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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1933

The first article reproduced in Russian Thinkers considers the position of Russia during the revolutionary year of 1848. While major outbreaks swept over much of continental Europe, Russia remained unmoved; the seemingly unshakable power of the autocracy left many authors and journalists in despair. For a time, it had been possible for ideas to be discussed openly in Russian cities. Some interest was expressed in French utopian socialism; other stances critical of the existing order had been addressed as well. Russian writers had, during much of the 1830’s and 1840’s, turned away from the stultifying versions of official ideology that were promoted under government auspices. By 1848, with the czarist regime’s stern and unyielding reaction to unrest elsewhere on the Continent, a spirit of resignation descended upon the nation’s writers. In the absence of any appreciable social basis for the support of liberal or radical ideas, in a society where the peasantry had little political power and industrial growth had scarcely begun, few expectations for social transformation existed in any immediate sense. Subsequently, even with the advent of relatively new and different ideological trends, pronounced and long-lasting divisions set in; many important figures embraced values that were grounded in national and religious ideals, while others turned toward increasingly radical and intransigent postures. Thus, paradoxically, the weakness or absence of any significant revolutionary or reform movement during the middle of the nineteenth century foreshadowed the mounting polarization of educated public opinion that later was characteristic of Russian politics and social thought. Moreover, even earlier literary controversies had assumed much wider implications, and problems of values and ideas arose repeatedly in connection with later concerns.

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The most famous of Berlin’s Russian essays is “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in which the theory of history implicit in Leo Tolstoy’s major fiction is discussed in relation to problems of systematic thought in a number of leading figures. Enlarging upon a phrase taken from a verse fragment by the classical Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin posits distinctions among creative and critical thinkers which would divide those from many traditions and historical periods into two groups. This distinction has been received readily and applied in many places beyond those where Berlin originally employed it. For Berlin, some individuals conceive of ultimate facts as embraced within a single system; others regard essential reality as evading such rigid criteria. Any effort to formulate all-encompassing rules that would apply to experience is subject to modifications and exceptions. Among those who belong to the first category, of hedgehogs, are Plato, Dante, G.W.F. Hegel, and Fyodor Dostoevski; Herodotus, Aristotle, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and James Joyce are cited as outstanding examples of foxes. This schema is not merely intended to distinguish between those who, on philosophical grounds, could be regarded as monists or pluralists, though the differences may be envisaged partly in this sense.

A peculiar and fascinating feature of Tolstoy’s thought, as expressed primarily in his great novels, is that by attempting to demonstrate the validity of one single truth he reached results of a rather different order. In Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), problems of historical meaning led to wider concerns with issues of causation that were examined at many points in Tolstoy’s research and writing. The tension between individual experience and human action on a grand scale was reflected in the contrasts he drew between the inner lives of his protagonists and the political careers of historical characters, such as Napoleon and Alexander I, who could be taken as exemplifying both personal and national influences upon the historical process. Whether history was subject to impersonal laws, and whether it could, or indeed should, attain the status of an exact science, were questions that would affect his handling of major historical events.

In certain respects Tolstoy was inclined to take liberties with the historical record which had formed the basis for his original research—in his novel he transformed the Russian commander Mikhail Kutuzov into a heroic figure who was depicted in somewhat more grandiose terms than was warranted for his real-life counterpart. Tolstoy’s views on historical matters owed much as well to other thinkers; he read the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French social and political philosopher, and he had perused Stendhal’s fiction, partly for the sake of its literary evocation of actions during the Napoleonic Wars. Berlin has uncovered as well some of the more unusual sources of the Russian writer’s thought. Tolstoy also pondered the writings of Joseph de Maistre, the emigre political and religious theorist who in his opposition to the French Revolution had produced essays and dialogues during a prolonged sojourn in St. Petersburg. Although on other counts Tolstoy was hardly in accord with de Maistre’s conservative and antirationalist position, the Russian writer was intrigued with the notion that military operations, and other mass movements, were essentially chaotic and unpredictable; according to this view, facile expectations that social progress was inevitable, and that patterns of historical change could be discerned, were vain and impracticable.

