06 May 2017

Bunakov, Russian social thought and the Eurasian way

Blessed Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky

Blessed New Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky, known in life by his nom de guerre Bunakov, left behind him some very interesting writings, which I’m only just starting to delve into – starting with Пути России (Ways of Russia), a series of essays which he published in the ‘pink émigré’ publication Современные записки in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Konstantin Skorkin said of his thought that it was an ‘original synthesis of Christianity, socialism and autocracy’, which naturally piqued my interest. After all, such a synthesis is very much parallel to the kind of work I’m attempting to do here.

Saint Ilya’s writings undersigned as ‘Bunakov’, so far, do not disappoint. The first of his Ways of Russia essays is essentially an extended apologia for the Slavophils. Not necessarily an apologia in terms of a rigorous defence of their ideas, but an attempt to reclaim them both from the charge that they were a failed, abortive political movement; and also from the reputation that had attached to them as Russian proto-chauvinists. (The latter was a reputation not at all helped by the fact that right-wing nationalists like Mikhail Katkov had attempted to position themselves as heirs to the Slavophil legacy, even while Ivan Aksakov was still alive – but more so after his death.) The overall thrust of Ilya Fondaminsky’s argument is that the measure of the Slavophils’ success is in the deep-reaching impact their ideas and convictions had, even on their political adversaries. He finds telltale traces of the Slavophil messianic conviction even in Chaadaev (whose polemical Philosophical Letters served to ignite the Slavophil-Westerniser controversy in the first place), in Herzen (the foremost of the critics of the Slavophils on the Russian socialist left), in Chernyshevsky (author of What Is to Be Done?) and Mikhailovsky, in Tolstoy and (of course) Dostoevsky, in Solovyov, and even in anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin.

Bunakov puts it thus:
The Slavophils asserted Russia in its entirety. Russian sources – spiritual, governmental, social – were accepted as a whole, following from the underlying source: the religious. Populism is a one-sided Slavophilia. It destroyed the integral concept of the ‘Russian source’, adopting one principle (the social, along with the spirituality that stems from it) and discarding others (governmental and religious). Another trend of Russian consciousness is a similarly one-sided – spiritual, religious – Slavophilia: the idealistic one. The Russian idealist movement is not ascetic. It asserts the ‘flesh’, the ‘material, progress, public-mindedness’. But its pathos is in the spirit, in religion. On questions of the governmental and social ways of Russia, its answers are hazy and often self-contradicting.
And also thus:
The significance of Slavophil doctrine in the development of Russian self-consciousness is enormous. The tragœdy of the Slavophils was that their religious views were alien to a significant part of the Russian educated society; that their political views were unacceptable to the Russian public. The history of Russian identity in the nineteenth century is the history of a movement for Russian liberation. Any spiritual movement that does not coincide wholly with the liberation movement loses many chances for success and recognition. This is what happened to the Slavophils. They only took part in the liberation movement and occupied only the most moderate positions within it. Sometimes they entered into a fierce struggle with it. For this, the Russian public could never forgive them. That's why the main ideas of Slavophilism—about the special ways of Russia’s development; about the universal significance of the principles inherent in it; about the new word which it will tell the world—only indirectly penetrated into the Russian consciousness. The Slavophils’ opponents, with their resolute rejection of religion, with their political radicalism, won brilliant victories over the Slavophiles in the Russian public [sphere]. But the ideas of the Slavophils, noiselessly and often imperceptibly, penetrated into the very camp of the opponents, seized them from within and dominated the Russian consciousness almost completely.
And he sums up:
Chaadaev, Herzen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, the Slavophils, [the Pochvenniks], the Westernisers, the Populists, the Idealists – all are the face of the same Russian consciousness, always equal to itself in its own depths; always identical to itself. On the surface, the Russian consciousness seems torn, divided, reeling between ‘Russia’ and ‘the West’; in it, it seems there are ‘two souls’. But that’s only on the surface. In her true depth, the Russian consciousness is one and whole. In it, there is one soul, one idea, one truth: the Russian people, its special ways, its special purpose among mankind. It is impossible to understand the Russian consciousness in the old period, without understanding and without looking at her ‘soul’.
For Bunakov, the ‘Russian idea’ is indeed a religious one, an Orthodox one. It simply cannot be otherwise. Even among the atheists and anarchists he studies there is a kind of burning religious fervour, a peculiarly Russian and Old-Believer fervour, that cannot be suppressed. But to ignore wholesale, or (worse) to misappropriate and misinterpret, the social and œconomic implications of the ‘Russian idea’ and the Slavophil legacy – to ignore the ‘populist’ and ‘social’ side of that idea, to ignore the familial-communal labour truth, that of the artel’ and the obshchina, that rests so close to the core of sobornost’ – is to do that legacy a grave act of philosophical desecration. What Saint Ilya sets out to do with his political-philosophical work, is to restore and reorient (er, so to speak) the original wealth and vitality of creative meaning in Slavophil thought: retrieving the religious-governmental, Orthodox ‘end’ of that thought from Solovyov and the idealists, and reuniting it with the syndical socioœconomic ‘end’ which had been carried off by Chernyshevsky and Mikhailovsky.

The other interesting part of his writings, and this he delves into briefly in the third part of his Ways of Russia series, is the emphasis he puts on the geography of Russia and how its historical experience has turned much of the standard logic of Western development theory – including Marxist development theory – completely on its head. The urban, commercial œconomy of the Garðaríki did not sustain itself, did not advance naturally, but instead turned abruptly in an agrarian direction with the fall of Kievan Rus’, where the entirety of Russia pretty much remained until the reforms of Peter the Great and his descendants. He warns both the Bolsheviks and the Whites who would force Russia to develop along capitalist lines:
The historical ways of Russia are the ways of an agricultural country. Her centuries-old connexion with a crushed East, her centuries-old break with a blossoming West hovers over her. Overcoming Russia's historical past will be every bit as hard as overcoming the hardships of Russia's natural conditions. This may be mourned. But not to take this [past] into account in your constructs would be the greatest mistake.
In this sense, then, Bunakov is, perhaps not a full-fledged ideological Eurasian like Georgiy Vernadsky, but perhaps a proto-Eurasian in his approach both to the continent and to political œconomy. He absolutely retained the Russian populist idea that Russia’s œconomic and social development could happen along humane lines – but that it did not have to, and should not, follow in the footsteps of Western industrial capitalism and imperialism. He pointed instead to the agrarian roots, to the fact that Russia occupies a bridge between East and West and that its ties to the East should be neither ignored nor belittled. This is a lesson which the modern heirs of the Paris clique, tragically, seem over-eager to forget. But the ties between, for example, Russian and Chinese forms of both left-wing populism and ‘revolutionary conservatism’ – those which Khomyakov suspected in his historiographical work, those which Solovyov feared and prophesied against, and those which Bunakov began to indicate in the Ways of Russia – those ties should be of particular interest and worthy of study today.

The new word which Russia was to have spoken to the world remains as yet unspoken. But if ever there was a word that was lost that should be retrieved – impossible though that may proverbially be said to be – this new word may be it. Blessed New Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky, pray to God for us!

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