly understood as the work, however imperfect, of professional chemists).

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9 The Russian Empire as Cultural Construct


Two approaches, broadly speaking, have characterized the historiography of the Russian Empire since its demise. The more prevalent was Marxist in form, an approach that most non-Soviet historians of the empire found more or less inadequate by the standards of modern historical research. In fact, the roughly simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union and of Soviet Marxist historiography only underscored the latter’s fundamentally political, and opportunistic, motivation. At no time in its past was Russia similar in its socioeconomic or political fundamentals to nineteenth-century Britain, Germany, or France—a point Marx himself readily conceded. Yet Marxism in its Leninist and subsequent Soviet versions ruled Russian history in Russia itself for more than seventy years (1917–1991), and for most of that time it ruled absolutely.1

A second approach to Imperial Russian history has been nationalist in orientation. Russia certainly exhibited characteristics of nationhood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the possession by a centralized ruling elite of a common culture. But any such nationalist sentiment was subordinated by the regime of Peter I “the Great,” tsar and first Russian emperor (1689–1725), to a newly formulated imperial mission. Thus, it could be argued that imperialism was inherent in Russian nationalism virtually from its beginnings.2 That being so, conventional nationalist historiography has struggled to accommodate the ←159 | 160→empire founded by Peter—to stretch the short, tight skin of the Russian nation, as a perceptive observer has put it, over the gigantic body of the polyglot Russian Empire.3...

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