Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Intellectualism in Russia

   Slavophilia was an intellectual movement originating from 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions which were derived from its early history. Slavophiles were especially opposed to the influences of Western Europe in Russia. There were also similar movements in Poland, Hungary and Greece.1  

   The increased influence of Western Europe on the Russian Empire began largely during the reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725), the first Russian emperor. Czar Peter was influenced by everything European and after spending several months travelling around Europe he introduced western European clothing to Russia and even mandated that Russian men shave off their beard because he believed that facial hair was associated with Old Russia. 

    The movement originated in Moscow in the 1830s. Drawing on the works of the Greek patristics, the poet Aleksey Khomyakov (1804–60) and his devoutly Orthodox colleagues presented a traditionalistic doctrine that claimed Russia has its own distinct way, which doesn't have to imitate and mimic "Western" institutions. The Russian Slavophiles denounced modernization introduced by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (1729-1796), and some of them even adopted traditional pre-Petrine dress.

     Aleksey Khomyakov is likely the most misunderstood thinker of the Russian nineteenth century.  He is, frankly, the synthesis of Orthodox thinking on papism and the West, and thus represents a major intellectual threat to the unthinking liberalism of the American talking class and the pseudo-morality of post-modern liberal capitalism.  His critique of the West is multilayered and complex, taking into account meta-history, theology, metaphysics, and political theory.  Either based upon a lack of desire or ability, there are few honest publications of the Slavophile phenomenon, and, honestly, Matthew Raphael Johnson believes that the dons of “Russian history” prefer it that way.  Therefore, like all else that is threatening about Holy Russia; Slavophilism is dismissed, slandered, and most importantly, completely misunderstood by the spoiled and tenured. 

     Khomyakov did not create the school of thought known as “Slavophilism”. This set of concepts and critiques has been in existence as long as Orthodoxy has been in existence.  It is little more than the conceptualization of a traditional way of life, one neither accepted nor appreciated by western intellectuals or westernizing Russians.2  This appreciation of a traditional way of life can be seen in the writings of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) and many other authors.

     The two central terms one needs to understand to begin with are extremely complex: the first is the notion of sobornost ("Spiritual community of many jointly living people"), and the second, integral knowledge. These two terms, though exposited by Khomyakov better than anyone else, are certainly not his invention, but are the philosophical armor of the Orthodox patristic tradition, expounded best, perhaps, by St. Isaac of Syria.  Both of these terms cannot be reduced to the notion that knowledge is primarily an individual phenomenon, nor is it reducible to the connection of concepts in logical sequence.

    It is important to keep in mind that the differences between the Westernizers and Slavophiles are not based upon the fact that one side cared about the future of Russia and the other did not.  It would be too simplistic to say that it was simply a matter of approach.  Some of the leading intellectual figures who supported the Westernizer movement were: Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), Timofei Granovsky (1813-1855), Nikolai Ogaryov (1813-1877), Vasily Botkin (1812-1869), Nikolai Ketcher (1809-1866), Yevgeny Korsh, and Konstantin Kavelin (1818-1885).3

    Prior to the Slavophile movement the Enlightenment had started entering Russia.   Philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) were becoming popular among certain aspects of the Russian population.  These philosophical positions were discussed and debated in various literary works of the time. 

   For example, The Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brother Karamazov, was his way of showing what Utilitarianism would look like if it were accepted as a lived philosophy. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill proposed a philosophy called Utilitarianism which taught that ethical principle to be followed was “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If more people benefit from a particular action than are hurt by it, then it is permissible and, in fact, encouraged.

    Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor has set himself up as the judge to determine who would suffer and whether or not this suffering in the greatest public interest. He believes that suffering is inevitable, so he might as well use it to his advantage. This includes burning people at the stakes that he considers heretics and even burning Jesus at the stake. Such philosophical ideas may have some immediate positive emotional appeal; however, once the consequences of these ideas are taken into consideration they often lose their appeal.4

