August von Kotzebue and Russia’s Lived Enlightenment

von | 21/04/2021

Guest Contribution by Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, Emeritus Professor, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Enlightenment in Russia is best described as lived or applied Enlightenment—as the ongoing effort to live a civlized life. Depending on the area of activity, Enlightenment carried different meanings. For the monarchy, Enlightenment ideas provided effective mechanisms and ideological justifications for state building, resource mobilization, cultural advancement, and the imposition of social control. For the church, which had long been Russia’s primary center of higher learning, Enlightenment thought introduced new forms of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had to be incorporated into Orthodox religious teachings. For Russia’s educated classes (noble and non-noble), which remained service classes well into the nineteenth century, Enlightenment culture and sociability became vehicles for developing an independent moral voice, the voice of an emergent public (publika) or “civil society of the educated” (obshchestvo). Representatives of the monarchy, church, and educated society pursued enlightenment in diverse ways, yet all shared in the desire to promote good governance, enhance Russian power, and reform human behavior.

Kotzebue’s Russian career belonged to the spheres of Enlightenment culture and enlightened reform. The aspects of his life that have appeared in my sources align with the Russian experience of becoming enlightened during the long eighteenth century.

1. Kotzebue participated in Russian Enlightenment theater as director of the Imperial German Theater (established in 1800) and as a playwright, whose Armuth und Edelsinn (1795) engaged the mind (and heart) of Russian servicewoman Princess Ekaterina Dashkova (neé Vorontsova, 1743–1810). In 1799, during Dashkova’s banishment from St. Petersburg, she penned a continuation of Kotzebue’s play in which she contrasted the greed of Fabian Stöpsel with the noble spirit of Lieutenant von Cederström, who ultimately wins the hand of Louise Rose. Reportedly written in two and a half hours, Fabian’s Wedding, or The Greed for Wealth Punished, was performed in the serf theater of Dashkova’s brother, Count Aleksandr Vorontsov (1741–1805), where she also had viewed the Russian translation (1798) of Kotzebue’s original.

2. In March 1819, while working as a Russian agent in Mannheim, Kotzebue met his death at the hands of a revolutionary assassin. Kotzebue’s service on behalf of Emperor Alexander I illustrated the complicated dynamics of Russia’s lived Enlightenment and the difficult position of Europe’s peacemakers in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the political acrimony, student radicalism, and social unrest that swirled about the German lands in 1817–1820, Emperor Alexander continued to believe that peace depended on the pursuit of good governance through enlightened reform. Neither a new regime liberal nor an old regime reactionary, the Russian monarch refused to join Austria and Prussia in condemning constitutional reforms. In other words, Alexander’s determination to suppress revolutionary sedition and prevent political violence did not imply the rejection of lawful change, including the enactment of constitutions. In response to Austria’s plans to revise the act of German confederation and to evidence that the Karlsbad Decrees (1819) had not produced the desired unity in the German Confederation, Alexander and his diplomats tried to focus attention on the significance of moral authority. This included the moral force represented by the intimate union of allied sovereigns and the precepts to which they paid homage in the Act of 14/26 September 1815 (the Holy Alliance). From the perspective of Russian foreign policy, the Holy Alliance represented the moral glue that would allow Europe’s peacemakers to overcome the distrust and degradation that had resulted from more than twenty years of vicious war and broken alliances.

 

Further Reading:

Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, From Victory to Peace: Russian Diplomacy after Napoleon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020. (NIU Series in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies). Open Access

Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, The Play of Ideas in Russian Enlightenment Theater. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 2003.

Maya Lavrinovich, “Wealth, Nobility and Sentiment: Aleksei Malinovskii’s Translation of August von Kotzebue’s Poverty and Nobleness of Mind as Self-Fashioning”, Slavonic and East European Review, 98/2 (2020), p. 235-265.

Franziska Wolf, “Das deutsche Theater in St. Petersburg. Eine nicht enden wollende Bewährungsprobe”, Zirkulation von Nachrichten und Waren: Stadtleben, Medien und Konsum im 19. Jahrhundert. Hg. v. Anna Ananieva. [Ausst.-Kat. Bonatzbau Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen (6.11.2015-6.1.2016)]. Tübingen: Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen, 2016, S. 177-183. Open Access

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