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Slavophiles vs. Westernizers

"Gorbachev Factor"

One 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. 

Konstantin Aksakov

Aleksei Khomiakov

Ivan Kireevsky

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Both 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.

Alexander Herzen

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.

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