“Shall we awaken from the power of alien fashions”
Throughout the 19th century, the West – mostly France and Germany – represented a cultural and intellectual model for the Russian nobility and educated classes. The former generally preferred to speak French, not Russian, and the latter commonly attended German universities and drew inspiration from European thinkers. The main character of the early 19th century Russian classic Woe from Wit
laments the nobilities’ “blind, slavish imitation” of European ways: “Shall we awaken from the power of alien fashions/So that our wise and cheerful Russians/Might never think us to be Germans?”
Ever since Peter the Great there has been – or should we now say was? – a chronic ambiguity about Russia’s relation to the West. Russian imperial rulers were closely related by birth to European monarchs, and 19th-century Russia was a full-fledged member of political Europe. But the czars, anxious to secure Russian absolutism, maintained censorship to shield their subjects from pernicious ideas emanating from the West.
Eventually it was Western ideas that inspired Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution that destroyed the Russian ancient régime
. Marxist materialism remained the holy creed professed by the Soviet communist state until its collapse at the end of the 20th century.
Soviet leaders kept their citizens securely behind the Iron Curtain, lest the Western capitalist spirit deprave them. But the promotion of education based on Western materialistic principles, as well as the inculcation of high culture – much of it of Western origin – was an inherent part of the Bolshevik cultural revolution “You can become a Communist only when you enrich your mind with a knowledge of all the treasures created by mankind,” Lenin insisted.
As a Soviet high-school student in the 1960s, I was once assigned this famous quote as an essay topic.
Stalin, the most isolationist of the Soviet rulers, worshipped Western technology, "imported" American engineers and engaged in intense, mutually beneficial cooperation with Germany in the military-industrial sphere up until the Nazi invasion in 1941. “Reichswehr assistance played a critical… role in the early development of Soviet military industry in key fields, particularly aviation and chemistry,” Ian Ona Johnson writes
in his recent book Faustian Bargain
In the post-war years, Stalin presided over a campaign to eradicate so-called “kowtowing before the West” and its proponents, but after his death in 1953 the regime grew softer. Although borders were still closed and censorship remained strict, it was during these decades that infatuation with the West took on enormous proportions. Soviet propaganda continued to preach the superiority of communism over capitalism, but Soviet people coveted all things Western, from the proverbial jeans and rock music to Western radio broadcasts, which millions listened to as the “voice of truth.”