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Continuities and discontinuities in the Russian perception of Europe

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IMAGE: Portrait of Aleksandr Herzen (1848)
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Since the reign of Peter the Great, there have existed a number of continuities and discontinuities in the Russian perception of Europe.  Even at any single given time, there was usually disagreement over how European society was to be interpreted, and whether the qualities it was thought to possess should or even could be emulated by Russia.  Often there was even a consensus about what characterized the West, but opinions were split when it came to the desirability of Europeanization.  As time passed, the set of terms used to discuss Europe changed slightly, and the positions of the various thinkers and schools of thought shifted as well.  Nevertheless, they nearly all agreed that there had been a fundamental difference between the development of Russian and mainstream (Western, Romano-German) European society.  And despite the changing nature of the Russian discourse on Europe, several categories remained fairly constant throughout and were continuously revisited by its participants.  So while the specific configuration of these categories was bound to be different in each age, a few common threads can be established between them.

In explaining the separate path of Western European development, a few factors were consistently identified by Russian intellectuals as accounting for this difference.  Most agreed that the religious establishment of Roman Catholicism had exerted a powerful influence on the subsequent social, political, and intellectual growth of Europe.  This was contrasted with Russia’s inheritance of Greek Christianity from Byzantium, which soon thereafter became estranged from the Western Church.  Many other Russians pointed to the residual impact of the Roman legal code on the political and juridical development of the West.  Some believed that the different geographical conditions of Russia and Western Europe had been a decisive determinant in their respective histories.  The precise relationship of these factors to one another and the particular emphasis given to each point shifted from thinker to thinker, but they were still the most common themes in the Russian discourse on European history.

Beyond the Russian perception of Europe’s historical development, there was perhaps even more debate as to what the significance of this development was to Russia and the rest of the world.  The normativity of European development was disputed.  For many Russians accepted the Western Enlightenment premise that Europe represented “universal humanity” and embodied the highest form of civilization to have yet been achieved.  As such, it was seen as something to be emulated.  Others disagreed, asserting that each nation had followed the path of development that was proper to it, and that there no reason to consider the Western European nations’ particular path as normative.  A further subdivision of this debate occurred between those Russians who did consider European social development to be normative, and concerned what exactly the fate of Western society was to be.  This mirrored concurrent ideological splits in Europe that arose in the 1840s between those who believed that bourgeois liberal democracy was the pinnacle of European development and the more radical socialist and anarchist factions who felt that liberalism was just a passing stage leading to a higher form of society.[1]

Related to this debate over the normativity of Western civilization was the discourse on what the principal characteristics of contemporary European society were.  Here there was often a general agreement over which qualities could be identified as essentially European, but disagreement over whether these qualities were beneficial or pernicious.  For example, it was held by advocates of Europeanization and nativism alike that modern European society was characterized by legalistic rationalism, vocational and intellectual specialization, secularism, and individualism.  However, these very same characteristics were seen by one camp as progressive and desirable, while for the other camp they were thought to undermine traditional values and institutions and were thus undesirable.  Between this most extreme articulation of opposition there was also a number of more nuanced, intermediate positions.  Some welcomed Europeanization but recognized its problematic nature, while many who resisted Europeanization saw it as at least partially inevitable.  Bound up with this whole discussion was Russia’s own status as a European or quasi-European nation and debate over the historical legacy of Peter the Great’s intervention in the development of the Russian nation.

One final point of relative continuity consisted in the Russian acceptance of Europe as a more or less unitary entity to which certain qualities could be generally ascribed.  This was so despite the internal division of Europe into separate national polities, and its greater ethnic division into Latinate and Teutonic populations.  For this reason, many Russian thinkers referred to Western Europe as “Romano-German” civilization.  The great Westernizer Petr Chaadaev argued that “[t]he peoples of Europe have a common physiognomy, a family look.  Despite their broad division into Latins and Teutons, into Southerners and Northerners, there is a tie which binds them together into one and which is readily apparent to anyone who has studied their general history.”[2] Nearly a century later, this same sentiment was echoed by a staunch opponent of Europeanization, Nikolai Trubetskoi:

