On ‘Age-old Russian Backwardness’

Alexander Kamensky


This article considers the applicability of the concept of backwardness which was one of the basic concepts of both Russian and Western historiography of prerevolutionary Russia until the late 20th century and resulted from the constant comparison of Russia with the conventional ‘West’. On the one hand, modern historiography is characterised by a ‘normalisation’ of Russian history, i.e. attempts to prove that, considered generally, Russian historical development was identical to that of Western Europe, and, on the other hand, complete refusal to compare Russia and the West due to Russia having an altogether different and unique model of historical development. However, both of these trends contradict the worldview Russians had between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The author characterises both trends as dead ends as the concept of Russia’s ‘normality’ makes it impossible to explain the events of the imperial era, while the other approach deprives a historian of one of the major research tools in studying the past. It results in an intellectual trap, and the author suggests that to solve this problem, scholars should create a new language of historical research and accumulate empirical data that would create a more complex and multidimensional image of the past.


historiography; Russian history; concept of backwardness; modernisation; comparative studies


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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15826/qr.2018.1.290


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