The Flow of Ideas

Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to the Religious-Philosophical Renaissance

by Andrzej Walicki (Author)
©2015 Monographs 876 Pages


This history of Russian thought was first published in Polish in 1973 and subsequently appeared 2005 in a revised and expanded publication. The current volume begins with Enlightenment thought and Westernization in Russia in the 17th century and moves to the religious-philosophical renaissance of first decade of the 20th century. This book provides readers with an exhaustive account of relationships between various Russian thinkers with an examination of how those thinkers relate to a number of figures and trends in Western philosophy and in the broader history of ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Author’s Note
  • Introductory Remarks
  • Part I. From the Enlightenment to Romanticism
  • Chapter 1: Trends and Tendencies in Enlightenment Thought
  • Introductory Remarks: The Paradoxes of Westernization
  • Catherine II and Enlightenment Philosophy
  • The Emergence of Professional Enlightenment Philosophy
  • Nikolai Novikov and Freemasonry
  • Mikhail Shcherbatov and the Aristocratic Opposition
  • Chapter 2: The Culmination of the Enlightenment in Russia: Aleksandr Radishchev
  • Radishchev’s Life
  • Radishchev’s Social Philosophy
  • Radishchev’s Views on Ethics and Education
  • Radical Reform or Revolution?
  • The Treatise on Immortality
  • Chapter 3: Political Philosophy in the Age of Alexander I
  • Projects of International Order
  • The Liberal Conceptions
  • Nikolai Karamzin and Conservatism
  • The Decembrists
  • The Northern Society
  • Nikolai Turgenev
  • The Southern Society
  • The Society of United Slavs
  • The Decembrist Philosophy of Russian History
  • The Decembrists’ Place in the History Of Russian Thought
  • Chapter 4: Anti-Enlightenment Trends in the Early Nineteenth Century
  • Mysticism
  • The Ideology of an Anti-Philosophical Crusade
  • The Wisdom-Lovers and Russian Schellingianism
  • Ivan Kireevsky’s Young Years, or the West-Inclined Version of Philosophial Romanticism
  • Part II. The Reign of Nicholas I
  • Chapter 5: Petr Chaadaev and Religious Westernism
  • Chaadaev’s Metaphysics and Philosophy of History
  • Russia’s Past and Future
  • Chaadaev’s First Philosophical Letter
  • Apology of A Madman
  • Toward Ecumenism
  • Chaadaev’s Place in Russian Intellectual History
  • Converts of The Age of Nicholas: Ivan Gagarin and Vladimir Pecherin
  • Chapter 6: The Slavophiles and Other Versions of Anti-Westernism
  • The Slavophile Philosophy of History and Social Ideals
  • The Concept of the “Integral Personality” and “New Principles in Philosophy”
  • Slavophile Ecclesiology
  • Slavophilism as Conservative Utopianism
  • The Ideology of “Official Nationality”
  • Tyutchev’s Imperial Vision
  • The Evolution of Slavophilism at the Time of Great Reforms
  • Chapter 7: The Russian Hegelians: From “Reconciliation with Reality” To “Philosophy of Action”
  • Nikolai Stankevich
  • Mikhail Bakunin
  • Vissarion Belinsky
  • Philosophical Evolution
  • Aesthetic and Literary Critical Views
  • Aleksandr Herzen
  • Chapter 8: Belinsky and Different Variants of Westernism
  • Belinsky’s Westernism
  • Ancient and Modern Russia
  • Narodnost’ And Natsional’nost’ In Literature
  • The Polemic with Maikov
  • The Dispute over Capitalism
  • The Liberal Westernizers
  • Timotei Granovsky
  • Konstantin Kavelin
  • Boris Chicherin
  • Chapter 9: The Petrashevtsy
  • Social and Political Ideas of the Petrashevtsy
  • Philosophical Ideas of the Petrashevtsy
  • Chapter 10: The Origins of “Russian Socialism”
  • The Evolution of Herzen’s Views
  • The Crisis of Belief
  • The Concept of “Russian Socialism”
  • The Destiny of the “Old World”
  • Freedom and Necessity
  • To an Old Comrade
  • Nikolai Ogarev
  • Part III. Social and Political Ideologies of the Reform and Countrreform Period
  • Chapter 11: Nikolai Chernyshevsky and the “Enlighteners” of the Sixties
  • Chernyshevsky’s Anthropological Materialism
  • Biographical Note
  • Aesthetics
  • The Anthropological Principle
  • Russia’s Future Development
  • Chernyshevsky’s Place in the History of Russian Thought
  • Nikolai Dobroliubov and the Dispute over the “Superfluous Men”
  • Dmitry Pisarev and “Nihilism”
  • Critics of the “Enlighteners”: Apollon Grigoriev and Nikolai Strakhov
  • Pamphil Yurkevich and Fyodor Bukharev
  • Reactions to the “Enlighteners” in Spiritual Academies:
  • Chapter 12: Conservative Ideologies after the Land Reform
  • Mikhail Katkov
  • Ivan Aksakov and Nikolai Danilevsky
  • Konstantin Pobedonostsev
  • Konstantin Leontiev
  • Chapter 13: Populist Ideologies
  • Introduction
  • From “Go to the People” to the “People’s Will”
  • Petr Lavrov
  • Biographical Note
  • The Historical Letters
  • Sociological Conceptions
  • Petr Tkachev
  • Nikolai Mikhailovsky
  • Theory of Progress
  • The “Struggle for Individuality”
  • The Social Content of Mikhailovsky’s Sociological Theory
  • Nikolai Chaikovsky Aánd Godmanhood
  • Chapter 14: Anarchism
  • Mikhail Bakunin
  • Biographical Note
  • Bakunin’s Philosophical Views
  • Bakunin’s Social Philosophy
  • Petr Kropotkin
  • Biographical Note
  • Kropotkin’s Philosophy of History
  • Kropotkin’s Vision of the Future
  • Revolution as the Test
  • Chapter 15: Boris Chicherin and Conservative Liberalism
  • The Tasks of Liberalism in Russia
  • Philosophy of the State
  • Philosophy of Law
  • Metaphysics and the Philosophy of History
  • Chicherin’s Place in the History of Russian Thought
  • Chapter 16: Between Populism and Marxism
  • Plekhanov’s Road to Marxism
  • Aleksandr Ulianov
  • “Legal Populism”: Vassily Vorontsov and Nikolai Danielson
  • Part IV. Philosophical and Religious Thought in Reformed Russia
  • Chapter 17: Prophetic Writers
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The “Crystal Palace” and “The Underground”
  • The Devious Paths of the Man-God
  • National Messianism and the Idea of “All-Humanity”
  • The Legend of the Great Inquisitor and the Vision of New Christianity
  • Lev Tolstoy
  • The Phases of Moral Crisis
  • Tolstoy’s Philosophy of Life
  • Tolstoy’s Views on Religion
  • Tolstoy’s Criticism of Civilization and Social Ideas
  • The Role of Art
  • Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: A Comparison
  • Chapter 18: Vladimir Soloviev and Metaphysical Idealism
  • A Philosopher’s Life and Personality
  • Philosophy of Reintegration
  • Godmanhood and Sophia
  • The Ecumenical Ideal and the National Question in Russia
  • Theocratic Utopia of the Third Rome
  • Theory of Love. A Digression on Nikolai Fedorov
  • Ethics and Philosophy of Law
  • Theoretical Philosophy
  • Apocalyptic Premonitions
  • Theory of Art
  • Soloviev’s Place in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Thought
  • Chapter 19: Variants of Positivism
  • Introduction
  • Dogmatic Positivism: Grigory Wyrouboff
  • Critical Positivism: Vladimir Lesevich
  • Positivism and Sociology
  • Positivism and Psychology
  • Toward Ethical Idealism. The Renaissance of Natural Law: Leon Petrażycki and Pavel Novgorodtsev
  • Positivist Psychologism and a Philosophy of God: The Theological Anthropologism of Victor Nesmelov
  • Chapter 20: Metaphysical Idealism
  • Extending the Hegelian Tradition
  • Aleksei Kozlov and Neo-Leibnizianism
  • Lev Lopatin and Spiritualistic Personalism
  • Sergei Trubetskoi and “Concrete Idealism”
  • Part V. From the Turn of the Century to the Aftermath of the First Revolution
  • Chapter 21: Three Variants of Marxism at the Turn of the Century
  • Plekhanov’s Necessitarian Orthodoxy
  • The Philosophy of “Rational Necessity”
  • Aesthetics and Literary Criticism
  • Petr Struve and the Evolution of “Legal Marxism”
  • Antecedence: Marxist Economism of Nikolai Ziber
  • The Breakthrough - Critical Remarks
  • Further Evolution
  • Lenin and Revolutionary Marxism
  • The Preparatory Period
  • Theory of the Party
  • Philosophical Views
  • The Communist Utopia and Its Failure
  • Chapter 22: The Crisis of Marxism and the Intellectual Genesis of the Religious-Philosophical Renaissance
  • Around Problems of Idealism
  • The Anti-Positivist Breakthrough and the Liberal Liberation Union
  • Petr Struve
  • Pavel Novgorodtsev
  • Semen Frank
  • Nikolai Berdiaev
  • Sergei Bulgakov
  • New Marxism and the Birth of “Godmaking”
  • “New Religious Consciousness”
  • Dmitri Merezhkovsky
  • Vasilii Rozanov
  • Berdiaev, Bulgakov and the 1905 Revolution
  • The Philosophy of “Mystical Realism”
  • The Final Reckoning with Marxism
  • Chapter 23: The Religious-Philosophical Renaissance during the Years of Reflection upon the Experience of the First Revolution
  • The Situation in Philosophy at the Turn of 1905/1906
  • Philosophical Societies
  • Signposts
  • “Put’” Publishing House
  • New Slavophilism, Ontologism and the Search for Eastern-Christian Sources of Russian Philosophy
  • The Program of National Philosophy
  • Discussing Messianism
  • New Slavophile Ontologism and the Controversy with “Logos”
  • Vladimir Ern and the Idea of Eastern-Christian Logos
  • Lev Shestov
  • Metaphysics of All-Unity and Sophiology
  • The Schellingian Inspiration
  • Berdiaev’s Anthropologism and Bulgakov’s Theocosmism
  • Evgeny Trubetskoi
  • Father Pavel Florensky
  • Semen Frank and Lev Karsavin
  • Closing Remarks
  • Bibliographical Supplement
  • Index of Names

