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Russia Engages the World

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, May/June 2003 | Volume 24, Number 3

The writer Voltaire records that in 1694, twenty-two-year-old Peter I “went to Archangel, where, having had a small ship built . . . he set sail on the White Sea, which no czar before him had ever laid eyes on.”

Peter made peace with the Chinese and war with the Swedes. He traveled incognito to learn shipbuilding and procured a navy before he had a port. He envisioned a great system of canals to join the Caspian and Black Seas and Russia’s great rivers--linking the Russian Empire as never before. He set in motion reforms needed for Russia to compete with European powers in education, culture, and trade; and in 1703 he established St. Petersburg as his capital.

By the end of that century, Russia had become a vast, multiethnic empire stretching from Europe to the Americas with Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Caucasian peoples, Armenians, Georgians, Crimeans, and Siberians in its borders.

It flourished under the leadership of Peter, who ruled from 1689 to 1725 and would be known as Peter the Great. With the succession of Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, Russia emerged from isolation to become a world power in just one hundred and fifty years.

This incredible expansion is examined in the New York Public Library’s exhibition, “From Isolation to Empire: Russia Engages the World,” which includes two hundred and fifty rare books, manuscripts, maps, and engravings selected from the NYPL’s own collection. The NEH-supported exhibition will run from October 2003 through early winter of 2004. It marks the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city of St. Petersburg. The items in the exhibition, most of which have never been exhibited before, date from the fifteenth century to 1825 and reflect Russia’s opening up to Europe and the world.

The impact of Peter the Great on the creation of the Russian Empire is enormous. He grew up in the isolated world of Moscow, the son of Czar Aleksei Mikhailovich. His father died when Peter was ten, and he and his invalid half-brother, Ivan, ruled together for a short time after deposing their older sister Sophia. When Ivan died, Peter, at age twenty-four, became sole czar.

Peter’s formal education was sparse. He taught himself German and Dutch and was eager to acquire knowledge. In 1697 Peter decided to learn more about Western culture and made his first of two trips to Europe, traveling to Germany, the Netherlands, England, and Austria. He brought back with him hundreds of men to command and train his new navy and three hundred artisans to train his populace.

Back in Moscow, Peter set in motion reforms to modernize Russia based on European models. “It was a period of real opening up,” says Edward Kasinec, curator of the New York Public Library’s Slavic and Eastern Collection and co-curator of the exhibition with Robert Davis, librarian in the Slavic and Baltic Collection. “The entire administrative, military, religious, and social orders were overhauled, and European tastes in architecture and the fine and decorative arts were imposed,” says Kasinec. Among other things, Peter changed the calendar to match Europe’s, discontinued the office of church Patriarch, and penalized Russians who would not shave their beards and adopt European clothing.

It was a Russia different from the closed, medieval world of the sixteenth century, when the earliest travelers came to Moscow. Then visitors encountered an isolated society, one little touched by the European civilization of the four previous centuries that included the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation. The region known as Muscovy, centered in Moscow, had changed relatively little in that time, dominated by religious rituals and a powerful czar, who was also a religious figure. Manuscripts were still being copied by hand. Although the printing press made its way to Russia by the 1560s, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, only about one hundred and fifty books were actually in print through the 1680s. They were predominantly religious in nature.

“Foreign visitors found a court steeped in religiosity and internecine problems focusing on land and consolidations of land,” says Kasinec. “Here were European tradesmen, diplomats, and scholars observing a religion that was very strange to them.”

Printing helped begin Russia’s transformation into a world power. “Objects are secondary to the works on paper. The exhibition is based almost exclusively on NYPL printed holdings,” says Kasinec. The exhibition contains examples of the earliest Muscovite books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Until the late seventeenth century almost all the books in Muscovy were religious and printed according to the language and script of the Orthodox Church. One of the rarest items is the sixteenth-century manuscript, The Ladder to Paradise described in the writings of the sixth-century mystic St. John Climacus. The first secular books published were Jakob Walhausen’s 1647 military manual, and the Law Code of 1649.

Under Peter, Russian Cyrillic lettering was simplified and Arabic numerals were introduced. In 1703 Peter introduced a printing press with Cyrillic and Roman type. More secular books were printed, including translations of western literature. Materials in the exhibition include Western language imprints commissioned to Dutch printers by Peter, as well as the first examples of secular works printed in the reformed Russian orthography.

“The increase in the number of printing facilities under Peter and his successors, the wide variety of typefaces used, in many languages, as well as the type of works produced, predominantly secular, are at once symptom and cause of Russia’s globalization,” says Kasinec.

More libraries based on the Western European model aided intellectual expansion. Peter’s curiosity extended to the scientific world. He established the Academy of Sciences in 1725 and encouraged scientific and scholarly study.

The jewel of his empire was St. Petersburg. In 1703, to symbolize the cultural revolution he had engineered, Peter began building a new capital city at the former Swedish fortification located on the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. Its Baltic port was practical from an economic and military point of view, but it was also symbolic of Russia looking westward for its cultural direction. Soon Peter would demonstrate Russia’s military might through his defeat of Sweden in 1709.

“Peter’s hand is seen in the city’s construction,” says Kasinec. “The exhibition displays some remarkable maps that show its growth to a great imperial city.” The display includes eighteenth-century panoramic engravings of the city by baroque artist Mikhail Makhaev.

