by Artur Banaszewski and Isabel Jacobs
In the first two installments of our series on East European Intellectual History, we traced the cultural exchanges between Western and Eastern Europe. We analyzed how these translated and evolved during the global context of the Cold War. Our series touched upon some of the problematic taxonomical and geopolitical issues in “East European” Intellectual History.
However, one crucial, contested factor in the region is yet to be explored: Russian nationalism. As Russia’s violent, full-scale invasion of Ukraine is about to enter its third year, we decided to dedicate our third and final installment to the complex legacies of Russian nationalism. We believe that intellectual history holds much potential for critically investigating the past and present of nationalism and imperialism in Eastern Europe.
In April 2022, Timothy Snyder was among the first to advocate for a neologism to describe the political ideology of Vladimir Putin’s government. The term “Rashism” [Рашизм], or “Ruscism,” as Snyder’s transcription suggests, emphasized the similarities and affinities between twentieth-century fascism and contemporary Russian ultra-nationalism. Inspired by Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, Snyder argues that “Rashism” shares many features with historical fascism: the cult of the leader, censorship, propaganda, conspiracy theories, and mythologizing the nation’s glorious past.
Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, passed a resolution in May 2023 that officially recognized “Rashism” as a totalitarian ideology and called upon its international partners to condemn it as such. In an explanatory note to the resolution, Ukrainian MPs described Putin’s political regime as a “neo-imperialist totalitarian dictatorship […] embodying the ideas of fascism and national socialism.” Simultaneously, the note asserted that Putin’s government has placed “ideas of Russian nationalism” as a “basis for state ideology,” which substantiates its policy of foreign expansion.
The Ukrainian Parliament condemned “Rashism,” warning the global public of its dangers—understandable in light of the country’s ongoing defense against the invader. In the context of East European Intellectual History, however, we suggest broadening the scope of factors that contributed to the formation of Russian nationalism. As Marlene Laurelle convincingly argues, labeling political adversaries as “fascist” too often serves as a strategy for discrediting them, rather than describing their worldview. Further, this strategic narrative is used by both sides, Russia and Ukraine, which makes it, for Laruelle, a complex “discursive landscape” to navigate.
Laruelle suggests elsewhere that the question of the intellectual roots of contemporary Russian illiberalism—fascism being one of them—is ambiguous and multifactorial. Criticizing contemporary “Rashism” by comparisons to historical fascism limits our understanding of the key beliefs of Russian nationalism. As our virtual issue aims to unravel, Russian nationalism should be approached in its shifting historical evolution. In recognizing affinities between contemporary Russian nationalism and historical fascism, it is important to avoid the pitfalls of simple analogies with the twentieth century.
It was Snyder who pointed to the pivotal role of the Russian ultranationalist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, in shaping the Kremlin’s political ideology. Snyder goes as far as calling Ilyin “Putin’s Philosopher of Russian Fascism.” Others name the Eurasianist and Traditionalist thinker Aleksandr Dugin as “Putin’s Brain.” Reconstructing some overlooked sources of contemporary Russian nationalism, Maria Engström highlighted the importance of late Soviet illiberalism, especially Geidar Dzhemal’s political metaphysics. Engström suggests that Russia’s contemporary ideology draws on an eclectic array of ideas, including esotericism, Traditionalism, radical conservatism and postmodernism. This makes it difficult to disentangle Russian state propaganda without resorting to familiar liberal frameworks. Building on Engström’s analysis, we might need to develop new critical tools.
When reevaluating the late Soviet period in light of the current war, it is also worth remembering the striking case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. An internationally renowned dissident, critic of Soviet socialism and author of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was remarkably oblivious to the dangers of imperial Russian domination and exploitation. In his 1990 essay Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals, he dismissed altogether Ukrainian and Belarussian national identities as a “recently invented falsehood”—an opinion he repeated in numerous interviews until his death in 2008.
It is telling that the same dissidents who played a pivotal role in validating the thesis of Soviet totalitarianism went on to embrace Russian nationalism. Solzhenitsyn is no exception here; numerous Russian intellectuals who openly rejected the values of Western liberalism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, opposition to the communist regime often seamlessly morphed into a new right-wing, nationalistic stance. This did not only apply to famous dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, but also included punk and underground icons, such as Sergey Kuryokhin or Eduard Limonov. Both emerged, as did Dugin, from late Soviet underground kruzhki [unofficial intellectual circles]. In Russia’s current nationalistic ideology, the boundaries between stiob [a specifically late Soviet mode of irony] and sincere chauvinism are fluid. Postmodernist irony is one of the many narrative tools to justify Russia’s aggressive expansionism.
