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The origins of Slavophilism can be traced back to the ideas of thinkers such as Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov, Alexander Radishchev, Poshkov, Nikolai Novikov, and Nikolai Karamzin, all of whom contrasted ancient pre-Petrine Russia with the modern post-Petrine embodiment, stressing the uniqueness of Russian traditions, norms, and ideas. Most exponents of this school of thought were of noble birth, and many held government posts, so they were quite familiar with the workings of the tsarist autocracy. They were prominent during the reign of Nicholas I (18251855) and emerged after the Decembrist uprising of 1825 and the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.

Peter Chaadayev's (17941856) ideas in the Philosophical Letter (1836) and other works acted as a catalyst for the emergence of Slavophile ideology. Chaadayev gave special emphasis to the need for Russia to link up with Europe and the Roman Catholic Church. His views on religion, nationality, tradition, and culture stimulated the famous Slavophile-Westerner debate.

Building on Chaadayev's legacy, the Slavophiles developed three main beliefs: samobytnost (originality), the importance of the Orthodox Church, and a rejection of the ideas of Peter the Great and his followers. In addition, they promoted respect for the rule of law, opposed any restriction on the powers of the tsar, and advocated freedom of the individual in terms of speech, thought, and conduct.

The Slavophiles believed that Russian civilization was unique and superior to Western culture because it was based on such institutions as the Orthodox Church, the village community, or mir, and the ancient popular assembly, the zemsky sobor. They supported the idea of autocracy and opposed political participation, but some also favored the emancipation of serfs and freedom of speech and press. Alexander II's reforms achieved some of these goals. Over time, however, some Slavophiles became increasingly nationalistic, many ardently supporting Panslavism after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War (18541856). However, these thinkers were not united, except insofar as they were radically opposed to the Westerners, and individually their ideas differed.

classical slavophilism

The Slavophiles, by and large, can be grouped into three categories: classical, moderate, and radical. Like their opponents, the Westerners, they had a particular view of Russia's history, language, and culture and hence a certain vision of Russia's future, especially its relations with the West. Perhaps their greatest concern, from the 1830s onwards, was that Russia might follow the Western road of development. They were vehemently opposed to this, arguing that Russia must return to its own roots and draw upon its own strengths.

Most Slavophiles opposed the reforms introduced by Peter the Great on the grounds that they had destroyed Russian tradition by allowing alien Western ideas (such as the French and German languages) to be imported into Russia. They also maintained that Russia had paid too high a price to become a major European power, namely, moral degradation. Furthermore, the bureaucracy established by Peter the Great was a source of moral corruption, because the Table of Ranks stimulated personal ambition and subordinated the nobility to the bureaucracy. These views were in many ways shaped by the social and political conditions that prevailed during the reign of Nicholas I (18251855).

In general, the Slavophiles saw the Westward swing as a threat to the church, the peasant and village community, and other Russian institutions. Many classical Slavophiles were initially influenced by Nicholas I's Official Nationality slogan: "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality." The most important proponent of classical Slavophilism was Ivan Kireyevsky (18061856), who could read French and German, had traveled in Russia,. and understood the importance of Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835). Kireyevsky rejected the main intellectual developments of the time (rationalism, secularism, the industrial revolution, liberalism) and argued that Russia, as a backward young nation, was not in a position to imitate a civilized Europe. He pointed, for example, to the differences in religion (Catholicism versus Orthodox Christianity) and to the fact that Russian society consisted of small peasant communes founded upon common land tenure. Like Kireyevsky, Alexei Khomiakov (18041860) also warned against blindly following the West and criticized the impending emancipation of the serfs (1861). He emphasized spiritual freedom (sobornost ) and Russia's unique historical mission. Whereas the West was built upon coercion and slavery, he said, Russia was founded and maintained by consent, freedom, and peace. Yuri A. Samarin (18191879) supported Khomiakov's view, arguing that society, if left to its own devices, would be torn apart by division and conflict because individualism only promoted selfishness and isolation, and thus a strong centralized state and leader were needed to maintain order. This was a clear reference to the danger that Russia would see a rerun of the Revolutions of 1848. As he saw it, chaos would ensue if Russia followed the example of Western liberalism by introducing constitutionalism and a system of checks and balances. Other proponents included the Aksakov brothers, Ivan and Konstantin. Ivan, at the height of his influence in the late 1870s, favored the liberation of the Balkan Slavs, whereas Konstantin advocated the emancipation of the serfs and was a proponent of the village commune (mir ). Both wanted to preserve Russian traditions and maintain the ties between the Slavic peoples. In Ivan Aksakov in particular, one sees clear evidence of the emergence of Panslavism, which advocated the political and cultural unity of the Slavic peoples.

moderate and radical slavophilism

Classical Slavophilism eventually gave way to two other variants of the doctrine. The moderate wing of the Slavophile movement is associated with Mikhail P. Pogodin (18001875) and Fyodor I. Tyutchev (18081873). Pogodin, a historian and publisher whose conservative journal The Muscovite (18411856) defended the policies of Nicholas I, was professor of Russian history at Moscow University (18351844) and wrote a history of Russia (7 vols., 18461857) and a study of the origins of Russia (3 vols., 1871). Tyutchev was a lyric poet and essayist who spent most of his life (18221844) abroad in the diplomatic service and later wrote poetry of a nationalist and Panslavist orientation.

The radical wing of slavophilism was epitomized by Nikolai Y. Danilevsky (18281855). As outlined in his Russia and Europe (1869), Danilevsky's aim was to unite all the countries and peoples who spoke Slavic languages on the grounds that they possessed common cultural, economic, and political goals. Whereas in the seventeenth century such aims only received limited government support, Panslavism became stronger than ever in the post-Napoleonic period and especially after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, as Prussia tried to assimilate the Slavs, the Slavophiles called for solidarity against foreign oppression, and with this goal in mind many advocated the establishment of a federation. This was necessary, in Danilevsky's view, in order to protect all Slavs from European expansion in the east. The Russian government in the 1870s used these ideas to justify russification and an increasingly expansionist policy. All in all, with the advance of Russian liberalism and constitutionalism at the end of the nineteenth century, the Panslavists tried to distance themselves from the classical and moderate Slavophiles.

the slavophile legacy

The demise of Slavophilism in the nineteenth century was primarily due to the widespread divisions between those favoring conservative reform and those advocating a more extremist Panslavism. Like the populists, many Slavophiles argued that Nicholas I was incapable of reform, as shown by his repressive reign, and thus a more nationalist stance was needed.

Between the Russian Revolution and the rise of Josef Stalin, this ideology was largely rejected by the Soviet regime, but following the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Panslavism was revived, and it became very prominent during World War II. In the late Soviet period and especially in the post-communist era, the Slavophile ideology was once again promoted by Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other nationalists who sought to put Russia first and to protect it against a hostile West. Many neo-Slavophiles wished to see the restoration of the USSR and the Soviet Empire, and a return to Orthodoxy. Thus the legacy of the Slavophiles remains important and influential in contemporary Russia.

See also: mir; nationalism in tsarist empire; nation and nationality; panslavism; nicholas i; peter i; russian orthodox church; russification; table of ranks; westernizers


Devlin, Judith. (1999). Slavophiles and Commissars: Enemies of Democracy in Modern Russia. London: Macmillan.

Walicki, Andrei. (1975). The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought, tr. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Williams, Christopher, and Hanson, Stephen E. (1999). "National Socialism, Left Patriotism or Superimperialism? The Radical Right in Russia." In The Radical Right in East-Central Europe, ed. Sabrina P. Ramet. University Park: Penn State University Press.

Christopher Williams

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