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Author’s Note

The present Outline of Russian Thought is an altered and much extended version of the book published in Polish in 1973, entitled Rosyjska filozofia i myśl społeczna od Oświecenia do marksizmu (“Wiedza Powszechna,” Warsaw). An English-language edition entitled A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (translated by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka) followed several years later, first in the United States (Stanford University Press, 1979) and then in the United Kingdom (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980). In the introduction to that edition, I emphasized that I believed the book to be a product of the scholarly community to which I felt related (known then in Poland as “the Warsaw School of History and Ideas”).1 I also thought it useful to point out the particular Polish conditioning of my interest in Russia. On this subject, I wrote as follows:

My interest in Russian thought originated from the awareness, shared by many people in my country, that a sympathetic understanding of Russian culture is of vital importance to the Poles. There is a Polish tradition behind this book to which I am greatly indebted. Despite the widespread notion of an alleged Polish hostility toward everything Russian, even in partitioned Poland there were scholars and writers who fully appreciated, and sometimes even admired, the great traditions of the Russian intelligentsia, and who conceived their task as creating intellectual bridges between Russia and Poland or, more ambitiously, between Russia and the West. Suffice it to mention that one of the first histories of the Russian revolutionary movement (and the best one before World War I) was written by a Polish Marxist, Ludwik Kulczycki;2 that the first historical novel extolling the heroes of the “People’s Will” and the whole intellectual tradition of Russian Populism was written by the most influential Polish philosopher and literary critic of the beginning of our [20th] ←00 | 14→century, Stanisław Brzozowski;3 and finally that a Polish Catholic philosopher, Marian Żdziechowski, was one of the first men in Europe (along with the Czech philosopher and statesman T.G. Masaryk) to recognize fully the importance of Russian religious philosophy.4

I also mentioned the inspiring role of my contact with British and American scholars, initiated in 1960 during my stays in the U.S. and U.K. on a Ford Foundation scholarship, and the contact that continued in the following years. The list of those contacts is rather long. Sir Isaiah Berlin appears first in this list; a scholar with whom I instantly struck a strong bond of intellectual exchange that later grew into a friendship.5 There are also a large number of American experts on Russian intellectual history whom I met on the East Coast (mainly at Harvard University) and in California (Berkeley) – including R. Pipes, J.H. Billington, M. Malia, N.V. Riasanovsky, G.L. Kline and others. They were young at the time, interested in the news from behind the “iron curtain” and convinced of the importance of their object of study – which, no doubt, had a certain resonance with my own motivation. Last but not least, there was the enormous privilege of meeting and sharing ideas with eminent representatives of the Russian émigré community: Roman Jakobson, Alexander Gerschenkron, Pitirim Sorokin, Boris Nikolaevsky and Father George Florovsky.

But that is by no means all. I should have added to this list the names of Leonardo Schapiro from the London School of Economics, Harry Willetts and George Katkow from St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, Alexander Erlich from Columbia University, Wacław Lednicki and Gleb Struve whom I met at Berkeley, and Victor Weintraub, above all others. I likewise ought to have mentioned the names of the New York Mensheviks with whom I held hours of disputes in the tiny apartment of Lidia Osipovna Dan, the sister of Leo Martov and former secretary of “Iskra” [The Spark]; alongside Sergei Utekhin and Eugene Lampert with whom I maintained very close contact at Oxford, as well as of Nikolai Zernov, author of the classic book on the Russian religious-philosophical renaissance and activist for the Orthodox ecumenical movement. I feel especially sorry today for not having mentioned the tragic figure of Wiktor ←00 | 15→Sukiennicki who had been favorably moved by my book Osobowośç a historia [Personality and History], as well as by my unpublished essay, “Od narodnictwa do leninizmu” [From Populism to Leninism].6 I had not done so, believing that an introduction to a book that was supposed to serve as a university manual ought to only name people with academic degrees. For the same reason, I neglected to quote the name of the spiritual master of my youth, the eminent Russian philosopher, Sergei Hessen.7 It seemed to me that mentioning a person who had died in 1950 in distant Poland would have been too intimate and lacking in context in an American handbook.

I see things differently today. If a book on Russian thought is being republished after more than 30 years, in an extended form that nevertheless maintains interpretive continuity, it seems worthwhile to openly declare its intellectual and moral debts of inspiration. I have no doubt that these accounts must first be settled in relation to two Russian emigrants of Jewish origin, deeply grounded in European philosophy and perpetually attached to the pre-Revolutionary ideological traditions of the Russian intelligentsia – Sergei Hessen and Isaiah Berlin.

