Russia's elite used to be educated in France and Germany. Now its children eat custard in the private schools of England. Rachel Polonsky asks whether this will make any difference to the course of Russian historyby Rachel Polonsky / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Human history,” HG Wells once remarked, is “more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” But in Russian history education has often been the midwife of catastrophe.
The western education of its elites has long been a cause of Russian culture’s self-estrangement. Peter the Great’s decision to send selected members of the aristocracy to the west for their education resulted in what Isaiah Berlin calls “a wound inflicted on Russian society.” These men were to learn, and bring home, “the languages of the west and the various new arts and skills which sprang from the scientific revolution of the 17th century.” The young men returned to Russia “half-Russian, half-foreign,” says Berlin, “set above the people… cut off from them irrevocably.”
The Decembrist conspirators who attempted to assassinate the Tsar in Senate Square in 1825 were fired by their schooling in the classics. Models of Roman republican heroics inspired their mission to bring down the Russian Caesar. Their interrogators paid due recognition to the role of education in the affair when they asked to know where each of the conspirators had been raised: “If in a public institution what was the name of it? Where and when were you graduated? Who were your teachers?” they demanded.
In the wake of the French revolution, Russian rulers had begun to fear the effects of foreign ideas on their impressionable young aristocracy. Nicholas I thought it prudent to avoid France altogether and sent his nobility to Germany to be educated instead. The intellectual brew in Germany in the 1830s was, however, far headier than anything Russia might have feared from France. From their German teachers, young Russians learned to talk of the March of History and the Spirit of the Nation, and the mission of the educated individual to assist in their fulfilment. The intellectual descendants of this generation were the bomb-throwing, Marx-quoting nihilists and revolutionaries of the…