Defying a formula as simple as “Rashism,” Russian nationalism also often transcends traditional left-right divides. In fact, Russian nationalism is the product of a new age of political ideology after postmodernism. This brings us to a final difficulty when unraveling Russia’s nationalistic ideology: the crucial, yet thorny demand of decolonization. In the context of Russian intellectual history, the task of “decolonizing” scholarship comes with its own specific conceptual difficulties. On the one hand, Russia’s imperial past is still neglected even by its most liberal critics, as the example of Solzhenitsyn revealed. On the other, Russian colonialism cannot easily be framed within the same categories as, for instance, British imperialism.
Russia’s colonial legacy is shaped by various complex factors, such as Eurasianism and Russian variants of Orientalism. When it comes to Russia’s colonial impact in Central Asia, race, hybridity and encounter all play their role. As our first installment explored, the boundaries between Western and non-Western are blurry in the case of Russia’s position in-between Europe and Asia. Matters become even more entangled when we take into account that—as with claiming to “defeat fascism”—Russia strategically uses the signifier “decolonization” for its own purposes. It is important to unravel how the Kremlin appropriates decolonial language to legitimize its war on Ukraine.Russian anti-Western propaganda and decolonial theory form an unexpected, dangerous marriage, strengthened by Russia’s growing allyship with the “Global South,” most importantly India. Some prominent decolonial theorists, such as Walter Mignolo, fell into the trap of Putin’s “decolonizing” rhetoric on Russia’s defense against Western imperialism. Such simplistic conflations have to be challenged by research into Russia’s particular colonial history and a critical reevaluation of the Soviet Union’s proclaimed internationalism.
Controversies around how to label Russia’s current political ideology will persist. Russian nationalism is a distinct political tradition with more than 300 years of history, during which it has developed its own beliefs, metanarratives, and frames of reference. Some of its key ideas are specific to Russian political culture and cannot be easily compared with those of Western Europe or elsewhere. For this reason, we suggest that the criticism of Russian nationalism and imperialism, that is urgently needed today, cannot be restricted to the conceptual framework of Western liberal political theory. Russian nationalism is a complex case that challenges many assumptions of Western liberalism. In order to dismantle and rebuke modern-day Russian nationalism or “Rashism,” we need to critically expose, historicize, and deconstruct the core beliefs, entanglement of Russian political thought of the past.
Our virtual issue retraces the evolution of Russian nationalistic thought from the medieval period to the present. The JHI archive contains an impressive number of articles dedicated to Russian history and culture. Some of them reveal more about the state of intellectual history during the Cold War than about Russian nationalism. As such, they are valuable documents to map how Russia’s national identity was perceived and constructed in the Western imagination. When selecting articles, we adopted a broad definition of Russian nationalism. The discussed articles are related to, but not limited to, imperial Russian policies, eastern Orthodoxy, Russian political philosophy, and individual Russian intellectuals. While not all of them concern Russian nationalism per se, the chosen studies share a common problem: What distinguishes Russia from the rest of the world—particularly Europe—and what are the political implications of this uniqueness? Despite the diversity of topics, all these articles improve our understanding of how Russian imperialism and chauvinism have been justified in the past and why it matters today.
A close analysis of our selected articles reveals how some core beliefs of Russian ultra-nationalism have changed little since Imperial times, while others have been severely distorted and reappropriated following the demise of the Soviet Union. After February 2022, the concept of the “Russian world” [Русский мир] received much coverage from Western scholars and commentators, who rightly criticized it for being an imperialistic drive behind the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, we think it is important to view such a concept in longue durée. The “Russian world” has a long-standing history, deeply rooted in Russian foundational myths of the Holy Rus’ and the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Historically, the tsars derived their legitimacy from reign over the Universal Christian Empire, which descended from Byzantine political theology.
In the eighteenth century, the claim was transformed and extended to the entirety of the Eastern orthodox Slavic population, which from now on were to be known as “Russian.” Nikolay Danilevsky, a prominent nineteenth-century Slavophile intellectual, believed that orthodox Slavs formed a distinct civilizational type that followed a separate historical evolution than “Germanic-Roman” Europe. For this reason, Europe would always regard Russia as “something alien to itself, and not only alien, but also hostile.” Danilevsky argued that Russia had a historical duty to defend and provide leadership to the Slavic peoples worldwide, while any attempts to “modernize” it were predestined for failure.