In the following years, I twice revisited All Souls College in Oxford (the academic year 1966-1967 and the autumn semester of 1973), thereby making it possible for me to co-operate closely with Berlin. In the academic year 1966-1967, Berlin and I held a joint seminar on Russian Populism, the fruit of which was my first English-language book (The Controversy over Capitalism, Oxford ←00 | 16→1969). Several years later, an English translation of my post-doctoral thesis (The Slavophile Controversy, Oxford 1975; originally, W kręgu konserwatywnej utopii, Warsaw 1964) was published, following a careful reading by Berlin with his personal corrections. A year later, I was invited to guest-lecture at Stanford by Prof. Terence Emmons. One of the results of my stay in California, thanks to the personal involvement of Emmons, was the interest of Stanford University Press in publishing a translation of the present book (as a joint enterprise with Clarendon Press in Oxford).

My publishers’ hopes that English-language universities would accept the book were fulfilled. The book went through several reprints in the United States and two British editions, and has been used as a handbook to the present, having even been honored with the international award of the Italian-Swiss Eugenio Balzan Foundation (1998).8 However, it seems obvious that the great historical transformations in the final decade of the 20th century have created the need to look on Russian intellectual history from a new, post-Communist perspective.

As I have already noted, creating a new version of the book did not necessitate a fundamental change of the existing text, which had been, from the outset, written with determined independence from the obligatory interpretive patterns in the U.S.S.R. The changes I have introduced in the text were therefore limited to acknowledging new sources literature on the subject and new directions in my own interests. However, a fundamental change which has influenced the entire book was the addition of a final part concerning Russian thought from the first decade of the 20th century. The decision to bring the book only up to the year 1900 was dictated by purely external circumstances: I realized that even under the conditions of the People’s Republic of Poland, incomparably better than those in the Soviet Union, I could not allow myself to write freely on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, or on the Russian religious-philosophical renaissance at the onset of the 20th century. Stopping at the turn of the century was thus a purely pragmatic decision – a price paid for the independence I had allowed myself in describing Russian thought of the 19th century. Even today, I consider the decision to have been profitable.

In its present version, the book has been extended by the entire first decade of the 20th century. Thus, it comprises the crisis of Marxism which gave birth to Russian neo-idealism and neo-liberalism, the genesis and progress of the religious-philosophical renaissance, the radicalization of Russian thinkers following the 1905 Revolution, and the period of reflection on the reasons for its ←00 | 17→failure. In other words, it arrives, roughly, in the years 1910-1912 – the moment when the so-called Silver Age of Russian culture took shape and the mainstream of that culture, represented by the religious thinkers, was separated from the culture of secular radicalism which was gradually appropriated by revolutionary Marxism. We may assume that the chronological limit of the book is thus the first Russian Revolution and the succeeding period of revealing its intellectual and cultural results.

It would probably be more effective to bring the book up to the October Revolution of 1917. And yet, it is hardly conceivable that the Bolshevik putsch be treated as an intellectual caesura. The real caesura was the year of Lenin’s death preceded by the end of the “War Communism” experiment of 1921 and the expulsion of idealist philosophers (and other “bourgeois scholars”) from Russia in 1922. But in order to arrive at that caesura, the chronological scope of the book would have to be extended by more than ten years – including the entire War-cum-Revolution period, extremely important and abounding in longterm consequences (which it would be necessary to discuss at least in a draft form) and, in addition, broken in half by the Leninist Revolution. That, however, would not fit in the frame of a book devoted to the history of pre-Revolutionary Russian thought. It would necessitate the writing of a separate volume.

That is why the present book – rather than end in the catastrophe of the Revolution that opened a new era in Russia’s history – terminates with the flourishing of culture preceding the Revolution that is known as the Silver Age of Russian culture.9

Granger, Indiana, July 2004

1 I enlarge upon the subject in the Afterword to the second edition of my book, W kręgu konserwatywnej utopia. Struktura i przemiany rosyjskiego słowianofilstwa [In the Circle of the Conservative Utopia. Structure and Transformations of Russian Slavophilism], Warszawa 2002, pp. 452-460.

2 See Kulczycki, Rewolucja rosyjska (2 vols.; Lvov 1909). A German translation, Geschichte der russischen Revolution was published in Gotha in 1910. A Russian translation, made from a specially prepared version of the author’s manuscript, appeared under the title Istoriia russkogo dvizheniia in St. Petersburg in 1908.

3 The title of the novel (published in 1908) is Płomienie, which means “The Flames.” Brzozowski was fascinated by Russian culture and devoted many pages to it in his books. Among other things, he wrote a splendid essay on Herzen.

4 Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, translated from Polish by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka, Stanford University Press, 1979, pp. IX-X.

5 See A. Walicki, Encounters with Isaiah Berlin. Story of an Intellectual Friendship, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2011.

6 Sergei Utekhin, d. July 2004, in California, was a Russian emigrant of the Wartime period, member of People-and-Workers’ Union “Solidarists” whom I met in Oxford thanks to I. Berlin. He was the author of Russian Political Thought, New York-London 1964. Eugene Lampert, an Orthodox priest and a social radical who wrote worthy essays on Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen and Chernyshevsky, was a pupil of Berdiaev and Bulgakov. Information about him can be found in Roger Bartlett’s introduction to Russian Thought and Society 1800-1917 Essays in Honour of Eugene Lampert, Keele 1984. Nikolai Zernov, author of The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century (New York-Evanston 1963) was glad to share with me his memories of eminent thinkers and writers of the Russian Silver Age.
On Wiktor Sukiennicki (whom I met at Harvard University in the spring of 1960 and then at Stanford in 1976) see: M. Kornat, Bolszewizm, totalitaryzm, rewolucja, Rosja. Początki sowietologii i studiów nad systamami totalitarnymi w Polsce (1918-1939), t.1, Kraków 2003, pp. 162-230. The text “From Populism to Leninism” (written in 1958 for Prof. S. Ossowski’s seminary) is now available in my book, Idea wolności u myślicieli rosyjskich (Kraków, 2000).

7 See my homage to Hessen, “Mój łódzki mistrz i pluralizm wartości,” Res Publica Nowa, No 9, pp. 42-48.

8 The materials concerning this prize (Laudation, my “acceptance speech” and the self-presentation entitled “A Panoramic View of My Work”) were published in Dialogue and Universalism, No 1-2/2000, pp. 5-23.

9 The term has been questioned in a book by Omra Ronen (The Fallacy of the Silver Age in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature, Amsterdam 1997), arguing that, in fact, it was a “golden age” of Russian literature. From the perspective of the history of Russian philosophy, this correction seems all the more grounded.

