CLIO mr brice - page 5

Trapped between ‘Western’ and
‘Russian’ ideals, cultural conflict
in the Russian Empire over the
nineteenth century was at the fore.
Beginning with French primacy over
the Russian language, the conflict
developed through Slavophilia
and later Russification, reflecting a
nation struggling to define itself. Yet
language was also used to suppress
self-determining regions of the
Empire, a powerful tool to destroy
cultural autonomy.
As the French army steadily
approached the Russian borderlands
during the Napoleonic Wars, one
would assume it would be a time
of Francophobia and solidarity in
the face of conflict. Yet the Russian
elites seemed content to converse in
the fashionable French. Indeed, it
was widely noted that many of the
elite spoke their native Russian with
a French accent; Russian was for
children and servants. The primacy
of French seemed to originate in
the attractive ideals it symbolised.
The extravagant French speaking
court of Catherine the Great (and
subsequent Tsars) coincided with her
pursuit of the liberal and progressive
ideals of the Enlightenment.
The westernised ideals that it
accompanied, such as civil freedoms
and reformed judicial systems,
were attractive to the comparatively
backwards Russia. Even earlier,
Peter the Great’s building of
the architecturally European St
Petersburg marked a departure
from the muscovite tradition. Peter
further simplified the alphabet,
aligning it further with the western
writing and language. Yet with the
advent of the republican French
Revolution, Catherine renounced
her Francophilic behaviour, the
ideological threat to her autocratic
dynasty leading to a return to
supposedly ‘Russian’ values. Yet the
French language prevailed among
the elite.
Perhaps this is also due to the
ineptitude of the Russian language.
The divide between the written and
spoken language was enormous;
both were a melting pot of
multiple influences that had not
yet created a coherent language.
In order to write, Russian authors
found themselves reaching out
to French to explain concepts, or
even creating new Russian words
themselves. Figes gives the example
of Pushkin having to use the French
‘individualité’ in order to clarify
the Russian ‘samobtnost,’ in order
to clarify his meaning of personal
identity. Furthermore, even if the
French values became reviled, their
culture was much admired. This
can be seen in the development
of the Russian ballet over the
nineteenth century, a typically
French art form. Thus, while the
primacy of French originated in
the attractive Enlightenment ideals,
it was sustained by the limited
nature of the Russian language
and admiration of the French
culture. The primacy of French
further reflected the belief that in
order to advance, Russia must look
to Western industrialisation and
agricultural modernisation, through
reforms such as the Emancipation of
the Serfs.
While French remained the language
of the elite, a growing Slavophile
movement sought to protect what
it saw as typical Russian ideals
and culture. This movement can
be seen in the development and
idolisation of the Russian language
by intellectuals during the 19th
Century, following the Napoleonic
wars. Originally a combination
of ‘Church Slavonic’ - the native
vernacular - and the style of Western
European high court, many writers
tried to create a compromised
literary language from these roots.
While, as popular myth goes, it was
Pushkin who finally synthesised and
finalised this language, other writers
such as Lomonosov, Derzhavin
and Karamzin made notable
efforts. Widespread Slavophilia
could be seen through the process
of westernised words, originally
made popular by Peter the Great,
passing out of popular use. This
could be seen as a reflection of
westernised ideals becoming less
popular, and instead ‘Russian’
ideals coming to the fore. The
focus on the Russian language
was in line with the Slavophile
belief that Russia was naturally
superior to Western nations, and its
traditional institutions such as the
mir and rural life which were seen
as desirably simple and authentic.
While divided on many issues (for
example there was contention as to
whether democracy or autocracy
was more intrinsic to Russian
ideals), they united against Western
influence on Russia. Many even
opposed industrialisation.
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