Danilevsky’s essentialist and teleological theory of history had immediate geopolitical implications, as he advocated for the establishment of an “All-Slavic Union” under Russian leadership to counterweight “Germanic-Roman” Europe. Hence, the concept of the “Russian World,” as one example, draws on several intellectual traditions that historically justified Russian geopolitical claims through notions of universality and civilizational distinctiveness. Today, the “restoration” of Russia’s historic “sphere of influence” is directly inspired by historical policies of Russification and imperial expansion.
Another term ubiquitously used since the 19th century is the “Russian Soul.” It is perhaps the most common term to convey the cultural and historical specificity of Russia, still evoked by some today. During the Cold War, in 1959, in Russian Intellectual History, the Ukrainian philosopher and literary scholar Dmytro Chyzhevsky called for the expulsion of the “Russian soul” from intellectual history. Instead, he situates Russia’s imperial project between “Tatar” influences—both administrative and cultural—and imports from and competition with the West.
Ironically, the very claim about unique Russian spirituality was itself a Western import. As with many other concepts, it came to Russia via German philosophy. In his “theory of [the] ideological relations between the West and Russia,” Isaiah Berlin claimed in 1981 that all major ideas by Russian thinkers came from the West. However, once they arrived “in the heavily censored nineteenth-century world of Russian social thought” they were taken far more seriously than in Europe itself. Ideas were a delicious “forbidden fruit” that was “passionately devoured in Moscow and Petersburg.” In such a way did nationalism enter “the very lifeblood” of Russia’s intelligentsia. “Nothing, perhaps, alters ideas as much as total dedication to them,” concludes Berlin. The “Russian soul,” a central assumption of a Russian nationalist worldview, is thus a radicalized copy of early nineteenth-century German exceptionalism.
The term “Russian Soul” is closely related to another prevalent claim of Russian nationalism: Western Europe’s “decadence” and “decay,” inspired by cyclical interpretations of history, such as by Nikolay Danilevsky and Oswald Spengler. As our virtual issue presents, the claim that material growth had contributed to Europe’s alleged spiritual decline had been circulating since at least the early nineteenth century. In the imagination of writers like Vladimir Odoyevsky or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russia represented a younger, more vigorous culture whose future, unlike that of old Europe, still lays ahead. Russia was not only forecasted to surpass Europe but also to save it from death by sharing its superior strength and morality. As Odoyevsky put it in his 1844 novel Russian Nights, “We must save not only the body of Europe, but her soul as well! […] Another, higher victory—the victory of science, art, and faith—is awaiting us on the ruins of enfeebled Europe” (211). In a letter to Apollon Maikov from 1st March 1868, Dostoyevsky wrote:
Generally, all our conceptions are more moral, and our Russian aims are higher than those of the European world. […] A great renewal is about to descend on the whole world, through Russian thought (which, you are quite right, is solidly welded with Orthodoxy), and this will be achieved in less than a hundred years—this is my passionate belief. But in order that this great object may be achieved, it is essential that the political right and supremacy of the Great-Russian race over the whole Slav world should be definitively and incontestably consummated (41).
The ambition to “catch up and overtake” Russia’s Western neighbors united Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Confirming Berlin’s claim, such endeavors to formulate a new, alternative model of modernity have always assumed the West as the reference point. As Alexander Etkind recently argued, Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine can also be seen as a war against “the modern world of climate transition, energy transition and digital labor” (4). Engström suggested that Russia’s “Z-turn” is as much a cultural war as it is an expression of Russian expansionism. From Dostoyevsky’s hopes for a great war between Russia and Europe to the Soviet idea of the world revolution, armed conflict was the logical conclusion of beliefs about the clash of two irreconcilable civilizations and systems.
This does not imply that the entirety of Russian literature and culture should be denounced as nationalistic and chauvinistic, as some have argued. By contrast, criticism of the past should prompt constructive reflection on the future. The employment of Leo Tolstoi in contemporary debates about warfare and pacifism offers just one example of how Russian intellectual traditions can be relevant today. Nevertheless, our issue aims to contribute to the urgent mission of a serious and thorough critique of nationalist assumptions in Russian political thought.
