Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Danilevsky's Russia and Europe

I have started reading N. Ya. Danilevsky's Russia and Europe [Rossiya i Evropa]. Since, as far as I can tell, there are no translations of Danilevsky into English, I am of course reading the work in its original Russian. Note the facsimile of the 1895 edition here.

The book is an influential treatise that describes a theory of historical and cultural development that is determined by a nation's particular civilizational type. In this way Danilevsky's work prefigures the works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, historians of culture who seem to be somewhat forgotten nowadays.

I have come to know of the importance of Danilevsky's book through my study of Dostoevsky. Danilevsky and Dostoevsky were both members of the Petrashevsky Circle, which was a literary gathering of intellectuals and freethinkers that was discovered and broken up by Nicholas I's regime in 1849. Dostoevsky was initially sentenced to execution for his participation in the group, but he was granted a last minute reprieve in which he was sent into a Siberian exile that lasted nearly a decade. Danilevsky was given the much lesser sentence of spending 100 days in the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was largely due to the fact that he wrote a letter to the authorities proving his political innocence. Given the importance Dostoevsky would later give to his time as a prisoner, I am sure that the great Russian novelist would not have found it beneficial to use his writing abilities to extract himself in such a way from this difficult situation.

Russia and Europe, which was originally published in 1869, made a big impression on Dostoevsky. The latter proclaimed that it would become a "bedside book [nastolnaya kniga]" for Russians in the decades to come (Budanova 138).  The particular idea advanced in the book that Russia would create an independent Slavic civilization initiating the next phase of world history informs Dostoevsky's character of Shatov in The Devils (Frank 560). However, Dostoevsky was on the whole dissatisfied with Danilevsky's reduction of the significance of Russian Orthodoxy to a national characteristic, denying its status as a universal embodiment of Christian doctrine suitable for the whole world.

Like so much nineteenth-century expository prose, whether written in Russian or another language, the beginning of Russia and Europe meanders and is in no hurry to get to its thesis. Instead, it gradually works up to its main argument by first positing the question of why Russia is treated like a second-class power by the other great powers of Europe. Danilevsky compares the outcomes of two recent historical events. In 1864 Denmark, a small power, was forced to cede Schleswig and Holstein to two great powers, Austria and Prussia, despite an earlier treaty which guaranteed Denmark these territories. A decade earlier, in 1853, Great Britain and France declared war on Russia because of the latter's insistence that Turkey honor its previous agreement that the Orthodox Church be given supreme authority over the Ottoman Empire's Christians. Danilevsky insists that Russia had no intention or invading or declaring war on Turkey and thereby expanding its own empire. Clearly we are meant to understand a certain continuity here where the great powers are allowed to use arms to seize territory in contravention of a previous treaty, and Russia is also prevented from acting in accordance with its diplomatic agreements with Turkey.

These events testify to the existence of a fundamental civilizational/cultural divide between Latin-German and Slavic civilizations. I will write more about my readings in Danilevsky in future posts to come.


  1. Fascinating; I wasn't aware of the book and its influence, and I look forward to future posts.

  2. (That was me; I just updated my Blogger profile to provide useful information.)

  3. Do you know that Россия и Европа is translated in English and will be publsied by SLAVCA in 2013?
    Olga Danilevskaya,
    great grand dauhgter of Nikolay Danilevsky

  4. Slavica Publishers (Indiana University)

  5. No, I didn't. Though I am certainly aware of Slavica. Thank you for commenting.

  6. In case you're interested, here's the link to the publisher's webpage for the book (which is also available from Amazon).