Russian Idea, the

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E082-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

2. The Russian Idea after 1861

Political liberalization, which followed the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War and the unexpected death of Nicholas I, opened the period of the so-called Great Reforms of Alexander II. The most important of these – the emancipation of the peasants in 1861 – was the main watershed in nineteenth-century Russian history. In the domain of social and political thought the most important event was the emergence of a new democratic radicalism, often taking the form of ‘Nihilism’ (Turgenev’s expression), a wholesale rejection of tradition, religion and social conventions in the name of the positivistic cult of the natural sciences, whose liberating functions were taken for granted (see Nihilism). In this climate of thought historiosophical speculations about the meaning of Russian history were seen as hopelessly anachronistic and discredited, together with all forms of metaphysical idealism.

Nevertheless, the new Russian radicals (see Chernyshevskii, N.G.) and populists (see Lavrov, P.L.; Mikhailovskii, N.K.; Tkachëv, P.N.) did not cease to concentrate on the peculiarly Russian way of historical development. They embraced eagerly the idea of a privilege conferred by backwardness, enabling latecomers to choose a more humane, non-capitalist variant of progress, and deeply believed in the socialist potential of the peasant commune. Thus, despite their sincere contempt for all forms of nationalist megalomania, their commitment to the idea of ‘skipping the capitalist phase’ was bound up with the ardent hope that Russia might become the first socialist country and, thereby, the legitimate vanguard of progressive humanity.

The Slavophile camp, representing an influential part of the right wing of the political spectrum, evolved in the direction of ethno-nationalism and political Pan-Slavism (see Pan-Slavism). This entailed an important modification of the Slavophile conception of the Russian Idea. The chief theorist of Pan-Slavism, Nikolai Danilevskii (in Russia and Europe, 1871), grounded his views on Russia’s historical mission on naturalistic foundations, rejecting the Christian universalism of the classical Slavophilism and replacing it with a theory of self-contained and incommensurable ‘historico-cultural types.’ This led him to conclude that in politics there is no place for ethical idealism, and that the Slavs, under Russian leadership, should think only about the interests of their ‘historical type’, abandoning the utopian aim of a universal Christianization of life and ceasing to see themselves as serving the cause of an imaginary ‘Humanity’.

More complex were the views of Dostoevskii, although he was one of Danilevskii’s admirers. His Russian Idea had at least three dimensions: (l) belief in the universalism of the Russian soul, elaborated most fully in his ‘Address on Pushkin’, 1880; (2) imperial messianism, proclaiming that Russia’s destiny was to restore the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, and therefore that ‘Constantinople should be ours’; and (3) the idea of ‘Russian socialism’, embodying the spirit of sobornost’ and opposed to the Godless socialism of the West, the successor of the Catholic idea of unity without freedom. The religious features of this ideal included a theocratic dimension and influenced the early version of Solov’ëv’s conception of ‘free theocracy.’

An interpretation of the Russian Idea can be found also in the religious philosophy of Nikolai Fëdorov. His Philosophy of Common Action, aiming at the resurrection of the dead, conquering death itself and constructing thereby the Kingdom of God on earth, had also a specifically Russian, messianic aspect. Fëdorov saw Russia as the Third Rome, destined to reconcile the first two Romes (the papal Rome and the Orthodox Byzantine Empire) in the common effort to establish a social system based upon brotherly relations, common property and rationally organized ‘regulation’ of nature.

The culmination of the development of the Russian Idea in the nineteenth century was Solov’ëv’s philosophy of all-unity. In a sense, it was a return to the pro-Catholic universalism of Chaadaev. However, despite his relentless criticism of tribal egoism (as exemplified by Danilevskii), Solov’ëv assigned his country a glorious mission in world history: the unification of the Churches and the creation of a universal, liberal-theocratic Empire, whose hegemony would enable the Christianization of political and social relations, thus opening the way for the earthly realization of the ideal of Godmanhood. He opposed the idea of a deliberately ‘national’ philosophy, but nevertheless took up and developed Kireevskii’s programme of creating a new, Christian philosophy, consciously returning to the neoplatonic legacy of Eastern patristics (seen through the prism of German philosophical romanticism, especially Schelling’s ‘philosophy of revelation’; see Schelling, F.W.J. von). Unlike Kireevskii and Khomiakov, he was not a philosophical essayist but a professional philosopher, creator of an all-round philosophical system. In this capacity he laid the foundations of the Religious-Philosophical Renaissance of the early twentieth century, a part of which was an increased interest in the Russian Idea – both in history and in philosophy (see Russian Religious-Philosophical Renaissance).

Citing this article:
Walicki, Andrzej. The Russian Idea after 1861. Russian Idea, the, 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E082-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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