As we aimed to unveil, the contemporary ideology of Russian ultra-nationalism should not be seen as a simple antithesis to Western notions of liberalism and democracy. It draws from Russian imperial ideology, as well as chauvinistic and colonial currents from Soviet times. Consequently, opposition to Russian nationalism should not be formulated exclusively in liberal, but also decolonial terms—with the need to develop new conceptual vocabulary to subject Russia to such criticism. Intellectual historians have much to contribute to this project. Besides sharpening our critical tools, there is an urgent need to engage in a more varied historiography of Russian political thought, taking into account radical conservatism and anti-Western illiberalism.
Russian political thought should neither be orientalized nor treated as a mere case study of fascism or totalitarianism, as defined in Western liberal terms. To successfully combat the myths and falsehoods of Russian nationalistic propaganda, we urgently need new intellectual histories that both critically and seriously engage with such narratives. As our series on East European Intellectual History aimed to unravel, the region still holds remarkable potential for global historical approaches that do justice to entanglement and encounter, colonialism and conflict, hybridity and hegemony.
Hans Kohn. “Dostoevsky’s Nationalism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct. 1945), pp. 385-414.
Michael Cherniavsky, “Khan or Basileus: An Aspect of Russian Mediaeval Political Theory.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1959), pp. 459-476.
Raymond T. McNally, “Chaadaev Versus Xomjakov in the Late 1830’s and the 1840’s.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1966), pp. 73-91.
Robert C. Williams, “The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 31, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1970), pp. 573-588.
G. J. Thurston, “Alexis De Tocqueville in Russia.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun. 1976), pp. 289-306.
Scanlan, James P. “The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground.’” Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 3 (1999): 549–67.
Siljak, Ana. “Between East and West: Hegel and the Origins of the Russian Dilemma.” Journal of the History of Ideas 62, no. 2 (2001): 335-358.
Vovchenko, Denis. “Modernizing Orthodoxy: Russia and the Christian East (1856—1914).” Journal of the History of Ideas 73, no. 2 (2012): 295–317.
Born to a German-Jewish family in Prague, the American philosopher Hans Kohn became famous for his influential The Idea of Nationalism (1944). Published the year after, his fascinating article discusses Fyodor Dostoevsky’s influence on Russia’s “historical mission.” The starting point of Kohn’s analysis is the assumption that the Mongol conquest created an unbridgeable gulf between Europe and Russia. He calls the latter “a semi-asiatic” region characterized by the lack of liberty under law. Russia was cut off from major developments that shaped the “West,” such as the Renaissance or the Reformation. Instead, the Russian Empire under Peter I was grounded in despotism, regimentation and backwardness.
In Kohn’s view, Dostoevsky was Russia’s “national prophet” who rooted his worldview in the faith in “semi-Asiatic autocracy” and fiercely opposed the desire of late nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals to “fully Europeanize Russia.” Reproducing a common trope in Western views on Russian literature, Kohn reads Dostoevsky’s novels, most notably The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80), as representations of the “Russian problem.” For Kohn, Dostoevsky was a foremost spokesman of anti-occidental Russian nationalism. Predicting a war between Russia and Europe, Dostoevsky became a “Pan-Slav imperialist” who embraced Christian Orthodoxy, “racial” nationalism and anti-liberal hostility towards the West.
As the Russian Empire entered European politics as a dominant power during the age of revolutions—secure of its grandeur but uncertain about its civilization and future—its intellectuals were faced with a dilemma: should Russia lead the counter-revolution, or support mankind in its revolutionary struggles? In Kohn’s view, Russia had long appropriated intellectual developments of its Western neighbors to use them against Europe. Particularly, Russia adopted and radicalized the anti-Western bias of German romanticism: that Germany had distinct, unique characteristics that could not coexist with a liberal and materialist West.
Kohn aimed to provide his readers with a strong, at times problematically biased, conviction how Russia radically differed from Western Europe and the United States. His anti-Russian tone about the “extravagant” and “Asiatic” characteristics of a peculiarly Russian worldview is both symptomatic of the zeitgeist and linked to Kohn’s own biography. One of the greatest scholars of nationalism in the twentieth century was captured by the Imperial Russian army during World War I, where he fought in the infantry of the Austro-Hungarian army. Kohn was taken from the Carpathian mountains to a prison camp in Central Asia (today Turkmenistan). He was freed by the Czechoslovak Legions during the Russian civil war.
