Putin's Precursors

In Russia, Modernization and Westernization are hardly one and the same thing. Persistent attempts to achieve the former while avoiding the latter have been a majpr source of Russian repression.

Issue: Summer 2000

Historians explain that for several centuries Russia's elites have been divided between "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles." The former advocate the adoption of Western ways, the latter seek to keep Russia isolated from Europe's decadent and alien traditions. Peter the Great is often depicted as the father figure of the Westernizers, while Ivan the Terrible is credited with inaugurating the long succession of tyrants that fought to safeguard Russia's "soul" against alien encroachment.

But such analysis is inadequate. It fails to account for what has been called "Peter the Great's dilemma": Is it possible to bring an end to Russian barbarism by using barbaric means? Should Peter -- "the awful Emperor", as Pushkin dubbed him -- be considered a Westernizer simply because he created "a window on Europe", or a Slavophile, on account of his frightful brutality?

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