Chaadayev, Peter Yakovlevich

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(17941856), Muscovite philospher and social critic.

Peter Yakovlevich Chaadayev is most famous for the publication of his "First Philosophical Letter" in 1836 in the journal Telescope, which shockingly provoked the subsequent debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers. The Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen declared Chaadayev's letter to be "a shot that rang out in the dark night" that "shook all thinking Russians." Count Benkendorf, chief of the Third Section (the secret police) under Tsar Nicholas I, considered Chaadayev's work to be that of a madman, and so Nicholas I had Chaadayev officially declared insane and ordered that all copies of the Telescope journal be confiscated. Chaadayev was placed under house arrest for about a year. The government ordered him to never publish anything again.

Chaadayev had written his "First Philosophical Letter Addressed to a Lady" as part of a series of eight "Philosophical Letters" not in Russian but in French, which he considered to be "the language of Europe." However, the editors of the journal Telescope published only the first letter in a comparatively weak Russian translation. Chaadayev designed his "Philosophical Letters" as a criticism of the history of Russian culture in general, and the effects of religious institutions in his country. He idealized the history and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, in order to point up the shortcomings of the Russian Orthodox Church. In particular, he lashed out at Russian serfdom and autocracy. He declared that Russians had made no impact upon world culture. Russia had no important past or present; it belonged neither to the East nor the West. He worried about the malignant growth of contemporary Russian nationalistic propaganda, which might lead Russians to construct some foolish past "golden age" or "retrospective utopia." In such a case, Russians would not take advantage of their unique cultural situation, and their cultural history might only serve as an example to others of what not to do.

Most Russians know Chaadayev simply as "a friend of Alexander Pushkin," or as a pro-Catholic ideologue. In fact, he did remain Pushkin's friend until the poet's death in 1837, but he never became a Roman Catholic. Chaadayev remained Russian Orthodox all of his life. In 1837 Chaadayev wrote his "Apologia of a Madman," an ironic claim that Russia did indeed have a genuine history but only since the time of Peter the Great. Despite the fact that Russians had no "golden age" to fall back on, they should retain the ability to submit to outside cultural forces and thus have a potentially great future.

After 1836 Chaadayev continued to write articles on cultural and political issues "for the desk drawer." Chaadayev defies categorization; he was not a typical Russian Westernizer due to his idiosyncratic interest in religion; nor was he a Slavophile, even though he offered a possible messianic role for Russia in the future. He had no direct followers, aside from his "nephew" and amanuensis, Mikhail Zhikharev, who scrupulously preserved Chaadayev's manuscripts and tried to get some of them published after Chaadayev's death. Chaadayev's lasting heritage was to remind Russian intellectuals to evaluate any of Russia's supposed cultural achievements in comparison with those of the West.

See also: pushkin, alexander sergeyevich; slavophiles; westernizers


Chaadayev, Peter. (1969). The Major Works of Peter Chaadayev: A Translation and Commentary by Raymond T. McNally. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Chaadayev, Peter. (1991). Philosophical Works of Peter Chaadayev. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

McNally, Raymond Ted. (1966). "Chaadayev's Philosophical Letters Written to a Lady and His Apologia of a Madman." Forschungen zur osteuropaischen Geschichte XI (Berlin 1966):24128.

McNally, Raymond Ted. (1971). Chaadaev and his Friends: An Intellectual History of Peter Chaadaev and His Russian Contemporaries. Tallahassee, FL: Diplomatic Press.

Raymond T. McNally