Theosophical Society, Cardiff Lodge

206 Newport Road,

Cardiff, Wales, UK. CF24 1DL




H P Blavatsky



Russian Society at the Time of H P Blavatsky’s Birth



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Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century was regarded by the majority of European society as being a world apart. The country, despite the efforts of Peter the Great and his brilliant successor Catherine the Second, was somehow different, and seemed to many travellers only semi-civilised. The vast distances, the vagaries of climate and the polyglot population all tended to emphasise that the Russian Empire was only peripherally, at best, part of the civilized world.


Socially there were essentially only two classes of society, the aristocrat and the peasant – an urban middle class of sorts existed in a few towns and cities but it was really unimportant. Over all of this country was the autocrat embodied for a quarter of a century by the Tsar Nicholas the First.




The official emphasis on Russian nationalism contributed to a debate on Russia's place in the world, the meaning of Russian history, and the future of Russia. One group, the Westernizers, believed that Russia remained backward and primitive and could progress only through more Europeanization. Another group, the Slavophiles, enthusiastically favored the Slavs and their culture and

customs, and had a distaste for westerners and their culture and customs. The

Slavophiles viewed Slavic philosophy as a source of wholeness in Russia and

looked askance at Western rationalism and materialism. Some of them believed

that the Russian peasant commune, or mir, offered an attractive alternative to

Western capitalism and could make Russia a potential social and moral saviour.

The Slavophiles, therefore, represented a form of Russian messianism.

Despite the repressions of this period, Russia experienced a flowering of

literature and the arts. Through the works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol,

Ivan Turgenev, and numerous others, Russian literature gained international

stature and recognition. Ballet took root in Russia after its importation from

France, and classical music became firmly established with the compositions of

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857).


Foreign Policy


In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and

guardian against revolution. His offers to suppress revolution on the European

continent, accepted in some instances, earned him the label of gendarme of

Europe. In 1825 Nicholas I denied to crown himself as a Polish monarch and

instead continued to limit the liberties of constitutional monarchy in Congress

Poland. In return, after the 1830 July Revolution had occurred in France, in

1831 the Polish parliament deposed the Tsar as King of Poland in response to his repeated curtailment of its constitutional rights. The Tsar reacted by sending

Russian troops into Poland and the so-called November Uprising broke out.

Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced

Poland to the status of a Russian province. In 1848, when a series of

revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849

he intervened on behalf of the Habsburgs and helped suppress an uprising in

Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution. Having

helped conservative forces repel the specter of revolution, Nicholas I seemed to

dominate Europe.


Russian dominance proved illusory, however. While Nicholas was attempting to

maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the

Ottoman Empire. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of

resolving the so-called Eastern Question by seeking to partition the Ottoman

Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans, still largely under Ottoman control in the 1820s. Russia fought a successful war with the Ottomans in 1828 and 1829. In 1833 Russia negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi with the Ottoman Empire. The major European parties mistakenly believed that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. By the London Straits Convention of 1841, they affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits.


Based on his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war on Russia in 1853. Fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, in 1854 Britain and France joined what became known as the Crimean War on the Ottoman side. Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, leaving Russia without allies on the continent. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sevastopol. After a year's siege the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. Nicholas I died

before the fall of Sevastopol', but he already had recognized the failure of his

regime. Russia now faced the choice of initiating major reforms or losing its

status as a major European power.




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