The Germanic and Celtic tribes were exposed in varying degrees to the influence of Roman culture, and they intermingled extensively; from elements of their own national culture and Roman culture they created a common pattern of daily living.  As a result of shared ethnographic and geographic conditions, they lived according to this common pattern for a long time; thanks to regular contacts with one another, the common elements in their mores and history were so strong that a sense of Romano-Germanic unity was always subconsciously alive among them.[3]

Here Trubetskoi was almost directly citing the argument of another Russian advocate of Westernization, the literary critic Vissarion Belinskii.  Belinskii had earlier written of “the nations of Western Europe who one and all originated from the great Teutonic tribe that had largely mingled with the Romanic tribes.”  Moreover, these nations “had one and all grown up on the soil of one and the same religion, under the influence of the same customs and the same social organization and had one and all eventually taken advantage of the rich heirloom of the ancient classical world.”[4]

Some Russian commentators on Western Europe held a more sophisticated view of its unity, emphasizing elements of internal differentiation along political and religious lines.  For instance, the world-renowned author Dostoevskii stressed in the second volume of his Writer’s Diary that Europe expressed two distinct “ideas,” of a primarily (though not exclusively) religious character.  The Romance countries of Europe — Italy, Spain, and France — he associated with the “Catholic idea,” while Germany he associated with the “Protestant idea.”  These were to be counterposed by the “Slavic idea,” or Orthodoxy.  Each of these ideas, Dostoevskii claimed, corresponded to a definite ideological content and was reflected in the social and political spheres of the nations that fell under them.[5]

The more radical exile Herzen, writing in the aftermath of the European revolutions of 1848, conceived of the Western nations as heterogeneous in a political rather than a religious sense.  France and Prussia, he asserted, had given themselves over to “the overriding interest of Reaction,” suppressing liberal as well as revolutionary movements, stifling democratic liberties and conventions.  They had, in essence, become accomplices to and even agents of the most despotic of governments, fully cooperating with the Russian tsars.  “Is this really the Europe we once knew and loved?” asked Herzen.[6] In his mind, only England remained “free and proud.”  Despite these setbacks, however, it is clear that Herzen still regarded Europe on the whole as representing at least the promise of further progress, of the advancement of human freedom.  It was only by believing so, after all, that he could feel that this promise had been betrayed.  The fulfillment of this promise, also, he considered indispensable to the greater project of human emancipation, not just for Europe but also for Russia.  For the future of Russia, Herzen proclaimed, was “bound up with the future of Europe as a whole.”[7]

As already indicated by these Russian accounts of Europe’s unitary nature, there were several blanket factors that were seen as binding the different Western nations together as a common whole.  These factors were understood as having shaped the course of European history for millennia.  One of its foremost influences, many Russian thinkers argued, was the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.  “[N]ot too long ago,” Chaadaev reminded his readers, “all Europe called itself Christendom, and the term was used in public law.”[8] Likewise, for the Slavophile Ivan Kireevskii the influence of Catholicism was of supreme importance for the development of the West.  He contrasted it with the experience of Russia with Orthodoxy: “Christianity was conveyed to the Western peoples solely through the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, while in Russia it was kindled by the lights of the entire Orthodox Church; in the West theology became a matter of abstract logic, while in the Orthodox world it retained the integrity of its spirit; there the forces of the mind were split asunder, while here every effort was made to maintain them as a living whole.”[9] Catholicism was thus integral to the intellectual formation of the West, as Kireevskii.

According to Kireevskii, the Roman Church’s interest in worldly affairs — its contamination by secular ambitions — carried with it political ramifications as well.  “Having…contrived to bring about external unity by giving itself a single head who wielded both spiritual and secular power,” he explained, “the Western Church caused a cleavage in its spiritual activities, its internal interests, and its external relations with the world at large.”[10] Later, the influential reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev repeated Kireevskii’s line of argument in his 1898 Reflections of a Russian Statesman.  “In the course of events in Western Europe,” wrote Pobedonostsev, “events indissolubly bound up with the development of the Roman Catholic Church — there originated and took root, as an element in political construction, the idea of the Church as a religious and political institution, with a power which, in opposition to the State, carried on with it a political conflict, the incidents of which crowd the pages of history in Western Europe.”[11]

