by Kenneth WHITE
There was a time, first in Glasgow, then in Paris, when I was plunged in Russian literature and Russian problematics. I often walked up and down Nekrassov Street and looked along the Neva prospect…
What preoccupied me in Glasgow was the relationship between nationalism and cosmopolitanism : the big 19th century debate in Russia between the Occidentalists on the one hand and the Slavophiles on the other, both of them concerned with the evolution of culture in Russia and with the question of native genius.
Russia has always oscillated between the European West and the Asiatic East. It was overwhelmed from Asia by the Golden Horde, and was aggressed from the West by the Teutonic Order. It expanded West into the Baltic and East across Siberia. If there were peaceful relations – economic and cultural – between Russia and Europe as early as the pre-eminence of Kiev, if they were developed, towards England, France and Spain, in the 16th century, if Boris Godunov accentuated the thrust towards a Russia of Europe, it was with Peter the Great that the great turning-point occurred in Russian history, with a massive move towards European ways of working and thinking. This was the beginning of Occidentalism.
Peter the Great, whom we might more usefully call Peter the Pragmatist, opened up, materially and intellectually, the Nevski prospect. The image he had of Russia was of a country steeped in superstition and obscurantism euphemistically dubbed « spirituality », whose Church calendar went back to « the creation of the world », a country economically backward, with no significant volume of trade, no adequate financial system, an army hardly worth talking about, and a navy that was non-existent, the only port open to the West being Arkangelsk, blocked half of the year by ice. Peter’s aim was to lift Russia out of its murky Middle Ages and set it on an equal footing with the modern states of Europe.