The Origins and Legacy of Russian Autocracy
A long and distinguished chain of Western observers and scholars from Habsburg and English ambassadors to footloose French aristocrats and brilliant North Americans have asserted and reasserted that Russia is quite unlike the West.1 From a North American and Western European perspective Russia inhabits a sphere of alienation that removes it from the mainstream of Western Civilization. From an Atlantic viewpoint Russia’s historical development was almost antithetical to the matrixes of institutional autonomy, private enterprise and civil society that emerged in North America and Western Europe. This “otherness” of Russia was apparently validated by the ideological struggles of the 1900s that culminated in the Cold War confrontation between the “free” world led by the United States and the communist world led by the post-1917 Soviet incarnation of the Russian Empire.2 With the collapse of the Soviet experiment in 1991, Russia’s disastrous attempts to transition to a market economy and a multiparty democracy have led to the reassertion of authoritarianism and statist tendencies under Vladimir Putin, implicitly calling into question the triumphalism of the early 1990s.3 Augmenting the confusion is that educated Russians, since the reign of Peter the Great (d. 1725), have been divided about where they belong.4 The debate continues about whether early Russia would have evolved into a feudal monarchy with an autonomous Church, permanent aristocracy and corporate privileges for towns and cities, were it not for the Mongol conquest and domination of Russia from 1240-1480. Another view is that Russia is diff erent from the West and the rest and has its own traditions that do not need fundamental reform inspired by foreign models though technology transfers are welcome.