Besides the overwhelming impact of Catholicism on the history of the West, geographic conditions were also perceived as a crucial factor in determining its “destiny.”  In Russian discourse, this was a point on which many thinkers agreed, no matter what their opinion of European society.  “The prime reason of a tribe’s or nation’s peculiarity is the soil and climate of the country which it occupies,” wrote Belinskii.  “In order that the press of European ideas and customs divest Russians of their nationality,” he went on, “one needs must first transform the steppe plateau of the Russian continent into mountainous country, contract its vast expanses to at least one-tenth of their present size (except Siberia).”[12] For Nikolai Trubetskoi, as well, a people’s “differences in taste, predispositions, and temperaments” were primarily determined by ethnographic/hereditary factors and “geographic conditions.”[13] Leon Trotskii likewise identified geographic and climatic differences as a major source for the separate paths of development between Eastern and Western Europe.  “The western European peoples, soon finding their natural boundaries,” he explained, “created those economic and cultural clusters, the commercial cities.  The population of the eastern plain, at the first sign of crowding, would go deeper into the forest or spread out over the steppe.”[14]

The third factor that most Russian thinkers saw as a major source of Europe’s social, political, and intellectual development was its contact with the ancient world, its inheritance of ancient Greek philosophy and the Roman legal code after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Indeed, Kireevskii considered this to be the most decisive influence on the history of the West.  “Ancient Rome,” he wrote, “left its imprint on the basic structure of society, on the laws, the language, the ways and customs, the early arts and learning of Europe; it was, therefore, bound to impart every aspect of Western life something of that specific character which had distinguished it from all other peoples.”[15] Trubetskoi maintained that “[the Europeans’] encounter with the monuments of Roman and Greek culture brought to the surface the concept of a supranational, ‘world’ civilization — an idea characteristic of the Greco-Roman world and based on ethnographic and geographic considerations.”[16] It was precisely this lack of a serious engagement with the world of Greek and Roman antiquity that, in the minds of some, had kept Russia from entering onto the stage of European history, and even history as such.  This is what the Russian liberal philosopher Boris Chicherin argued in 1857 when he wrote: “[G]iven…national circumstances, given such national character and the estrangement of Russia from the ancient world, Russian history could not be as rich in great phenomena as the history of the West.”[17]

This brings us to the final point of contention in the Russian perception of European society mentioned at the outset.  For the claim that European history constituted history as such, that European civilization represented the apotheosis of culture and progress, and that the various European peoples comprised universal humanity, was the subject of much debate in Russian discourse.  The alleged normativity of the European experience was disputed.  Some bought into the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century Western idea that its history — Europe’s many political, social, philosophical, and scientific achievements — possessed a cosmopolitan significance.  According to this perspective, Europe’s development was more than a matter of local importance.  Indeed, Europe’s path was looked at as a model of progress for all the peoples of the world to follow, leading the way out of ignorance, oppression, and barbarism.  Those who disagreed with this view claimed that Europe had only followed the path that was appropriate to its own regional conditions, and could not be extrapolated.

Though his stance on what role Russia was to play in the universal history of humanity changed between his two principal texts, his Letters on the Philosophy of History and his brief “Apology of a Madman,” Chaadaev remained steadfast in the view that Europe’s path of development was normative:

That civilization over there [in Europe] is the fruit of so much labor; the sciences and the arts have cost so much sweat to so many generations! All that can be yours if you cast away your superstitions, if you repudiate your prejudices, if you are not jealous of your barbaric past, if you do not boast of your centuries of ignorance, if you direct your ambition to appropriating the works of all the peoples and the riches acquired by the human spirit in all latitudes of the globe.[18]

In Chaadaev’s account, the Orient had carried human history forward to a certain point, after which the Occident had taken up the mantle of civilized progress.  Because of Russia’s alienation from both the East and the West, Chaadaev held that it had been “[p]laced, as it were, outside of time,” and thus “[had] not been touched by the universal education of the human race.”[19] But while Chaadaev was among the first to have articulated this view of history as the progressive education and emancipation of the human race, it was perhaps Herzen who expressed this notion most definitively:

Some peoples contrive to have a prehistoric, others an unhistoric, existence: but once they have entered the great stream of History, which is one and indivisible, all alike belong to humanity and, conversely, the whole of humanity’s past belongs to them.  In universal history — which is in fact humanity viewed in its progressive and active aspect — an aristocracy based on facial features, an aristocracy based on skin gradually become extinct.[20]

In this Hegelian, progressive understanding of human history, Europe appeared as the most “advanced” form of civilization, the pinnacle of cultural development.  This was so even though Herzen believed that Europe had suffered a number of reactionary setbacks.  The West still pointed the way for Russia to follow.  Among those who regarded European history as normative and favored Russia’s emulation of certain of its principles, there was some disagreement over what its normative path precisely was.  Liberals like Chaadaev and Chicherin held it to be bourgeois democracy, while radicals like Herzen believed it led further down the road to socialism.

