Martin Malia
Martin Malia; drawing by David Levine

“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.

The sorry tale of the Western “fellow travelers” who colluded with the Bolsheviks’ attempt to install Marx’s utopia by force and terror has often been told, but Malia’s perspective gives the picture a sharper focus, showing how Western perceptions of the new regime were filtered through aspirations inherited from the Enlightenment and Romanticism, to create what he calls “the greatest mass hallucination in modern history.” He cites the “neo-Enlightenment” commentaries of such respected writers as Edmund Wilson, who said in 1931 that

the Communist project has almost all the qualities that Americans glorify—the extreme efficiency, combined with the idea of a herculean feat to be accomplished by common action in an atmosphere of enthusiastic boosting—like a Liberty Loan drive—the idea of putting over something big in five years.

Malia also comments on the “vulgar Nietzschean reaction” to the new Russia on the part of the German Romantic right. Writers such as Hesse and Mann expressed a mixture of horror and fascination at the vitality of the new Bolshevik order, which Oswald Spengler presented in The Decline of the West as a “young” culture that would regenerate mankind. Once the ideologists of National Socialism had taken over this role for Germany in the late 1920s, the notion of Russia’s innate difference from the West became recast as the threat of an Asiatic beast that must be conquered and destroyed.

After World War II academics—social and political scientists, historians, and economists—replaced men of letters as the principal interpreters of Soviet Russia to the West. As evidence of Stalin’s atrocities mounted, the “totalitarian” model became dominant among analysts, ceding, after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, to the concept of “modernization,” popular among left-of-center academics, according to which the Communist state, whatever its deficiencies, was moving toward ultimate convergence with the liberal democracies of the West. Other historians (notably Richard Pipes) countered such hopes by reviving the image of Russia as an Oriental despotism.

Many anti-Communist historians who believed that the Soviet system was about power, not ideas, were at a loss to explain its final collapse. In his book of 1994, The Soviet Tragedy, Malia argued that the Soviet state’s uniqueness lay in its character as a system constructed according to an ideological blueprint and committed to attaining a utopian goal. By depriving the system of its ideological legitimacy, perestroika led to its inevitable demise. This was not an original view.1 But Malia goes further in the present book, insisting that we shall not achieve a balanced perception of post-Soviet Russia until we recognize that the Soviet sphinx was no more than a caricature of ourselves:

For what [the Communists] imposed on Russia was the ultimate Western utopia, the culminating product of that Anglo-Franco-Germanic ideological quest for human emancipation which had been on the march since the Enlightenment and its Romantic antithesis. The Soviet Party-state therefore was hardly an alien entity, some eternally Russian”Other”; it was our Western selves turned upside down and backside front. And its world-historical lot was to play Socialist surreality to mundane bourgeois reality—to figure as the dark doppelgänger of our luminous modernity, perversely created by attempting to overreach that reality in a superhumanity.

After its catastrophic detour into the surreal, Malia contends, Russia has resumed its path in Europe’s wake, beginning with the restoration of private property, profit, and the market. He sweeps aside fears that the strains created by this process will lead to a neofascist revolution, declaring that fascism’s historical role—as a merely temporary and local response to interwar conditions and an ideological foil to communism—is played out. “So with the Red Spectre and its black brown doppelgänger both safely on Trotsky’s ‘ash heap of history’ [the fate to which Trotsky consigned Bolshevism’s adversaries in 1917], our familiar twentieth century—the ideological century par excellence—is closed.”

The spirit of millenarian impatience, in Malia’s view, will not disappear, but it has lost its power as a universal rallying force. If conditions deteriorate sufficiently in Russia, some attempt might be made to establish a national, “Slavophile” regime, but it would scarcely last: having lost its Communist identity, “and with no other ideological identity possible,” Russia will have to complete its convergence with the West: “She hardly has anywhere else to go.” The transition will not be easy, but it will bring the benefits of prosperity, civil freedoms, and a pluralistic culture that have accompanied the rise of liberal democracy in the West.

