Written by Vladimir Moss



     There were two schools of thought on the nature and destiny of Russia: the westerners, who basically thought that the westernizing path chosen by Peter had been correct, and the Slavophiles, who believed in Orthodoxy, in the pre-Petrine symphony of powers, and in a special, distinct path chosen by God for Russia. Almost the whole of the public intellectual life of Russia until the revolution could be described as increasingly complex variations on these two viewpoints and the various intermediate positions: Chaadaev and Pushkin, Belinsky and Gogol, Herzen and Khomiakov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Soloviev and Pobedonostev, Lenin and Tikhomorov. The result was paradoxical: an increasing westernization of the noble educated classes, and an increasing “Slavophilisation” of the tsars themselves, culminating in the most Orthodox and Slavophile of all the tsars, Nicholas II.

    The great debate began in 1836 with the publication, by Chaadaev, of the first of his Philosophical Letters (1829 – 1831). N.O. Lossky writes: “The letters are ostensibly addressed to a lady who is supposed to have asked Chaadaev’s advice on the ordering of her spiritual life. In the first letter Chaadaev advises the lady to observe the ordinances of the Church as a spiritual exercise in obedience. Strict observance of church customs and regulations may only be dispensed with, he says[1], when ‘beliefs of a higher order have been attained, raising our spirit to the source of all certainty;’ such beliefs must not be in contradiction to the ‘beliefs of the people’. Chaadaev recommends a well-regulated life as favorable to spiritual development and praises Western Europe where ‘the ideas of duty, justice, law, order’ are part of the people’s flesh and blood and are, as he puts it, not the psychology, but the physiology of the West. He evidently has in mind the disciplinary influence of the Roman Church.

      As to Russia, Chaadaev is extremely critical of her. Russia, in his opinion, is neither the West nor the East. ‘Lonely in the world, we have given nothing to the world, have taught it nothing; we have not contributed one idea to the mass of human ideas.’ ‘If we had not spread ourselves from [the] Behring Straits to [the] Oder, we would never have been noticed.’ We do not, as it were, form part of the human organism and exist ‘solely in order to give humanity some important lesson’.”[2] According to Chaadaev, “not a single useful thought has sprouted in our country’s barren soil; not a single great truth has emerged from our ambit…. Something in our blood repulses all true progress. In the end we have lived and now live solely to serve as some inscrutable great lesson for the distant generations that will grasp it; today, whatever anyone may say, we are a void in the intellectual firmament.”[3]

      Sir Isaiah Berlin sums up the matter well: “Chaadaev’s attack, with its deification of Western traditions, ideas and civilisation, was the key to later Russian ‘social thought’. Its importance was enormous. It set the tone, it struck the dominant notes which were echoed by every major Russian writer up to and beyond the Revolution. Everything is there: the proclamation that the Russian past is blank or filled with chaos, that the only true culture is the Roman West, and that the Great Schism robbed Russia of her birthright and left her barbarous, an abortion of the creative process, a caution to other peoples, a Caliban among nations. Here, too, is the extraordinary tendency toward self-preoccupation which characterises Russian writing even more than that of the Germans, from whom this tendency mainly stems. Other writers, in England, France, even Germany, write about life, love, nature and human relations at large; Russian writing, even when it is most deeply in debt to Goethe or Schiller or Dickens or Stendhal, is about Russia, the Russian past, the Russian present, Russian prospects, the Russian character, Russian vices and Russian virtues. All the ‘accursed questions’ (as Heine was perhaps the first to call them) turn in Russian into notorious proklyatye voprosy – questions about the destinies (sud’by) of Russia: Where do we come from? Whither are we bound? Why are we who we are? Should we teach the West or learn from it? Is our ‘broad’ Slav nature higher in the spiritual scale than that of the ‘Europeans’ – a source of salvation for all mankind – or merely a form of infantilism and barbarism destined to be superseded or destroyed? The problem of the ‘superfluous man’ is here already; it is not an accident that Chaadaev was an intimate friend of the creator of Eugene Onegin [Pushkin]. No less characteristic of this mental condition is Chaadaev’s contrary speculation that was also destined to have a career in subsequent writing, in which he wondered whether the Russians, who have arrived so late at the feast of the nations and are still young, barbarous and untried, do not thereby derive advantages, perhaps overwhelming ones, over older or more civilised societies. Fresh and strong, the Russians might profit by the inventions and discoveries of the others without having to go through the torments that have attended their mentors’ struggles for life and civilisation. Might there not be a vast positive gain in being late in the field? Herzen and Chernyshevsky, Marxists and anti-Marxists, were to repeat this with mounting optimism. But the most central and far-reaching question was still that posed by Chaadaev. He asked: Who are we and what should be our path? Have we unique treasures (as the Slavophiles maintained) preserved for us by our Church – the only true Christian one – which Catholics and Protestants have each in their own way lost or destroyed? Is that which the West despises as coarse and primitive in fact a source of life – the only pure source in the decaying post-Christian world? Or, on the contrary, is the West at least partially right: if we are ever to say our own word and play our part and show the world what kind of people we are, must we not learn from the Westerners, acquire their skills, study in their schools, emulate their arts and sciences, and perhaps the darker sides of their lives also? The lines of battle in the century that followed remained where Chaadaev drew them: the weapons were ideas which, whatever their origins, in Russian became matters of the deepest concern – often of life and death – as they never we in England or France or, to such a degree, in Romantic Germany. Kireyevsky, Khomiakov and Aksakov gave one answer, Belinsky and Dobrolyubov another, Kavelin yet a third.”[4]

