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The Russian Sphinx

We are neither of the West nor of the East,” the Russian philosopher Piotr Chaadaev wrote of his country in the early nineteenth century. “We belong to that number of nations which does not seem to make up an integral part of the human race, but which exists only to teach the world some great lesson.”

The theme of Russia’s enigmatic separateness would soon become a leitmotif of Western writing on Russian history and culture. “The strength to will, and to will one thing for a long time, [is] strongest of all and most astonishing in that huge empire-in-between, where Europe as it were flows back into Asia, in Russia…. There the will is waiting menacingly—uncertain whether it is a will to deny or a will to affirm—in readiness to discharge itself.” Thus Nietzsche prophesied in Beyond Good and Evil. Russia’s capacity to astonish the West has since been deployed to the full—both in the great utopian experiment that has dominated our century, and in the manner of its ending.

Western visions of Russia as an alien civilization, by turns threatening and alluring, are rooted in its anomalous history. The schism of 1054 between the Byzantine and Roman Churches detached it from the culture of Western Christendom, and the Mongol invasion two centuries later completed its isolation. It knew nothing of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the first flowering of secular thought in the West; the Muscovite state that emerged in the fifteenth century under the despot Ivan IV resembled the civilization of medieval Europe rather than the contemporary West. In the early eighteenth century Peter the Great’s reforms brought into the community of European nations a vast and backward country (even as late as 1917, 80 percent of the Russian Empire’s population were classified as peasants). Yet this lumbering land established itself as a great power when, in 1814, the Russian Tsar rode into Paris at the head of his army after the victorious campaign against Napoleon.

Over the next century European attitudes toward Russia were deeply ambivalent: along with fear of its imperial ambitions and revulsion at the brutality of autocratic rule, there was a growing admiration for Russian literature, music, and art; the start, it seemed, of a creative rapprochement with Europe. But this prospect was halted by the advent of the Soviet regime, whose unparalleled, terror-driven feats made it appear to the West (in Winston Churchill’s celebrated phrase) as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The dichotomy of West and East, civilization and barbarism, was revived by some liberal historians who sought to solve the Soviet riddle by tracing the origins of Stalin’s despotism back to the heritage of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great or (as Richard Pipes has done) to “patrimonial” institutions dating from the origins of the Russian state.

Faced with the new enigma of post-Communist Russia, Western commentators are being forced to revise their judgments. These are becoming more tentative, influenced by a growing awareness among “first-world” historians of their own cultural biases. This new self-searching is transforming the study of Russian history, which took off as an academic discipline amid the ideological certainties of the cold war. Russia Under Western Eyes, by one of the most distinguished Western historians of Russia, is a notable contribution to this process.

Russia has at different times been demonized or divinized by Western opinion less because of her real role in Europe than because of the fears and frustrations, or the hopes and aspirations, generated within European society by its own domestic problems.” This is Martin Malia’s central claim, which he seeks to justify by an erudite and imaginative excursion through the intellectual history of Europe over the last three centuries, showing how the West’s perceptions of Russian realities have been refracted through the ideas that have shaped European culture—from Enlightenment rationalism, Hegelianism, and Marxism to varieties of positivism, utilitarianism, and pragmatism—and the sociopolitical ideologies, liberal, socialist, nationalist, and fascist, that those ideas have generated. In a lively argument Malia relates the changes in Europe’s perceptions of Russia to oscillations between Enlightenment (or rationalistic) and Romantic (or mythopoeic) currents of thought: the “contrapuntal forms of modern culture,” which since the early nineteenth century have alternated, mutated, and combined.

Malia is not suggesting that there is no “real” Russia behind our shifting representations of it. He is attempting to resolve an old debate: by exposing concepts of Russian “otherness” as mythical and pernicious projections of European hopes and fears, he aims to demonstrate that Russia is a European country ineluctably set on a path of political and economic convergence with its more advanced neighbors. This view is itself exempted from the deconstruction to which he subjects rival interpretations of Russia’s relations with Europe. In its tension between a crusading purpose and a demythologizing one, his argument is oddly reminiscent of patterns of thought among those whom he represents as the architects of Russia’s misfortunes—its radical intelligentsia. Malia’s book probably reveals more than its author intended about the pervasiveness of ideological perspectives in the twentieth century. But this only adds to its value as a commentary on the self-deceptions of our age.

