Achievements and limitations of the Enlightenment in Russia.

Anyone who thinks of science today will agree that the leading science nation during the second half of the 20th century were the USA. There would also not be any dispute that Russia was the biggest competitor of the USA, not only in politics but also in science. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed the political landscape, but Russia remains at the forefront of science still today. This is clearly demonstrated by the international space station programme, which since February 2003 until well into 2006 depended entirely on Russian space transportation while the space shuttle fleet of the USA was grounded. It is worth studying the process through which Russia achieved its status of an advanced science nation.

Everyone knows that the October Revolution of 1917 ended tsarist rule in Russia and established the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). Most also know that before the revolution Russia was in an extremely backward state and could not be considered an industrialized country. How did Russia fall into such a backward position relative to western Europe, when in the 18th century it was the fourth country to establish an Academy of Sciences? On the eve of the October Revolution the Russian Academy was approaching its 200 year anniversary. What happened to Russia during those two centuries that prevented it from keeping up with the social and scientific development of western Europe? This is the question we want to answer in this lecture.

The formation of the Russian state.

The vast Russian land was settled in the second millennium BC by people of diverse origin. From about 300 BC Slavic people began to dominate, and by 300 AD the distinction between East, West and South Slavs was established. The country was the home of many independent clans, who practiced agriculture and husbandry and were locked in constant power struggles.

The 8th century saw the arrival of commercial explorers along the estuaries of rivers. They were followed by Germanic commercial-military bands that found amber, furs, honey, wax, and timber products. This led to the development of trade, although the distinction between fair trade, extortion of tribute and straight plunder is difficult to make out today. Thesituation changed in the 9th century, when Vikings known as Varangians arrived in about 855 – 862 to establish an organized administration in the city and region of Novgorod. Their leader Rurik was the founder of the dynasty that ruled for the next 600 years. He and his successors followed the practice to hand out parts of the vast country to their various sons, which resulted in the spreading of organized government but also in the continuation of strife between competing rulers.

The details of Viking rule in Novgorod are sketchy. Viking presence is clearly documented from archaeological finds of artefacts. But Novgorod was already an important trading centre and culturally superior to Viking traditions when Rurik arrived, and the Viking rulers were soon assimilated into its society. Their interest in raiding places of wealth was, however, undiminished and directed principally against the Byzantine empire, the centre of political power in the west. This resulted in 907 in a first trading agreement with Constantinople, which gave Russian merchants the right to trade in the Byzantine capital (Anderle et al., 1966).

The following centuries saw much conflict between the various principalities. Kiev, a foundation of Rurik’s kinsman Oleg, became a leading power for 300 years until its destruction in 1169. Novgorod retained its importance; as a city of trade it was governed by an oligarchy of the city’s merchants and bankers and only formally ruled by a prince. During the 12th and 13th centuries it rivalled cities like Rome, Cologne, Paris and London in importance and had extensive colonial possessions.

The Mongol (Tatar) invasion in 1237 – 1238 turned the Russian principalities for more than 200 years into vassal states of the Golden Horde. Although the Russian princes were allowed to continue their reign, destruction of Russia’s cities from Mongol raids and continuous payment of tribute led to a severe reduction of Russia’s wealth. The Tatar domination was eventually broken in the 15th century, when the grand prince Ivan the Great of Moscow ended the payment of tribute and conquered Novgorod and its possessions.

The reign of Ivan the Great signified a qualitative change in Russia’s development. The Byzantine empire had come to its end in 1453, when Constantinople had been taken by the Ottoman army. 19 years later Ivan asserted Russia’s claim as the new centre of power in Europe’s east by marrying the daughter of the last Byzantine emperor. His grandson Ivan the Terrible completed the unification of the country and took the title tsar (emperor) of Russia.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans meant that access to the sea, which was essential for successful trade, was no longer available through the Mediterranean Sea and had to be found elsewhere. Gaining access to the Baltic Sea thus became a primary aim of Russian politics. It was finally reached by tsar Peter the Great during the 18th century through the foundation of Saint Petersburg on land taken from Swedish control.

Evolution of society in Russia.