Michael Cherniavsky’s article develops an alternative view on the “Tatar Yoke” of the 13th-15th centuries. Cherniavsky takes issue with histories of Russia that would perceive the Mongol invasion as an “external factor, which interrupted or distorted the natural, internal logic of the Russian historical development.” This approach was typical for European scholars who conceptualized Russia as part of a common history of the continent, which nevertheless experienced a certain historical anomaly in the form of the Mongol conquest in the 13th century. To that, the article offers a contrasting approach in which the medieval Russian model of rulership has a unique and separate intellectual genealogy dating back to the middle ages.
According to Cherniavsky, the origins of Russian political theory lie in the Byzantine and Mongol Empires. The Russian term Tsar was largely inspired by the Byzantine Basileus, who claimed legitimacy over the Universal Christian Empire and was responsible for the salvation of his subjects. After the Mongol conquest, the same name Tsar was used to describe the Mongol Khan, who derived his legitimacy from conquest yet adopted many of the earlier attributes of the Basileus. According to Cherniavsky, Russian political theology combined the two ideas of the ruler, who was universal, unique, and autocratic. This is symbolized by the main regalia of the Russian state—Monomakh’s Cap, also called the Golden Cap—which was, according to Cherniavsky, originally of Central Asian origin and symbolized the sovereignty of the Mongol Khan.
Therefore, the author seems to suggest Russia had not only a different but a unique and separate political tradition to that of Europe or “the West,” based on universal and autocratic models of rulership. Considering this article was published at the height of the Cold War, in 1959—the same year as Chyzhevsky’s Russian Intellectual History—its conclusions aptly align with the ideological front lines of the period divided between democracy and totalitarianism.
Importantly, Cherniavsky’s article incorrectly conflates the Kyivan Rus’ with Russia, merging the two into “Kievan Russia.” The medieval polity of Rus’ (Русь) with the capital in Kyiv was separate from the early modern duchy of Muscovy, later the tsardom of Rus’ with the capital in Moscow. The term “Russia” appeared from the middle of the seventeenth century. At the end of the Great Northern War, in 1721, it was adopted by Peter I who proclaimed a “Russian Empire” which employed the adjective Russian (русский) to describe all Orthodox eastern Slavs. Therefore, the term intended to substantiate Imperial Russia’s claims to sovereignty over Eastern Europe, including the important center of Kyiv.
Raymond T. McNally’s article returns to the famous early nineteenth century controversy between Russian “Slavophiles” and “Westerners” by discussing the differences between two seminal Russian thinkers, Piotr Chaadaev and Aleksei Khomyakov. Regarding the historical destiny of Russia and its relation to Europe, both agreed that discovering Russia’s future will require reassessing its past—but in that reassessment, the two intellectuals radically differed. In McNally’s view, the basic disagreement between Chaadaev and Khomyakov concerned the historical influence of the Catholic and Byzantine churches.
Chaadaev was deeply concerned that the Russian culture of the past contained no universal values or ideas that would be relevant for the rest of the world. He blamed the influence of the Byzantine church for that, with its domination of secular rulers over the Church, which he viewed as stifling Russia’s cultural and intellectual development. To that, he starkly opposed the churches of Western Europe, where the strong and separate position of sacrum towards profanum encouraged reflection, deliberation, and doubt. Importantly, Chaadaev powerfully argued that Russia had been and should be part of the European Christian cultural community: it was the Mongol Yoke that severed its ties to Europe. In his view, the Russians should study Western European developments and adapt them to local conditions to secure Russia’s future among the great nations of Europe.
Contrasted to that, while recognizing European accomplishments, Khomyakov believed that Russia should base its national culture on the Orthodox foundations of the past. The rational and materialist value system of Western churches were responsible for the West’s spiritual “decline.” Yet for Chaadaev, a return to national Russian ethnocentrism was incompatible with Christian universalism, critical for maintaining its international standing. Both thinkers agreed that Russia was an exceptional case that should oppose liberal and secular impulses of the West.
McNally concludes with two alternative visions of Russia’s history and future: one arguing for adapting values of the European cultural community and the other striving to realize an intellectual and political system of their own. As McNally notes, in 1966, the dilemma was far from being resolved despite the adoption of Marxist-Leninist vocabulary during the Soviet era. Tellingly, like Cherniavsky, McNally also uses the historically inaccurate term “Kievan Russia”—revealing the long shadow of Russocentrism in Western scholarship of the region.
