It is a special Russian irony that the eighteenth century – during which explicitly religious values lost a great deal of their position and power within Russian culture – should have seen an influential if subtle reaffirmation of religious attitudes, however disguised, toward its end. Much, though not all, of this reaffirmation was connected to the development of Russian Freemasonry. The attitudes, activity, and organization of Russian Masons played a vital role in the very early stages of the creation of a “civil society” in Russia, a frequently arrested process not complete to this day. At the same time, however, the culture of the educated elite – particularly that portion of it eventually to be called the intelligentsia – took on many attitudes significantly colored by religious values and aspirations, which have never disappeared from the culture. The Russian Church, however, failed to recover the grip it lost on Russian society during and after the reign of Peter the Great.
When Peter told the Russians that he wanted them to become “European,” he basically meant that he wanted to endow them with European energy and dynamism. He wanted to wake them from what he understood to be a sleep of lethargy and barbarism, to make entrepreneurs of the traditionalist merchantry, to make statesmen, administrators, generals, admirals, and scientists of the gentry. (The peasants had to undergird and support this “Westernization” with their meager resources, since there was nobody else to do so.)
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