Monday, September 6, 2010

Medieval Russian Thought and Classical Antiquity

I have always wondered when Western learning first came to Russia.  The question of how and from where it entered the country is posed in various ways by different scholars.  One solid tradition, represented by James Cracraft's The Petrine Revolution in Russian Culture and Gary Marker's Publishing, Printing and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia, 1700-1800, argues that secular categories of thought only took root with the reforms of Peter the Great.  Especially in Marker's treatment, Western print culture is argued to have provided the proper containers for the transplantation of European intellectual norms in scientific inquiry and literary production.  On the other hand, Kievan Rus', the progenitor state of Muscovite Russia, had received its religion and writing system from Byzantine Greece.  The question is whether any Byzantine classicism (represented, for example, in the work of Michael Psellos) was able to penetrate into Rus'.

Scholars such as Francis J. Thomson and Simon Franklin discount the value of any medieval Russian acquaintance with classical antiquity.  In a book chapter Thomson severs any possible connection between Byzantine classicism and the Slavonic literary culture that the Byzantines created for the proselytization of the Bulgarians and the Eastern Slavs of Kievan Rus' (304).  He admits that while medieval Russians gradually gained access through translations to "a considerable amount of information about classical mythology and legends, even if it is given in a distorted form, they provide no understanding of the main currents of classical philosophy," for example (326).  Moreover, though Russians had access to a smorgasbord of aphorisms and selected passages from various classical authors, "[n]ot a single classical work was translated in its entirety in the sixteenth century" (314).  A smattering of learning cannot masquerade as true understanding.  Franklin even goes so far as to say that "[t]here was no debate over classical learning as there was no classical learning to debate" (quoted in Thomson 303).

I would beg to differ.

Indeed, none of these objections disprove that classical antiquity played an important role in medieval Russian thought, even if the understanding of antiquity was not as sophisticated or as nuanced as that of contemporary Western scholars.  William Ryan has devoted an article to the question of the status of Aristotle in Medieval Russia.  Ryan provides several interesting examples demonstrating how Aristotle was a central figure in the religious debates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Vassian Patrikeev, a member of the non-possessor party, was condemned by church authorities sympathetic to Joseph for "introduc[ing] into his translation of the Nomokanon (code of ecclesiastical law) the pagan philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Alexander, Philip, and Homer" (Ryan 652).  Anticipating certain Protestant objections to Catholic doctrines during the Reformation, Russians of the time objected to the use of classical antiquity on the basis of its incompatibility with Christian doctrine:

In the religious polemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in South-west Russia, the protagonists of Orthodoxy objected to the teaching of classical philosophy in church schools, claiming that their Roman adversaries paid more attention to logic than to sacred tradition (652).

The author of Russia's first substantial work of secular prose (the Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma, or the Autobiography of Avvakum) felt compelled to rhetorically position himself in opposition to everything that Western antiquity stood for:

At a less sophisticated level, the Archpriest Avvakum, one of the leaders of the Old Believer schismatic sect in seventeenth-century Russia, simply consigned all the Greek philosophers to eternal damnation (654).

Classical learning was very much in the foreground of Russian debate, even if its role was to serve as a point of opposition to native Orthodox ways.

Works Cited

Ryan, William F. "Aristotle in Old Russian Literature." The Modern Language Review 63.3 (1968): 650–658. <>.

Thomson, Francis J. "The Distorted Mediaeval Russian Perception of Classical Antiquity: The Causes and the Consequences." Ed. Andries Welkenhuysen, Herman Braet, and Werner Verbeke. Mediaeval Antiquity. Mediaevalia Lovaniensia, ser. 1, studia 24. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1995. 303-364. <>.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Russian Conservatism and its Critics Part II

In his Russian Conservatism and its Critics: A Study in Political Culture Pipes argues that the beginnings of Russian conservative ideology emerged from the possessor versus non-possessor controversy that took place around the turn of the sixteenth century. That the party of Joseph of Volokolamsk defending the Orthodox Church's landholding practices won out over Nil Sorsky's denying the validity of Church property was not a given in a patrimonial state where the sovereign aspired to own everything. (Pipes explains that it was Metropolitan Daniel's support for Basil III's decision to divorce his barren wife Solomoniia and marry a Lithuanian princess, Elena Glinskaia, which swung the Grand Prince's support in favor of Joseph's possessor party (37)). According to Pipes, what is important about this argument is that it opens the first debate in Russian intellectual history between proto-liberals who claimed that the body politic must rest on law and justice, and those first conservatives (namely the followers of Joseph) who believed it was sufficient that the state rely on the will of the ruler (38). I found it very surprising that there was anyone in the nascent liberal category at this time. Pipes points to one Fedor Karpov [1], a diplomat in the service of Basil III, who wrote against the injustices committed by the Josephites in power by invoking the rule of law:
The public order in cities and states perishes from long suffering; forbearance without justice and law destroys the well-being of society and reduces the people's affairs [delo narodnoe] to naught, allowing the penetration of bad customs and producing men who, because of poverty, dis-obey their sovereign (Druzhinin 106-113, quoted in Pipes 38).
Karpov not only challenges the consolidation of autocracy, but he also rejects the quintessentially Russian values of passivity and humility in the face of oppression. (Compare the Saints' Life of Boris and Gleb, who became model figures for their willingness to let themselves be murdered by their overly ambitious brother). It is also important that Karpov invokes the people's affairs, the very thing that pre-twentieth century Russian rulers always denied when insisting on their prerogatives. Notably, the Russian words here for this concept, delo narodnoe, are also a direct translation of Latin res publica.


