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History of Russian Thought Essay

Russian political and social thought remains a mystery to many historians, often insisting that Russia neatly follow western European categories of development and thought. Rejecting this odd sort of Euro-centrism is the first task of the intellectual historian, and from this point of view has Walicki made his career as the west’s premier historian of Russian political theory. Given the fact that this book is 467 pages, it is not this review’s intention to summarize the contents of this work, but rather to concern itself with method and the approach to this complex and ill-understood subject.

A good place to start might be the basic class distinctions in Russian society. It is no accident that the book begins with two highly related objects: the rise of “enlightenment” thought under Catherine II (the Great) and, concomitant with this rise, the development of an elitist, aristocratic opposition to the crown. This start of some sort of Enlightenment-based criticism of monarchy derives both from western sources, that specifically of Montesquieu, as well as ancient Russian sources, that specifically of the ancient boyar duma, or elite assembly of the land.

Hence, the stage is set for the remainder of the book: the constant fluctuation, often confusing, between modern, western models of political critique pleasantly seasoned with large doses of ancient political institutions. It is never made clear, and it is likely impossible to make clear, which element took center stage, the “west” or the ancient institutions. Among the Russian Slavophiles, major critics of Peter the Great and his western reforms, it is made clear.

The Slavophiles, a specifically mystic, and Christian movement, almost Rousseauian in its basic social theory, based their approach on the criticism of the crown on the ancient Russian institutions of the peasant commune, the boyar Duma and the ancient piety of the Russian Church. Hence, early on, Walicki crates a typological distinction that defines the entire work: that between the more or less western-style, liberal rejection of monarchical absolutism, and a more peasant-based and communal criticism of the centralization of royal power.

Neither approach rejects monarchy per se, but they criticize the development of the Petrine state, that is the centralized, expensive, militarized and bureaucratic absolutism introduced into Russia by Peter the Great as incompatible with Russian traditions. In terms of this typology, the most extreme of the first group might be the Decembrist movement, especially in the radical masonic societies of Paul Pestel.

Unlike many historians, Walicki refuses to ignore the powerful part played by Masons in 18th and 19th century Russian history. The Decembrists, like nearly all opposition movements in the mid 19th century, was both Masonic and aristocratic, having few roots among the common people. Ultimately, Pestel rejected monarchy altogether, demanding an aristocratic based popular assembly elected by full and universal suffrage without property qualifications.

He promised Poland its independence, and even became the first Russian Zionist, holding that Jews who refused to assimilate into the new Russia would be sent to Palestine to create a new Jewish nation with government assistance. He was joined in the revolutionary effort by the Society of United Slavs, also aristocratic and military based, who fought with Pestel over ideological concerns, chief of which was the place of old Russian institutions in the new society.

The United Slavs, slightly less radical then Pestel’s organization, sought to base the new democratic order on the old Russian institutions of the duma and collective farming arrangements. Now, while the Decembrists ultimately failed, largely due to internal divisions and their lack of understanding of Russian conditions, the real significance of these movements was to give the aristocracy a public program run by semi-secret organizations, in the Decembrist case, military societies.

The very fact that these groups were wealthy and aristocratic proves their limitations, and does show, as Walicki insists, that there is no distinction between class and political ideology, since political ideology was largely dictated by class status, at least in the sense that Russian nobles viewed themselves as heir to old Russia rather than to Petrine Russia. But just what they meant by “old Russia” is another story, and itself is a powerful subtext to this work.

The approach to Freemasonry in Russia is worth a review in itself. Rarely dealt with in a serious way, the Masons are depicted by Walicki as the last refuge of the old aristocracy both accepting and rejecting the western Enlightenment. The failure in this otherwise excellent section is whether or not the public statements of the Masonic organizers were truly the belief of the order, or were simply exoteric utterances of the “initiated” speaking to a “backward” society.

Nevertheless, Masonry (and Walicki holds that these were mostly funded by foreign sources) became a sort of pseudo-religion for the alienated old aristocrats long pushed out of power by the distant, upstart Petersburg bureaucracy. It is clear that the Masons were strictly clubs for the wealthy, sought to usher in a new “golden age” of history and looked down upon finance. These rather odd confluences of ideas simply tell us what little the Masons ere willing to speak about in public, or, even more, the fact that the aristocracy was using Masonry to challenge the organization of the Petersburg bureaucracy.

Either way, masonry was a means whereby the old aristocracy could organize their forces and pool resources, but whether there was a political program that was basically agreed upon is another matter. Pestel’s group came the closest. It is rare that the western Enlightenment is imported wholesale into Russia. In fact, Pestel is an exception in that regard. At first, the famed Russian polemicist Peter Chaadaev held that western Europe should be imported to Russia, since, as he became famous for saying, “Russia has no history. Chaadaev made himself infamous in Russia by holding that there was no “Russian history” until Peter the Great made elite Russia European, slyly assuming that historical nations are European, technically advanced and based on baconian scientific models of administration. But his fascination with such things faded early on in his career, as both the revolutionary fervor of France and the dominance of the bourgeois repelled him. For Chaadaev, “Old Europe” was that of the medieval aristocracy rather than the modern, revolutionary bourgeois.

Later figures like Alexander Herzen began their own careers with the same approach, only to actually live in England and France in exile, eventually returning to Russia with a loathing for European fashions and political ideologies. But all of these distinctions can be brought under our original methodological heading: the aristocratic opposition to the crown and the forms that this upper class agitation can take. The problem with this approach is that it leaves out the peasantry as a politically active part of the population.

The fact that Walicki has no reference to the Old Believers and their strict, Russian Orthodox anarchism that numbered about 20 million followers by the middle of the 19th century is a major, glaring fault in the work itself. But, without saying so explicitly, this work seems to revolve around the aristocracy and the modes that their opposition to the Petrine state took over time. But the positive side to this approach is that it proves, contrary to typical courses in political theory, that radicalism in Russia was an upper class phenomenon and had few roots with the peasants, who were inclined to the Old Belief.

Class status here meant that the higher one found oneself in the economic or aristocratic hierarchy, the more you were inclined to oppose the state (which itself, was based on a service bureaucracy rather than the old aristocracy) and the more one was to lean to radical theories of either economics or politics. The smattering of detail this review offers seeks to suggest that the aristocratic splits in Russian society are responsible for the development of its political ideas.

Even more, if a thesis of this work can be found, this is likely it. Masonry, materialism, communitarianism, and even Marxism (though much later) all stem from the various battles among aristocratic and otherwise upper class factions. What they had in common was that they were wealthy, urban and sought to bring about a semi-utopia by force and revolution, bringing the “dark masses” to a “true knowledge” of their destiny and social importance.

Hence, all of these movements opposed the monarchy in one sense or another. With very few exceptions, these movements all began rather enamored with western ideas, only to be repelled by them once actual contact with westerners became a fact. But the enlightenment was not rejected, only dressed in Russian clothing. Only the Leninists broke this mold, importing Marxism from Germany with few modifications, without the slightest concession to Russia as a cultural entity.

The very fact that Leninism was so bizarre in Russian history shows how alien it was from currents of even the most radical thought in Russia and hence, how it was forced to impose itself by violence. What seems to link all Russian radical ideas together is that they were not Leninists, in the sense that they all looked to Russian tradition for the germs of radical institution-building. Hence, one can conclude by holding that Russian radicalism sought to build enlightenment ideas on old Russian institutions. A project destroyed by Lenin, largely never to be revived.


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