The development of social classes and feudalism in Russia was similar to the development elsewhere in Europe and Asia, the major difference being the relatively low importance of slavery in the process. The increasing economical dependence of the peasants on their feudal landlords led to the alternative system of serfdom, in which the peasants are regarded as part of the land; in other words, land and people were not purchased and sold separately (as was the case in slave societies). The system was still in flux during the 11th and 12th centuries; the law of the time listed several classes of peasants of various degrees of dependency including slavery. Bad harvests forced peasants to take loans at exorbitant rates; an edict of 1113 by prince Wladimir Monomarch that sets the highest allowable interest at 50% (Anderle et al., 1966) gives a vivid illustration of the process.

The introduction of the three-field system during the 13th and 14th centuries intensified the pressure on the peasants. In 1497 the law removed the right to freedom of movement from the peasants, and serfdom became more or less universal. This did not stop landlords from chasing their serfs from the land during times of famine without giving up their title to them, and during the “Years of Trouble” of the 17th century thousands of serfs roamed the countryside to survive.

Christianity was introduced into Russia following the marriage of Anna, sister of the Byzantine emperor Basileios II, with prince Wladimir (who became Saint Wladimir as the result) in 986. The foundation of episcopates with Greek bishops from the Byzantine church established the church as a major landlord in Russia as well and as another player in the continuous struggle between the various centres of political power.

The political unification of the country did not end the fractionation into many competing feudal fiefdoms, and quarrels between the boyars (the hereditary warrior class inherited from the Viking past) continued. At the same time when the many branches of the Medici bank around Europe strengthened the role of profit as a motor of the economy in the west (Lecture 17), Ivan the Great was still trying to reduce the power of the boyars and strengthen the central government – Russia was not ready for the Renaissance.

The situation had changed little one hundred years later, when the Copernican debate swept through Europe and the reformation indicated the beginning of a new economic age. Ivan the Terrible was profoundly aware of the need for change in Russia and decided to end the power of the boyars and the church by establishing a new administrator class. When this met with boyar resistance Ivan created his own state within the state. The strategy went tragically wrong, and generations remember Ivan more for the reign of terror that he unleashed against the landed aristocracy than for his improved administration and for his support of cultural development. The population of Moscow grew to over 100,000 inhabitants during his reign (Anderle et al., 1966).

Ivan’s reforms were not completed when he died in 1584, and irrational policies during his last years left Russia in turmoil. The civil war of 1598 – 1613, known as the “Years of Trouble,” saw the first nationwide peasant revolt, which brought a peasant army to the gates of Moscow.

Another one hundred years later Europe had seen the establishment of the first bourgeois governments and entered the Enlightenment, while Russia was still under the control of the landed gentry and each aristocrat was his own little tsar over his serfs. Peter the Great, who had become tsar in 1689 at the age of 17, realized that modernization in Russia was overdue. He noticed the colonial adventures of the new capitalist powers and decided that as a landlocked country Russia needed a navy and a port. In the eighth year of his reign, at the age of 25, he went to Europe and worked incognito in Dutch and English shipyards to learn everything about shipbuilding. After his return he established a state shipyard and supervised the construction of the first sea-going Russian fleet. During his time in western Europe he had also visited schools, factories and museums and used what he had learnt to reform the entire country. He founded Saint Petersburg, established the Academy of Sciences and transformed Russia into an European country. At the end of his reign Russia could rightly claim to belong to the group of leading European nations.

Russian science during the Enlightenment.

Given the backward state of Russia compared with England and France a sensible strategy for the development of science in Russia was to attract foreign scientists to the country. Swapping the lively discussion of academic circles in London or Paris with life in Russia was of course not an enticing prospect for any scientist of rank, but the majestic buildings that grew along the wide avenues of St. Petersburg promised a new intellectual centre, and when Peter’s widow Catherine I opened the Academy in 1725 it did not take long before famous names were associated with it. Nicolaus (II) Bernoulli and Daniel Bernoulli of the famous Swiss family of mathematicians were among the first of its members. Others included the geometer Jakob Hermann and the scholar Christian Goldbach from Germany. (O’Connor and Robertson, 2004)

Daniel Bernoulli’s name is today mainly connected with his applications of mathematics to problems of fluid dynamics such as the Bernoulli theorem and the equilibrium tide, work he published after he had left St. Petersburg. As a member of the Academy he lectured in medicine, mechanics and physics, and many of his ideas developed while he worked in Russia.