This succession of tightly interconnected suprahistorical judgments presented as empirical facts reveals the ideological purpose behind Malia’s account of the demise of ideology. His masterly dissection of the Marxist utopia shows how it appropriated the Enlightenment’s faith in an ineluctable progression to a rational and just society. But his own theory of necessary convergence on a common path to prosperity and freedom reminds us that the liberal utopia shares the same Enlightenment pedigree as its socialist rival.

Ideology is the expression of a false consciousness that misrepresents the social and political world; human emancipation from such forms of collective self-deception will lead to the establishment of a universal order expressive of the real motives, needs, and goals of all mankind. These familiar Marxist theses are also the ground for Malia’s confidence about Russia’s return to what he calls the “real world.” As with the best Marxist polemicists, Malia’s skills as a demythologizer make it hard to resist the conviction that whatever is spared his destructive critique must thereby be the objective and unassailable truth.

According to Malia, once all fantasies about Russia’s relation to Europe are demolished, we are left with a spectrum of different zones graded in levels of development from West to East. Since Peter the Great, Russia has been trailing behind the West on a common path—from ancien régime structures to a secular, liberal, and democratic order. This process was interrupted by the millenarian impatience of the revolutionary intelligentsia, who took advantage of the devastation wrought by war on Russia’s economy to realize the Marxist dream of collective redemption through revolution.

Such a view of the causes of the 1917 upheaval was common among liberal historians during the cold war, but has few adherents now that a formidable body of research exists on the social, economic, and institutional background to the Revolution to support the conclusion that the intelligentsia’s impact on events was limited. The roots of the Revolution lay deeper—in the incapacity of the tsarist political system to reform itself radically, and in the impotence of liberals caught between the intransigence of the government and the right on the one hand, and the radicalism of peasants and workers on the other. Malia’s partial account of the last decades of the Russian autocracy makes no reference to the evidence that contradicts his own view that Russian development “tended in the same direction and was governed by the same laws as in the West. Like all other modern nations, Russia was moving from absolutism to some form of liberalism or democracy.”

In a discussion of Western reactions to the fall of communism, the American historian David Joravsky contends that liberals who view communism as a deviation from a universal pattern of progress are guilty of a “self-deceptive clinging to a totalistic vision, while condemning the totalitarian mind…. Are we not obsessed with a historical norm—or the myth of such a norm set by ‘the West’…?”2 Malia’s entire argument hangs on the notion of the West-as-norm. It is because he views the Revolution as no more than an “aberration” in Russia’s natural evolution as “just another ‘normal’ European power, with an equally normal internal order” that he can be so remarkably optimistic in predicting its post-Communist direction. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he writes, “The reputedly world-historical turning of October was annulled and all its results were repealed…. It was as if 1917 had never occurred…. All Europe was…set right side up again, and the continental gradient returned to its normal, West-East declivity.”

This view of the evanescence of the Soviet past is at odds with the experience of Russian reformers and their Western advisers, who find themselves frustrated at every turn by the passivity, corruption, and fear of responsibility inculcated by seventy years of Soviet rule. Many historians believe that these omnipresent maladies can be traced further back, to the peculiarities of tsarist political culture—a view that Malia would probably discount as yet another pernicious myth about Russia’s otherness. He believes that European commentators saw tsarist Russia in “roughly realistic terms” only when they focused on its efforts to “climb to [the West’s] level,” an approach he contrasts with the “semimythologies” of such observers as the Marquis de Custine (whose celebrated Letters from Russia of 1839, with their remarks on the terrifying instability of Russia’s “empire of façades,” he dismisses as the work of a “shrill” Russophobe.)