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Introductory Remarks

The first Polish edition of the present book included in its title the words “Russian philosophy and social thought.” The formula combining philosophy and social thought, very popular at the time in Socialist countries, is, however, somewhat misleading. Indeed, the book does pertain to philosophy, but it defines philosophy very broadly, renouncing strictly academic criteria. Rather than with philosophy in Russia, i.e., a history of a certain theoretical matters within the boundaries of the Russian state, it is concerned with the philosophical aspects of the ideological search by the Russian elite to claim responsibility for the fate of their country. It does, of course, comprise social thought – along with political and religious ideas; it does not, however, discuss social thought on the level of popular consciousness, or political thought in particular actions of the Russian Government, or the religious thought of the official Orthodox Church and other religious structures in Russia. The subject of the book is thus, in essence, a history of the critically thinking elite with particular regard to philosophy – especially social, political and religious philosophy. The title of the English edition which refers to “a history of Russian thought” is therefore more adequate.1

Discussing the developments of philosophical controversies in the context of a broadly defined intellectual history is, I believe, a natural option for a scholar studying the history of philosophy in a “national cross-section.” The history of philosophy as philosophy, i.e., as a history of the theoretical problems of ontology, epistemology and other classical philosophical disciplines, can hardly be squeezed into a national frame – unless the philosophy of a nation constitutes, in a particular period, a separate chapter of universal philosophy. On the other hand, for a historian interested, first of all, in the worldview content of philosophical theories, their historical conditionings and their functioning in a society, examining philosophy in the context of a particular national culture creates an especially favorable situation, in that it allows for perceiving its multifold connections with a certain political and intellectual situation, as well as with the cultural traditions of a given country. In order to exploit this ←00 | 20→possibility, however, one must not limit oneself to the philosophical question itself – it is necessary to treat the examined philosophical concepts as integral elements of a given national culture and show how they reflect and shape the spiritual biography of the nation that has created them.

In the case of Russia (as in the case of Poland), there exist a number of additional arguments for a “broadened” treatment of the subject of philosophical history. In Russia, philosophy appeared rather late and for a long time it could not find a way to constitute itself as a separate, autonomous area of knowledge and creative effort. Its autonomy was hindered by exceptionally difficult political conditions which made an unrestrained development of philosophy impossible at strictly politically-controlled state universities (certain symptoms of changes for the better appeared in this respect only in the second half of the 19th century). Nor was it favored by the intellectual situation of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia – a painful awareness of political oppression, backwardness and the ensuing social problems distracted attention from questions that were not directly related to social practice and focused reflection on ethical, historico-philosophical and political –oftentimes religious – questions, at the same time provoking a certain undervaluation and neglect of classical ontological and theoretical-cognitive issues. Apparently constituting the most influential intellectual formation of the second half of the 19th century, the Populist intelligentsia went so far as to maintain that a preoccupation with “pure philosophy” was immoral and a betrayal of the hallowed issue of the people.

These particular qualities of Russian philosophical thought in the 19th century make writing its history from the point of view of a narrowly defined philosophical perspective an especially thankless task – as proved by its synthetic treatments by Radlov, Shpet and Yakovenko, among others.2 Having focused on professionally practiced philosophy and employed formalized criteria of “the philosophic,” the authors produced an impoverished picture of the history of Russian philosophical thought and, in their final conclusion, denied it any originality. Even though the conclusion can be refuted on the grounds of their own assumptions, it must be admitted that with the narrow ←00 | 21→concept of philosophy’s subject matter, the originality of Russian philosophy is indeed hardly discernible, marked above all else by a dependence on the philosophy of the European West. Its originality can only be fully perceived when we regard it from the perspective of Russia’s intellectual history – from the point of view of the issues that had moved the hearts and minds of thinking Russians the most and were believed by them to be the most important for the fate of their country. This is especially true of the 19th century. A unique intersection of influences; modernization of the life and culture of a huge nation in which curtailed historical development were rapidly evolving; an astonishing co-existence of the archaic and the modern in social, as well as mental, structures; the issue of an intensive Europeanization and resistance toward it; confrontations of the Russian intellectual elite with the social reality and the ideas of, on the one hand, Western countries and, on the other hand, the continuously rediscovered Russian reality; the deep and uncompromising ideological involvement of the Russian intelligentsia, the fervor of its ethical research, the acuteness and fundamentalism of its “damned problems” – all these accounted for the fact that the spiritual biography of the Russian nation in the 19th century was more interesting and more dramatic than the intellectual histories of many other nations of incomparably richer philosophical traditions that were much more advanced in historical progress.

It is by no means the intention of these remarks to dilute philosophical issues in socio-political matters. I fully appreciate the importance of the current studies of Russian academic philosophy, practically unknown in the West and until recently ignored even in Russia.3 The neglect was largely due to the official Soviet school, interested solely in a mystified controversy about the so-called fundamental philosophical question (materialism vs. idealism), and in dividing thinkers into “progressive” (i.e., falsifiable through co-optation) and “reactionary” (i.e., totally rejected and purposefully marginalized). This had created a situation in post-Soviet Russia in which a separation of studies of strictly philosophical matter from studies of ideologies was perceived as an indispensable condition of scholarly reliability. I also share the opinion that it is not true that all that is valuable in Russian philosophy had been allowed to be born only outside university walls. However, I agree with Berlin’s opinion (quoted recently in an interesting book by his pupil Lesley Chamberlain) that the philosophical significance of Russian intellectual history has been the making of ←00 | 22→people who were, broadly speaking, thinkers – rather than merely professors of philosophy.4 The validity of studying Russian philosophy in an autonomous and strictly professional sense cannot thereby undermine the validity of studying philosophically significant aspects of Russia’s intellectual history. Besides, there seems to be no doubt that the intellectual history of pre-Revolutionary Russia is of worldly importance, which cannot be said of studies on the contributions of Russian philosophers of the time to the theoretical achievements of universal philosophy.

Considering these facts, it seems understandable that the chronological scope and the structure of the present book have been determined by criteria related to the general intellectual history of Russia, rather than to the development of philosophy itself. Priority in the book is given to the 19th century – the period of the greatest flourishing of Russian literature. It had a number of features that allow it to be treated as an integral entity. The 19th century saw the emergence and the making of a tradition by the “intelligentsia,” in the specifically Russian sense of the term, denoting a class of people who were educated and felt responsible for the future of their country, hardly unanimous but united by the ethos of fighting for progress. (In that sense, “intelligentsia” was an ethical category; sometimes it was ascribed a political meaning which was in opposition to the authorities an indispensable element of an intellectual’s attitude).5 In the 19th century, the central problem of Russian thought became ←00 | 23→Russia itself. Who are we? Where do we come from and where are we heading? What are we bringing to humanity? What should we do to fulfill our appointed mission? Looking for answers to those questions, thinking Russians employed the specific “benefit of backwardness” – a possibility to compare the situation of their own country with those of more developed countries and making use of the intellectual achievements born in more advanced and progressive social conditions. Hence the immense importance of the reception of those achievements. A careful study of this reception is not a ,”study of influences, since it does not seek the reasons of intellectual development in external influences – instead, it investigates the intellectual context in which Russian thought took shape and which became a powerful catalyst of its development.

The introduction of the philosophical and socio-political issues of the 18th century is justified by their close connection with 19th century problems. It was then, during the reign of Catherine II, that a profound reflection on the model of monarchy and the roads of development for Russia started to emerge. The alliance of the ruling and educated elites was beginning to crumble. The “enlightened” class was gradually gaining independence from both the absolute power which had brought it to life by initiating the process of Europeanization and the ruling social class; Radishchev, who definitely severed his ties with the gentry, was in this sense the first Russian “intellectual.” Pavel Milyukov’s opinion that it was in the age of Catherine that the unbroken tradition of critical social-political thought in Russia took roots, therefore seems fully justified.6

Obviously, it did not emerge in a void. Recent studies have largely confirmed the fact that the dialogue between the Monarch and his closest advisers on the one hand, and the representatives of the social and cultural elites on the other, had been going on from the very beginning of the Europeanization reforms of Peter I.7 It concerned the general direction of the reforms, but also the ideal model of power, and therefore had to include elements of a critical reflection on the current state of affairs. That is why the presentation of the mature Enlightenment ideas of the age of Catherine has been preceded in the ←00 | 24→book by a brief discussion of the crucial issues of Russian political thought in the first half of the 18th century.

