Chaadayev, Peter

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CHAADAYEV, PETER (1794–1856), Russian intellectual and writer.

The publication of the first of Peter Chaadayev's Philosophical Letters (1836) in The Telescope was a landmark event in the history of Russia. Its unfavorable comparison of Russian culture with the culture of the West and its questioning of the significance of Russian history challenged the chauvinistic "Official Nationalism" of Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) and infuriated the reading public. The regime responded by firing the censor who had permitted the letter's publication, shutting down The Telescope and exiling the journal's editor to a remote corner of the realm. The author was declared insane and placed under house arrest. Nonetheless, Chaadayev had a profound impact on the Slavophiles and Westernizers in the 1840s and continues to influence discussion of Russia's national identity in the early twenty-first century. Moreover, the story of his life as mystic, progressive, Freemason, martyr, and close friend of the Decembrists and of Alexander Pushkin inspired several generations of the intelligentsia. In 1915 the poet Osip Mandelstam wrote that "the trace of Chaadaev in the consciousness of Russian society remains so deep and so indelible that one cannot help but wonder, did he not write with diamond on glass?" (Burlaka, Ermichev, and Zlatopol'skaia, p. 401).

Born in Moscow on 7 June (27 May, old style) 1794, Chaadayev was descended from an old noble family. His maternal grandfather, Mikhail Shcherbatov (1733–1790), a statesman and historian, was a leader of the aristocratic opposition to Catherine II (the Great; r. 1762–1796). Chaadayev began his formal education at Moscow University in 1808 but left three years later to participate in the Napoleonic campaigns. He was decorated for his bravery and, after the war, appointed to posts close to the tsar. In 1821, disenchanted with life at court, he resigned his commission, abandoning the promise of a brilliant military career and slighting the monarch who had shown him favor. In 1823 he sold his serfs in order to finance travels to Europe that would last for three years. While abroad he acquainted himself with the work of several authors who would influence his Philosophical Letters, including the German idealist Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and the French Catholic writers François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand, Joseph-Marie de Maistre, and Félicité Lamennais. Chaadayev's European travels also inadvertently protected him from arrest. Had he been in Russia in 1825, he would probably have been implicated in the ill-fated revolt of the Decembrists.

Chaadayev composed the eight Philosophical Letters in French during the years 1829 to 1831, and he spent the next few years attempting to publish them. The work of a deeply Christian thinker, the Philosophical Letters attempt to give Russia a coherent philosophy of history. The first letter, the only one to appear in Russia in the nineteenth century, examines Russia's relationship to the West. Chaadayev was most impressed by the development in Catholic Europe of the Middle Ages of a unified Christian civilization and by the unfortunate impact of Russia's isolation from that civilization. A second factor in Russia's underdevelopment was its lack of a usable past. Chaadayev believed that successful civilizations build upon history but that Russia did not have a history on which to build. As a result, its culture and social life were formless.

Look around you. Do we not all have one foot in the air? It looks as if we are traveling. There is no definite sphere of existence for anyone, no good habits, no rule for anything at all; not even a home; nothing which attracts or awakens our endearments or affections, nothing lasting, nothing enduring; everything departs, everything flows away, leaving no traces either without or within ourselves. (Chaadayev, 1969, p. 28)

While Chaadayev admired the west, he rejected its liberalism. The remaining Philosophical Letters are devoted primarily to a critique of the Enlightenment and the intellectual arrogance of reason untempered by faith.

Chaadayev was truly surprised by the strong reaction to his work. He claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that he had outgrown his views and that The Telescope had published them without his permission. Shortly thereafter, he wrote "Apology of a Madman" (1837) in which he defended himself from attacks on his patriotism and conceded that Russia might benefit from its shortcomings. Unencumbered by a national history of its own, it could learn from the mistakes of other nations and thereby assume a leading role in the spiritual life of Europe.

The diagnosis of insanity and the house arrest were lifted less than a month after they had been pronounced, but Chaadayev was banned from publishing for the rest of his life, while others were forbidden to mention his name in print. Nonetheless, he continued to exert influence on Russian letters through correspondence with younger writers, conversation at Moscow salons, and the publication of the Philosophical Letters abroad. Chaadayev died in Moscow on 26 April (14 April, old style) 1856.

See alsoRussia; Slavophiles; Westernizers.


Burlaka, D. K., A. A. Ermichev, and A. A. Zlatopol'skaia, eds. P. Ia. Chaadaev—Pro et contra. St. Petersburg, 1998.

Chaadayev, Peter. The Major Works of Peter Chaadaev. Edited and translated by Raymond T. McNally. Notre Dame, Ind., 1969.

——. Philosophical Works of Peter Chaadaev. Edited by Raymond T. McNally and Richard Tempest. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1991.

Kline, George L. "Petr Iakovlevich Chaadaev." In Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose, edited by Christine A. Rydel, 101–109. Detroit, Mich., 1999.

McNally, Raymond T. Chaadayev and His Friends: An Intellectual History of Peter Chaadayev and His Russian Contemporaries. Tallahassee, Fla., 1971.

Peterson, Dale E. "Civilizing the Race: Chaadaev and the Paradox of Eurocentric Nationalism." Russian Review 56, no. 4 (1997): 550–563.

Peter C. Pozefsky