Malia himself is notably reticent about the shrill anti-Westernism that has been so prominent a strand of Russian thought over the last two centuries, from the Slavophiles to Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Its proponents view the West’s faith in parliaments and constitutional guarantees as symptoms of a decaying civilization that has replaced moral cohesion by empty legalism; and they glorify the spiritual solidarity of the Russian people as exemplified in the collectivism of the traditional peasant commune. The notion, central to Russian nationalism, of a “separate path” is discussed in Malia’s book only in its radical populist version (the belief, which Malia attributes mainly to the influence of German and French radicals, that Russia could bypass capitalism and proceed directly to peasant socialism).

In reality, conservative interpretations of the “Russian idea”were as great a threat as socialism to the prospects of liberal democracy in tsarist Russia. They included the “official nationalism” of government ideologists, summed up in their slogan “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality [narodnost]” and the radical conservatism of such nineteenth-century thinkers as Nikolai Danilevsky, who believed, on the basis of evolutionary theory, that the decline of European culture would be followed by the ascendancy of the “Slavic-historico-cultural type,” and that Russia would spearhead this movement by turning its back on Europe and becoming an imperial Slavic superpower. Such theories fed into the vicious anti-Semitism of the ultra-reactionary Black Hundred, to whose pogroms the police usually turned a blind eye, and the only slightly more respectable Union of the Russian People, the sole political party to have the ear of Tsar Nicholas II.

Such ideas and movements have been airbrushed out of Malia’s picture of pre-revolutionary Russia, with the exception of Dostoevsky’s messianism, which he cites in passing as a pabulum for German fantasies about the Russian soul. But Dostoevsky’s political journalism—a strange combination of jingoistic nationalism with the faith that Russia’s historical mission was to reconcile all peoples—had a wide and enthusiastic readership within Russia. The half-baked theories and violent prejudices of Russian conservative messianism are understandably repellent to a liberal mind; but Malia has no justification for ignoring its importance as a component of Russian culture—a fact demonstrated in the first years of glasnost by the substantial demand for republication of pre-revolutionary works in this category. The explosion of virulent anti-Semitic nationalism that accompanied the end of Russian communism astonished those Western observers who had been unaware of its existence as an undercurrent in the Soviet period, with the tacit approval of elements in the Party hierarchy.3

Other observers are not as sanguine as Malia about the impossibility of a Russian form of fascism. The view that Russia is going through a “Weimar period”is frequently aired in the popular press and analysts have begun systematically to explore analogies between post-Communist Russia and Weimar Germany.4 The parallels are striking. In both cases a new democratic regime set up after an imperial collapse, pressured into rapid modernization but hamstrung by the cultural and economic legacy of the previous system, had to contend with hyperinflation, which could be brought under control only by measures that impoverished the most vulnerable section of the population and threatened unemployment for a significant proportion of the workforce.

Also in both cases, the role of foreign powers in overseeing this process created a widespread belief that the homeland was threatened by enemies inside and abroad. Unable to count on the commitment of the old elites to the new democracy, and faced with threats from both the extreme right and left, Yeltsin’s administration increasingly tends to rely on “strong men,” and there is no shortage in Russia of ultranationalist groups proposing dictatorship as a means of restoring order and national self-respect. The two most prominent of these, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation, are united in nostalgia for Stalinism, hostility to liberalism and parliamentarianism, and a fondness for xenophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

Zyuganov’s form of national socialism replaces the class struggle by a clash of “civilizations,” in which the West and the “cosmopolitans” in the Russian government are threatening Russia’s very existence. Hence his efforts since 1992 to promote an alliance of “reds” and “browns” over the demand that Russia be allowed to pursue its own path of development based on spiritual values whose content is left unspecified, but which clearly do not include democracy.5 A gruesome parallel springs to mind: the current Serbian alliance of ex-Communist apparatchiks such as Slobodan Milosevic with extreme nationalists such as deputy prime minister Vojislav Seså?elj.

