Between Westernisers and Slavophiles – the search for Russia’s soul

  • Themes: Russia

Russian identity is shaped by its literature, perhaps more so than any other major world power. The arguments championed by its great authors resonate in the present.

Arrival of the first train from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo on 30 October 1837. Found in the collection of I. Turgenev Memorial Museum, Moscow.
Arrival of the first train from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo on 30 October 1837. Found in the collection of I. Turgenev Memorial Museum, Moscow. Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The discourse of Romantic nationalism dealing with essentialist categories like national character, soul or mission looks today shockingly outdated. The contemporary academic community largely regards these notions as historical manifestations of culturally constructed identities. However, the ideologies based on the intellectual heritage of Romantic nationalism are vibrant and resurgent in contemporary Russia, which is once again rethinking its imperial legacy and trying to build a new nation state on foundations still unclear to the majority of the population as well as to the intellectual and political elite. The debates about Russia’s ‘place in the world’, its ‘historical destiny’, its ‘unique spirituality’ and the rela­tive merits and drawbacks of its ‘backwardness’ vis-à-vis the West initiated in 1830s during the notorious split between Westernisers and Slavophiles are not only continuing in the 21st century, but have actually intensified.

One of the most powerful mechanisms for the perpetuation of this discourse can be found in Russian literature. After Alexander Herzen it became commonplace to argue that in a country lacking any form of political representation, independent court or free press, literature and literary criticism become the main forum for public debates and the focus of national hopes and aspirations. What’s more, in the country where all political, religious and ideological continuities were regularly broken, literature remained the only national institution that retained its status and, with the partial exception of the early 1920s, has always been regarded with reverence and esteem.

A nationalism of letters

For nearly two centuries the great tradition of Russian literature was inscribed in the minds of generations of Russians through the school curriculum. This tradition emerged in the 1830s simultaneously with the birth of Romantic nationalism in Russia, and within a framework of Romantic glorification of literature as an embodiment of the national spirit and the main vehicle of national self-expression and self-preservation. While Romantic nationalism brought the literary canon to the centre of national culture, this canon perpetuated the message and appeal of Romantic nationalism for decades to come. This double effect resonates through to the present.

Romantic nationalism originated in late 18th century Germany as the ideology of national reunification, first formulated on a cultural level and then transferred into the political sphere. The concept of the nation as a collective people brought forward by Herder emphasised the role of folklore, language and literature as expressions of the national soul and the unifying force that, in spite of the political fragmentation of Germany could, first and foremost, serve as a proof of the existence of a German nation. This ideology institutionalised the role of the national poet as the embodiment of a national spirit. In Germany, Goethe gradually became such a universally recognised institution notwithstanding the fact that he himself always refused to embrace nationalist aspirations and sprachpatriotismus. The perception of the nation as an organic unity was specifically geared to confront the French cultural hegemony implicit in the culture of the Enlightenment.

Needless to say, the political and cultural situation in Russia could not have been more different. Unlike fragmented Germany, it was a centralised, multi-ethnic empire which during the first decades of the 19th century achieved unprecedented political stature and military power. However, many political, social and cultural factors made Russia and its intellectuals especially receptive to the new and fashionable ideology that appeared in Germany and was rapidly sweeping all over Europe.

The West – for or against?

From the early 18th century when, after the reforms of Peter the Great, Russia for the first time emerged as a major European power and a member of the European concert, Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West became a worrying question for its elite. The initial perception of this problem was relatively benign. It was generally assumed that Russia was backwards compared to its Western counterparts, but being a ‘young country’ it had time on its side and was rapidly closing the gap. Slavish imitations of Western ways were generally mocked and condemned, but the necessity of taking lessons from the more advanced countries remained unchallenged in Russia, at least until the time of French revolution and, with the exception of the rabid patriotism of Shishkov and his followers, beyond that. Only after the Napoleonic wars and the Decembrist revolt of 1825, when, using the expression coined by Nicholas Ryazanovskii, the ways of the Russian state and Russian society started to part, this optimistic and more-or-less universal outlook gave way to a set of different and conflicting ideologies.

It is widely known that the debate about Russia’s historical fate was generated by the publication of the so called First Philosophical Letter by Petr Chaadaev in 1836. Scholars still argue how this extravagant and self contradictory document, originally written in French, could have skipped through the rigid censorship of Tsarist Russia. Chaadaev blamed all evils of Russian history upon the fatal choice of religion. According to him, Eastern Christianity separated Russia both from the West and the Islamic East and left it in a civilisational void:

We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either. We stand, as it were, outside of time; the universal education of mankind has not touched us.

