For much of the West in the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Russia and how to approach its people diplomatically was a matter of differentiating them as Europeans or Asians. The prevailing view at the time was a belief that Russians belonged to the latter group, and could not be considered part of Europe. The absolute role of the Russian Monarchy was an increasingly alien concept to the people of the West, a generation that was no stranger to popular upheavals and calls for political reform. Marx created the concepts of the “asiatic mode of production” and “oriental despotism” with reference to the Russian Empire, believing that their path to communistic development was different than the industrialized nations of the Atlantic. Still, the intellectual body of these same nations was divided, some believing that the people of Russia were indeed Europeans, but comparatively primitive to the rest of the continent and lacking in the necessary Enlightenment values of modern statehood. Through one form or another, this way of thought has survived to our time, and its continued existence gives credence to the vast differences between the Western and Russian cultures. Indeed, history repeats itself.
The earliest Western understandings of Russia come from second-hand accounts of German historians. The relative distance and lack of interaction with the heart of Europe meant that any view of Russia would be inevitably flawed, and it is this continued misunderstanding of our culture that drives modern relations with Russia. Almost formulaically, we see in all of the last three periods of Russian history an interest by foreigners to change or redefine Russia as well as an engagement of those foreigners by activists that were exiled by the Russian government or who found no support for their ideas back home.
For the American people, the first widely-read exposition of how the Russian people lived was from the explorer George Kennan, who took on work from the Russian-American Company to help lay telegraph cables in the Far East to reach Alaska. Shortly after, his interest in Russia led him to return as a correspondent for the Associated Press, at which time he observed the outer reaches of Russian society, from its labor camps to its rural villages. After befriending several political radicals in exile, ranging from Siberian separatists to Anarchists, Kennan devoted himself to the cause of revolution in Russia, going on to lecture and write about the political state of the Russian Empire upon his return to America. Even as a man of a relatively different time, Kennan’s rhetoric echoes similar misunderstandings and personal interests found in modern critics of Russia.
For one, Kennan’s understanding of the Russian Empire outside of his travels was skewed as he was almost exclusively informed by political activists on the fringe of Russian society (literally and figuratively). He believed that Russians suffered under autocratic rule and the authority of a superstitious church, both things that offended his democratic and pluralistic sentiment. Around the same time in the cultural centers of Russia, in the midst of a renewed interest in Occidentalism, the imperial administration of Nicholas I put forth the idea of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, which necessitated a loyalty to the Russian faith, government, and people. To the chagrin of Western observers, this move was supported by a broad number of public intellectuals at the time, including the writer Nikolai Gogol. As a result of this, a rejection of European rationalism followed, and gave way for an emphasis on mysticism and Slavophilia, and a belief of Russian civilization as an entity fundamentally different from Europe. One of the most prominent philosophical circles of Russian conservative thought, the Society of the Widsom-lovers, was created around this time, of which Ivan Kireyevsky was a member. To my knowledge, these developments were not noted in Kennan’s writings at all. Whether willfully or unknowingly, modern critics of the Russian government also ignore the large amount of popular conservative philosophy that influences Kremlin policy today.
Rather unfairly, these philosophers remain untranslated in the West despite their great contributions to Russian thought. Instead, it was the socialists and anarchists who fled Russia to live in London, Paris, and America that defined Russian philosophy to an audience much more hospitable to their ideas. Figures such as Herzen, Bakunin, and Kropotkin used resources in their adopted homelands to print political material to send back to Russia while Lenin and Trotsky ingratiated themselves with potential financiers and ideologues of revolution. In 1874, the socialist revolutionary Nikolai Chaikovsky avoided opposition from former classmates and authority in Russia by leaving the country to start a commune in Kansas. In 1906, he invited the writer Maxim Gorky to come to New York and give a lecture on the need to bring democracy to Russia through revolution, an event organized by the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, with Mark Twain among the prominent Americans selected to be on the society’s head committee.
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