Closing the book are chapters on the Russian thought of the first decade of the 20th century. I have adopted the assumption that the 1905 Revolution marked the natural end of the Russian 19th century. In 1905, the Russian autocracy entered the phase of its final decline; the opposition against it took on organized political forms while the newly won constitutional freedoms allowed for an open political life and the rapid development of institutionalized forms of civic society – which, however, did not cut short the revolutionary processes. This is how the revolutionary 20th century began within the history of the Russian Monarchy. The present book deals with this only insofar as it is necessary for understanding the intellectual trends born in the 19th century.

In Russia’s intellectual history, the 19th century that had ended in the first Russian Revolution and the 20th century were divided by several years of transition – a period of critical reflection on the experience of the Revolution, a painful reckoning of the hallowed traditions of the radical intelligentsia, and an axiological revaluation of the entire intellectual achievement of the previous century. A profound account of the radicalism of the intelligentsia was offered by the almanac Vekhy [Signposts], published in 1909 and rightly considered to denote the close of the Russian 19th century.8 In the following year, the philosophical publishing house “Put’” [“Road”] was founded (in co-operation with the authors of the almanac), its objective being to reevaluate the heritage of the past and to radically renew Russian culture in the spirit of a modernized religious and national consciousness. It was an elitist program, breaking with the populism of the old intelligentsia, rehabilitating independent creativity and emphasizing the transcendental dimension of culture. I was inspired by the so-called religious-philosophical renaissance – the major ideological trend of the Silver Age of Russian culture.

The turn of the first and the second decades of the 20th century discussed at the end of this book was thus a vitally important caesura in the history of Russian thought. From that moment, Russian culture has been marked by a dramatic dualism, the culture of the intellectual elite standing apart from the culture of revolutionary Russia.9 After the October Revolution, these two ←00 | 25→cultures split definitively –symbolically manifested in the expulsion of idealist philosophers from Soviet Russia in 1922. Following that incident, the culture of the Russian religious-philosophical renaissance was continued only in the diaspora, while the culture of revolutionary Russia, left prey to an ideocratic dictatorship, became self-destructive or primitively degraded.


The original version of the present book included seventeen chapters – the present one has twenty-three.

To help the Reader find his way in the contents, I have divided them into five sections, defined by chronology and subject matter. I hope this is a clear division which requires no comment.

Five of the twenty-three chapters of this book are entirely new: Chapter 15 concerning Chicherin; Chapter 20 discussing metaphysical idealism, including a detailed presentation of Leo Lopatin’s and Sergei Trubetskoi’s philosophies; as well as the three final chapters, 21, 22, 23, which concern the 20th century. There are also some new sub-chapters: Part 1 of Chapter 1 which deals with the paradoxes of Westernization); Parts 1-2 of Chapter 3 on the concepts of international order and liberalism in the times of Alexander I; Part 2 of Chapter 4 on the anti-philosophical crusade; Part 4 of Chapter 5 detailing the religious Westernism of Ivan Gagarin and Vladimir Pecherin; Parts 5-6 of Chapter 6 on the ideology of “official nationality” and the imperialist utopia of Tutchev; Part 5 of Chapter 9 which deals with Pamfil Yurkevich and Fedor Bukharev; Part 5 of chapter 13 on Nikolai Chaikovsky and Godmanhood; Parts 4, 5, 7 and 11 of chapter 18 related to the ecumenical and theocratic ideas of Soloviev, his philosophy of law and his place in the intellectual history of Russia; and lastly, Parts 5-6 of chapter 19 on the beginnings of the anti-Positivist breakthrough and the theological anthropologism of Nesmelov. All the remaining parts of the book ←00 | 26→have been re-edited, introducing a number of important changes and additions. New footnotes have been supplied, naming the most important books on the subject published since the appearance of the book in its first English edition in 1979.

Andrzej Walicki

Granger, Indiana, August 2004

1 “History of thought” is in the U.S.A. a synonym of “intellectual history.” The former term is chronologically older. Cf. eg. Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, vol. I: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800 and vol. II: The Romantic Revolution, 1800-1860, New York 1927.

2 E.L. Radlov, Ocherk istorii russkoi filosofii, Sankt Petersburg 1912; G. Shpet, Ocherk razvitiia filosofi v Rossii, Petrograd 1922; B. Jakovenko, Dejiny ruske filosofie, Prague 1939. The books are of little use nowadays, whereas the classical book by Masaryk, treating the history of Russian thought from the perspective of the historical-philosophical and philosophical-religious issues, has retained considerable value until this day. (See T. G. Masaryk, Zur russischen Geschichts-und Religionsphilosophie, vol. 1-2, Jena 1913).

3 A breakthrough in this domain is the 900-page work by W.F. Pustarnakov, Universitetskaia filosofiia v Rossii, Sankt Petersburg 2003. It comprises a monographic study and a biographical-bibliographical dictionary, offering information on Russian academic philosophers from the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 20th century.

4 Lesley Chamberlain in her “philosophical history of Russia” has argued very strongly against the use of strictly formal philosophical criteria in a study of Russian philosophy, supporting her case with the opinions of I. Berlin and the present author (see L. Chamberlain, Motherland. A Philosophical History of Russia, London 2004, pp. XI-XII). In this context, she quotes Berlin’s devastating article on the book by N. Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy (1952), published in the Times Literary Supplement of March 27, 1953 (see Lesley Chamberlain, op. cit., p. 92).

5 Especially characteristic in this respect is the neo-Populist history of Russian social thought by Ivanov-Razumnik (Istoriia russkoi obshchestvennoi mysli, Sankt Petersburg 1907). It presents the history of Russian thought from the perspective of two combating abstract principles – the non-conformist “ethical individualism” (culminating in self-sacrifice for the benefit of the people) and “bourgeois morality” implying philistinism, egotism and acceptance of reality. The “intelligentsia” is for Razumnik an ethical category par excellence, a true intellectual is only one who is an “individualist” opposed to the “bourgeois philistinism” personified as official Russian reality. Ivanov-Razumnik’s book offers the quintessence of the specific mythology of the Russian intelligentsia. It is a panegyric praise. In the 19th century, such an extolling tone would have been utterly unacceptable, as the Russian intelligentsia was then rather prone to lashing self-criticism. It was only in the 20th century – when the role of the intelligentsia as the leading force of the Russian “struggle for independence” came to its definitive end – that a tendency toward such an advanced retrospective self-idolatry could appear.

6 P.N. Milyukov, Ocherki po istorii russkoi kultury, St. Petersburg, 1901, pp. 248-250. See also Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Gentry, New York 1966.

7 See Cynthis Hyla Whittaker, Russian Monarchy. Eighteenth-century Rulers and Writers in Political Dialogue, Dekalb 2003.