Chaadaev insisted that Russia as a nation and a state had no history whatsoever and even more outrageously he claimed that Western Europe, even after the Reformation and French Revolution (in his Letter he never mentioned either of those historic events), showed an example of spiritual unity based on Catholicism. However, the public as well as the authorities took his arguments very seriously as he was the first person openly to challenge the doctrine of Orthodoxy-Autocracy-Nationality. This doctrine, forged by the minister of education Sergey Uvarov, was by that time established as the official ideology of the Russian empire. It defined Russian nationhood as belief in the dogmas of the ruling church and the existing political order, the institutions that, according to the ideologues of Orthodoxy-Autocracy-Nationality, saved Russia from the degradation already experienced by the West. The magazine that published Chaadaev’s Letter was closed, its editor exiled, and Chaadaev was officially declared insane and forever banned from publishing his work. Nevertheless, publication of his Letter triggered an outburst of national self-examination.

Westernisers vs Slavophiles

The responses to it helped define the main trends that have dominated Russian political thought to the present – the so called Westernisers and Slavophiles. The former regarded Peter’s reforms as an unfinished project. Assimilation of Western manners and cultural norms by the educated elite was to be followed by the adoption of Western political institutions; most importantly, parliamentary democracy, equality before the law, the legal system and free press. Only by completing the Westernisation process would Russia be able finally to compete with her European neighbours – not only militarily, but also economically, politically and culturally. Conversely, Slavophiles believed in Russia’s sonderweg based on its pre-Petrine historical legacy: unique spirituality and communal religiosity (sobornost). According to Slavophiles, Russia had to reject misplaced Westernisation and return to its real peasant and Orthodox roots.

Thus, the general spectrum of ideological positions regarding Russia’s mission and its relations with the West can be systematised on the basis of the answers the adherents of each ideology gave to two basic questions: whether Russia is comparable with the West or has its own unique forms of development; and whether Russia’s traditions and customs are superior to Western ones or inferior to them.

This choice of ideological options is still shaping the political debate in Russia. The most important thing that has changed since the time of Romantic nationalism is the definition of the West. While in the 1830s this notion was used more or less as a synonym of Europe, now it means mostly the US, which replaced France as an embodiment of Western values and attitudes. (The other significant change is the emergence of Eurasianism – the ideological movement that regards Russia neither as a part of Europe, nor as a separate civilisation, but includes it into the larger community of Eastern nations; but this ideological trend has never resonated in the popular imagination and, anyway, is beyond the scope of this essay.)

Naturally, the realm of public debate was at best asymmetrical. The proponents of official ideology not only had at their disposal all the channels of dissemination for their ideas, but could control the expressions of contradictory views through censorship and outright repression. By contrast, their opponents had to rely on oral discussions in closed salons and circles, deploying manuscripts and hints and equivocations in published texts. The main role here inevitably belonged to literature and its interpretations.

Gogol’s Russian ecstasy

Literary critics served as pivotal figures in the first open polemics about Russia’s mission as a nation, which was centred on the interpretation of a work of fiction, namely Nicholas Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842). In his book Gogol aspired to solve the Westernisers-vs-Slavophiles debate. Unsurprisingly, both groups claimed him as the supporter of their position and argued about whether the novel should be read as the apotheosis or a scathing condemnation of Russia. Like most great works of art, Dead Souls allowed contradictory readings, especially as Gogol gave birth to an original and peculiar version of Russian exceptionalism that has not lost its appeal and which has remained popular across ideological borders for more than a century and a half.

Gogol portrayed Russia as a deeply flawed country, but he was also convinced that this nation of dead souls is entitled to some sort of mystical regeneration not in spite of its misery and hopeless sinfulness, but precisely because of it. The religious origins of this idea are self-evident. Jesus in the Gospels many times repeated that the ‘last will be first.’ Still Gogol seems to be the first writer and thinker who read these teachings within the framework of Romantic nationalism and applied them not to individual persons, but to the nation as an organic whole. In the end of the first part of Dead Souls the troika, (three horses that draw the carriage in which the swindler Chichikov and his drunken coach Selifan escape from the town) is transformed into the image of the nation that gloriously surpasses all others:

Is it not thus, like the bold troika which cannot be overtaken, that thou art dashing along, O Russia, my country? The roads smoke beneath thee, the bridges thunder; all is left, all will be left, behind thee. The spectator stops short, astounded, as at a marvel of God. Is this the lightning which has descended from heaven?… Yes, on the troika flies, inspired by God! O Russia, whither art thou dashing? Reply! But she replies not; the horses’ bells break into a wondrous sound; the shattered air becomes a tempest, and the thunder growls; Russia flies past everything else upon earth; and other peoples, kingdoms, and empires gaze askance as they stand aside to make way for her!

