10 Facts About the Russian Enlightenment | History Hit

10 Facts About the Russian Enlightenment

Alex Spencer

23 Nov 2021
Monument of Peter the Great on a ship in Moscow.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Russian Enlightenment was a wave of cultural change in Russia, inspired by the enlightenment ideas of Western Europe, which swept the empire as it emerged from its medieval period.

Although the Russian Enlightenment peaked in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, it first found its footing under Peter the Great in the 17th century, whose government started to encourage the proliferation of the arts and sciences.

The movement encouraged key developments in various fields – including mathematics, architecture and fashion – and laid many of the foundations for Russian governmental institutions today.

Here are 10 facts about the Russian Enlightenment.

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1. The Enlightenment was started by Peter the Great

The Russian Enlightenment began with the Russian state’s emergence from its medieval period, especially during the reign of Peter the Great. Peter became Tsar of Russia in 1682 when he was only 10 years old. When he reached adulthood, Peter began to search for ways to modernise Russia.

2. It was a form of absolutism

In early modern Russia, enlightenment ideals (progress, innovation, the search for knowledge) coexisted within an absolutist political system. In other words, the Russian Enlightenment was instigated by an absolute ruler, Peter the Great, making his rule one of ‘Enlightened Absolutism’, in which leaders used their total power to encourage change and innovation.

Portrait of Peter I by Jean-Marc Nattier.

Image Credit: The Hermitage, St. Petersburg / Public Domain

3. Russian nobles were sent abroad to learn

Peter the Great sent nobles abroad to study Western culture and bring back knowledge about science, mathematics, literature and other subjects that had not been taught in Russian schools before.

4. It led to the modernisation of Russia’s military

Peter the Great’s first major goal was to modernise Russia’s military forces. He built a new, European-style Russian army and launched the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against Sweden, which was then an emerging power in Europe. Although Russia eventually lost the war, Peter’s reforms succeeded in strengthening Russian military forces considerably.

5. St Petersburg became the capital of Enlightenment Russia

In 1698, Peter ordered the city of St Petersburg to be built at the head of the Gulf of Finland, where it would serve as a Russian port for trade with Western countries. Peter hired Italian and German architects to design it.

The city became Russia’s capital when Peter finally defeated Sweden in 1721 and would remain so until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood on Griboyedov Canal in the early morning light, St Petersburg.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

6. The Enlightenment dictated Russian fashion

Around the turn of the 18th century, Peter moved on to reforming Russian society itself. In 1703 he made what amounted to a test of Russian nobles’ loyalty by forcing many of them to shave their beards, which Russian men had worn for centuries as symbols of manliness. Peter proclaimed that Russian men should dress like Western Europeans, with short hair and beards and Western European-style clothes and shoes.

Russian women were expected to have long hair covered by a scarf or wig. They were expected to dress in the French fashion of long skirts held out by petticoats under a jacket with sleeves reaching the wrists. Peter also banned Russians from wearing hats with brims so they would not look like Swedes, who had worn them since the 17th century.

7. Peter the Great changed the Russian calendar

In 1699, Peter changed the date of the new year from 1 September to 1 January. Traditionally in Russia, the years were kept according to the creation of the World but after Peter’s reforms, they were counted from the birth of Christ. So the year 7207 of the old Russian calendar became the year 1700 under the Julian Calendar.

8. The Russian Enlightenment peaked under Catherine the Great

Catherine became the reigning ruler of Russia in 1762 after she overthrew her husband, Peter III, in a bloodless coup. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernise Russia, so much so that her reign is sometimes referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Russia’.

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Under her rule, Russia produced more goods and enlisted thousands of troops to acquire new lands, including Crimea and Poland.

9. Not a lot changed for serfs

Despite advances in arts and science during the Russian Enlightenment, military conscription and the economy still depended on serfdom (the indentured servitude of peasants). In fact, the increasing demands of the state and private landowners meant even more exploitation of serf labour.

10. The Enlightenment era went into decline after Catherine’s death

The Russian Enlightenment was on the wane as Catherine’s son, Emperor Paul, ascended the throne in 1796. During the first year of his reign, Paul emphatically reversed many of his mother’s policies, trying to enforce the medieval code of chivalry on the gentry.

Tags: Catherine the Great Peter the Great

Alex Spencer