Similarly, there were two main stances when it came to those who rejected the normativity of European history, though these were related to one another.  Kireevskii argued that because of prior historical circumstances, the stages through which European society had passed could in no way be thought of as something that Russia should have to conform to, for fear of “backwardness.”  For “[t]he principles underlying Russian culture are totally different from the component elements of the culture of European peoples.”[21] In Kireevskii’s view, one of the defining features of European history was “polity arising out of the violence of conquest.”[22] Perhaps this was proper to the political development of the West, but the same conditions did not obtain elsewhere and this path could therefore not be thought of a model for the rest of the world.  The later Slavophile Ivan Aksakov contrasted this historical experience of conquest with Russian history:  “Conquest is not at the bottom of our historical life, as is the case in all the Western countries,” he explained.  “Our history begins with quite a voluntary and rational appeal to power.  The same appeal was repeated much later, in 1612, and gave the foundation to the present reigning dynasty, empowered with autocracy.”[23] According to this view, each nation followed its own particular historical path, and could not be made to conform to any other nation’s development.

A more elaborate version of this argument appeared with Trubetskoi’s Europe and Mankind.  Exploring the alleged antinomy traditionally held to exist between chauvinism and cosmopolitanism, he made the claim that “European cosmopolitanism…is nothing more than pan-Romano-Germanic chauvinism.”[24] Both extra-European chauvinism and European cosmopolitanism sought to impose one culture’s norms onto another.  Still, Trubetskoi wanted to explain why so many non-Europeans had come to believe that the culture of the West was indeed normative, something to which they needed to aspire.  He suggested that part of the reason was the misleading terminology employed by European cosmopolitans:

The Romano-Germans have always been so naïvely convinced that they alone are human beings that they have called themselves “humanity,” their culture “universal human culture,” and their chauvinism “cosmopolitanism.”  Their terminology has allowed them to conceal the real ethnographic content of these concepts, which have thus become palatable to other ethnic groups. When selling to foreign peoples the products of their material culture which can indeed lay claim to universality (armaments and mechanical means of conveyance), the Romano-Germans pawn off their “universal” ideas, presenting them in a form that conceals their ethnographic nature.[25]

Trubetskoi also challenged the notion that Europe represented the “summit of human progress” in the evolutionary model of development schematically adopted by European scholars.  European cosmopolitanism, like nationalistic chauvinism, proceeded from the psychological “egocentricity,” which privileges anything that is more like itself and demeans that which is unlike itself.

Unlike the Slavophiles, who had also voiced their distaste for assimilationist policies toward the West, Trubetskoi was critical of the notion that non-European society was any less “complex” or “advanced” than Europe.[26] The Slavophiles often accepted this self-assessment of the West as more complex than the rest of the world, but in such a way that this complexity had eroded the simplicity and immediacy of traditional life.  Kireevskii lamented the disintegration of the personality in the West as opposed to the integral personality of Russia.  For Trubetskoi, this judgment was based on the “optical illusion” created by the idea of evolutionary progress combined with the principle of egocentricity.   So-called “primitive” societies, he claimed, were actually much more complex than they appeared to Europeans.

Reviewing these various topics in the imperial Russian discourse on Europe, a series of continuities and discontinuities can be discerned.  These can be further divided into continuities and discontinuities concerning the origins of Europe’s difference from the rest of the world, and the normativity of European development.  When it came to the origins that lay behind the separate path taken by the West, the arguments were relatively continuous.  Most seemed to agree that the religious institution of the Roman Catholic Church, the political and legal legacy of the Roman Empire, and geographic conditions played some part in the course of European history.  Idealists favored the first two explanations, while materialists tended to emphasize the latter.  There were more discontinuities in the debate on the normativity of Western development compared to the rest of the world.  Starting in the nineteenth century, there were always those who felt that Europe was the standard toward which Russia and the rest of the world should aspire.  Oppositely, there were many who believed that any attempt to import foreign ideas was doomed to fail on native soil, and that there was no reason to see Europe’s progress as somehow “better” than any other part of the world’s.  Indeed, some viewed Western modernity as positively degenerate.  There were some like Herzen who pushed for Europeanization and liberalization while acknowledging the painful process of modernization.  And there were those like Dostoevskii and Trubetskoi who argued against following Europe, but saw continued relations with the West as inevitable.