Two years after the opening of the Academy Bernoulli was joined by Leonard Euler, one of the most gifted mathematicians of Europe and probably the most prolific mathematical writer ever. Euler wrote most of his 856 books and articles in Latin, still the language of science in Russia and elsewhere. He reviewed much of the existing science from a mathematical point of view and presented it as a system of cohesive ideas in the process. His book Mechanica, published 1736 – 1737, presented Newtonian dynamics in the form of mathematical analysis and prepared the way for major developments in analytic geometry and trigonometry. Many elements of modern mathematical notation, such as f(x) for a function, e for the base of natural logarithms, i for the square root of -1, π for pi, Σ for summation and many others were first introduced by Euler. In the area of applied mathematics Euler studied continuum mechanics, elasticity, acoustics, the wave theory of light, hydraulics, and music. In his Theory of the Motions of Rigid Bodies of 1765 he laid the foundation of analytical mechanics. His formulation of the continuity of fluid media in motion is the basis of most numerical models for weather forecasting, aerodynamics and other applied fields.

Euler left the Academy on an invitation from the Prussian king Frederick the Great, who had watched the development in St. Petersburg closely and was determined to establish his own Academy of Sciences in Berlin. The Prussian king was known to speak only French at his court, and Euler may have been attracted by the idea that Berlin was intellectually closer to Paris then St. Petersburg. The king, who called Euler “my professor,” charged him with such practical problems as the correction of the level of the Finow Canal and the supervision of work on the pumps and pipes of the hydraulic system at the royal summer residence Sans Souci.

During the 25 years in Berlin Euler kept up his support for the Russian Academy, buying and sending books and instruments to St. Petersburg and lecturing to Russian students, for which the Academy kept him on partial pay. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1766 and continued to work there until his death 17 years later. For the next 50 years the Academy continued to publish his posthumous works. Russia owes him its strong mathematical tradition, which continues undiminished today.

The first Russian to join the Academy of St. Petersburg was Mikhail Lomonosov. His life history provides the first indicators for an answer to our initial question what prevented Russia from maintaining the speed of development and caused it to fall back again behind other European countries. Lomonosov is an example for the untapped intellectual potential that could have been found in Russia’s vast population. At the age of 19 he left the village of his birth at the shores of the White Sea and walked to Moscow, determined to study. But even under the progressive reforms of Peter the Great the society could not face the prospect of allowing a poor fisherman’s son to enter a university. By disguising his family background Lomonosov managed to enter the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy. Under great financial hardship and harassed by his fellow students he completed its eight-year course in five years. Eventually his academic gifts could no longer be ignored, and in 1741, at the age of 30, he was admitted to the Academy. Seven years later he was given funds to build a laboratory, where within three years he performed and documented over 4,000 experiments.

Today Lomonosov’s name is linked to several fields of earth sciences including geography, geology and oceanography. Lomonosov participated in research voyages into the Arctic Seas and into Russia’s northern regions. In his publications he showed great interest in assessing Russia’s mineral wealth and promoting the development of new industries.

Lomonosov was one of the most gifted scientists of the Enlightenment. His humanist ideals and materialist outlook continued to make him enemies among the Russian nobility, but his achievements were recognized in Europe through his election as Fellow of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and of the Academy of Bologna. When he died Empress Catherine had no choice but to agree to a state funeral for him – but confiscated all his works and locked them away in the imperial archives.

Return to the values of the past.

Lomonosov’s funeral marked the end of progress in Russia and the beginning of 150 years of stagnation. How could such a promising beginning lead to another century of serfdom and intellectually stifled society?

