Compared to the rest of Europe, Russian history is exceptionally dark and bloody. Let's look at the highlight of the 18th century, known today as "Enlightenment".

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. In France, the central doctrines of les Lumières were individual liberty and religious tolerance in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy - an attitude captured by the phrase Sapere aude, "Dare to know".

French historians traditionally place the Enlightenment between 1715, the year that Louis XIV died, and 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. Some recent historians begin the period in the 1620s, with the start of the scientific revolution. Les philosophes (French for 'the philosophers') of the period widely circulated their ideas through meetings at scientific academies, Masonic lodges, literary salons, coffee houses, and through printed books and pamphlets. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church, and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. A variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism and neo-classicism, trace their intellectual heritage back to the Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment was preceded by and closely associated with the scientific revolution. Earlier philosophers whose work influenced the Enlightenment included Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza. The major figures of the Enlightenment included Cesare Beccaria, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. Some European rulers, including Catherine II of Russia, Joseph II of Austria and Frederick II of Prussia, tried to apply Enlightenment thought on religious and political tolerance, which became known as enlightened absolutism.[9] Benjamin Franklin visited Europe repeatedly and contributed actively to the scientific and political debates there and brought the newest ideas back to Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson closely followed European ideas and later incorporated some of the ideals of the Enlightenment into the Declaration of Independence (1776). Others like James Madison incorporated them into the Constitution in 1787.

Where was Russia in all this time?

Since the Dark Ages, Russia had undergone a cultural stagnation. It took no part in this post-Plague advance and luxuriousness. It was simply stuck in the Dark Ages. Westernization had to wait until Tsar Peter the Great changed Russian culture and made his empire as European as the rest of Europe.

But this still proves that Russia was pretty slow on the history track. But did it have to be the case?

Would Russian history be less bloody (Nicholas I, Lenin, Stalin, to take into consideration) if Russia simply tagged along with the rest of Europe and had its Enlightenment in sync with the other nations?


closed as too broad by Bellerophon, Mołot, SRM, JDługosz, Zxyrra Nov 28 '16 at 3:51

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  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I believe that you view on the situation is biased. There was also a lot of violence in the rest of Europe too. Napoleonic Wars, WW1 and WW2, to name only the most important, were all conflict involving Russia and most of the major European countries. Also, imperialism and fascism extended far beyond Europe. A lot of blood, not just in Russia. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Nov 27 '16 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ I said "exceptionally". $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Nov 27 '16 at 22:03

Russia did have a period of enlightenment of sorts, under Catherine the Great. See Russian Enlightenment. Unfortunately the next emperor was not so enlightened... (Peter the Great lived mostly before the Age of Enlightenment, and no, he did not make his empire as European as the rest of Europe; he tried, he achieved a lot, but Russia remained very different from Europe.)

The basic problem of Russia is that it's a huge country sparsely inhabited by generally poor people. Even today, Russia has an average population density of about 8 people per square kilometer, compared to about 100 for a "regular" European country or 35 for the U.S.A.; even in European Russia, the population density is only about 27 people/km². With a low population density infrastructure works are hard to implement, because there are too few people to pay for each kilometer of road for example. A country with poor people and poor infrastructure may aspire to develop arts and sciences, but actually developing arts and sciences becomes very difficult.

Considering its unique problems -- huge distances, low population density, unforgiving climate -- it is a great achievement that Russia developed as far as it did. Could better emperor do more? It depends on the emperors to whom you think. Peter I and Catherine II were absolutely Great, and I don't think that anyone could have done better; Lenin and Stalin are highly controversial, but one cannot say that they were not energetically dedicated to the task; but yes, some Russian emperors of the modern age were unmitigated disasters -- examples include Nicholas I (who started and lost the Crimean War, and whose reign "was a catastrophic failure in both domestic and foreign policy" as quoted by Wikipedia), Alexander III (who was the model of a misguided ultraconservative), and Brezhnev (who ruled over the "Era of Stagnation").

But why did the U.S.A., which is also a huge and sparsely inhabited country, develop so much quicker than Russia? I think that the basic difference is that the U.S.A. was populated by self-selected people: the very act of emigrating across the ocean was proof of courage and enterprising spirit. The U.S.A. was populated by those who wanted to risk everything in order to make a better life for themselves, and acted towards that objective. People matter. Culture, in the sense of a shared mindset, matters equally.

What if Russia somehow managed to ditch the imperial system and adopt democracy? I don't think that a democratic Russia was even possible before the second world war, because a functional democracy requires literate, free thinking citizens, and Russia did not have them. It had illiterate poor peasants. But, ever the optimist, today Russians are literate, morally liberated, and Russia does have a reasonably high level of development. Can't wait for to see the future democratic, energetic and motivated Russia boldly going forward to fulfill its potential.

  • $\begingroup$ A good book to read is "The Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel Huntington, which addresses how cultural differences gives terms like "Rule of Law" different meanings in different "civilizations". "Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity" by Francis Fukuyama looks at how societies are internally organized to explain different levels of prosperity between even very similar cultures like Japan and China. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 28 '16 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ Do Alaska do as well as other states? USA have luxurious climate, it helped a lot. There are way much more details in reason of success of USA. State system, election system - one of them. Also prior 1900 US was not that kind of super power as it is now. Still there are some good points in the answer. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 28 '16 at 10:53

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