8 See W. Rydzewski, “Syndrom rosyjskiej idei,” Archiwum Historii Filozofii i Myśli Społecznej, No 43, 1998, p. 115.

9 Cf. I.V. Kondakov, Vvedeniie v istoriju russkoi kultury, Moscow 1994, Ch. IX and X. This cultural dualism is reflected in synthetic discussions of the history of Russian philosophy. Soviet books used to utterly marginalize, or even eliminate, the idealist-religious trend, while the syntheses published in exile marginalized the trend of secular radicalism, which made them useless for understanding of the genesis of the Russian Revolution. This is quite strikingly evident in the aforementioned (see footnote 4) book by Lossky; a subtler approach was that of V. Zenkovsky (A History of Russian Philosophy, London 1953) who described the secular radicals as subconsciously religious thinkers with close links to Orthodox Christianity. It is worth noting that the eminent British historian of philosophy F.C. Copleston (a Jesuit and admirer of Russian religious philosophy) found such a biased approach unacceptable. See F.C. Copleston, Philosophy in Russia. From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev, Notre Dame, In., 1986, p. VII. On that point, W. Goerdt’s Russische Philosophie. Zugange und Durchblicke (Freiburg-München 1984) totally marginalizes Russian Marxism, devoting a mere couple of pages to it.

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Chapter 1
Trends and Tendencies in Enlightenment Thought

The development of Enlightenment thought in Russia was extended over several decades. Tracing its genesis requires reaching back to the reforms of Peter the Great which had transformed the Muscovite Empire into a Europeanized, Imperial Russia. Among Peter’s closest collaborators were people representing the rationalist culture of the early Enlightenment, such as Teophan Prokopovich (1681-1736), an eminent Church activist and alumnus of the Kiev Academy, and Vasilii Tatishchev (1686-1750), a historian and economic activist. Most historians, however, locate the beginning of a mature Enlightenment in Russia as late as the second-half of the 18th century, marked by the ascendance to the throne of Catherine II (1762-1796).1

One of the main objectives of Peter I’s reforms was to modernize the state as fast and as effectively as possible – in the military, administrative and technological senses. The reformer Tsar did not intend to introduce any new political doctrine in public life – being of a utilitarian frame of mind, he ignored abstract ideas and was not fully aware of the long-term consequences of his own reforms. During his tour of Europe from 1697-1698, he mastered the art of sailing and shipbuilding, as well as such trades as that of a cobbler, barber and dentist. Talking with Patriarch Adrian (in 1700) about the necessity of changes at the Moscow Slavic-Greco-Latin Academy, he entirely omitted religious questions. He just proposed eliminating theology and philosophy from the Academy schedule and instead introducing applied sciences such as medicine, military science, administration and civil engineering.

Recognizing the primacy of practical issues over the theoretical and ideological ones was also typical of Peter I’s collaborators and those who sought to further his activity. As Plekhanov has rightly observed, they had viewed the ←00 | 30→Enlightenment “from the angle of immediate practical profits.”2 Alien to their general outlook was the idea of indispensable fundamental changes in the political and social system. They fervently believed in the “Mosaic rod” of autocracy and its civilizing mission of waking up the nation and driving it toward enlightenment and progress. The conviction was fully shared by Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), a tremendous Russian scholar, poet and theorist of literature, as well as co-founder of Moscow University (established in 1755).

During the reign of Catherine II, the situation underwent a fundamental change. Enlightened public opinion gained independence, separating itself from the opinions of enlightened court circles. There came the time for a critical reflection on the civilizing and moral effects – as well as further prospects – of Europeanization. As moral sensitivity increased, more evil was observed in current reality and the reactions to it were more acute; the awakened thought began to look for reasons for the evil in the theretofore unquestioned foundations of the social system and state administration structures. Thus, the germs of a modern political opposition emerged in Russia, which naturally cooled the reforming zeal of the enlightened autocracy and made it embark on a road of repressions, creating steadily growing discord between the authorities and the intellectual elites of the country.

Introductory Remarks: The Paradoxes of Westernization

It is not the objective of the present book to present the history of Russian thought in the period between the rule of Peter I and that of Catherine II. Following the pre-Revolutionary tradition of Russian historiography which identified the history of Russian social thought with the history of the Russian intelligentsia,3 I begin the proper narrative from the age of Catherine, since it is only then that the Russian intelligentsia emerged – chiefly in Freemason circles – as an intellectual elite independent from modernizing authorities and united by a common system of values and the sense of a emancipatory social mission. The emergence of this particular group marked the beginning of the history of an enquiry about Russian identity, the sense of the Russian past, the perspectives of Russia’s development and the content of Russia’s quest within universal history. This was the set of issues that shaped Russian intellectual history of the 19th century, determining its continuity and thematic coherence.

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The present introductory remarks do not aspire to encompass the history of early Enlightenment Russian thought. They are sketchy and purposefully selective. Their aim is to introduce the reader into the process of intellectual and cultural changes which resulted in transforming the Moscow autocracy into a form of modern absolutism. Considering the powerful influence of foreign – Western – patterns, the specific character of the process has been known as Westernization.

Contemporary studies on the subject furnish that term, once unquestionable, with numerous restrictions. An influential interpretation of the Russian historical process, termed “essentialist”4 by its opponents, argues that Peter’s reforms in Russia were by no means a “new beginning” inaugurating the introduction of the tsarist state to Europe, since despite a superficial Europeanization, Russia had remained a world apart, essentially different from Europe.

Arguments in support of the theory, broadly developed by Richard Pipes,5 stress the fact that the Russian autocracy – unlike Western absolute monarchies – was not restricted by private property (in the Roman sense of the term) preventing political authorities from interfering with the sphere of ownership relations. A Russian autocrat’s power was total, its scope encompassing the whole of social life. Social classes in Russia were not legally granted corporative autonomy, while land ownership existed only in conditional form, depending on the fulfillment of particular duties for the benefit of the state. In reference to the gentry, it was a duty and an obligation to serve in the army or become a civil servant at locations indicated by the monarch, which made it impossible to create strong corporative ties of the territorial type. In return for the reduction to the status of “service people,” the gentry enjoyed a right to exploit the labor of the peasants on their lands and to wield their own jurisdiction over the peasants. The particular character of this state of affairs has been described by the representatives of the so-called state school of Russian historiography, who explain its genesis as the result of a specific combination of geographical and historical circumstances (vast areas and invasions by the steppe tribes having created a necessity for centralization and strict control of the dispersed population). Pipes draws the conclusion that the system of the ←00 | 32→Muscovite Empire can be defined as “patrimonial,” i.e., one in which the entire country was being treated as the patrimonial property of its ruler. The estates in this system were organized top-down and did not represent a social force independent from the government. Nor could there exist independent legal institutions such as the French “parliaments” with hereditary judges. A strong, centralized state authority claimed the role of the solitary subject of social life.

The reforms of Peter I did not change this system of general dependence. Indeed, they strengthened and legally regulated the serfdom of peasants, while the gentry were, more than ever, subjected to the State. The Table of Ranks (introduced in 1722 and binding until the downfall of the Russian monarchy) made nobility formally dependent on a specific rank in the military or civil service, while at the same time it opened access to the service for people unable to prove their “noble descent.” The abolition of the patriarchate and its substitution by a state office called “The Holiest Synod,” along with appointing the Emperor as the formal head of the Church, additionally increased the omnipotence of the State – in keeping with the inner logic of “patrimonialism.” Viewed from this perspective, Peter’s reforms could indeed be said to have deepened the differences between Russian autocracy and European absolutism, continuing the “totalitarian” tendencies of the Orthodox Muscovite Empire.6