In his article, Robert C. Williams notes that the concept of the “Russian Soul” was both inspired by and opposed to European, particularly German Romanticist, notions of nation and historic “mission.” As we have seen above, the very identity of a unique “Russian soul” [русская душа] emerged as an import from the West. Williams emphasizes that the term assumed the independence of the Russian peasants of their government. According to Williams, the “Russian Soul” was initially opposed to both national romanticism of the past and the imitation of Europe—it expressed the possibility of a distinctly Russian future.
Importantly, that future awaited not the Russian state but the Russian people. Williams suggests that the “Russian soul” is not inherently nationalistic but offers a utopian political imagination that emphasizes the agency of the Russian people beyond their autocratic government. Hence, exposing the intellectual genealogy of the term “Russian soul” displays some democratic and participatory connotations that are not limited to chauvinistic Russian nationalism.
Interestingly, Williams argues, the term’s emergence coincided with political upheavals in the 1840–1860s—the loss in the Crimean War and the abolition of serfdom in Russia—and initially expressed a hope for Russia to have a historical trajectory independent of its government. Williams points out that in the early nineteenth century, traditional Russian nationalism was government-inspired and centered on praising the conquests of the Tsars of Moscow and their universalist prestige as the only defenders of Eastern Christianity (the much employed, controversial idea of Moscow as the Third Rome).
In the 1830s, the Russian government adopted the slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” to usurp what Williams calls “the indigenous nationalist tradition” of the Russian people. Simultaneously, Russian intellectuals began idealizing mir, the traditional Russian peasant commune, as a repository of virtues lacking in the materialist and rationalist “West.” He points out that since the times of Peter the Great, the term “soul” has been used to denote an individual male serf as a tax unit—an idea immortalized in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842). From the late 1830s, the “soul” attained increasingly political connotations, with Chaadaev observing that “Russian intellectual life represented a passionate reaction against the European Enlightenment.”
According to Williams, German nationalist philosophy provided a theoretical framework to express the Russian opposition to the West and its own national distinctiveness. Two factors were important in this process: one, the historicist perception of nations as developing individuals; and second, the fascination of German philosophers—particularly Schelling who had a significant Russian reception—with what they perceived as the “East,” such as China, India or Russia. For example, Vladimir Odoevsky wrote that the Industrial Revolution has turned Europe’s soul into a “steam engine.” The West was dying because of the lack of soul [пустодушие], and the future belonged to the virility and freshness of Russia. According to Williams, Odoevsky was “perhaps the first to develop the theme that Europe, like Faust, had sold its soul through the industrial revolution” (577). In the 1830s, Schelling’s place was taken by Hegel, and Gogol’s Dead Souls and his correspondence with Belinskii helped establish the concept of the “Russian soul” as identifying a specifically Russian form of virtue, spirituality, and virility.
In the 1870s, the “Russian soul” became associated with Dostoevsky, who reformulated it to be distinct from both the past-longing Slavophiles and unpatriotic Westerners. Now, the “soul” denoted the possibility of a uniquely Russian future. In the aftermath of World War I, the term rapidly gained popularity in the West, where the decline of Europe preoccupied intellectuals whose knowledge of Russia was based on translated literature. For Western thinkers, particularly in Germany, Dostoevsky was a prophet of Europe’s decline, to whom they turned to criticize their own societies. Hence, Williams concludes that the intellectual transfer of the term was not one-way but cyclical, shaping the building of national identities both in Russia and abroad.
At the end of his acclaimed Democracy in America (1835-40), Alexis de Tocqueville famously juxtaposed Russia with the United States, seeing them as two powers that in the future would come to dominate European politics. However, the paths to greatness of the two nations could not be more different. As Tocqueville forcefully stated, “the principal instrument [of the United States] is freedom; of the latter [Russia], servitude.” G. J. Thurston asserts that Tocqueville’s importance as a political theorist stems from the fact that his analyses profoundly affected the evolution of nineteenth-century politics—and in the case of Russia, it was no different.
