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Russian Thinkers (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 31 Jan 2008
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The enduring vitality of Berlin's characterisation of Russian thought is demonstrated by the publication [...] of a new edition of Russian Thinkers, painstakingly revised and augmented by Henry Hardy ... a series of sparkling and sympathetic essays (Times Literary Supplement)
About the Author
The work of Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) covered a wide variety of subjects, mostly appearing in periodicals and symposia. Apart from Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin's other contributions to Russian studies include his translation of Ivan Turgenev's First Love (available from Penguin) and his Introduction to Alexander Herzen's memoirs, My Past and Thoughts. Sir Isaiah was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 1979 for the expression in his writings of the idea of the freedom of the individual in society.
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And he does take us briefly off road onto the slippery surfaces of Bakunin’s successors, the pre-Marxian Populists of the 1860s-1870s. Somehow Berlin keeps his heavy motor under control in this area and just about manages to steer a straight line to get us safely back to Turgenev and the bourgeois novel.
The book is really a series of essays on Russian thinkers of a vaguely liberal tradition. Its main focus is on “the men of the 1840s”, Vissarion Belinksy (1811-1848), Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) and Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), before covering Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and the Populists of 1860s-1870s.
Several threads come from these essays. I have no idea whether this version of nineteenth century Russian history has stood up to more recent research, as I am not an expert, but Berlin’s views are clear enough. Literature was the only safe means of opposition to the Tsar as any overt political action resulted in imprisonment and/or exile. Hegel was the most influential thinker for the men of the 1840s. French thinking was still held in suspicion following the activities of Messrs Robespierre and Bonaparte. Anglo-Scottish thinking was rejected outright because it was in deemed to be in thrall to industrialisation and untrammelled capitalism.
Belinsky and Herzen are presented as the intellectual leaders of their respective groups. Turgenev’s thinking is viewed as being narrow and over cautious, so while a great novelist, he was no political thinker or leader. Tolstoy’s writing is admired as peerless, but his political thinking, while quite sophisticated, is deemed to be confused. But not as muddled as that of Bakunin, who was not just confused but was also untrustworthy. In fact Berlin devotes little space to Bakunin, less, I suspect, because he disapproved of Bakunin’s ideas, but more because they lacked intellectual rigour.
All these men could see that there was something rotten at the core of the Russian state, even as they rejected French Jacobinism and Bonapartism, and dehumanising British-style industrialisation. Berlin gives us a picture of these liberals becoming increasingly isolated between the reactionary Slavophiles on the one hand and revolutionaries of various flavours on the other. They maintained their disapproval of the Tsarist regime and all that it entailed, but feared the dogmatic revolutionaries who would substitute themselves for the Tsar and rule equally dictatorially.
Tolstoy, Herzen and others seem to have been left holding a romantic belief in the Russian peasants, that somehow they would be able to rise up and institute a utopia based on co-operative agriculture. Turgenev, who was spending increasing amounts of time in the salons of Paris, clung onto more mainstream ideas of bourgeois gradualism.
Berlin wrote these essays at the height of the Cold War. I am a little suspicious of the way that he attributes certain views to thinkers writing one hundred years earlier. Some of it reeks of hindsight. Was it really commonly held that a Russian revolution would be premature due to the lack of a large urban proletariat and sufficiently sized bourgeoisie? Were they able to extrapolate so clear-sightedly from the Committee of Public Safety and the two Bonapartist coups d’état to be able to foresee that a small clique of revolutionaries would be able to seize power and impose arbitrary rule on a whole people? Is he not projecting some of his own views back onto pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia?
Berlin is a historian of ideas and is not a social historian. He is brilliant at analysing the thought of his chosen writers, but it is all a little abstract. They are presented as if they were in an international debate with Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, etc. There is no sense of the immediacy of the struggle with the supporters of the Tsar and the Slavophiles in general. He seems to take it for granted that ideas drive history, but does not demonstrate this. In fact we see more of history driving ideas, as many of his Russian thinkers appear to be reacting against their own interpretations of events in France, Germany and Britain.
Should you read this book? For all its brilliance, I suspect that the ideas presented in it have dated. Its main subjects include Belinsky and Herzen and who reads these writers now (Try finding an in-print English translation of either of them on Amazon. Of course, you can find multiple translations of Bakunin, but that is another story.)? The Russian Populists of the 1860s-1870s are an even more specialised area of study. But the sections on Tolstoy and Turgenev, who remain giants of nineteenth century literature, are full of insight, but then, I suspect, so is more recent scholarship on these writers.
Four stars. A classic in its own time and still thought-provoking, but now possibly out of date and of dubious historiography.
Isaiah Berlin expounds the thoughts of Russian writers of importance like no other
intellectual has managed to do. He has explored the historical roots and consequences
of the Russian thinkers depicted.
St Andrews, Scotland
Therefore this book is useful for a liberal perspective on 19th Century Russian thought, but lacks breadth or depth on other strains of thought; most of which were much more influential than liberalism at the time. For a much wider and deeper array of knowledge, I'd recommend "A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism" by Walicki, a much better read!
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