Why is Russia different?

As a historian I was asked what are the main factors that have made Russia different with Western Europe. And that question was followed the second one, possibly as important as the first one: can I cut the long story short?

Very briefly, I think there are four major elements explaining the different path in political and social development in Russia compared to the so-called western Europe.

First thing is that the Roman law was never adopted in the core areas of Russia or in the Russian empire. In Western Europe the principles of Roman law supported individual’s position against the overlords and powers of the state or empire. In the Middle Ages a free man could not be tortured! Even the highest authorities had to follow the legal procedures and could always be summoned to appear in court if rules were not followed. Possibly, all this never worked perfectly well but the principles got strength and authority and certainly secured the rights of individuals in many disputes with the overlords.

The second thing was that religious Reformations in the 16th century did not much or at all touch Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was almost utterly immune to any of such ideas – like individualism – which, in my opinion, were possibly among the most important factors paving the way to the modern society. The Russian Orthodox Church is an extremely conservative force. (One should emphasise that the Catholic faith was also influenced by the new ideas that arose at that time.)

The third difference is that the Enlightenment, also one of the most influencial cultural trends in Western Europe between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, did not find much understanding in Russia. Even though Catherine II (1762—1796) favoured the Enlightenment ideas her influence was not strong enough to further the reforms throughout the society.

Possibly these three issues were the most important factors in creating the western individualism and ideas of human rights and political freedom. This is very much of what historians of the western world usually explain – even though some discord over the details prevails.

Yet, personally, as a man slightly inclined to economic history, I would like to emphasise one more aspect: the emergence of wealthy middle class people. The wealth increased enormously already at the 16th and 17th century in Europe, to say nothing about the 18th century. This heavily contributed individualism and creativeness. Wealth accelerated consumption and luxury which meant more opportunities, more status issues, more change and variety. All this strenghtened the individualistic approach to see what the life is like in a decent society.

Furthermore, it meant that wealthy people wanted to secure their possessions. They needed political sovereignty and fair legal system to protect  their fortune and their rights against tyrants. This principle, manifested in England’s Magna Carta in 1215 and soon also, for example, in some Polish-Lithuanian statutes, was the radical principle fostering the parliamentary system in which the executive power is controlled by the Parliament.


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