      Chaadaev’s letter had an enormous impact on Russian society; Herzen remarked that it “shook the whole of intellectual Russia”. The tsar was furious. Klementy Rosset, an officer of the General Staff, wrote to the famous poet Alexander Pushkin: “The Emperor has read Chaadaev’s article and found it absurd and extravagant, saying that he was sure ‘that Moscow did not share the insane opinions of the Author’, and has instructed the governor-general Prince Golitsyn to inquire daily as to the health of Chaadaev’s wits and to put him under governmental surveillance…”[5]

      This letter, together with the other Philosophical Letters, elicited from Pushkin the first, and one of the best statements of the opposing, Slavophile position. Pushkin had known Chaadaev for a long time. In 1818, when his views were more radical (and blasphemously atheist) than they came to be at the end of his life, he had dedicated to Chaadaev the following lines:


Comrade, believe: joy’s star will leap

Upon our sight, a radiant token;

Russia will rise from her long sleep;

And where autocracy lies, broken,

Our names shall yet be graven deep.[6]

But even here anti-autocratic sentiments are combined with a belief in Russia. So although Pushkin admitted to the Tsar that he would have participated in the Decembrist rebellion if he had not been in exile, he was never a typical westernizer. This fact, combined with his deep reading in Russian history, the stabilising experience of marriage and, as we have seen, an enlightening interview with the Tsar himself, led Pushkin to a kind of conversion to Russia, to Tsarism and to a belief in her significance as a phenomenon independent of Europe: “Why is it necessary that one of us [the tsar] should become higher than all and even higher than the law itself? Because in the law a man hears something cruel and unfraternal. You don’t get far with merely the literal fulfillment of the law: but none of us must break it or not fulfill it: for this a higher mercy softening the law is necessary. This can appear to men only in a fully-empowered authority. The state without a fully-empowered monarch is an automaton: many, if attains to what the United States has attained. But what is the United States? A corpse.  In them man has disappeared to the point that he’s not worth a brass farthing. A state without a fully-empowered monarch is the same as an orchestra without a conductor. However good the musicians, if there is not one among them who gives the beat with the movement of his baton, the concert gets nowhere…”[7]

      “Of course,” writes Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev), “when Pushkin pronounced [these words], he knew well that there were big defects in state administration under the tsarist autocracy. They inevitably occur when the autocratic monarchs violate this, the best state order, by their opposition to the Divine laws. Nevertheless, as we see from his words, it was impossible to compare this form of government in Russia with any other form of government in the countries that did not have autocracy, just as it is impossible to compare heaven with the earth.”