    Slavophiles defended the historical identity of Russia and considered it a separate world, as opposed to the West due to the peculiarities of Russian history, Russian religion, and stereotypical Russian behavior. The greatest value of the Slavophiles is that they believed in the Orthodox religion as opposed to rationalistic Catholicism. For example, Aleksey Khomyakov wrote that Russia should become the center of the world civilization; not by becoming a rich or powerful country, but by becoming "the most Christian of all human societies." Particular attention is paid by Slavophiles to village life because they believed that the peasantry is a basis of high morality because it is had not been spoiled by civilization. The great Slavophile moralists saw in a village community with its meetings, unanimous decisions, and its traditional justice in accordance with customs and conscience.
   Slavophiles believed that the Russians have a special relationship with authority. The people lived as if they are in a "contract" with the civil system - they are community members, they have their own life, you - the power, you have your own life. Konstantin Sergeyevich Aksakov (1817-1860) wrote that the country has a deliberative vote, the force of public opinion, but the right to make the final decision belongs to the monarch. An example of this relationship may be the relationship between the king and the Zemsky Sobor (first Russian parliament in the 16th Century) in Moscow between the state, which allowed Russia to live in a world without the shocks and the revolutionary upheavals like the French Revolution. "Distortion" in Russian history Slavophiles associated with the activities of Peter the Great, who "opened a window to Europe" thus violating the contract, the balance in the life of the country, and knocked her off the path charted by God.

   Slavophiles were often referred to as political reactionaries due to the fact that their three doctrinal principles were related to "official nationality": Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. However, it should be noted that the older generation of Slavophiles interpreted these principles in a very particular way. They understood by Orthodoxy, a free community of Christian believers, an autocratic government which was regarded as an external form, which allows people to devote themselves to finding the "inner truth". At the same time they were protecting the autocracy, the Slavophiles did not attach much importance to political liberty. At the same time, they were staunch Democrats, supporters of the spiritual freedom of the individual. 5 

    Prior to the Enlightenment there was no discussion of “personal rights”.  Instead there was a direct link between a person and the community which involved a sense of duty.  This relationship was based upon the idea that the feudal lord would protect his serfs and, in the event of some problem, the serf had a duty to fight for his lord’s interests. The Slavophiles understood this relationship to be true between the czar and the people.  These people would have seen topics such as “individual rights” as something which helped to bring about the French Revolution. 

     According to Matthew Raphael Johnson, people do not exist, they are abstract wills, as in Kant, or cogs in the wheels of history, as in Hegel, or bundles of repressed sexual desires, as in Freud, or abstract producers, as in Marx, or completely context-less entities “behind a veil” as in Rawls, or social atoms as in Hobbes, or mere acultural units as in Rousseau or Locke.  Such abstraction divorced from the context of a living society needs to be explained, and it is this that Ivan Vasilyevich Kireyevsky (1806-1856) set out to do. Must rights be separated from actual individuals or actual situations? Rights are either contextually created or they are abstract.  If they are abstract, then the community means nothing, and is subject, like the Roman Catholic Church and its rules.  If it’s contextual, then the western system of law and politics is illegitimate.  For the Slavophiles, western intellectual history is a gradual decline from rights and duties contextually defined, to a vision of humanity as a set of automata dictated to by ‘natural necessity’ and possessed, inexplicably, of “natural rights” whose primary duty, it seems, is to set the individual off from one another, the community as well as the state. For the Russian Slavophiles, this is the intellectual cause of liberalism, alienation, class warfare, and the rejection of reality by post-modernism, a phenomenon Kireyevsky had predicted.6

    In addition to Nikolai Gogol, some of the more well-known Slavophiles include Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910), and Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883).  In the 1860s a movement known as nihilism developed in Russia.  This term first appeared in Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.  Nihilists favored the destruction of human institutions and laws, based on the idea that such institutions and laws are artificial and corrupt. At its core, Russian nihilism was characterized by the belief that the world lacks comprehensible meaning, objective truth, or value. For some time many Russian liberals had been dissatisfied by what they regarded as the empty discussions of the intelligentsia. The Nihilists questioned all old values and shocked the Russian establishment. They moved beyond being purely philosophical to becoming major political forces after becoming involved in the cause of reform. Their path was facilitated by the previous actions of the Decembrists, who revolted in 1825, and the financial and political hardship caused by the Crimean War, which caused large numbers of Russian people to lose faith in political institutions.7   

    This novel discusses the divide between two generations.  The “generation gap” is not a new concept.  Almost every generation believes that the younger generation is too impulsive and too prone to rash judgment.  Almost every younger generation believes that the previous generation caused all of the problems that they are facing and it is their job to correct these problems.  It is quite common for members of the older generation to offer advice to the younger generation and it is also common that the younger generation does not follow such advice.

