Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Educational Reforms

S. V. ROZHDESTVENSKII

By general consensus, modern Russian culture dates from the 18th cen-
tury and is intimately related to Peter's reforms. Modern culture presupposes
a relatively high level of intellectual sophistication and some sort of educational
system to transmit and develop the cultural heritage. The reign of Peter the
Great was, therefore, bound to be of crucial importance for the history of
Russian education and the selection below, from the pen of a most distinguished
specialist of the history of Russian education, gives the background to Peter's
innovations in this domain and a general assessment of their effect.

THE period of the reforms of Peter the Great marked a profound divide in the history of Russian school education. The old Russian school had served exclusively as an instrument of church learning and as a rule it did not rise above the level of elementary education. Actually it did not even give an education but provided only the essential first tools with which an interested individual could, on his own, penetrate to the essence of the wisdom contained in the traditional code of the century's religious-ethical Weltanschauung. The aims of secular professional education were utterly alien to the old Russian school. Applied science penetrated into Muscovy in the guise of purely practical "cleverness from overseas"; and the guardians of traditional virtue watched with eagle eyes that this "cleverness" did not extend beyond the confines of narrow practical application.

What service could this old elementary school render in the difficult period when the State had to master not only Western European technology in the narrow sense, but also applied science in the broadest sense; when for the first time Russian society was affected by the secular rationalistic Weltanschauung prevailing in the West at the end of the 17th century? The old school was helpless in meeting all the new requirements of State and society. Russia needed new schools, and these schools, which made their appearance during the period of reform, were not so much a green fruit grown on the poor soil of the old Russian education, but rather the seeds from which a comprehensive system of popular education could sprout in the distant future.

At the end of the 17th century, when the big reform movement was ripening in Muscovy, there was sketched for the first time the problem on which all important efforts and experiments in school reform during the 18th century were to focus. In the famous "privilege" of 1682 founding the Academy in the Zaikonospassk Monastery in Moscow, we see the first attempt at defining the new task of popular education not only from the point of view of the interests of the Church, but of those of the State as well. In this project, for the first time, secular knowledge and clerical education were juxtaposed as two equally important branches of a single "wisdom-science," at the service not only of society's ethical progress but also of the State's

From S. V. Rozhdestvenskii, Ocherki po Istorii Sistem Narodnogo Prosveshcheniia v Rossii v XVIII-XIX Vekakh [Essays in the History of the Systems of National Education in Russia in the 18th and 19th Centuries], vol. I ( St. Petersburg, 1912), pp. 1-5, 8-10. [Editor's Translation]

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