17 February 2018

Slavophilia of the ‘left’? Not quite, but close

A young Ivan Kireevsky [r], with his wife Natalya

Abbott Gleason puts an interesting paragraph into his English-language biography of Ivan Kireevsky, when describing his early involvement in the literary magazine, The European. For a bit of background, Kireevsky contributed “The Nineteenth Century” to The European (which was largely his own idea and creation) after having returned from his studies in Germany:
Just as “The Nineteenth Century” made the high-water mark of Kireevsky’s attraction toward the West—and, one might add, the contemporary world—the publicistic venture of the European marked his closest approximation to a “left” political position. In the first place, simply to chart the direction of contemporary Europe and say that Russia must become part of it was, in Russia, a political act. The Europe of Heine, Börne and (to a lesser extent) Menzel was a radical Europe.
Many of the ‘left’ elements Gleason identifies in Slavophil thought outlasted Kireevsky, along with Khomyakov and the rest of that first generation. Slavophilia never really abandoned (literary) realism. Even if their historiographical and philological projects were, on the whole, fanciful, they continued to seek out and highlight the differences between the Westernised nobility and the ‘authentic’ common people – and to point to the common people as possessing, in an imperfect form, the knowledge that was needed to guide the (hitherto absent) cultural awareness of the country as a whole. Likewise, for all the anti-German sentiments Kireevsky and Khomyakov would give voice to, Slavophilia never abandoned that hallmark of the Junges Deutschland: the stalwart defences of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Indeed, the suppression of the European under Nicholas I accentuated these ‘Young Russian’ tendencies in the first generation of Slavophils all the more. And even though Kireevsky himself turned away from this initial openness toward the Germans, these marks of left-Hegelianism would continue to show themselves in Slavophilia as a whole.

Gleason is not very sympathetic to placing the Slavophils on the ‘left’ in general. That’s fine. They were, after all, conservatives of a peculiar sort. And I’ve done my own pushback, when it comes to that first generation of Slavophils, both against the Berdyaevian position that makes them out to be crypto-anarchists, and against the Katkovian position that turns them into unreconstructed Russian nationalists.

My personal take on the Slavophils is closer to that of the Jewish-turned-Orthodox narodnik-revolutionary saint, Ilya Bunakov. Both the genius and the doom of the Slavophil movement was that it was syncretic in a way that opposed it to all sorts of liberalisms, both of the ‘right’ and of the ‘left’. The Slavophils had no truck at all with the right-liberalism of Chicherin, but their attitudes toward radical democrats like Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov were much more complex.

The Slavophils agreed with the radical democrats on several key issues – notably opposition to censorship; the abolition of serfdom; and the centrality of the local commune, obshchina, to Russian political œconomy – but could not conscientiously countenance the radical democrats’ embraces of constitutionalism and rationalism. And even where they agreed with the radical democrats, the Slavophils’ reasoning was reactionary rather than progressive. They hated censorship because it was instituted by the reforms of Peter the Great; they likewise detested serfdom because it was an import from the apostate West; and they loved the obshchina, a uniquely Slavic and Russian institution, because it could be defended from ‘ancient’ and pure Christian principles.

Still, this note on the syncretic roots of their ideas is needed and well-taken. They were not, as many seem to claim, merely stubborn and recalcitrant haters of all things Western. There was a moment of openness to the West that, in Khomyakov and Aksakov, expressed itself in a kind of Anglophilia, and in Kireevsky expressed itself in a selective borrowing from German idealist philosophy.

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