A searching intellectual history of modern Russia, “a culture without reason.”
Russia a land without reason? The idea was endorsed by none other than Isaiah Berlin, one of Russia’s great minds and a confidant of the author’s. Chamberlain (Lenin’s Private War, August 2007, etc.) persuasively argues that while other nations, beginning in the 19th century, developed rich philosophical traditions devoted to liberal education and the cultivation of personal freedom, the Russian intelligentsia “realized that their first priority in spreading enlightenment in Russia must be to oust the autocracy.” Speculative philosophy, aesthetics and other such things had their place in Russian scholarship, but they were valued less than politics, social structure and political change; because Russia was not connected to Western Catholicism, classical antiquity and the Renaissance had passed it by, leaving medieval Orthodoxy to fill the gap. Followers of sometime Orthodox, sometime Marxist philosophers such as Nikolai Lossky, Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev might object that they were at once modern, political, conservative and devout, not so removed from Rousseau and Kant; cynics might even suggest that the whole Communist era was the product of too much philosophy, and not enough of it. Still, Chamberlain ably and lucidly follows her fruitful line of thought, working in notes on the individuality-mistrusting Dostoyevsky, who urged piety and obedience after one too many nights in the tsar’s jails; V. I. Lenin, who saw to it that a brand of totalitarianism flourished to make of Russia a “unique, non-Western, community”; and Alexandre Koyré, who posited that it was precisely because Cartesian rationalism had never taken root in Russia that such monstrous assaults on truth as Lysenkoism could have occurred. And as for today? Writes Chamberlain, the struggle between positive and negative liberty endures, existing “on the edge of a Western culture where we too no longer live in the centre.”
Provocative, and sure to inspire learned discussion, if not controversy.