Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slavophilism: A Russian Orthodox Response to Modernity

Reading the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (sometimes acclaimed as 20th century Slavophile) prompted this brief exegesis on a 19th century Orthodox counter-cultural movement.

Russian Slavophilism counted among its adherents such distinguished names as Dostoevsky, the Aksakovs, Ivan Ilyin, and Fyodor Tyutchev. Clearly, any movement containing such exalted thinkers and writers must be worthy of closer examination. What exactly was it that inspired these gifted thinkers? What were their goals and aspirations for the Slavic peoples? These are questions I hope to answer in this essay, for though these men are profoundly Russian in sympathy and at heart, the questions they pose and the answers they provide are relevant to all Christian men: using the insights and theological language of the Russian Church, they hoped to challenge the growing materialism and bureaucratism of Russian society, as well as counter its descent into revolutionary anarchy (cf. Dostoevsky's Demons). But before proceeding to the Slavophiles, we must take a closer look at a like-minded group, from whom they critically received some of their inspiration.

The Narodnichestvo movement was contemporary with late 19th century Slavophilism; Narodniks fought to preserve intact the peasant commune system after the Emancipation of Serfs. In preserving the economy of the obshchina (tr: the village 'commune'), they hoped to protect the newly-freed peasants from the money-hungry middle class, who might try to uproot and exploit peasant families. The Narodniks, to accomplish their goals, immersed themselves in the peasant culture, learning Russian (French was the language of the educated and wealthy.), dressing in traditional folk dress, and participating in peasant dances. Unlike Slavophilism, the Narodnichestvo had a strong revolutionary element.

Many of the leading thinkers of the Slavophile movement received excellent educations; they were intimately familiar with Western philosophy and literature, and some of them, in their early lives, were convinced by the materialist claims of the secular West. Ivan Kireevsky, an early Slavophile thinker, attended Schleiermacher and Hegel's lectures while traveling in Europe, Tyutchev was taught by one of the premier Russian disciples of the German philosophers, and Konstantin, as a university student, was a member of a Russian Hegelian society. All three men would later reject this youthful flirtation with Western philosophy, and all deprecated the soul-corroding effects of Western rationalism and acquisitiveness. In reaction to the excess scientism and rationalism of the German and French philosopher, they turned to the spiritual center of their country, the Orthodox Church, with its vibrant mystical tradition and its anti-Aristotelian bias. Kireevsky, in his essay On the Nature of European Culture and on its Relationship to Russian Culture, singles out for particular scorn Aristotle, holding him responsible for the West's 'decline' into empiricism and rationalism. The Christian East, according to Kireevsky, in contrast to the West, is the spiritual student of Plato. The Cappadocian fathers, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory Palamas are all heirs of Plato, emphasizing 'idealism' rather than empiricism. As such, the Slavophiles were polemical in their denunciation of the West's attachment to Aristotle. For Kireevsky, 19th century German philosophy was simply another baneful manifestation of the Western preoccupation with empiricism, a preoccupation he credited (wrongly, as I have it) to Aristotle. In contrast to the rationalist politics and theologes of the Germans, Kireevsky held up for particular reverence the Orthodox doctrine of sobornost, which he defines as "the sum total of all Christians of all ages, past and present, [who] comprise one indivisible, eternal living assembly of the faithful, held together just as much by the unity of consciousness as through the communion of prayer." His model of society, of sobornost, was the obshchina, where communitarianism and cooperation prevailed. Not surprisingly, a common Slavophile critique of the West was its rampant individualism.

Aleksey Khomyakov, the other grand old man of Slavophilism, was to develop themes and ideas similar to Kireevsky. Early association with Pyotr Chaadaev and other religious Russians was to lead him to a life-long and deeply-held Christian belief. He was something of a cultural provocateur, in that he wore a beard, a rare but noble act on behalf of Russian traditionalism. (Peter the Great had banned the beard in an attempt to modernize his country, and fines were levied on noblemen who wore the traditional boyar beard.) Khomyakov also criticized the two-headed economic demons of the West, socialism and capitalism. The weapon against these corrupt systems was the Church, where love, not lucre, was the commerce. The universality of the Church, its sobornyi, is for him a constant and ever-present model for the possibility of the world. He sees mankind's union in the Church as the one essential goal, for union with the Church also means union with God. Like Kireevsky, he saw the peasant obshchina as a Christian model for the world, where action was motivated by both love of God and neighbor. The reality of the obshchina may have been different, as Khomyakov's critics will no doubt happily point out, for the obshchina almost certainly had its share of wickedness and corruption. Nevertheless, the model Khomyakov is presenting surely cannot be faulted---as it is a society motivated by the highest ideal, Love. Difficult to achieve, but the mandate of every Christian---"A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you."