However, it was not Democracy in America but Tocqueville’s last unfinished book, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), which attracted the greatest attention in Russia shortly after its disastrous defeat in the Crimean War. Tocqueville’s reflections on the risks of political centralization and social reform aptly answered the concerns of educated Russians, who recognized the need for reforms. Thurston’s article discusses the reception of the book by three Russian figures: Leo Tolstoi, the Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaievich, and Paul Vinogradoff. Thurston notes that shortly after beginning to write War and Peace, Tolstoi noted in his diary that he was reading Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime.
According to Thurston, Tolstoi was impressed by Tocqueville’s work because of its emphasis on the nobility and its political responsibilities. In Tocqueville, Tolstoi found arguments that appealed to his aristocratic self-perception: against government centralization and the reformist desire of the educated lower classes, and in favor of gentry privileges. It was no coincidence that Tolstoi’s literature explored many of the themes discussed by Tocqueville, such as the distinction between administrative centralization and local autocracy, or the growth of liberty in exercising private life by the politically insignificant.
Thurston also discusses the reception of Tocqueville among Russian statesmen. Tocqueville’s Russian reception strikingly differed from his initial intentions. After the Crimean War, Russia emulated the policies of Napoleon III’s empire, which combined modern European institutions with government interventionism and centralization. In 1857, Tsar Alexander II appointed his brother, the Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaievich, to head a secret committee tasked with devising an administrative reform of the Russian Empire. Nikolaievich was a close reader of L’Ancien Régime. Unlike Tolstoi, Nikolaievich drew from Tocqueville the conviction that administrative reforms were reconcilable with an absolutist government—it was the lack of reform rather than its pace or extent that risked revolutions.
Other prominent Russian statesmen, such as Prince Vladimir Cherkassky and Yuri Samarin, combined Tocqueville’s endorsement of the federal government with their Slavophile convictions, arguing for the strengthening of local self-government and providing it with independence from tsarist central administration. In their view, self-sacrifice, integrity, and traditionalism that Tocqueville identified with aristocracy, were represented in Russia by the peasants who deserved greater political rights. Yet in so doing, the Russian statesmen remained preoccupied with the prospect for a violent revolution, while simultaneously neglecting Tocqueville’s critical views of modern despotism, which he saw as equally provoking violent revolt.
Lastly, Thurston discusses Russian intellectuals who formulated responses to Tocqueville on their own. Sir Paul Vinogradoff was an Anglo-Russian liberal who had a deep fascination with Tocqueville. He thought the main factors that would contribute to the liberalization of Russia were academic freedom, mass education, and self-government. On the other hand, the Marxist scholar V. Butenko criticized Tocqueville on the grounds that his aristocratic idealism prevented him from recognizing the needs and interests of the lower classes, which resulted from the struggle between labor and capital.
Thurston concludes that Tocqueville’s main argument, that despotism routinely instigates revolutionary uprisings, received little recognition in Russia—only Tolstoi seriously pondered the idea. For Thurston, this misreading of Tocqueville paved the way for the Russian Revolution.
While not explicitly discussing Russian nationalism, James Scanlan’s article on Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” explores how the writer perceived the “Western” character—and why it was opposed to the Russian soul. As such, it offers insights into Dostoevsky’s criticism of the “West,” which, due to his outstanding influence, eventually inspired and informed Russian nationalistic discourse. In contrast to authors who would view the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s book—the Underground Man—as an irrational opponent of the “rational egoism” of Russian radicals like Chernyshevsky, Scanlan asserts that the book’s critique is rational and logically consistent, and can be read as a literary expression of Dostoevsky’s own philosophical views.
In his view, Dostoevsky in the 1860s was preoccupied with the “narrow focus on the ego or self,” which he found “endemic in Western civilization.” Hence, his book can be read as a comment regarding the political reforms of the 1860s and the threats they entailed for Russian culture and identity. To Western egoism, he opposed “voluntary, fully conscious self-sacrifice,” which echoed the Slavophile imaginary of the obedient, subservient, moral Russian folk. Hence, Scanlan argues the Underground Man should be understood as an antihero: his negative traits and story represented the dangers of Western egoism to Russian society.
According to Scanlan, “Notes from the Underground” constituted a total rejection of a vision of society of Russian radicals, who seeked to improve the agency of the Russian society in its theory of rational egoism. In Dostoevsky’s novel, human beings were “fundamentally willful creatures who will go against reason, common sense, and the expectations of others.” As such, his work can be read as a powerful criticism of nineteenth-century liberalism and utilitarianism together with the vision of society stemming from them, where rational individuals ought to harmoniously pursue their egoist interests. Dostoevsky’s “Russian solution” to European and Russian egoism was the universal moral code of Christianity, encouraging altruism and selflessness.