Among explicitly political thinkers Berlin has singled out Aleksandr Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin as the most significant and representative writers of the Russian revolutionary tradition; the differences between them illustrate the divided paths by which socialism and anarchism became part of Russian ideologies of the nineteenth century. Although the two men at times were friends, their ideas could not be reconciled. Both opposed the autocracy and both placed particular hopes in the advancement of the peasantry; both rejected middle-class values and were profoundly distrustful of religious systems. Yet Herzen, in recoiling from the ethereal systems proffered by European thinkers, retained a balanced sense of critical realism; Bakunin, on the other hand, professed an abstract devotion to humanity which did not, in the end, restrain him from advocating terrorism and destruction in their most extreme forms. On many points Herzen found fault with broadly inclusive doctrines that offered some solace for humanity’s plight; he remained in many respects a skeptic who was adept at noting that many expectations for social improvement could not be sustained. Vital in his thought was the conviction that moral principles were not to be repudiated or dispensed with; Herzen was prepared to uphold the value of individual freedom against fraud, violence, or oppression. For his part, Bakunin was adept at destructive argumentation; in exposing the pretenses and equivocation of conventional moral thought, his writings evinced a powerful simplicity that, to some, was attractive largely because of its undeniable rhetorical impact. Still, in urging the overthrow of established governments and institutions he promoted ideas that had no deeper means of support. While invoking the ideals of liberty and equality, he was able to arrive at no particular means by which such values could be preserved. According to Berlin, this inability to achieve a suitable equilibrium between social purposes and moral aspirations, which in varying forms could be found in Herzen as well as in Bakunin, was a recurrent problem in Russian political thought which affected the ideas of later activists down to the Revolution of 1917.

The origins of the intelligentsia in Russia, however, could be found in an earlier period. The longest essay in this work, which originally comprised a series of articles and lectures, deals with “A Remarkable Decade,” the years between 1838 and 1848, when a number of major writers became involved in literary and philosophical controversies. Western thought, both French utopian socialism and German metaphysics, was received with some alacrity by Russian thinkers; even with this quite unabashed enthusiasm for foreign systems, some typically Russian features emerged in major publications of this era. The moral dimensions of art and literature and the conviction that some higher purpose should guide intellectual pursuits were almost universally accepted among writers of consequence. During this time, Dostoevski, Turgenev, and others first came into prominence as literary men, while Herzen and Bakunin began to concern themselves with social issues. The most noteworthy and significant figure among them was the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. Berlin maintains that social criticism originated in Russia and appeared specifically during this period; moreover, Belinsky, who was recognized as the leading proponent of moral ideas in literary theory, devoted much of his career to the searching and fearless exposition of the enduring values great literature was meant to evoke. He provided Russians with the first outlines of a literary history which could distinguish between the outmoded relics and the lasting achievements of past writers; in addition, in his relentless quest for truth he instilled in others the conviction that art was in every sense answerable to life and that great literature could not endure without commitments to social justice and equality. To be sure, there was much that could be considered superficial, or overwrought, about Belinsky’s positions; he often wrote in some haste, and without regard for the relationship ideas had to one another. Yet the undeniable force of his convictions could greatly impress his contemporaries.

In connection with the initial development of social thought, there is also a discussion of Herzen’s early years, when he manifested some of the traits which would make him, in Berlin’s estimate, “the most arresting Russian political writer in the nineteenth century.” Even at the outset, before he emigrated from Russia in 1847, he appeared to have become uneasy at the specter of victimization and human suffering that might attend any effort to implement even the most high-sounding and outwardly altruistic principles. On the other hand, and perhaps in keeping with the example of his friend Belinsky, Herzen seemed markedly uncomfortable with any position which might suggest compromise or intellectual complacency. This fundamental outlook, which in time took form as the libertarian humanism for which Herzen was noted, eventually set him at odds with both revolutionary and conservative groups. More than that, however, even from a distant vantage point he could grasp the unfolding of wider processes leading ultimately to the Russian Revolution without condoning the drift toward intolerance and the advocacy of violence that began to affect subsequent political agitation.

The remaining articles deal with Russian populism, Tolstoy’s theories of enlightenment, and the political implications of Turgenev’s fiction. In a short essay on Tolstoy’s views about education, Berlin contends that, while he often seemed to suggest that formal learning and moral scruples were in some sense incompatible, upon closer examination the great writer’s views were rather more complex; as with his historical theories, Tolstoy did not easily disclose the full contours of his thought. Turgenev had often been reproached for remaining aloof from political controversies; many of his protagonists were cast as archetypal figures who resembled the very embodiment of political attitudes, and troubled questions of his own times were raised in rather forthright ways in some of his most famous writings. Nevertheless, Turgenev seemed rarely to express his own views, or to suggest whether he had any particular positions or affiliations. Even in his well-known novel Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), in which he composed some vivid and provocative depictions of young nihilists, it was not certain where Turgenev’s sympathies actually lay. Turgenev was acutely sensitive to charges that were leveled against him, but he remained stalwart in his conviction that literature should serve the purposes he had found for it. By recognizing the political dilemmas of his own age, Turgenev implied that moral fervor should not take the place of understanding. Indeed, Berlin concludes that his doubts may have been well founded in the light of the turmoil and destruction that more rigid forms of political commitment later caused.

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Critical Context