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The Slavophiles

 

The Slavophiles, led by writers like Alexei Khomiakov (1804-1860), Konstantin Aksakov (1817-1860), and Ivan Kireevsky (1806-1856), were the first group to challenge the westernizing orientation of Russian culture since the time of Peter the Great and to uphold the supremacy of Russiaís own peculiar cultural and social traditions. In their 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 aggravated by the growth of laissez-faire capitalism.

 
Konstantin Aksakov

Aleksei Khomiakov

Ivan Kireevsky

By contrast, Russian society was founded on the collectivist principle of the commune, all members of which were united by common interests. The next important element of Russian life was the Orthodox religion which, by its precepts, had strengthened even more the original ability of Russians to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of collectivist good, taught them to help the weak and bear patiently hardships of life. As for the State, it had traditionally looked after its people, defended it from aggressive neighbors, maintained order and stability, but had not interfered in the spiritual, private or communal life of the people.

All this was changed, in the Slavophilesí view, by the reform of Peter the Great. As a result of his transformation the original harmonious structure of Russia society and the co-operative spirit of Russian life were destroyed.  In their opinion, it was Peter who introduced serfdom which split the Russian nation into masters and slaves. Peter also attempted to inculcate Western morals, manners and culture in the governing class, thus completely separating it from the popular masses. In contrast, the common people retained what was best in the old Russia, namely, communal traditions and the Orthodox faith. Peter was also responsible for creating a despotic State which treated the population merely as building material for the establishment of a grand empire.

Having condemned Peter for importing Western ideas and institutions, Slavophiles called for the revival of Russiaís old ways of social and state life. The principal objective of any reform program, in their view, was the re-establishment and revitalization of the spiritual unity of the Russian nation. To achieve this, it was necessary, first of all, to abolish serfdom which like an impenetrable wall separated the peasants from the rest of society. The political regime of autocracy was to be cleansed of the repulsive traits of despotism, but preserved. The lost link between the State and the people would be restored by the infusion of wide glasnost, i.e. openness, in public life, and by the revival of some traditional institutions, such as, for instance, zemsky sobor (ĎAssembly of the Landí) -a popular assembly in medieval Russia.

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