        The main character in Fathers and Sons is Yevgeny Barazov, a medical student who has accepted the philosophy of nihilism.  He is mentor and friend to Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov.  Yevgeny falls in love with a wealthy widow named, Anna Sergeevna Odintsova, who entertains nihilists at her estate. However, his love is unrequited and this painful emotion to too much for him to bear.  He turns to his parents for support; however, when he receives no support his despair grows worse.

   Conversely, Turgenev shows us Arkady’s traditional happiness in marriage and estate management as the solution to Bazarov's cosmic despair and Anna's life of loveless comfort. (Arkady marries Anna Odintsova's sister, Katya, though he was also originally in love with Anna). The height of the conflict between Bazarov and the older generation comes when Bazarov wounds Pavel, Arkady’s brother, in a duel. Finally, Turgenev also refutes Bazarov's "insignificance principle", i.e., the nihilist idea that life is utterly insignificant and that nothing remains after death: after leaving and then returning again to his parents, Bazarov dies of typhus. The final passage of the book portrays Bazarov's parents visiting his grave.

They walk with a heavy step, supporting each other; when they approach the railing, they fall on their knees and remain there for a long time, weeping bitterly, gazing attentively at the headstone under which their son lies buried: they exchange a few words, brush the dust off the stone, move a branch of the pine tree, and pray once again; they can’t forsake this place where they seem to feel closer to their son, to their memories of him… Can it really be that their prayers and tears are futile? Can it really be that love, sacred, devoted love is not all powerful? Oh, no!

Their love causes them to remember Bazarov: he has transcended death, but only through the love of other people.8

     However, by Russia’s keeping the West at a distance, by her refusal to imitate the intellectual forms of the Western world, Russia was spared such dissolution.  Her westernizing philosophers and rulers were erroneous, for they were importing the seeds of revolution and class war.  For Russia, the patristic tradition from Greece and the Near East was a holistic way of thinking, taking to itself faith, social life, society, and philosophy into a larger whole animated by the Holy Spirit, rather than becoming a sect dedicated to the teachings of one man or office.  The spirit was internalized, and authority was something shared by the body of believers guided by the hierarchy (though not entirely by them), rather than alien ideas spoken in an alien tongue. The notion of the state and law immediately followed from this, for the state was not a cold and distant monster, but was represented by the “little father” who shared their concern and pain. However, the invasion of western ideas was starting to vitiate this idea. For the Slavophiles, the structure of the basically independent commune was always to be the living answer to the West and the guarantee of the communal and cultural idea of liberty that the West had long forgotten; of course, Khomyakov also believed that Russia was heading down that same path if the state continued her centralizing and standardizing tendencies.9

    An argument can certainly be made that Khomyakov’s ideas were proven true as a result of the birth of the Communist state following the Russian Revolution.  From 1917 until 1989, the Russian people were under the control of a group of men who encouraged the centralization of government, which Khomyakov opposed and also saw the average person as an isolated producer in accord with the teachings of Karl Marx.  These ideas were not in the best interest of the Russian people.

    While there is no longer any discussion of a formal Slavophile movement in Russia, the ideas contained within this movement are still alive.  The debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers continues to this day.   If my Russian friends are any indication of what is transpiring in their country, there is support for the idea of installing a new czar in Moscow.  The insights provided by Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are still alive in Russia today. 

    The future of Russia is in the hands of the Russian people.  Regardless of what any particular individual may think of the leadership style of Vladimir Putin, for example, there is a long history of one person in charge of the Russian government.   Should Mr. Putin or someone else be chosen to be the next Russian czar it is important that Russian religion, history, and traditions be kept in mind should the topic of additional westernization be raised in the future. 
                                                          End Note

1)     “Slavophile”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavophile  (accessed 3/17/12)

2)     Matthew Raphael  Johnson The Ancient Orthodox Tradition in Russian Literature (PA: Deipara Press, 2010), p. 207

3)     “The History of Slavophiles and Westernizers in Russia” http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20100902/160436673.html (accessed 3/17/12)

4)      “Suffering and Community in Brothers Karamazovhttp://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/08/suffering-and-community-in-brothers.html (accessed 3/17/12)

5)     “Westerners and Slavophiles” http://istorya.ru/referat/referat2/23642.php (accessed 3/18/12)

6)     Johnson, p. 218

7)     “History of Russia” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Russia#Nihilism (accessed 3/19/12)

8)     “Belief in Something Rather than Nothing” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/10/belief-in-something-rather-than-nothing.html   (accessed 3/19/12)

9)     Johnson, p. 223

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