The first part of Dead Souls was to be followed by two others that would show the very process of this visionary transformation of Russia into the ideal community and its inhabitants into the harmonious society. The dead souls of the first part were to experience moral rebirth. Gogol wrote the second part of Dead Souls twice and both times he burned the manuscript due to his own dissatisfaction and the mixed responses of his first listeners. After his second failure, he stopped taking food and died without ever starting the third part.

Russian scholars long ago showed that the general plan of the novel, or of the ‘poem’ as Gogol himself preferred to call it, was modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The published first part corresponded to Inferno, the burnt second part was to play the role of Purgatory and the imagined third part – of Paradise. The parallels between the plans of these two chef-d’oeuvres of European literature are clear and consistent. Still, the difference between them is no less striking. Dante sent his poetical alter ego to travel through transcendental spheres from Hell to Heaven; however, unlike Gogol, he never envisaged the immediate transformation of Hell into Paradise.

Gogol’s trilogy was left unfinished and in any case the general plan of his ‘poem’ was probably too bold to be grasped by contemporary critics whose approach was influenced by party feuds and prejudices. Still, Gogol was not alone in his vision of Russia’s past, present and future. Interestingly enough, Chaadaev himself was thinking along similar lines.

In 1837, a year after the fatal publication of the first Letter, he wrote The Apology of a Madman where he completely restated his position. We’ll never know the exact motives behind this change of direction. Chaadaev may have hoped to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities; he may have sincerely modified his worldview or, indeed, regarded his new position as the logical outcome of an old one. We know only that The Apology did not lead to any improvement in his situation: it remained unpublished and the ban on the name of an author was not lifted.

In any case, Chaadaev in the Apology chose not to renounce his earlier anti-Russian diatribe. Instead he argued that his further deliberations on the same topic inevitably led him to the conclusions that Russia has the most glorious future one can imagine:

Since we have come after others, it is our duty to be better than others… I have the intimate conviction that we are called upon to resolve most of the problems of the social order, to realise most of the ideas of the older societies, to pronounce on most of the grave questions that preoccupy mankind.

It is worth noting that, at the end of the Apology of a Madman Chaadaev actually denounced Gogol by contrasting the condemnation of his Letter with the success of The Government Inspector, Gogol’s comedy, in which he shows his country in an equally unsparing light. One may feel that Chaadaev saw in Gogol his main rival in the discussion of the historical fate and visionary mission of Russia.

Russia goes back to the future

Thus, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, Chaadaev and Gogol – independently of each other – originated the logical, or rather supralogical, pattern according to which Russia’s main advantages lay in its backwardness, and envisaged for their country the dramatic transformational leap that will one day enable it to lead the concert of nations. This idea had many followers among writers and thinkers who were otherwise completely different from each other. Most of them were expecting this transformation to happen sooner rather than later, and aspired to become not only the prophets, but also the witnesses of such a miraculous change.

In 1854, during the Crimean war, the leading Slavophile thinker and poet Alexei Khomyakov wrote a poem he entitled ‘Russia’ – a passionate condemnation of his country that, at first glance, does not seem to bode well with his nationalistic credentials:

In courts black by black untruth, / Marked by the yoke of slavery, / Full of godless flattery, rotten lie / And deadly and shameful laziness / And all sorts of filth.

However, this outburst of indignation ended with the seemingly unexpected, but entirely predictable, exclamation: ‘Oh unworthy of an election / You are elected!’

Khomyakov’s opponents from the other side of the political spectrum were less keen on biblical allusions, but fully ready to embrace the same logic. The militant Westerniser Nicholai Chernyshevskii believed that the revolutionary spirit of Russian peasants would bring imminent liberation, and ended his famous novel What Is To Be Done? (1863) with the description of the ideal harmony brought about by the victorious revolution that was to happen within two years from the time he was writing his novel in prison. Another radical, Alexander Herzen, paradoxically glorified by Isaiah Berlin as one of the greatest European liberals, became deeply disappointed by the bourgeois West and cherished the idea that the traditions of the peasant commune make Russia the ideal place for the future socialist society. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this way of thinking defined the teachings of the so called ‘populists’, but such an avowed opponent of populists as Lenin also insisted that socialist revolution would triumph not in the most developed capitalist countries, but in the least developed one. As a dogmatic Marxist, Lenin could not fail to see that this idea contradicts the spirit and the letter of economic determinism he claimed to profess. But the magic of the transformational leap was more attractive to him than the logic of orthodox Marxism.

