28 May 2016

On the Slavophil Anglophiles

Ivan Aksakov, Slavophil and Anglophile

Presbyterian Russia scholar Peter J Leithart noticed two whole years ago what has taken me a long and circuitous time to realise, though my own intellectual trajectory from an Anglo-Catholic Anglophile Tory to Eastern Orthodox believer really ought to have suggested it to yours truly long, long ago. But I suppose I’m just thick that way. Do bear with me!

The Slavophils - Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky and Ivan Aksakov in particular - were ardent Anglophiles. Being traditionalist members of the lesser gentry, hostile to serfdom and to Western political developments, but looking on grassroots Russian piety with admiration, this seems perhaps a bit of an oxymoron; but then, the Slavophil doctrines themselves were paradoxical and dialectic in ways that do not always make logical sense. I have touched briefly on Khomyakov’s infatuation with British culture and the Tory tendencies of the English people before, but Leithart adds something I did not know, which is this: ‘Slavophile Aleksei Khomyakov asserted that the term English or Anglian “was just the nasal form of the Slavonic term Uglichi,” the lost tribe of Eastern Slavs, and that the Anglo-Saxons and their Protestant heirs had thus conserved the essence of Russian native justice and Orthodox Christianity. Shakespeare, Byron, Dickens and Thackeray all became embedded in Russian culture. Hamlet cut Russian rulers so much to the quick that both Catherine the Great and Stalin banned it, but novelists found Shakespearean figures all around them: Ivan Turgenev in “Hamlet of Shchigry District” and “King Lear of the Steppes”, Nikolai Leskov in “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. Dostoevsky’s work was shaped by David Copperfield, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace by Vanity Fair.’

As for Kireevsky, the similarities of his legal thinking with that of Edmund Burke are simply too close to be coincidental. This is probably also the underlying reason for Kireevsky’s similarities to another, modern-day Burkean and Anglophile, the Chinese traditionalist Confucian Jiang Qing. As for Ivan Aksakov, though not much of an original thinker, the one concept he lent to the Slavophil idea was that of общество, literally, ‘society’: that element within the people that has a deep awareness of the historical and cultural background out of which it arises, and is able to give it a full and articulate voice. As Stephen Lukashevich sums it up: ‘общество cannot be restricted to one class and it is not based upon class distinction… [it] speaks on behalf of the people while retaining its roots in the people itself, because the individuals compose общество only if: “they are conscious of themselves as a part of the people, only if they are developing a self-consciousness as a people”.’ In Aksakov’s thinking, the truest expression of общество was to be found in… yes, England.
Aksakov felt that the best example of a country ruled by общество rather than by a Parliament was England. In a letter to Countess Bludova, he exclaimed: ‘Don’t you know that England is strong non par ses lois, mais malgré ses lois. It is precisely this established force, which makes England strong, that I defend…’
Aksakov clearly did not want Russia to follow in the same path as England, but he looked to England for inspiration all the same on how Russia was to achieve her own special path, that path so desired by his elders Khomyakov and Kireevsky, and his contemporary Yuri Samarin. And he did not look to England’s written laws, in the same way that Japan looked to Germany’s constitution. He looked to England’s sub-legal awareness, her awareness and her respect for her own past, the value she placed on the old and well-loved and impractical: in short, the Tory England of the rural gentry and farmers (and emphatically not the Whiggish England of industrialisation, trade, imperial war and globalist empire) was his guide.

Interesting indeed that this connexion exists. Leithart was indeed onto something, and I still feel like I am playing a lot of academic catch-up on this subject.

No comments:

Post a Comment