Odic Versions of the ‘Social Contract’ in 18th-century Russia

Tatyana Abramzon, Alexey Petrov

Abstract


Social contract theory is one of the basic socio-political doctrines of the European and Russian Enlightenments. Various models of relationships between the authorities and society are reflected in the treatises of European and Russian enlighteners. However, the concept of the social contract is a constantly changing ideological construct, ‘a tacit agreement’ created, sought for, and pronounced in different cultural texts. The authors of the article mainly focus on the odic poetry of the 18th century, the sphere of Russian culture where the idea of a mutually beneficial agreement between a monarch and their subjects was most vividly, clearly, and comprehensively expressed. The article aims to identify the main stages in the history of development of the relationship between a monarch and their subjects as reflected in poetry. The ‘social contract’ paradigm was mostly formed during the reign of Peter the Great, when the ‘functions’ of a sovereign and his subjects were determined: a monarch took care of the commonweal and his subjects obeyed and served him. Some poets of the Petrine epoch (Karion Istomin, I. V. Paus, V. K. Trediakovsky) endorsed ideas of enlightening the Russ, the monarch’s duty to protect the faith and fatherland from foes, and subjects’ faithful service to their monarch. After Peter the Great’s death, the situation changed. The figure of the empress as an ideal ruler and an enlightened monarch who did everything possible to attain the ‘bliss’ of the Russ came to the fore in odes and verse inscriptions for fireworks and illuminations. The emotional motives of the ‘social contract’ were also modified: love was declared the driving force of the monarch and her subjects. Subjects should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the empress’s kindness and generosity. The paternal-filial model of the relationship between the authorities and citizens did not change into a maternal-filial one during Elizabeth’s reign. The names used to refer to the empress’s in odes names remained ‘Peter’s blood’ and ‘Peter’s daughter’. In the literary culture of the 1770s–1990s, subjects’ bliss was declared a necessary condition of the ruler’s bliss. That it was impossible to criticise the monarch provoked criticism from the nobles, who were unfamiliar with the common people’s needs and aspirations. By the end of the century, the genre of the solemn ode was in decline: it only returned to popularity during Paul I’s and Alexander I’s accessions to the throne. The beginning of the 1800s can be considered a borderline, after which illusions about the possibility of an ‘amicable agreement’ between a monarch and their subjects were destroyed.


Keywords


social contract; Enlightenment; 18th-century poetry; ode; autocracy.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15826/qr.2017.2.233

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