[1] “Russian Westernism of the forties was never a homogeneous school of thought; it was rather a common denominator of potentially divergent currents, a common platform for all thinkers—both democrats like Belinskii and moderate liberals like Kavelin—who believed that Russia might and should follow the general pattern of European progress.”  Walicki, Andrzej.  “Russian Social Thought: An Introduction to the Intellectual History of Nineteenth-Century Russia.”  Pg. 15.

[2] Chaadaev, Petr.  “First Letter on the Philosophy of History.”  From Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology.  Edited by Mark Raeff.  Pg. 166.

[3] Trubetskoi, Nikolai.  “Europe and Mankind.”  From The Legacy of Genghis Khan and Other Essays on Russia’s Identity.  Edited by Anatolii Liberman.  (Michigan University Press.  Ann Arbor: 1992).  Pgs. 6-7.

[4] Belinskii, Vissarion.  “Article Eight – Eugene Onegin.”  From Selected Philosophical Works.  (University of the Pacific Press.  2001).  Pg. 202.

[5] Dostoevskii, Fedor.  “Three Ideas.”  From A Writer’s Diary, Volume II: 1877-1881.  Translated by Kenneth Lantz.  (Northwestern University Press.  Evanston, IL: 1994).  Pgs. 811-815.

[6] Herzen, Aleksandr.  “An Open Letter to Jules Michelet.”  Translated by Richard Wollheim.  From From the Other Shore.  (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).  Pgs. 168-169.

[7] Ibid., pg. 201.  My italicization.

[8] Chaadaev, “First Letter on the Philosophy of History.”  Pg. 167.

[9] Kireevskii, Ivan.  “On the Nature of European Culture and Its Relation to the Culture of Russia.”  From Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology.  Edited by Marc Raeff.  (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.  New York, NY: 1966).  Pg. 204.

[10] Ibid., pg. 186.

[11] Pobedonostsev, Konstantin.  Reflections of a Russian Statesman.  Translated by Robert Crozier Long.  (Grant Richards.  London: 1898).  Pg. 2.

[12] Belinskii, “Article Eight — Eugene Onegin.”  Pg. 202.

[13] Trubetskoi, Europe and Mankind.  Pg. 42.

[14] Trotskii, Leon.  The Russian Revolution.  Pg. 2.

[15] Kireevskii, “On the Nature of European Culture and Its Relation to the Culture of Russia.”  Pg. 183.

[16] Trubetskoi, Europe and Mankind.  Pg. 7.

[17] Chicherin, Boris.  “Contemporary Tasks of Russian Life.”  From Liberty, Equality, and the Market.  Translated by G.M. Hamburg.  (Yale University Press.  New Haven, CT: 1998).  Pg. 113.

[18] Chaadaev, Petr.  “Apology of a Madman.”  From Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume II: Imperial Russia, 1700-1917.  Edited by Thomas Riha.  (University of Chicago Press.  Chicago, IL: 1964).  Pg. 311.

[19] Chaadaev, “First Letter on the Philosophy of History.”  Pg. 162.

[20] Herzen, “The Russian People and Socialism: An Open Letter to Jules Michelet.”  Pg. 178.

[21] Kireevskii, “On the Nature of European Culture and Its Relation to the Culture of Russia.”  Pg. 180.

[22] Ibid., pg. 182.

[23] Aksakov, Ivan.  “A Slavophile Statement.”  From Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 2: Imperial Russia, 1700-1917. Edited by Thomas Riha.  (University of Chicago Press.  Chicago, IL: 1964).  Pg. 380.

[24] Trubetskoi, “Europe and Mankind.”  Pg. 11.

[25] Ibid., pg. 12.

[26] Ibid., pgs. 19-21.

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