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How accurate was the commonplace 17th century European view that Russia was a backward, weak, isolated and barbarous state?

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Introduction

How accurate was the commonplace 17th century European view that Russia was a backward, weak, isolated and barbarous state? It must be said that in a broad sense the view (held by most Europeans in the 17th century) that Russia was broadly accurate. Russia was definitely a less developed state that those in Western Europe in several ways. The most widely published works on the subject (Herbertstein's Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, and Olearioys's Neue Bechreibung der Moscowitschen), both draw a picture of a socio-political order which stood in sharp contrast to west European societies on critical counts. In these works the essential features of the Russian state were: the tsar's undisputed rule of the country and its inhabitants, the status of the people (whether of high or low degree) as his slaves and serfs; the recognition of his will as the will of God, and his possessions of all his subjects' property. Thus the question is now to see exactly to what extent the Russian state was "backward, weak, isolated and barbarous", and to find the causes for it. Backwardness is essentially the measurement of the social and technological development of a country. Due to the total subordination to nature that existed in the 17th century, the two most decisive factors in these two areas were the soil and climate of a nation. In terms of soil, Russian can be divided into two zones. The north zone occupies the northern half, from the Arctic Circle to between 45 and 50 degrees. ...read more.

Middle

The poor natural conditions made for low yields, this resulted in poverty, and poverty meant that there were no buyers for agricultural produce, this lack of buyers would then discourage yield improvements. What little trading that did occur with foreigners was conduct by the tsar and the richest landlords who preferred to import only luxuries, and not items that would benefit the country's economy. So far we have seen that Russian was clearly unable to support a high level of development, and compared to the rest of Europe it was indeed backward technologically speaking and, also isolated physically, economically and politically. We can take the term 'weakness' to be the stability of government, and its security against foreign invasion. These features would always be difficult ones to achieve for Russia, formed as it was from a multitude of self-contained and self-governing communities. To begin with Russia was split roughly into individual principalities, around which existed a free and exceedingly mobile population. Within his own private domain however, the prince would exercise authority both as a sovereign and proprietor. Here he was in full command, an outright owner of all men and things. Initially the population of the princely domain consisted mainly of slaves and other persons bonded in one form or another to the proprietor. Outside his domains, the ruler exercised very little authority, being confined largely to the collection of tribute. From the solid base of authority that were their private domains, the Russian princes gradually spread their power over the free population. ...read more.

Conclusion

The campaigns in the west (that ended around 1660) had changed the Tsar, and opened his eyes to the possibility of moulding an imperial environment for himself. Within a matter of months, hundreds of foreign craftsmen and artists were brought to Muscovy. Silver caskets, dishes, plates, knives, forks, trees for his gardens, carriages, Spanish uniforms, armchairs, and even a glass summerhouse were all ordered from the west. As well as these luxuries, he also ordered doctors, alchemists, herbal books, spring makers, birds and glassmakers. Indeed Alexis' efforts seem to have been genuinely concerned with his country's economic health and military strength. This evidence suggests that barbarianism was not at the heart of Russian mentality, and was merely a way of life crafted out of the harsh history of its people. We can see that Russia was willing to tang and making positive steps to do so, but for the majority of the 17th century at least the Russian people as a whole lived in a comparatively barbarous society. In conclusion one can see that the allegations of "backwardness, isolation, and weakness" are far easier to justify that that of a barbarian society. Russia was through various historical and geographical causes, considerably less advanced technologically, had a much weaker government, and was thus isolated from the west politically and economically (as well as geographically). Barbarianism however is somewhat harder to justify. Slavery was the natural state of most Russians at the time, but the willingness and desire to adopt western ways of life proves that they were not a totally barbarian people. ...read more.

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