Aileen Kelly is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. Her books include Toward Another Shore: Russian Thinkers Between Necessity and Chance.


Getting Isaiah Berlin Wrong

Isaiah Berlin, 1955
A marvelous raconteur famed for his opulent intellect and brilliant wit, Isaiah Berlin could easily give the impression of being an intellectual dilettante. He often endorsed such criticism self-mockingly; asked by his biographer about the source of his serene well-being, he replied that he was happy because he was superficial.

Why They Believed in Stalin

In a work published after he was expelled from the Soviet Union, the dissident writer Alexander Zinoviev depicted a new type of human being: Homo sovieticus, a “fairly disgusting creature” who was the end product of the Soviet regime’s efforts to transform the population into embodiments of the values of …

A Great Russian Prophet

No poet has been more photographed or painted than Anna Akhmatova: the unique profile with its imperious nose is instantly recognizable. Since her debut as a poet in the 1910s her contemporaries were fascinated with her image: tall, slender, very pale with deep-set eyes and a melancholy, pensive expression; she …

The Two Dostoevskys

Albert Camus once declared that the author of The Possessed and not Karl Marx was the greatest prophet for the twentieth century. Dostoevsky’s depiction of the monstrous consequences of ideological fanaticism is equally pertinent to the twenty-first. Yet this great champion of liberty against the tyranny of ideas was himself …

Keeping the Sparks Alive

Andrei Sakharov first came to world attention on July 22, 1968, when The New York Times published his essay “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom.” With the advent of nuclear weapons, he wrote, mankind was faced with a choice: to risk extinction by increasing its divisions, or to …

In the Promised Land

“Great massacres may be commanded by tyrants, but they are imposed by peoples,” H.R. Trevor-Roper wrote on the European witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Afterwards, when the mood has changed, or when the social pressure, thanks to the blood-letting, no longer exists, the anonymous people slinks away, …

The Secret Sharer

“I varnish reality, correcting my verse…. To speed up the bargain that leads to my cheque, I fracture the arms, and I chop off the legs. Hand it over, as bidden. I lacquer and lie. But I’ll keep some things …

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 …

The Sphinx of Russia

Turgenev described the feverish atmosphere in St. Petersburg just after the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861, when the intelligentsia debated the future of the traditional peasant communes: Should they be abolished as the remnants of a primitive economy, or preserved as the repositories of the Russian soul? Slavophiles and …

On Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997)

Michael Ignatieff He was born in the twilight of imperial Russia and he was buried on a grey Friday morning at the end of the century in the Jewish section of Oxford’s Wolvercote cemetery. At the age of seven, he watched the banners of the Russian Revolution waving below the …

Chekhov the Subversive

One of the “most profoundly subversive writers who ever lived”: few even of Chekhov’s most devoted admirers would recognize him from this description in Simon Karlinsky’s introduction to a selection of his letters. Unlike the novels of Dostoevsky, which revealed the demonic potential of the human psyche, Chekhov’s plays and …

‘Where the Dead Smiled’

On October 1, 1991, the city of Leningrad officially regained its original name: Sankt-Peterburg. This marked the end of a tense debate that began in the early years of glasnost. Supporters of the change were accused of monarchism and a lack of patriotism (it was pointed out that the name …

Revealing Bakhtin

In the mid-1960s, a book called Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, by an unknown Russian then in his seventies, came to the notice of literary critics in the West. His other two main works, a book on Rabelais and a volume of essays on the novel, were then soon translated. Two …

Brave New Worlds

The exiled Russian historians Aleksandr Nekrich and Mikhail Heller, in the introduction to their book Utopia in Power, wrote that in the great wars of history, defeat for the losers has always meant more than extermination or slavery. It has meant, and means, that the conquerors write the history of …

Leonard Schapiro’s Russia

In the introduction to his book The Soviet Political Mind, Robert Tucker remarks that the history of twentieth-century politics can be seen as a process of realizing the dreams of the nineteenth. Few scholars of Soviet history have been so passionately committed to demonstrating the truth of this view as …

Man in the Middle

In the pantheon of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Herzen stands as one of Lenin’s greatest predecessors—founder of the revolutionary populism that was the precursor of Russian Marxism, and editor of the émigré journal The Bell (Kolokol) which, smuggled into Russia in the late 1850s and early 1860s, helped to form …

The Path of a Prophet

A century and a half ago the Russian thinker Piotr Chaadayev, reflecting on the contrast between his backward, despotic country and the flourishing cultures of its European neighbors, suggested that the entire purpose of Russian history might be to provide the world with some important lesson yet to be deciphered.

Heroines

The rising that took place in St. Petersburg on December 14, 1825, is one of history’s prime examples of how not to make a revolution. The aristocratic army officers who predominated among the conspirators could not agree on their political aims. The leaders included monarchists, republicans, and a noted Romantic …

On the Eve

Recent collections of photographs of life in Russia during the reign of the last czar convey an image of two separate and self-contained worlds: the world of lawyers and professors, ballerinas, officers in their clubs, prim middle-class families; and the world of shaggy peasants standing in front of their windowless …

Russia’s Old New Right

After emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1974, Alexander Yanov, a historian and journalist, published two monographs in which he drew attention to the rise of a Soviet “New Right”: a messianic nationalism which for two decades had been gaining ground not only in the government (where it animated a …

Justice to Mrs. Tolstoy

In the fall of 1895, after reading the most recent entries in Tolstoy’s diary, his wife wrote to him: Why do you always, when you mention my name in your diaries, speak so ill of me? Why do you want all future generations and our descendants to hold my name …

Mr. Possessed

On a night in November 1869 a student called Ivan Ivanov, a member of a small cell of revolutionaries, was murdered by his fellow conspirators in a lonely park on the outskirts of Moscow. The leader of the group, Sergei Nechaev, subsequently escaped abroad, but police investigations into the crime …

Tolstoy in Doubt

You think that I am one thing and my writing is another. But my writing is the whole of me. Thus Tolstoy wrote in 1885, in one of the long and bitter letters to his wife in which he sought to explain the appalling suffering which they had caused each …

A Victorian Heroine

When Marx replaced Bakunin as the most prominent revolutionary figure in nineteenth-century Europe, there took place what E.H. Carr has described as the dawning of a “new age”: The cause of revolution before Marx had been idealistic and romantic—a matter of intuitive and heroic impulse. Marx made it materialistic and …

Good for the Populists

To the Russian Marxists, the populism that dominated Russian radical thought for nearly half a century before them was all heart and no head, a movement of high-minded but ineffectual idealists, which formed a sentimental prologue to the real business of revolution. But many Western historians attribute much greater significance …

Lessons of Kropotkin

To observers in the West, the barbarism of Russia’s autocracy in the last century was on the whole less bizarre than the moralism of its intelligentsia—its dedication to a vision of a kingdom of God on earth, the reign of universal brotherhood, when man’s lost wholeness would be restored. This …