And yet, such a generalization would have been a serious mistake, for at least four reasons, each of which deserves a separate brief discussion in the present book. Firstly, it is not true that Peter I was merely a pragmatic utilitarian without any overall vision of his own transformations. Pavel Milyukov and other left-wing historians of Peter’s reforms were certainly right when they argued that the reforms – which strengthened autocracy and serfdom – could not have resulted in political and social emancipation.7 Emphasis on this – indeed, obvious – fact must have been necessary in the period of struggle for the delegitimization of autocracy – but it can hardly be ignored that the reverse side of that attitude was a certain undervaluation of the civilizing aspect of Peter’s achievements. In this respect the reformer Tsar – rather than a mere cautious pragmatist – became a proper “revolutionary on the throne” (Herzen’s words), ←00 | 33→phenomenally audacious in his war with Muscovite traditionalism and heading for Europe, not blindly but methodically, with the awareness of making a decisive civilization-bound choice. Even at the very beginning of his rule, he introduced a new calendar era, introducing Russia to European time: starting January 1, 1700, Russia began to count years not “from the beginning of the world” but from the birth of Christ, shifting the onset of the calendar year from September 1st to January 1st. The decreed reform of manners, forcing the gentry to shave off their beards and wear European clothes was, in turn, a symbolic introduction of Russia to European cultural space: overnight, Russian noblemen were transformed into Europeans due to a duties of service, but they identified with their new role without much resistance and surprisingly quickly. The crowning of these actions was the transfer (in 1709) of the state capital from Moscow to Petersburg – a city that had been built by Europeans and was entirely European, shifting Russia’s center of gravity toward European geographical space and opening a “window to the West” for it. In the light of these facts, uniform in their implication and truly spectacular as they seem, it is difficult to understand Pipes’ opinion that Peter had been interested mainly in the power of the State, “especially in the military, rather than the Westernizing, power.”8

Secondly, Peter may not have been a political doctrinarian, but that is not to say that his reforms realized some partial objectives that were not part of an overall vision of a well-governed state. In fact, those reforms, initiated immediately after the Tsar’s return from his first journey abroad, encompassed the full scope of Russian life: administration, the army, economy, finance, education and the Church – and were meant to serve a comprehensively studied rationalization of the State, according to a clearly defined model of rationality. As Marc Raeff has pointed out, the most attractive and, at the same time, the easiest model for the Russians to follow was, according to Peter, the civilized “police state” [Polizeistaat], most perfectly represented by the Protestant German states.9 The adjective “police” meant, in this context, the efficiency of a centralized, enlightened administration, actively promoting economic progress, while providing everyone with a minimum means of existence. In the small German principalities, it took on the form of a paternalist rationing of life – a detailed rationing, including not only education, building industry and health care, but also the dress code and the consumption of food. At the same time, however, this paternalist authoritarianism was combined with a chamber-style economic policy attempting to modernize the economy with fiscal-←00 | 34→administrative methods. From the point of view of economic development, it was thus a version of mercantilist policy that was typical at that time of all the absolutist monarchies of Europe. Whatever may be said about it from the perspective of future free-market liberalism, it had been in its time a policy of active social modernization. And, obviously, it was doubly attractive to backward countries that did not have a strong class of private owners and were thus forced to catch up with civilization with the help of state intervention.

Thirdly, the limitations of individual freedom in the conditions of a modernizing autocracy must not be confused with the profound anti-individualism of traditionalist societies. Contrary to popular stereotypes, state absolutism was an ally, rather than an enemy, of individualization, paving the way for the liberation of individuals from the tyranny of traditionalist collectivism. In an excellent analysis of this phenomenon, Michael Oakeshott argues that individual freedom requires political authority endowed with three attributes: (1) it must be a homogeneous and supreme authority, since only the concentration of authority in a single center allows an individual to escape from the communal pressure of the family, the guild, the Church and the local community; (2) it must be a sovereign authority, unbound by the common prescription and thus able to cancel old laws and create new ones; and (3) it must be an authority powerful enough to secure order, but not so powerful as to become a real threat to individuals.10

Peter’s autocracy fully embodied the two former attributes, at least partly representing the third one. In comparison with the all-powerful collectivist traditions and religious rituals characteristic of social life in Muscovite Russia whose omnipresent power had been felt every day and every hour – the omnipotence of a centralized political authority, enabling individuals to break out from the power of local communities and opening the roads to state careers based on rational and meritocratic criteria, was perceived as a colossal broadening of the scope of individual freedom. In fact, the bureaucratic centralization of state authority restricted an emancipated individual to a much lesser degree than did the rigorous discipline of religious rituals, continuous fasts and traditional conventions restraining freedom in all public and private spheres of life.

Fourthly and lastly (a fact mentioned by Pipes, among others), Peter’s reforms resulted in replacing the patrimonial idea of the state (as the monarch’s property) with the idea of the state as a public good [bien public], all-national and, therefore, separate from and superior to the monarch. Peter was the first ←00 | 35→Russian emperor to treat himself as a servant of the state; he claimed “public good” to be the objective of his actions and referred to this objective in his decrees – he even introduced the custom of publicly explaining his own actions in the Government newspaper.11 Peter’s closest collaborator, Teophan Prokopovich – head of the Holiest Synod since 1721 – justified in his writings the idea of “monocracy” in the service of “public good” [obshchee blago] as an authority that could oppose any particularity, including particular interests of the Church, in the name of the national interest identified with the good of the whole population. An analogous idea was developed by Vasilii Tatishchev who, in his five-volume history of Russia (written 1727-1739), argued that in a country of vast territory and open borders, an efficient defense of the public good could be secured only by a monarchy.12 Both thinkers referred in their arguments to Western theoreticians of natural law, especially to Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Wolff. Tatishchev, more radical than Prokopovich, also comes up with a critique of Machiavelli and Hobbes as theoreticians justifying absolutism with the notions of struggle and force, rather than demonstrating it as a rational and moral aspiration to the public good.

The most serious argument against the authenticity of Russia’s Westernization is, of course, the fact that Peter I largely strengthened the autocratic power of the Russian Emperor, simultaneously widening its scope, which runs contrary to the assumed directions of political development in Europe. Some scholars believe that even the unconditional subjection of the Orthodox Church to the secular state authority, enacted with Peter’s Spiritual Rationing (1721), ought to be interpreted not so much as an act of secularization but, rather, a logical consequence of the Byzantium-style idea of making the Tsar a superior of the Church (in support of the thesis, Prokopovich’s Rozisk o pontifieksie, 1721, has been quoted).13 An even more important extension of Tsarist power was, however, its endowment with the mandate to enact progress by force. Following the French Revolution, this provoked association with a revolutionary dictatorship, rather than a normal absolutism – Herzen saw Peter as a “crowned revolutionary,” while the next century brought a widespread analogy between the reformist activism of Peter I and the Bolshevik Revolution.

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There is, undoubtedly, much truth in these observations. However, it must not be forgotten that the activist concept of wielding power was typical, to a various extent, of many European absolute monarchies of the 18th century – especially those that had to face the problem of backwardness. Suffice it to name (following Raeff) the German “police states” or the Hapsburg monarchy under Joseph II. The Moscow autocracy cannot be accused of a tendency to legitimize violence with the idea of progress. Instead, the idea of state modernization became, thanks to Peter, an important element of the legitimizing ideology of the Russian monarchy.

Peter’s decree on the succession to the throne (1722) abandoned the principle of an automatic inheritance of the throne according the order of primogeniture, replacing it with the selection of a suitable candidate (from amongst the persons related or attached to the Romanovs) on the merit of his “ability” to continue the reforms. Thus, the dynastic justification of power gave way to a theological legitimation.14 The latter was elaborated on by Teophan Prokopovich in his essay, The Truth of the Monarch’s Will (1722), with references to “people’s will” and the idea of a social contract. The importance of the essay is proven by the fact that it was printed in 1200 copies – a record-breaking circulation in those times.