      The sincerity of his conversion was demonstrated during the Polish rebellion in 1830. Although “enlightened” Europe condemned the Tsar for crushing the rebellion, on August 2, 1830, just three weeks before the taking of Warsaw by Russian troops, Pushkin wrote “To the Slanderers of Russia”. From that time, as the friend of the poet’s brother, Michael Yuzefovich, wrote, “his world-view changed, completely and unalterably. He was already a deeply believing person: [he now became] a citizen who had changed his mind, having understood the demands of Russian life and renounced utopian illusions.”[8]

      However, Chaadaev had not undergone this conversion, and was still not convinced that Russia’s past was anything more than “a blank sheet of paper”, “an unhappy country with neither past, present nor future”.

      Valery Lepakhin and Andrei Zavarzin summarised the debate between Chaadaev and Pushkin as follows: “Russia and Europe. This problem especially occupied the minds of Russians at the beginning of the 19th century. Chaadaev considered the schism (the division of the Churches [in 1054]) as a tragedy for Russia, which separated it from Christianity (of course, from Catholicism, and not from Christianity, but at that time these terms were synonymous for Chaadaev), from ‘the world idea’, form ‘real progress’, from ‘the wonderworking principle’, from ‘the enlightened, civilized peoples’. In principle Pushkin agreed with Chaadaev, but specified that ‘the schism disunited us from backward Europe’: first, it separated ‘us’, that is, not only Russia, but in general the whole of the eastern branch of Christianity, and secondly, it separated simply from ‘backward Europe’, and not from ‘enlightened and civilized people’, as Chaadaev claimed. In reading the Russian chronicles, sermons and lives of saints, it is impossible not to notice the fact that they are full of gratitude to God for the fact the Rus’ accepted baptism from Orthodox Constantinople, and not from Catholic Rome.[9] This fact is never viewed as a tragedy in Russian literature and history, rather the opposite: beginning with the description of the holy Prince Vladimir’s choice of faith, this event became the subject of poetry and chant. And not out of hostility to Catholicism, and from faith in Divine Providence, which judged that it should be so and which the consciousness of believers perceived with gratitude, for Providence cannot err. But Chaadaev, who speaks so much about Christianity, sees in this fact ‘the will of fate’ in a pagan manner.

      “Pushkin agreed with his friend of many years that ‘we did not take part in any of the great events which shook her (Europe)’. But it does not occur to Chaadaev to ask the simple question: why should Rus’ have taken part. Or, for example, would not this ‘participation’ have been for the worse, both for Europe and for Rus’? Pushkin gives a simple, but principled reply at this point: Russia has ‘her own special calling’, which Pushkin in another place calls ‘lofty’: ‘It was Russia and her vast expanses that were swallowed up by the Mongol invasion. The Tartars did not dare to cross our western frontiers and leave us in their rear. They departed for their deserts, and Christian civilization was saved… By our martyrdom the energetic development of Catholic Europe was delivered from all kinds of hindrances’. From Pushkin’s reply it follows that indirectly at any rate Russia did take part in the life of Western Europe, and, in accordance with its historical significance, this participation was weighty and fraught with consequences for the West. It was not a direct participation insofar as Russia had a different calling. The complete opposition of Pushkin’s and Chaadaev’s views on the problem is characteristic. For the latter the Tartar-Mongol yoke was a ‘cruel and humiliating foreign domination’. For Pushkin this epoch was sanctified by the lofty word ‘martyrdom’, which Russia received not only for herself, but also for her western brothers, for Christian civilization generally. In his reply Pushkin links the special calling of Russia with her reception of Orthodoxy, and see in it not ‘the will of fate’, but Russia’s preparation of herself for this martyrdom.