Though we already discussed the last two articles in the first installment of our virtual issue, we decided to revisit them due to their importance for Russian nationalism. The article by Ana Siljak opens with a quote from Nikolai Berdiaev, who saw Russian society “torn by two cultures.” Thus, Berdiaev made a momentous assumption that the “West” and “East” were irreconcilable with each other. Siljak takes a direct issue with that assumption, reminding the readers that it was only in the nineteenth century when the “Russian dilemma” became a central concern in Russian political thought. Before that, writers like Peter the Great’s chief historian Vasily Tatishchev confidently asserted that Russia was both in Asia and Europe, and Nikolay Karamzin was proud of Russia’s diverse heritage. It was not before the 1840s and 1850s when the problem of Russia’s “historical mission”—and thus its civilizational identity—came to the forefront of Russian intellectuals and writers’ concern.
As Siljak aptly notes, the dichotomous thinking within the “Asia-Europe” dualism was not influenced by the Russian far east. It was a product of the Russian reception of European philosophy, particularly Hegelianism. Siljak traces the reception of Hegel in Russia to present how upon the impact with Hegelianism history became equated with destiny, and destiny was inseparable from Russia’s “essential nature.” According to Siljak, Russian attitudes towards Hegel mirrored that to Europe: Russian intellectuals like Herzen, Ivan Kireevskii, Konstantin Aksakov, or Aleksei Khomiakov, all a certain point opposed Hegelianism, yet “none was able to entirely to rid themselves of his historical world view (337).” Thus, Siljak’s article provides a powerful case that the essentialist division of Russia between East and West was, in fact, “misunderstanding” (358) resulting from the reception of Hegel, which later came to play a pivotal role in the shaping of Russian politics.
We conclude this virtual issue with Denis Vovchenko’s article, which aims to conceptualize Pan-Slavism and Pan-Orthodoxy as two quintessentially “modern” political projects. Vovchenko criticizes the existing literature for considering the two political programs as “conservative, traditionalist, and utopian,” which, he believes, is based on the incorrect assumption that only Western liberalism provided the “correct” model for modernity. Instead, he suggests that Pan-Slavism and Pan-Orthodoxy were quintessentially “modern” political ideologies aspiring to provide an alternative to “Romano-Germanic Europe,” which particularly concerned Russia’s relations with its “co-religionist” and “co-ethnic populations.”
Vovchenko rightly notes that numerous studies about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are written from a clearly Eurocentric standpoint. However, in attempting to present Pan-Orthodoxy and Pan-Slavism as legitimate alternatives to “Western liberal modernity,” his account ignores the shared support of these ideologies for colonialism and imperialism. Both Pan-Orthodoxy and Pan-Slavism were essentially imperial ideologies designed to justify Russian expansion and domination in Eastern Europe. In this capacity, they shared an imperial imagination with Western European “Civilizing Missions” in other parts of the world.
This omission is aggravated by the fact that Vovchenko euphemistically refers to various ethnic and national groups of the late Russian Empire as “populations,” thus ignoring their systemic oppression by the Russian authorities. Despite its merits, Vovchenko’s article disregards imperialist and chauvinistic currents in late nineteenth century Russian politics. As this final paper in our virtual issue stresses, there remains an urgent need for new critical and decolonial approaches to Russian and East European Intellectual History.
Artur Banaszewski is a PhD researcher in the Department of History at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His doctoral project titled “Disillusioned with communism. Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski and the global decline of orthodox Marxism” explores Eastern European critiques of socialist thought and intersects them with the global political context of the Cold War.
Isabel Jacobs is a PhD Candidate at the University of London who specializes in Soviet and French philosophy. Her research is situated at the intersections of comparative philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of science. Her dissertation on Russo-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève is funded by the London Arts & Humanities Partnership (2020-2024). She recently wrote a paper on Kojève and Russian Hegelianism and edited an early book by Kojève on quantum physics. She co-organizes the Reading Groups Late Soviet Temporalities and Who Thinks Concretely? Ilyenkov at 100.
Featured Image: Ilya Glazunov, The Contribution of the People of the USSR to World Culture and Civilization, oil on canvas, 1980. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.