The views of ideological opponents regarding the nature and character of the transformation that Russia had to undergo could be completely different, but most of them agreed that such a transformation was both possible and desirable and were fascinated by its sheer dimension and magnitude. If Gogol believed that the Russian bird-troika would carry Chichikov from Hell to Paradise, but failed to find artistic means to describe this journey in detail, Dostoevsky made the description of the movement of human soul between absolute good and absolute evil his trademark. In his first major novel, Crime and Punishment, the murderer finally becomes the martyr, and in his spiritual quest he is guided by a holy prostitute. In his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitry Karamazov confesses:

That man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with the ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower… God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.

Dmitry speaks here about ‘man’ in general, but most often (one can find dozens of examples in Russian Google) his words are quoted incorrectly as ‘Russian man is broad’. Dostoevsky’s analysis of human nature was reinterpreted as the analysis of the ‘Russian soul’. However, this interpretation does not seem to be completely contradictory to the intentions of the author who regarded Russian soul as the ideal embodiment of human nature. Dostoevsky insisted that Russian man was broad enough to understand and include in his world all other national psyches.

Towards an ‘omni-humanity’

This idea was fully expressed in the last essay by Dostoevsky that may be regarded as his testament: the famous Pushkin speech he made at the celebrations for the inauguration of the monument to Pushkin in Moscow in June 1880, half a year before his death. By that time Pushkin’s status as a national poet was already established and, according to the traditions of Romantic nationalism, Dostoevsky had to draw the conclusions about the mission of the nation from the works of its greatest author. Presenting the single most cosmopolitan Russian poet as a symbol of ‘Russian individuality’ was a challenging task, but Dostoevsky found an elegant and powerful solution. He saw Pushkin’s, and therefore Russia’s, uniqueness as being their exceptional ability to understand other nations better than those nations are able to understand themselves:

There have been in the literatures of Europe men of colossal artistic genius – Shakespeare, Cervantes, Schiller. But show me one of these great geniuses who possessed such a capacity for universal sympathy as our Pushkin. This capacity, the pre-eminent capacity of our nation, he shares with our nation, and by that above all he is our national poet. The greatest of European poets could never so powerfully embody in themselves the genius of a foreign, even a neighboring, people, its spirit in all its hidden depth, and all its yearning after its appointed end, as Pushkin could.

This analysis has a clear political dimension as well – the nation that can understand every other nation is a natural leader of the international order. The glorification of Pushkin’s universal genius becomes the thinly veiled legitimisation of Russia’s imperialistic goals:

Surely we then turned at once to the most vital reunion, to the unity of all mankind! Not in a spirit of enmity (as one might have thought it would have been) but in friendliness and perfect love, we received into our soul the geniuses of foreign nations, all alike without preference of race, able by instinct from almost the very first step to discern, to discount distinctions, to excuse and reconcile them… Our destiny is universality, won not by the sword, but by the strength of brotherhood and our fraternal aspiration to reunite mankind. What is the power of the spirit of Russian nationality if not its aspiration after the final goal of universality and omni-humanity?

Dostoevsky was aware that Russia was poor and backward, and he did not anticipate it becoming prosperous and developed in the foreseeable future. Instead he chose to quote another great Russian poet and militant imperialist Fyodor Tiutchev: ‘This poor land Christ traversed with blessing, in the garb of a serf. Why then should we not contain His final word?’ concluded Dostoevsky. The last once more were to become the first.

Russian literature played a major if not a decisive role in the formation of the discourse of Russian exceptionalism, both negative and positive. However, Russian literature itself was a predominantly European cultural institution which in its current shape was adopted in Russia during the process of Europeanising reforms of the 18th century. Russian literature was based on European forms, but played in national life the role it never had in Western countries. Thus, it became both completely accessible and inherently exotic for European audiences and was instrumental in creating both within Russia and abroad the image of the country that is at the same time inside Europe and outside it. For more than a century both Russian and Western readers, following the precepts of Romantic nationalism, were exploring the ‘murky depths’ (as Milan Kundera has put it) of Dostoevsky and his peers in order to find answers about Russia, its soul, its national character and its mission. The results of this search may not have been completely reliable, but the process was nevertheless always exciting and rewarding.


Andrei Zorin