      “Chaadaev’s attitude to Byzantium also elicited objections from Pushkin. Chaadaev called Byzantium ‘corrupt’, he affirmed that it was at that time (the 10th century – the reception of Christianity by Rus’) ‘an object of profound disdain’ for the West European peoples. Now it is difficult even to say what there is more of in this passage from Chaadaev: simple ignorance of the history of Byzantium and Europe and complete absorption in his speculative historiosophical conception, or the conscious prejudice of a westerniser. The beginning of the 10th century in Byzantium was marked by the activity of Leo VI, ‘the Wise’, the middle – by the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogennitus, and the end – by the victories of Basil II the Bulgar-slayer. It was precisely this period that saw the development of political theories and the science of jurisprudence, theoretical military thought and knowledge of the natural sciences. New schools were opened, and a good education was highly prized both in the world and in the Church. Significant works were produced in the sphere of philosophy, literature and the fine arts, and theology produced such a light as Simeon the New Theologian, the third (after the holy Evangelist John the Theologian and St. Gregory the Theologian) to be given the title ‘theologian’ by the Orthodox Church. … This period is considered by scientists to be the epoch of the flourishing of Byzantine aesthetic consciousness, of architecture and music. If one compares the 10th century in Byzantium and in Europe, the comparison will not be in favour of the latter. Moreover, Chaadaev himself speaks of the ‘barbarism’ of the peoples that despised Byzantium.

      “’You say,’ writes Pushkin, ‘that the source from which we drew up Christianity was impure, that Byzantium was worthy of disdain and was disdained’, but, even if it was so, one should bear in mind that ‘from the Greeks we took the Gospel and the traditions, and not the spirit of childish triviality and disputes about words. The morals of Byzantium never were the morals of Kiev. For Chaadaev it was important ‘from where’, but for Pushkin ‘how’ and ‘what’ they took it. After all, ‘was not Jesus Christ Himself born as a Jew and was not Jerusalem a proverb among the nations?’ Pushkin did not want to enter into polemics on the subject of Byzantium insofar as that would have dragged out his letter. Moreover, the problem was a special one not directly connected with the polemic surrounding the history of Russia. For him it was evident that Russia, as a young and healthy organism, had filtered through her Byzantine heritage, assimilated the natural and cast out that which was foreign and harmful. Above mention was made of the fact that in the chronicles praise was often offered to God for the reception of Christianity by Rus’ from Byzantium. But no less often do we find critical remarks about the Greek metropolitans, and of the Greeks and Byzantium in general. Therefore Pushkin placed the emphasis on the critical assimilation of the Byzantine heritage. For him, Rus’ received from Byzantium first of all ‘the light of Christianity’….

     “Both Chaadaev and Pushkin highly esteemed the role of Christianity in world history. In his review of The History of the Russian People by N. Polevoj, the latter wrote: ‘The greatest spiritual and political turning-point [in the history of] of our planet is Christianity. In this sacred element the world disappeared and renewed itself. Ancient history is the history of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome. Modern history is the history of Christianity.’ Chaadaev would also have signed up to these words, but immediately after this common affirmation differences would have arisen. For Chaadaev true Christianity rules, shapes and ‘lords over everything’ only in Catholic Europe – ‘there Christianity accomplished everything’. Chaadaev even considers the history of Catholic Europe to be ’sacred, like the history of the ancient chosen people’.

      “He recognises the right of the Russians, as, for example, of the Abyssinians, to call themselves Christians, but in the Christianity of the former and the latter that ‘order of things’, which ‘constitutes the final calling of the human race’ was not realised at all. ‘Don’t you think,’ says Chaadaev to his correspondent, ‘that these stupid departures from Divine and human truths (read: Orthodoxy) drag heaven down to earth?’ And so there exist Catholic Europe, the incarnation of Christianity, and Russia, Abyssinia and certain other historical countries which have stagnated in ‘stupid departures from Divine and human truths’. Chaadaev refuses these countries the right to their own path, even the right to have a future.

      “In one of his reviews Pushkin indirectly replies to Chaadaev: ‘Understand,’ he writes, ‘that Russia never had anything in common with the rest of Europe; her history demands other thoughts, other formulae, different from the thoughts and formulae extracted by Guizot from the history of the Christian West’. For Pushkin it is absolutely obvious that any schema of historical development will remain a private, speculative schema and will never have a universal character. Any conception is built on the basis of some definite historical material, and to transfer it, out of confidence in its universality, to other epochs or countries would be a mistake. After all, as often as not that which does not fit into a once-worked-out schema is cut off and declared to have no significance and not worthy of study or analysis. But Pushkin makes his own generalisations, proceeding from history, from concrete facts. S. Frank wrote: ‘The greatest Russian poet was also completely original and, we can boldly say, the greatest Russian political thinker of the 19th century’. This was also noticed by the poet’s contemporaries. Vyzamesky wrote: ‘In Pushkin there was a true understanding of history… The properties of his mind were: clarity, incisiveness, sobriety… He would not paint pictures according to a common standard and size of already-prepared frames, as is often done by the most recent historians in order more conveniently to fit into them the events and people about to be portrayed’. But it was precisely this that was the defect of Chaadaev’s method. Moreover, the non-correspondence of schema and historical reality (frame and picture) was sometimes so blatant with him that he had completely to reject the historical and religious path of Russia for the sake of preserving his schema of world development.