St. Petersburg became a cultural center and repository of writings from around the globe. The exhibition examines the institutions and individuals who collected and interpreted objects of world culture, most predominantly Peter’s Kunstkammer, one of the first museums to collect scientific objects, and the Academy of Sciences Library.

“The new capital city became a collecting point for materials produced by the diverse minority cultures living in the territories of the empire, ranging from Tungusic Siberian indigenous peoples, to the Armenians and Georgians of the Caucasus, from Jews of the Pale to the Turkic-speaking peoples of the eastern borderlands,” says Kasinec. Objects acquired on voyages to the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, and the Far East made their way back to the capital as well, where they were documented and studied.

Peter sent explorers to travel across his empire and chart the Russian territory and its borders. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Russian cartographers and scholars had completed one of the most comprehensive mappings of the empire, the Atlas Russicus of 1745. Russian explorers undertook voyages to places as far as the Holy Land, China, and the North Pacific. By century’s end, Russian navigators began a series of more than thirty circumnavigations of the globe.

“Expeditions were often accompanied by artists and ethnographers, and so the printed accounts of these journeys were often supplemented by illustrated atlases, many of which will be on display,” says Kasinec.

Not everyone welcomed Peter’s vision for Russia. The established Muscovite elite, and the common people as well, opposed Peter’s reforms. He was ruthless with his detractors; he tortured and killed two thousand Streltsy who were leading an armed rebellion in Moscow to return to old traditions and replace Sophia on the throne. “He touched a certain veneer,” says Kasinec, “but I think it is wrong to say his reforms went to the core of society.”

Manuscripts and printed texts of the Russian Orthodox laity included denunciations of the church reforms Peter initiated and original popular prints depicted Peter as the Antichrist. Despite this opposition, Peter’s reforms lived on after he died in 1725.

Peter’s new capital prospered under the Western tastes of his successors: his widow Catherine I, niece Anna, and daughter Elizabeth. The new imperial culture of St. Petersburg is apparent in the eighteenth-century coronation albums, of which NYPL has the only complete set in the nation. The coronation albums are sumptuously illustrated documents announcing the rise to the throne of the new ruler. “They are basically propaganda to show the outside world the splendor of the court,” says Kasinec.

Peter’s successors continued broadening the scope of Russian culture; literature, secular music, science, popular theater, and education all thrived during their reigns. In addition to the scholars, artists, and technicians Peter invited to Russia, in the decades after his death a corps of Russian scientists emerged, led by the multitalented Mikhail Lomonosov. Lomonosov is considered the father of Russian science--he was a polymath and poet--and he helped found the Moscow StateUniversity in 1755. Pushkin describes him as “A historian, rhetorician, mechanic, chemist, mineralogist, artist and poet, he had experienced it all and perceived it all.”

The age of exploration was under way. By the mid-seventeenth century, Russian expeditions to Alaska, California, and the Hawaiian Islands had charted the Pacific coast. The stage was set for further advances in science, literature, and philosophy, and for further expansion of the empire. A German princess took the reins and led the way.

For thirty-four years Catherine the Great (Catherine II), a minor Prussian princess who assumed the Russian throne in a coup after her marriage to Peter III, ruled Russia.

She advanced Peter’s reforms, took a great interest in literature and the ideas of the French Enlightenment, and expanded the boundaries of the empire, adding most of Poland, the Crimea, and lands along the Black Sea. She corresponded with Voltaire and other thinkers of the Enlightenment. She created the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, adding buildings to the Winter Palace and acquiring great European art collections to fill them. “She brought a Renaissance to Russia,” says Kasinec.

One of Catherine’s accomplishments was the documentation of the flora and fauna of the empire in the book Flora Rossica by P.S. Pallas. Other books around the same time describe the archaeology and architecture of conquered lands. Russian imperial style reached its peak, from jewelencrusted rococo book bindings to the construction of great palaces and park complexes. Catherine’s reign was a study in contrasts. While she espoused the ideals of the Age of Reason, she was an autocrat intent on extending her empire, tightening control over the serfs, and stifling uprisings.

“Catherine was one of the most remarkable figures of history,” says Kasinec. “She was reasonably well educated and strove to grow as an intellectual throughout her life. She was omnivorous, always wanted to learn, expand, cultivate. She inculcated her grandson, Alexander I, and he continued the process of administrative reform.” The exhibition ends in the period of her grandson Alexander’s rule, after Russia triumphantly defeated Napoleon in 1812.

The exhibition shows the opening up of Russia to the world and the world looking back at Russia. “The core of the exhibition is the contextualization of Russia, its Europeanization and its development of a global framework,” says Kasinec. “This has not been done before.

“The breadth of the holdings is such that you have an Asiatic, Islamic, western European, and American framework. You can show an Islamic manuscript dealing with Russia or a Chinese manuscript dealing with Russia,” he continues. “The works on display anchor you in that period.”

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The New York Public Library received a $40,000 grant from NEH to plan the exhibition “From Isolation to Empire: Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825,” which runs in New York from October 3, 2003 through January 31, 2004. A website and catalog, to be published by Harvard University Press, are planned. They are part of an international series of events marking the three hundredth anniversary of St. Petersburg.