Ironically, the greatest safeguard against a neofascist dictatorship in Russia is the administrative and political chaos currently hampering the creation of a civil society. The well-developed system of parties and the conservative coalitions that provided the foundation for Nazism in Germany do not exist in Russia. But few analysts deny the potential for a new authoritarian order. The main danger has been seen to come from the provinces, where power is increasingly devolving from the weak center. The most organized extreme right parties (such as Aleksandr Barkashov’s fascist Russian National Unity party) have become entrenched in many local administrations, particularly in the south. The long-term consequences of this trend cannot be predicted. Another possible scenario is a drift toward a form of right-wing authoritarianism, where a “strong man” elected as president to restore social and economic order imposes a “temporary” dictatorship as an emergency measure, enlisting the help of organizations on the extreme right.6

The authors of such scenarios are not alarmist, but they do not share Malia’s belief in Russia’s inevitable integration into an ever more prosperous West. They point out that a global recession and a halt to European integration could greatly exacerbate Russia’s problems, swelling the numbers of the unemployed youth who are the core of Barkashov’s paramilitary organization. Nor is increasing economic prosperity a guarantee of progress toward a stable market democracy: election analysts have noted the strength of traditionalism in the provinces, which has led to the support of “patriotic” candidates.

Neither these analysts (who are trying to create a working taxonomy of post-Soviet ultranationalism) nor the Russian democrats and human rights activists who have been compiling regular bulletins on the statements and activities of antidemocratic politicians for nearly a decade7 appear obsessed with any notion of Russian otherness. Like Malia, they are looking for the reality behind the images generated by hope and fear, but they have fewer preconceptions about what they will find. This is why some of them have begun exploring indigenous traditions for solutions more adapted to Russia’s specific problems than Western nostrums. Not all Russian proponents of such a “third path” have been fanatical nationalists. Some, like Alexander Herzen and other leaders of Russian radical populism, sought to learn from the West’s humanist traditions while avoiding what they saw as its mistakes. Since the fall of communism much of the discussion among political moderates about new ways forward (reflected in journals such as Questions of Philosophy) has been inspired by the same intention.

A similar tendency can be seen in Western academic analyses of the Russian situation, where the emphasis seems to be moving from hopes that Russia will “catch up” with more “advanced” countries to warnings that its search to find solutions most appropriate to its situation may be frustrated by crises in global capitalism and by Western incomprehension of its needs and potential.

David Joravsky has suggested that the cooling of ideological passions that has accompanied the end of communism is an opportunity to confront the ideology in our own heads, as well as those of others; in particular to question the arrogant assumption that liberal democracy and a market economy are universal panaceas. The history of these institutions over the last two centuries is not (as the myth would have it) a steady advance toward the goals of universal justice, prosperity, and peace. The mechanisms of mass democracies made possible the mobilization of entire peoples for a total war from which the totalitarian states emerged. The ideological bankruptcy of communism is, Joravsky asserts, an appropriate point of departure for studying the worldwide discordance between ideological expectation and historical experience, “a world-wide liquidation of false promises and phony claims in the tormenting quest for genuine liberty, equality, and fraternity.”8

A good way to begin this process is to reflect on how the two great European traditions to which we are heirs have shaped our notions of the politically possible and the morally desirable. There can be few better introductions to that theme than Malia’s subtle and eccentric book, whose flaws are as important as its insights in reminding us of the tenacity in Western thought of faith in absolutes and universal solutions.

A century and a half ago, Herzen (of whom Malia has written a biography of great brilliance, although not always of great fairness) protested against the mandarins of literature, the journalists, and the university professors who “preach to us that such is the immutable law of physiology: we belong to the genus europaeum, and are therefore obliged to commit all the old follies in a new way.” When the French historianJules Michelet excoriated Russia’s backwardness, Herzen replied in an open letter, yes, his country, with its people huddled in their primitive communes, was very far from solving the problem of the conflict between the individual and the state, but then, so also was “advanced” Europe (he was writing in the aftermath of the failed revolutions of 1848). “Faced with this question,” he declared, “we begin as equals.”

This Issue

May 20, 1999