The Complexity of History

Russia and Steven Pinker’s Thesis

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Nancy Shields Kollmann Stanford University

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This article finds Steven Pinker’s argument for a decline of violence too Eurocentric and generalizing to fit all cases. Study of the early modern Russian criminal law, and society in general, shows that different states can develop radically different approaches to violence when influenced by some of the same factors (in this case Enlightenment values). The centralized Muscovite autocracy in many ways relied less on official violence and exerted better control over social violence than did early modern Europe, while at the same time it supported violence in institutions such as serfdom, exile, and aspects of imperial governance. Violence in the form of capital punishment declined but many aspects of social and official violence endured. Such a differentiated approach is explained by the state’s need to mobilize scarce human and material resources to survive and expand.

Contributor Notes

Nancy Shields Kollmann is William H. Bonsall Professor in History at Stanford University. Her recent works include Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia(2012) and The Russian Empire, 1450–1801 (2017).

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