      “Pushkin also disagreed with Chaadaev concerning the unity of Christianity, which for Chaadaev ‘wholly consisted in the idea of the merging of all the moral forces of the world’ for the establishment of ‘a social system or Church which would have to introduce the kingdom of truth among people’.[10] To this Pushkin objected already in his letter of 1831: ‘You see the unity of Christianity in Catholicism, that is, in the Pope. Does it not consist in the idea of Christ, which we find also in Protestantism?’ Pushkin notes the Catholico-centrism of Chaadaev, and reminds him of the Protestant part of the Western Christian world. But the main point is that Pushkin turns out to be better-prepared theologically than Chaadaev. The Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ Himself is Her Head, according to the teaching of the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 1.23, 4.16; Colossians 1.18, etc.). Here Pushkin in a certain sense anticipates the problems of Dostoyevsky, who considered that Rus’ had preserved that Christ that the West had lost, and that the division of the Churches had taken place precisely because of different understandings of Christ.

     “Pushkin considered it necessary to say a few words also about the clergy, although Chaadaev had not directly criticized them in his first letter. ‘Our clergy,’ writes the poet, ‘were worthy of respect until Theophan [Prokopovich]. They never sullied themselves with the wretchednesses of papism…, and, of course, they would never have elicited a Reformation at a moment when mankind needed unity more than anything.’ In evaluating the role of the clergy in Russian history, Pushkin distinguished between two stages: before Peter and after Peter. The role of the clergy in Russian life before Peter was exceptionally great. Ancient Rus’ inherited from Byzantium, together with the two-headed eagle on her arms, the idea of the symphony of secular and ecclesiastical power. This idea was equally foreign both to caesaropapism and papocaesarism and the democratic idea of the separation of the Church from the State. Of course, symphony never found its full incarnation in State life, but it is important that as an idea it lived both in the Church and in the State, and the role of the clergy as the necessary subject of this symphony was naturally lofty and indisputable. But even outside the conception of ‘symphony’, the clergy played an exceptionally important role in the history of Russia. In the epoch of the Tatar-Mongol yoke they were almost the only educated class in Russian society: ‘The clergy, spared by the wonderful quick-wittedness of the Tatars alone in the course of two dark centuries kept alive the pale sparks of Byzantine education’. In another place Pushkin even found it necessary to contrast the Russian and Catholic clergy – true, without detailed explanations of his affirmation: ‘In Russia the influence of the clergy was so beneficial, and in the Roman-Catholic lands so harmful… Consequently we are obliged to the monks of our history also for our enlightenment’.

      “A new era began from the time of Theophan Prokopovich (more exactly: Peter I), according to Pushkin. In a draft of a letter dated 1836 he wrote to Chaadaev: ‘Peter the Great tamed (another variant: ‘destroyed’) the clergy, having removed the patriarchate’. Peter made the clergy into an institution obedient to himself and destroyed the age-old idea of symphony. Now they had begun to be excised from the consciousness both of the clergy and of the simple people, and of state officials. In losing their role in society, the clergy were becoming more and more backward, more and more distant from the needs and demands of the life of society. They were being forced to take the role of ‘fulfillers of the cult’.