The answer is found in the measures that Peter the Great adopted to let Russia participate in the industrial development and in the scientific revolution. Capitalism requires a working class and a bourgeoisie. Both did not exist in Russia, so Peter the Great had to create them. He introduced a classification of townspeople based on wealth and gave privileges to rich citizens. But this promoted mainly the development of trade without creating new industrial enterprise. Much of the initial industrial development such as shipyards, ironworks and other heavy industry was therefore done through the creation of state industries. The difficulty the tsar faced was that in a country where the peasants are owned by the landed gentry it is not easy to find the free labour required for the new industries. In the end Peter resorted to reliance on the aristocracy, the traditional pillar of political power. Nobles who agreed to start a factory on their land simply transferred their peasants to factory work, but the new factory workers remained their property, and the system of serfdom continued.

In England and France capitalism had established itself through revolutions that had wide popular support and were in fact carried by the common people. The Russian feudal system, too, could only be overcome through a movement that could enjoy the support of the common people. Peter’s policy of forcing peasants into factories without freeing them from their status as serfs achieved the opposite: Peasant revolts sprang up everywhere and had to be suppressed.

Successful as it was during his lifetime, the modernization programme of Peter the Great carried the seeds of its own failure in it. The aristocracy could not see the value of running factories when it could support its life of luxury consumption from exploitation of the land and the peasants, and Peter’s programme met with widespread resistance. Peter’s widow Catherine I and Empress Elizabeth who followed her could control the reactionary forces to some extent. The coming to the throne of Catherine II marked the return of the aristocracy to power and the adoption of a truly feudal attitude. Development of the nation was again defined as spending large resources not on new industry but on splendid architecture and other works of outward representation, financed through heavy taxation and exploitation of the peasants.

For her successes in turning St. Petersburg into a dazzling centre of European culture Catherine II has been called Catherine the Great. But her return to the old Russian order relegated culture and intellectual endevour to ornaments of the court. This is amply demonstrated by the funeral organized for Lomonosov, who had not only been a brilliant scientist but also a reasonably gifted poet: Catherine arranged his state funeral not to honour the first great Russian scientist, whose works she confiscated, but as a gesture to the “court poet.”

A century after Lomonosov’s experiments at the Academy Dmitry Mendeleyev, one of the greatest chemists of all time, still had to struggle with the same limitations that had caused Lomonosov so much suffering. Coming from the distant provinces of Siberia, Mendeleyev was not allowed to enter the universities of Moscow or St. Petersburg and had to accept training at a pedagogic institute. It took ten years before his outstanding gifts as a chemist forced the University of St. Petersburg to relent and accept him as a corresponding member. (Mendeleyev’s outstanding achievements will be discussed in detail in the next lecture.)

Mendeleyev died in 1907 and did not live to see the change that gave science in Russia the position it deserved. Ten years after his death the October Revolution of 1917 ended feudalism in Russia and lead to rapid development of Russia’s science.

A first biography of Lomonosov was published in the Soviet Union in 1937. Lomonosov’s complete works appeared during the years 1950 – 1983, some 200 years after they were written, and Moscow University was renamed Lomonosov University. In 1957 the Academy of Sciences founded Akademgorodok (“Academic Town”) near Novosibirsk, a city dedicated to science which now houses some 20 research institutions and a university. The establishment of Russia as a scientific power that could rival the USA found a solid base in the contributions of Bernoulli, Euler, Lomonosov and Mendeleyev during the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was in essence the work of the Soviet government after the October Revolution.

  • During the Enlightenment tsar Peter the Great made a major effort to modernize Russia and establish the country as a major power of Europe.
  • The Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg attracted leading European scientists and developed into a centre of science, particularly in mathematics.
  • Mikhail Lomonosov, the first Russian member of the Academy and one of the greatest scientists of the Enlightenment, made outstanding contributions in several fields of earth sciences.
  • The decision of Peter the Great to use the aristocracy as the main avenue for modernization alienated the common people from his reforms and did not neutralise the reactionary forces in the nobility. As a result Russia fell back into the old system of feudalism based on serfdom after his death.
  • Thereafter, favourable conditions for the development of Russian science were not established until the creation of the USSR.

Matthias Tomczak /2009


Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.

O’Connor, J. J. and E. F. Robertson: Leonard Euler. http://www-groups.cs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Euler.html (accessed 29 February 2004.

SOURCE   http://www.es.flinders.edu.au/


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