At this point, it might be suggested that the Slavophiles were only reactionary landowners, typewriter 'peasants' who had little or no concern for the lower classes. That, however, would be a false impression. The Slavophiles were among the first proponents of a constitutional, monarchical government. Konstantin Aksakov wrote a letter to Czar Alexander II after his accession to the throne, imploring him to reconstitute the Zemsky sobor, the traditional Russian parliament that had fallen into disuse not long after the beginning of the Romanov dynasty. The Zemsky sobor contained four Estates: the boyar class (the aristocracy), the Orthodox episcopacy and clergy, the representatives of the towns, and the representatives of the countryside. Like all parliaments, past and present , the Zemsky sobor had its failings and its inefficiencies, but it did achieve some kind of representation for the diverse elements of Russian society, aristocrat and commoner, city-dweller and country-dweller alike. 

The Slavophiles were joined in these pleas for a more democratic society by the Pochvennichestvo (tr: return to the soil) movement. Like the Slavophiles, the Pochvenniki were men of the church, and they too believed in the especial spiritual vocation of the Russian people. Pochvennichestvo's greatest apologists were Nikolay Strakhov, a philosopher and critic, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the novelist. The Pochvenniki held, inter alia, that the Russia's crises were a result of the educated and the wealthy's alienation from the soil. If the intelligentsia could come to know the common people, Russian could begin to right herself. Pochvennichestvo received some of its most eloquent press in Dostoevsky's journal, Vremia. For Dostoevsky, the great task of Russia was not to reconcile itself to the West, but to reconcile Russia's educated society and its peasantry. Politically, they applauded the emancipation of the serfs, but like the Slavophiles, they called for further political action, particularly decentralization of power. They too venerated the peasant obshchina, but not for the spiritual reasons of the Slavophiles; they rather appreciated its ability to empower self-rule and local autonomy. They also called for greater access to education and for the increase of literacy among the peasantry. The Pochvenniki placed great trust in the transformative power of literature.

I have not yet mentioned Leo Tolstoy, but there is a deliberate reason for the omission. As a philosopher and political thinker, Tolstoy defies all conventional categorization. He shares certain beliefs with both the Slavophiles and the Pochvenniki, but he is also clearly not one of their number. His un-Orthodox Christianity, for one thing, is a wedge between him and the more traditional Slavophiles. Tolstoy, however, despite his many failings, attempted to live out his ideals, many of them common to Khomyakov and to Kireevsky. His Anna Karenina is a beautiful 'hymn' to the peasantry and land, and Konstantin Levin one of the most sympathetic characters in the Western canon. Like his protagonist Levin, Tolstoy really did work among his peasants, plowing his fields on his estate and scything the hay at harvest time. Tolstoy seems genuinely to have cared for the well-being of the Russian peasantry, despite his other manifest hypocrisies.

As Christians, the Slavophiles hoped to vivify society through the Orthodox church with its teachings on man's moral imperative to love his neighbor. The spiritual vision of the Slavophiles and the political vision of the Pochvenniki may seem strange and unwieldy to the modern Westerner, particularly since much of their polemic is devoted to criticizing the excesses of the West. Nevertheless, I feel certain that many of their insights are of lasting significance for a revivified Christian humanism, and we would do well to meditate, critically, on their worth.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not very critical, in my piece, of what I consider to be the problems of Slavophilism; and in hindsight, I would probably take a more critical line. I'm firmly committed to the idea of critically reading and re-receiving the sources (resourcement, if you will); but our problem right now is not the 'criticism.' Our problem is that no one's 'reading.' Simply highlighting the sources may go some way to alieviating the crisis. I'm very critical of the Roman Catholics, who think they have nothing to learn from the East, as well as the Easterners who think that no one else has any business reading their authors. This business of 'never the twain shall meet' is a rotten bit of ecclesiastical chauvinism we would be well rid of.