      “In Pushkin’s opinion, a serious blow against the clergy was later delivered by Catherine II. And if we are to speak of the backwardness of the Russian clergy, it is there that we must see its source. ‘Catherine clearly persecuted the clergy, sacrificing it to her unlimited love of power, in the service of the spirit of the times… The seminaries fell into a state of complete collapse. Many villages did not have priests… What a pity! For the Greek [Orthodox Christian] confession gives us our special national character’. If Chaadaev reproaches Russia for not having ‘her own face’, then for Pushkin it is evident that Russia has ‘her own face’ and it was formed by Orthodoxy. Therefore a sad note is heard in Pushkin’s evaluation of the era of Catherine: she has her own face, her own ‘special national character’, if only she does not lose it because of ill-thought-out reforms and regulations foreign to the spirit of Russian life. In contrast to Chaadaev, Pushkin linked the backwardness of the contemporary clergy not with the reception of Christianity from Byzantium, but with the recent transformations in Russian State and Church life, and sought the roots of this backwardness not in the 10th century but in the 18th century, in the reforms of Peter and in the epoch of the so-called Enlightenment…”[11]

     Such was the debate in its main outlines. And yet, just as Pushkin moved towards the Slavophile position later in life, so, less surely, did Chaadaev. Thus in 1830 he praised Pushkin’s nationalist poems on the Warsaw insurrection. And later, in his Apology of a Madman (1837), he was inclined to think that the very emptiness of Russia’s past might enable her to contribute to the future. Indeed, he then believed that Russia was destined “to resolve the greater part of the social problems, to perfect the greater part of the ideas which have arisen in older societies, to pronounce judgement on the most serious questions which trouble the human race”.[12] Moreover, in the same Apology, he spoke of the Orthodox Church as “this church that is so humble and sometimes so heroic”. And in a conversation with Khomiakov in 1843 he declared: “Holy Orthodoxy shines out for us from Holy Byzantium”.[13]

      However, while Slavophile tendencies sometimes surfaced in Chaadaev, as in other westerners, his fundamentally westernizing radicalism was revealed by his anti-monarchical remark on the occasion of the European revolutions in 1848: “We don’t want any king except the King of heaven”…[14]


[1] The idea that Church regulations and customs, such as fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, could be dispensed with was an attitude of the nobility which St. Seraphim of Sarov, in particular, criticized. He said that he who does not fast is not Orthodox. (V.M.)

[2] N.O. Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952, p. 48.

[3] Translated in Serena Vitale, Pushkin’s Button, London: Fourth Estate, 2000, p. 82.

[4] Berlin, “Russian Intellectual History”, in The Power of Ideas, London: Chatto & Windus, 2000, pp. 74-75.

[5] Michael Binyon, Pushkin, London: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 551.

[6] Pushkin, “To Chaadaev”, quoted in Walicki, op. cit., p. 81.

[7] Razgovory Pushkina (The Conversations of Pushkin),Moscow, 1926.

[8] Yury Druzhnikov, “O Poetakh i Okkupantakh”, Russkaia Mysl’, N 4353, February 15-21, 2001, p. 8.

[9] At the time of the baptism of Rus’ in 988, Rome was still formally Orthodox and in communion with Constantinople. Nevertheless, heretical tendencies were already deeply rooted in the West. (V.M.)

[10] For Chaadaev “the supreme principle” was “unity”, which he saw incarnate in Western Catholic Christendom – completely forgetting that the West was torn by the division between Catholicism and Protestantism. See Pushkin’s remark below. (V.M.)

[11] Lepakhin and Zavarzin, “Poet i Philosoph o Sud’bakh Rossii” (A Poet and A Philosopher on the Destinies of Russia), Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizhenia (Herald of the Russian Christian Movement), N 176, II-III, 1997, pp. 167-196.

[12] Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought, Oxford: Clarendon, 1988, p. 89.

[13] But Byzantium, he notes, was still in communion with Rome at that time, and “there was a feeling of common Christian citizenship”. (Wil van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, London: SCM Press, 1999, p. 198).

[14] Lossky, op. cit., p. 49. Moreover, in 1854, during the Crimean War, he wrote: “Talking about Russia, one always imagines that one is talking about a country like the others; in reality, this is not so at all. Russia is a whole separate world, submissive to the will, caprice, fantasy of a single man, whether his name be Peter or Ivan, no matter – in all instances the common element is the embodiment of arbitrariness. Contrary to all the laws of the human community, Russia moves only in direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all the neighbouring peoples. For this reason it would be in the interest not only of other peoples but also in that of her own that she be compelled to take a new path” (in Pipes, op. cit., p. 266). Note the use of the word “compel”…

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company