The history and politics of civilisation: the debate about Russia in French and German historical scholarship from Voltaire to Herder

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


During the second half of the 18th century, a debate about Russia developed in France and Germany. Spurred on by a preoccupation with Peter I’s project to swiftly civilise his country through Europeanisation, and by the evolving idea of a philosophic history with its concern to explain the historical process of civilisation in general, and Europe’s historical journey out of a state of barbarism in particular, an array of thinkers turned to the example of Russia with a set of interrelated historiographical and political questions: Does Russia share a history with Europe, and if so, how can its particular history be related to generalised accounts of the development of civilisation? What was the role of Peter I in fostering civilisation in Russia, and what political lessons can be learned from his reign? Can the historical process of civilisation be accelerated through willed, top-down reform and through wholesale importation of ideas and models from without as Peter attempted, or are there unsurpassable limits to such a project? The present thesis reconstructs this central Enlightenment debate, which has so far only received scant attention in modern scholarship, by providing an in-depth analysis of the relevant works of its main participants: Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Pierre Charles Levesque, August Ludwig Schlözer and Johann Gottfried Herder. By contextualising their Russian writings in terms of wider Enlightenment discourse on philosophic history and political reform, it seeks to recover the rich and conflicting nature of the debate about Russia. In this way, it ultimately contributes to the revision of the customary portrayal of the Enlightenment as a unified ‘project’ based on a universalising and rationalistic approach to the human sciences, and marked by a concomitant inability either to appreciate the complexities of historical development or to conceive of a reforming politics outside the framework of enlightened despotism.
Date of Award2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen Mary University of London
SupervisorRichard Bourke (Supervisor)

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