Alain Besancon
The Intellectual Origins of Leninism

Kireevski was twenty-six years old when he left his birthplace of Dolbino for the first time and went to stay in Germany for six months. Immediately he set himself up as a judge, not only of Europe, but also of its essence, which he called Europism. It was, according to him, in a parlous condition. Europism was made up of several layers: the 'destructive' spirit of the Enlightenment, science 'which does not recognise what is true, but only what can be observed experimentally', the fine arts, frozen in sterile imitation, and a utilitarian morality. On the other hand, the spirit of counter-revolution was falling into mysticism, reverie and systematic philosophical deduction. The only synthesis possible between these two tendencies was a forced and artificial unity. He did not yet condemn Schelling and Schiller: but it was only a matter of time before they too would be sent to join the rest of European culture in the inferno.

In 1845, Kireevski made an even more sweeping condemnation. No more Romanticism, and for that matter, no more poetry. Hegelianism was rotting away, religious life was growing cold. European culture was dying, it was dead. As for the United States, they were a caricature of Europe. If Russia, for its sins, had to exchange its 'splendid future' for Europe's, it would be better to become German, English, even French, rather than to 'let oneself be asphyxiated by the tediousness of manufactured relations, in the mechanism of that anxious search for profit'. The West was bad, but the United States, which was the Far West, was even worse.

In 1852, fresh aggravation. Having read European novels, Kireevski backed European family morality, the dissatisfaction and desolation of European man. He used all the cliches. Italians were lazy, the French light, Germans heavy, the English snobbish. He also attacked luxury in all its forms. 'When luxury first penetrated into Russia', he wrote, 'it came like a contagious disease from neighbouring lands. One gave into it as to a vice, constantly aware of its illegitimate character, not only on the religious level, but on the social level too.' Luxury was a part of Europism. In fact, as one knows, it was not luxury which penetrated Russia, but the condemnation of luxury. There was a Russian pride in not compromising with the material world; in that way it could justify its poverty.

This universal condemnation of Europe was something which Kireevski borrowed ready-made from European writers, from the reviews and novels and essays which relayed these commonplaces. Since Europeans themselves admitted it, thought Kireevski, that was proof that it was true. He accepted in an entirely uncritical way the criticisms which Europeans were constantly aiming at themselves. What he did not see was that this critical manner of looking at oneself is the essence of true Europeanism, and so he made it impossible for himself really to know Europe.

Kireevski thought he was judging Europe from the outside. But he was an outsider only in the same manner as Montesquieu's Persian or Voltaire's Huron, since his criticisms all derived from Europe. All the same, born in Russia, he was not personally a fictional product, and that was what made his criticism hard to refute. Slavophilism was not the product of a straightforward nationalism, like that which, under the Empire, the Germans brought to bear on France. It was fed by the uneasy feeling prevalent in Europe, which it observed and projected onto the Russian screen. At the same time, Russia only turned this nationalism onto Europe to precisely the extent that it too was subject to the same uneasy feeling and was Europeanized in that particular way. Hence the Slavophile vision of Europe proved so seductive for Russia, and for Europe too—a Europe only too ready to take at their own valuation the Muscovite Persian and the Huron to whom it had taught, at Paris and Gottingen, the rudiments of philosophy. The point of departure for Slavophilism was not the love of one's country, but the fear that one may not be able to love it, a doubt, a disdain, a lack of interest in it, and a terrible resentment of that West from which came all values and all instruction. In the grand theatre of European culture, the young Russian intellectuals could only find somewhere for themselves high up in the gallery, in the most remote and least important seats. When they saw, on stage, a satire of that culture, they took it up passionately. Here was Europe condemned and,by the same token, nationalism restored. The distance from the centre, which had caused such suffering, came to seem a boon. Instead of participating in Europism, they demanded that Europe should participate in Russianism.

According to the Kireevskian vision, Europe was the immediate given fact, Russia the construct. The picture presented of Europe was partial and particular, but at several points it corresponded to reality. As a negative version of an ill-understood Europe, Russia no longer existed as itself. It was a painted figure, contrasted point by point with the other, like an allegory of virtue set against an allegory of vice. It represented from the start Kireevski's Utopia.

Russia 'had no knowledge of the iron barriers of unchangeable social classes, nor of the privileges enjoyed by some to the detriment of others, nor of the resulting moral and political conflict, nor of disdain between classes, nor of the jealousy of one class for another'. This wonderful state of affairs still existed in the depths, among the people. It had to be located there, since the privileges characterizing some areas of Russian life were obvious and immutable. So it existed in a hidden and mysterious way. The Slavophiles did not contribute to the positive historiography of Russia. They dealt briefly and badly with the statistics published by the Imperial government. They did not go to the bother of stepping down off the verandahs of their fine houses to visit their serfs, the flesh and blood people. Several were fairly harsh landowners. Because the People were not in the izbahs. The People were a spiritual location, the seat of a mystery. They were not in any hurry to get to know them: it was sufficient to sit back and contemplate them. It was enough to proclaim confidently that the old Russian way of life 'has been preserved almost intact amongst the lower classes of the people: it has been preserved and yet at present it exists in an almost unconscious manner—at present it simply makes up part of ordinary tradition, at present it is no longer bound by the hegemony of recent thought.' In other words, it was invisible, and all the more real for that.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.