Russian ideas that take on the world

Views from the Other Shore
February 18, 2000

In this sequel to Toward Another Shore , Aileen Kelly continues her research into what intellectual historians have called the "Russian idea". Challenging the predominant view of the Russian idea as a monolithic construct, Kelly asserts the existence of two irreconcilable Russian ideas, whose struggle shaped the intellectual landscape of Russia in the past two centuries.

The first version, still in common currency and serving political goals in today's Russia, is grounded in the conviction that Russia's unique historical path and non-western essence qualify her for leadership in a world sunk in alienation and primitive materialism. This version calls for the restoration of communitarian values and structures; it is messianic, strongly utopian, and it breeds contempt for western ideologies of political rationality and clear separation between state and religion. The second version, which Kelly examines, is not messianic or utopian and is not bound by veneration for the allegedly exclusive qualities of the Russian soul. Thus, this version ceases to be narrowly "Russian" and opens up to exchange with kindred trends in western thought.

But what does this exchange rest on? Kelly traces in five of her seven essays Herzen's appropriation of and dealings with the ideas of Bacon, Schiller, Proudhon, Mill and Darwin. Yet Kelly wants to reclaim Herzen as an intellectual who not only drew on a wide range of predecessors and contemporaries, but can be drawn upon now. In the current post-foundationalist climate, Herzen's ironic stance towards freedom, his unswerving distrust of progressivist and holistic theories are said to be a potential source of inspiration for those who, as Isaiah Berlin has long noticed, seek a way between ethical absolutism and relativism. Kelly pictures a Herzen who is consonant with modern ideas about the contingency of the human condition and the limits this contingency poses for a teleologically conceived social action.

Kelly's other heroes, Chekhov and Bakhtin, are evoked in two shorter essays. Chekhov is portrayed as a thinker full of antipathy for an "integral view of the world", a feature Kelly identifies as characteristic of that part of the Russian intelligentsia prone to defending the messianic Russian idea. Rather than interpret all human experience in the light of ultimate political or religious goals, Chekhov opted for a representation of the world that attends to the incremental significance of, as Kelly puts it, "individually trivial, unclassifiable details". Kelly further establishes a line of continuity between Chekhov and Bakhtin's philosophy of prosaics, a term she borrows from G. S. Morson and Caryl Emerson's book on Bakhtin (1990). She also draws on Emerson's The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin to outline the scope of Russian reactions to Bakhtin's thought. But she does not attempt an account of Chekhov's place in Bakhtin's writings. In Bakhtin's conversations with Duvakin, published in 1996, Bakhtin implies that Chekhov's plays, so informed by a spirit of farce and comedy, testify to the punctuated and self-ironical nature of life. Kelly could have strengthened her case of bringing Bakhtin and Chekhov together as advocates of a non-finalisable human existence by pointing to this suggestion. But even without this, she makes a serious plea for recognising in Bakhtin a thinker at odds with a closed, mono-centric and unchangeable system of ideas. Thus Kelly joins a viable line in contemporary Bakhtin studies, albeit at the cost of having to give up a more exhaustive analysis of the alternative trend to see in Bakhtin a thinker deeply committed to non-negotiable religious values.

Kelly could have perhaps tried to tie up her comments even more closely with the institutional and more broadly conceived cultural history of Russia, and she could have said more on Proudhon's sway over other Russian writers in the past century, notably Tolstoy. This, however, should not obscure the value of Kelly's innovative research and of her dedicated defence of the non-totalitarian aspects of the Russian intellectual legacy.

Galin Tihanov is junior research fellow in Russian and German intellectual history, Merton College, Oxford.

Views from the Other Shore

Author - Aileen Kelly
ISBN - 0 300 074867
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 260

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