Russian Republican Thought of the 18th Century

Organizer:
Центр «Res Publica»
Project start date:
2019-11-27

The project studies the archaeology and genealogy of thought of the Russian Enlightenment and republican traditions of Russian culture that have emerged in the last third of the 18th century. We are interested in the formation of the Russian political language and basic political concepts reflecting the republican values of the common good and modeling the possible options of a common cause. The study combines critical distance and analysis of historical forms of republican thought. It also aims to identify their genealogical relationship with modern forms and the study of the moments of discontinuities. Many elements of the thinking style of the republican Enlightenment have been preserved thanks to the Russian literature. At the level of intuitions, they influence modern ways of political thinking and critical assessment of the situation in the language, suggesting forms and methods of political action of the subject. The project explores historical forms of understanding the state, including its republican definition as a way of civic self-organization, civic solidarity and activity, based on respect for human dignity in civic life.

Formation of the public sphere and the republican type of political subjectivity

New technologies and the transformation of the communications system, the creation of safer and cheaper roads, and the organization of the postal service made the active exchange of experience with Europe possible at the end of the 18th century. A much larger number of young people from different social strata (but above all noble elites) get the opportunity to study at leading universities in Europe and attend internships there. A broad program of translations of the latest works of European literature into Russian also expands the boundaries of the intellectual space and involves educated people who are used to reading Russian to engage in discussions of current topics. Practices of joint readings and intellectual fashion formed among the educated elites and the younger generation a common style of thought that united people of different political views. The intellectual tradition of republicanism comes to Russia from Europe in several waves along with texts in European languages.

The public sphere was taking shape in Russia in the last third of the 18th century. The urban landscape was undergoing reconstruction. Various forms of public space emerged. Active communication and a common vision of problems were formed in this context. Audiences and public intellectuals, as new types of critical reflection and cultural practices, become possible thanks to theaters, gardens, magazines, and voluntary civic associations. This direction of research is connected with the study of new forms of social experience and cultural practices that determined the type of moral subject and the possibility of its social and political action, its intellectual, social and political emancipation. Many of these life forms inherited by us from Catherine the Great's times are not reflected upon and seem to be taken for granted, and it is difficult for us to imagine life without them as it was under Alexei Mikhailovich, under Peter the Great, and until the last third of the 18th century. Changes in daily life, which we still experience today, occurred at this time not only due to state policy, but also due to the process of social development, change and emancipation of an educated society that is not amenable to direct control. The foundations of republicanism in Russia were laid by changes in the minds and in the social reality characteristic for the Russian Enlightenment, the way people of that time saw their social world and acted in it.

Formation of the Russian political language of the turn of the 18th-19th centuries: basic concepts and values of republicanism

This direction is devoted to the study of political thinking and language, based on the analysis of works of different genres (theoretical treatises, poetic and edifying works), the study of translation practices and literary transcriptions, methods of reception and critical interpretation of the main themes of the European republican tradition. The tradition of political debates was formed in Russia in the 18th century. These debates were ousted into the realm of literature under the pressure of censorship and, thanks to literature, they survived numerous repressions and suppression, and turned into basic intuitions of modern morality.

Concepts and language practices of the literary civil language emerging in the Enlightenment era at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries reflect political, legal and ordinary views of the educated circles about the nature of people living as a community. New meanings and values, internalized thanks to literature and cultural practices, inspired a generation in Russia capable of appreciating dedication to the cause rather than the sovereign, mutual respect rather than the grace of the nobles, willingness to sacrifice the individual for the common good, to see the benefits of joining forces, the desire to make individual contribution to the common cause for the sake of improving the general living conditions for everyone, and finally to creatively oppose the injustice of civilian life, to be ready for a peaceful solidarity protest and to say "no" to arbitrary power. The republican form of social life is historical. We are exploring an era when Russia had the opportunity to form a different public choice and type of civil subject. An era from which the moral concept of civic justice and a critical attitude to the practices of the police state have survived until nowadays at the level of common sense. At the turn of the 18th-19th centuries, we find not the understanding of the “state” as a form of violence of some groups over others, but an attitude towards it as a common cause with an active civic stance, when the society was not opposed to power. People of that time talked about the possibilities of self-organization. They believed in the opportunity to convince each other and the government with the help of reasoning and to join efforts to change the forms of common existence, making their own contribution and sacrificing their energy, time and resources for the common good.

Many texts refer to the republican neo-Roman version of the social contract concept and articulate confidence in the possibility of freedom, respect for the rights of citizens and their protection from domination both in a monarchy or a presidential republic if the monarch, like all citizens, obeys the law and is accountable to civil society, which delegated great authority to him, and if he rules according to the principle of the common good. Regardless of political preferences and of what kind of career people chose for themselves or how they treated public service, they were united by respect for human dignity and the belief that the state is not an alien force, but their common cause, a form of social organization for solving political problems. They shared common active citizenship and confidence in their ability to actively influence their living conditions. The ability to self-organize based on a sense of civic solidarity was formed and developed. They discussed the ability to create desired forms of living together, to improve one’s own society and to control those in power, so that they would not shy away from serving the common good.

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