The authority’s commitment to enact progress defined as common good was thus officially recognized. Combined with the notion of the State as a public good separate from the person of the monarch, this legitimizing principle must have induced the idea of civic responsibility for the State. Peter’s collaborators thus faced the problem of reconciling the enlightened autocracy to civic participation. Tatishchev tried to solve this problem with his project of state reform submitted in 1730 to Empress Anna Ivanovna in response to an attempt to limit her power by the aristocratic oligarchs of the Supreme Secret Council. The project proposed a participating monarchy and obliged the ruler to consult the Higher Chamber of 27 men performing legislative and administrative functions, as well as the Lower Chamber of 100 members representing the interests of the gentry, the merchants and the religious. In view of the Empress’ conflict with the Supreme Secret Council, the project clearly supported monarchy against oligarchic constitutionalism. It must be emphasized, however, that both sides of the conflict were fully in favor of accepting the Western model of Russia’s development. The “conditions” presented to Empress Anne by the Supreme Council of Six had nothing to do with the “old-boyar” criticism of Peter’s reforms – they did not mention the 17th century Land Counsels or an ←00 | 37→appeal to religious feelings, nor did they demand resurrection of the patriarchate or a ban on the process of secularization. The Council’s leading ideologist, Prince Dmitri Golitsyn (1663-1737), descendant of Grand Duke Giedymin of Lithuania, was a model Enlightenment man, citing Sweden as an example to be followed by Russia, i.e., proposing an alternative model of Westernization.15

Contrary to a widespread opinion expressed in publications on the subject, the failure of the Supreme Secret Council oligarchs did not mean a return of a Peter-style model of unlimited absolute power. Quite the opposite: Empress Anne (just like her predecessor, Catherine I, Peter’s plebeian wife who – from the dynastic point of view – held no claim to the throne) had taken power as a result of an election and recognized the election principle. Election by the political elite made up of the Governing Senate (12 men), the Holiest Synod (12 men) and the generals (some 200 officers), and reinforced with the acceptance by the highest civil servants and the gentry (guards regiments included) currently present in the State capital, came to be recognized as a necessary condition of a monarch’s legality. An equally important requirement was that power be wielded in a consensual way, free of the arbitrariness and unpredictability that were characteristic of despotic rule. During the age of Catherine, the recommended model took on the shape of a Montesquieu-type doctrine of the supremacy of law being a guarantee of security, both personal and that of possession. Drastic violations of those rules were, in the eyes of the political elite, ample reason for depriving a monarch of power, or even of life. Organizers of court putsches could thus believe themselves to be executors of the law and count on the general acceptance of their actions.16

In the light of the abovementioned facts, the thesis postulating an unbroken continuity between the Muscovite Tsarist State and the post-Peter Russian Empire seems unsupportable. More arguments for a lack of continuity between the old and the new Russia are supplied by the reception of Peter’s reforms in the West. Western diplomats and travelers saw Orthodox Muscovite Russia as an exotic country, no less alien to Europe than Muslim Turkey. Thanks to the impetus of Peter’s reforms, observed at close quarters by Peter’s Western advisers, Russia gradually came to be perceived as a suitable ground for creating an ideal Kingdom of Reason, with its Emperor as “a new Solon.” Leibniz – who met Peter twice and prepared for him the project of the Russian Academy of ←00 | 38→Science (founded in 1721) – argued that the new Russia, having completely destroyed its old barbarian institutions, had become an “unwritten chart,” a virgin country where an enlightened monarch might create an ideal society following the principles of la republique des lettres. He even completed the vision with a hope that a renewed Russia would fulfill the ecumenical mission of uniting all Christian denominations in a single Church.17

Russia’s prestige increased even more due to its successes in the military field. Following the Battle of Poltava (1709) and the victorious finale of the Great War of the North (with the Nystadt Treaty of August 30th, 1721), Russia became one of the pillars of the “European superpower concerto.” Voltaire in his Historie de Charles XII, roi de Suede, published 1731, portrayed the war between Charles XII and Peter I as a combat of a traditional versus an enlightened monarchy, the latter representing human civilization in general.18 Years later, he praised the achievements of the Russian Empire in Anecdotes about Peter the Great (1748). Finally, having gained a reputation as an expert on the subject, he wrote the two-volume Historie de l’empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1759-1763), commissioned by Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth. In that book, the creation of Peter’s Empire was described as an extraordinary, unprecedented extension of European civilization – “the greatest breakthrough in the life of Europe since the discovery of the New World.”19

Voltaire was neither unique, nor even the first, in his enthusiasm for the reformer Tsar. He had been preceded by philosopher and critic Bernard de Fontenelle, Secretary of the French Academy of Science and author of The Praise of Peter I, written for the Tsar’s visit to France in 1717. In his opinion, Peter was the greatest and most creative emperor in world history for having raised his country from utter barbarianism and adjoining it to civilization. Similar opinions were held by René d’Argenson, a French politician and friend of the Encyclopedists.20

The enthusiasm surrounding Peter’s achievements had a deep philosophical justification: the successes of Russia’s Emperor seemed to be unquestionable proof of the miracle-working power of rational legislation enacted by enlightened absolutism. A somewhat different view was held by Montesquieu, a thinker who advised respect for the continuity of development and introduced ←00 | 39→the notion of “national spirit,” emphasizing the importance of “mediating bodies” as a factor restricting the arbitrariness of power. In The Spirit of Laws, in a chapter entitled “What are the Natural Means of Altering the Manners and Customs of a Nation,” he wrote:

Thus, when a Prince would make great alterations in his kingdom, he should reform by law what is established by law, and change by custom what is settled by custom; for it is very bad policy to change by law what ought to be changed by custom.

The laws which obliged the Muscovites to cut off their beards and to shorten their cloaths, and the rigour with which Peter I made them crop, even to their knees, the long cloaks of those who entered into the cities, were instances of tyranny. There are means that may be made use of to prevent crimes, these are punishments; there are those for changing our customs, these are examples.

The facility and ease with which the nation has been polished plainly shew that this prince had a worse opinion of his people than they deserved; and that they were not brutes, though he was pleased to call them so. The violent measures which he employed were needless; he would have attained his end as well by milder methods.21

Yet another opinion was formulated by the ideologists of the republican wing of the French Enlightenment – Rousseau and Mably. The former, in a famous fragment of Contract social (the one that provoked a violent protest and a replica by Voltaire),22 vehemently criticized both the Russians and their Tsar, as well as the French Enlightenment methods of education, writing:

Russia will never be really civilized, because it was civilized too soon. Peter had a genius for imitation; but he lacked true genius, which is creative and makes all from nothing. He did some good things, but most of what he did was out of place. He saw that his people was barbarous but did not see that they were not ripe for civilization: he wanted to civilize them when they needed only hardening. His first wish was to make Germans or Englishmen, when he ought to have been making Russians; and he prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been by persuading them that they were what they are not. In this fashion too, a French teacher turns out his pupil to be an infant prodigy, and for the rest of his life to be nothing whatsoever.23


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Russian Thought Russian Philosophy Russia
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 876 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Walicki (Author)

Andrzej Walicki is a Polish historian, Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame (USA) and a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He specializes in the history of Polish and Russian philosophy, Marxism, and liberal thought, and is associated with the Warsaw School of the History of Ideas. Walicki is the author of over twenty books.


Title: The Flow of Ideas
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880 pages