[1] Dmitri Cizevskij also writes about the same passage from Karpov's epistle in his Comparative History of Slavic Literatures.  Cizevskij makes clear that Karpov was acquainted with classical political theory, namely in the form of Aristotle.  Having read many standard narratives of Russian history, I am surprised that sixteenth-century Russia harbored any students of Western learning.  Yet in addition to Karpov Maksim Grek, Juraj Križanić and Prince Andrei Kurbsky all were influenced by Renaissance thought.  It should be pointed out, however, that Maksim Grek and Juraj Križanić were both foreigners who came to Russia after studying in Renaissance Italy.  Kurbsky only became acquainted with classical European thought after he defected to Russia.  Indeed, like Karpov, Kurbsky also invoked Western political theory as a way of snubbing the Tsar's autocratic rule (though the Tsar in this case is Basil's son, Ivan the Terrible):
Residence abroad gave Kurbsky the opportunity to become acquainted with the writings of Aristotle and Cicero, as evidenced in one of his letters, where he refers to the "laws of nature" mastered by the ancients — of which, he wrote scornfully, the Russians knew nothing (Pipes 44).
Works Cited

Letopis' russkoi zaniatii arkheograficheskii komissii, vol. 21 (1908). Supplement edited by V. G. Druzhinin (St. Petersburg, 1909), 106-113. [Note: this looks like a very important resource, but Google Books and the Hathi Trust both have spotty coverage of this series. This website has digitized volumes 1-19, but nothing after that].

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Russian Conservatism and its Critics

Richard Pipes' Russian Conservatism and its Critics: A Study in Political Culture discusses the work of a selection of intellectuals who are considered to be the major apologists for Russian autocracy and the status quo from the sixteenth century to the 1917 Russian Revolution.  What is interesting is that in Pipes' presentation these thinkers do not offer a uniform picture of Russian conservative thinking over time.  But before I speak about the book's main narrative, in this post I would like to briefly discuss Pipes' interesting historical claims.

Pipes does touch on a major thesis in his book -- namely, that Russian rulers have always treated their state like a private patrimony, much like the Frankish rulers of the eighth century AD in the West.  In a state [gosudarstvo] that made no distinction between the public powers and private ownership rights of its sovereign [gosudar'], there could be no room for society, and thus no independent social opinion (15).  Yet this thesis, as Pipes demonstrates, is best supported by appealing to the thinking and behavior of Russia's ruling elites, and not to the intelligentsia.  Indeed, two of the more interesting anecdotes illustrating how the conception of the Tsar's proprietary right over his country and its people passed down from gosudar' to gosudar' are included in the concluding chapter of the book.  The first comes from the openly atavistic reign of Nicholas I: "During the audience he accorded Iury Samarin to scold him for presuming to criticize Russian policies in the Baltic provinces, [Nicholas I] said: 'You have attacked both the government and me, because the government and I are one and the same; although I heard that you separate me from the government, I don't accept this" (180).

The second comes from just months before Nicholas II's abdication in 1917.  This is more surprising given the second Nicholas' much more precarious hold on power:

On the eve of the Russian New Year (January 12, 1917, new style) and two months before he would be compelled to abdicate, Nicholas [II] received Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador.  It was a difficult time, as the parliamentary majority was mounting a concerted assault against him and his conduct of the war, an assault that at times assumed revolutionary features.  Buchanan, asking for and receiving permission to speak frankly, alluded to this political crisis and then went on: "'Your Majesty, if I may be permitted to say so, has but one safe course open to you -- namely, to break down the barrier that separates you from your people and to regain their confidence.'  Drawing himself up and looking hard at me, the Emperor asked: 'Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or that they are to regain my confidence?" (180-181).

So even to the very end of the Romanov dynasty Russian rulers lacked the ability to distinguish between the ruler and the body politic, a notion that had become a commonplace in Western political thought by the Early Modern era (note, for example, Hobbes' Leviathan).  It is no wonder that it is commonly observed that Russia did not participate in the Renaisannce.  This observation is also tangential to the fact that Russia, though excelling in literature and the other arts, does not have a vital tradition of political philosophy.

Pipes also finds other reasons for why Russia never developed an active social discourse, other than from adopting the Eastern despotism of the Tatars during the period of Mongol occupation.  He cites Geoffrey Hosking's Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917 in noting that Russia failed to develop any national consciousness.  (Look for my comments on this book in the near future).  Great Russians were widely dispersed across the vast Russian Empire, thus keeping them from developing any sense of shared ethnic identity.  Pipes' point that Russians have always been more likely to identify themselves on the basis of their religion (Orthodoxy) rather than nationality rings true from my study of Russian literature and culture.  After all, Anton Chekhov's Anna Sergeevna (from "The Lady with the Lapdog") concedes that her husband, though having a German grandfather, is Orthodox (rather than being simply "Russian").

I also really like how Pipes supplements this argument by using demographic data, noting that "the density of population in Muscovite Russia around 1500 was 2.9 inhabitants per square kilometer; in England a century and a half earlier, it had been nearly ten times as great (28.1)" (182).  The idea here is that the amount of empty physical space between people influences how society develops (or does not develop).  The ability to deploy this kind of comparative statistical information clearly shows Pipes' pedigree as an historian.