Malia contends that, for the first hundred years after Russia’s entry into Europe under Peter the Great, the European powers had good reasons for regarding it as just another absolutist state. Thanks to the Empress Catherine II’s genius for public relations, the French philosophes went further, idealizing the Russian autocracy as a model of enlightened statecraft. Only in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, during the reign of the ultraconservative Nicholas I, did a sense of Russia as an alien civilization begin to prevail in European diplomatic and intellectual circles. To preserve his empire from contagion by radical doctrines fermenting in Europe, Nicholas combined ruthless internal repression with political opposition to democratic aspirations abroad, culminating in Russia’s military intervention to crush the Hungarian revolution of 1848-1849. The threat of Nicholas’s Cossacks began to haunt progressive European intellectuals. Russian brutality in Poland and the misery of its own serfs reinforced the stereotype of a country of Asiatic barbarians ruled by an Oriental despot. As the saying went, “Grattez un Russe et vous trouverez un Tartare.”

In Malia’s view, political realities were less important in promoting a sense of Russia’s separateness than the historicist visions of progress developed by German idealist philosophy in reaction against the rationalist universalism of the Enlightenment. He points to the dominant influence on liberal and radical thought of Hegel’s vision of mankind’s ascent to freedom by means of the development of European societies through medieval Christianity and feudalism to the Enlightenment and the emergence of the liberal state. That Russia was largely left out of that process gave it “only the most tenuous toehold among the ‘historically significant’ nations of the world.” But in emphasizing the unique contribution of each nation to the pattern of the whole, Romanticism’s organic version of history encouraged a more positive interpretation of Russia’s distinctiveness. The romantic conservative Joseph de Maistre and the Prussian agronomist August von Haxthausen articulated the notion of a Russian Sonderweg, or special path, based on the native institutions and values of the Russian people, which would avoid the economic and spiritual ills of Western capitalism. However, the idea of the spiritual superiority of Russian culture first began to flourish in the West in the context of fin de siècle disillusionment with materialistic values and bourgeois conformism.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Russia’s attempts at political reform under Tsar Alexander II and the slow modernization of its economy had transformed the country from outcast to ally in the eyes of the European powers; but in European intellectual circles Russia had begun to be seen as a spiritual leader. Repeating the pattern of the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, Malia writes, European intellectuals followed Nietzsche in rejecting the positivist and utilitarian values of advanced liberal societies and explored the unconscious and irrational roots of human motives. In some of the most illuminating pages of his book, Malia describes the impact of their realization that the great Russian novelists (by then widely available in translations) had anticipated their insights: Dostoevsky by depicting the demonic depths and the sublime heights of human nature, and Tolstoy through his search for a reintegration with primal processes through communion with the peasant and the Russian soil.

The discovery of these and other Russian prophets led to a cult in the West of a “Russian soul” uncontaminated by the materialistic values of Western civilization. This was strongest in Germany, where a sense of the uniqueness of German culture fostered by Romanticism fused with the mass nationalism of the regime of Wilhelm II to produce the cultural pessimism of the German radical right. Nietzsche looked forward to the approach of Russian barbarism as a “fantastic madness” which would regenerate the world through the destruction of the morally hollow culture of Europe. (In contrast, the Russophobic Pan-Germanic move- ment held that German-speaking Mitteleuropa must assume the role of last-ditch defender of Western civilization against the Asiatic East.)

The astonishing creative explosion of Russian art, music, and literature in the two decades preceding the First World War—a seminal force in the flowering of European modernism—was most fervently admired in Germany. Repelled by the success of what they considered the rationalistic and atomistic liberalism of England, France, and the US, and idealizing what they took to be the true Volk, rooted in ancestral tradition, writers and intellectuals such as Rainer Maria Rilke, HermannHesse, and Thomas Mann found in Russian contemporary culture a prophetic ethical and aesthetic critique of modern life. Through others (such as the future National Socialist amateur philosopher Alfred Rosenberg) the antirationalism and nationalistic messianism of Dostoevsky and his exegetes were sucked into the brew of Nazi ideology. Meanwhile Russia had become an inspiration for the European left; it was in the Russian Revolution of 1905 that the proletariat first emerged as a significant historical force.

Many Western intellectuals were too dazzled by the new light from the East to discern in it a reflection of their own culture. Obsessed with the question “Whither Russia?” Russian Westernizers, Slavophiles, liberals, radicals, and conservatives ransacked the treasury of Western thought for answers to the riddle of their national character and destiny. Relayed back to the West in Russian interpretations, Malia writes, these doctrines took on new and often barely recognizable forms, reinforcing the image of Russia’s apartness. This was the case with Marxist socialism, which Russian Marxists applied as a formula for a leap from backwardness to the head of progressive humanity.

As Malia observes, the unparalleled power of Marx’s theories over the intellect and imagination derived from the fact that they represented “the supreme synthesis of the Enlightenment and the Romantic traditions.” To promise the realization of all millenarian hopes, he combined a rationalist optimism with a Promethean emphasis on the conflictual forces driving history—the whole decked out in the mystique of science.

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