of the earliest and best known examples of such debates is the
Slavophiles versus westernizers controversy of the 1840s. This great
intellectual debate for the first time distilled two contrasting
interpretations of Russia’s past and future.
Slavophiles, led by writers like Alexei Khomiakov (1804–60),
Konstantin Aksakov (1817–60), and Ivan Kireevsky (1806–56), had been
brought up in the traditions of European culture and did not
question the many achievements of Western civilization.
Nevertheless, they were unhappy with the westernizing orientation
imparted to Russian culture since the time of Peter the Great
because they saw it as damaging to the unity of the Russian nation.
In the Slavophiles’ view, Russia had for a long time been following
a completely different path from that of Western Europe. European
history was predicated on state despotism and the constant struggle
between egoistic individuals and antagonistic social groups in the
conditions of unfettered capitalism. By contrast, Russian society
was founded on the collectivist principle of the commune united by
common interests of its members.
next important element of Russian life was the Orthodox religion.
Its precepts had strengthened even more the original ability of
Russians to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of a
collectivist good and had taught them to help the weak and bear
patiently the hardships of life. As for the state, it had
traditionally looked after its people, defended the nation from
aggressive neighbors, and maintained order and stability, but it had
not interfered in the spiritual or communal life of the people.
Slavophiles condemned the imported ideas and institutions as alien
to the Russian people and called for the revival of Russia’s old
ways of social and state life.
Slavophiles’ opponents—the westernizers—were represented by two main
strands: the liberals, such as Konstantin Kavelin (1818–85) and
Boris Chicherin (1828–1904), and the radicals inclined to socialism,
such as Alexander Herzen (1812–70) and Vissarion Belinsky (1811–48).
What united this diverse group of thinkers was their rejection of
the view that Russia was unique. They firmly believed that Russia
advanced along the European path of development, which was the only
possible way for a civilized country to go. Russia had taken this
path later than most European countries—at the beginning of the
eighteenth century—as a result of Peter the Great’s reform efforts.
Naturally, its level of development lagged behind that of the
advanced countries of Western Europe. But Russia’s progress in the
“Western” direction would continue and would lead to the same
changes as other European countries had already gone through.
the liberal and the radical wings of westernizers were aware of the
establishment in Western Europe of a new socioeconomic order and of
its positive and negative effects. The difference in their attitude
to the prospect of similar developments at home was that the
liberals recognized that Russia lacked the conditions necessary for
the establishment of capitalist patterns, and they called for the
creation of such conditions.
The radicals, by contrast, found the
prospect of the importation to Russia of the European bourgeois
system objectionable. In their view, Russia should not simply strive
to catch up with the advanced countries of the West by borrowing
uncritically their concepts and institutions, but should make a bold
leap toward a totally new and in principle different system of
life—socialism. Belinsky and Herzen saw the predominance of communal
land tenure among the peasantry as a peculiarly Russian
characteristic that made such a leap possible.