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While Isaiah Berlin’s writings have dealt primarily with political philosophy and the history of ideas, at times such categories have been broadly defined. Moreover, though problems and patterns in British and European thought have been his most prominent concerns, issues affecting Russia’s position in the wider context of Western intellectual life have fascinated him as well. Some of Berlin’s most celebrated and provocative pronouncements have dealt specifically with matters of this sort, where the ideas of Russian thinkers took on a wider significance largely through the operation of theoretical conceptions in unusual but appropriate settings.

The essays collected in Russian Thinkers were delivered or published between 1948 and 1970; several of them originally were public lectures, while others appeared as articles in academic journals or in other published formats. There is much continuity among the various works in this collection, while editorial selection has limited any effects of repetition or undue prolixity.

Many of the traits commonly associated with Berlin’s writing are in evidence in these essays. From outwardly modest beginnings major ideas take hold and sentences build breathlessly upon one another as new images and thoughts are constructed in what at times seems to be a tumultuous array of facts and concepts; the more informal though no less complex delivery found in his lectures has been preserved in those essays that have been taken from that format. At times Berlin appears attentive to the interests of his audience; some statements resound with dramatic effect, while others provide color and vividness to what otherwise might have been rather recondite matters. There is also a kind of boldness, and a willingness to take on vast and challenging topics; indeed, the author was hardly daunted by the large and perplexing tasks that he had set for himself. There are few reservations or modifications that he has felt constrained to make even amid sweeping judgments that go beyond the received wisdom about intellectual change in Russia. Still, Berlin displays a certain specific charm and an active sense of sympathy, where it is due, for the historical personages he treats.

Russian Thinkers

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1974

The social and political revolution that occurred in Russia in 1917 was the direct product of a society torn apart by participation in a disastrous World War, an economy in near shambles, and an autocratic and reactionary Czarist regime with virtually no popular support. The men who came to the forefront of the revolutionary forces were all the direct inheritors of the great intellectual and political debates which dominated Russian intellectual history throughout the nineteenth century, a period in which the social pendulum swung back and forth between absolute reaction and the mildest of political reforms. These debates form the subject of the first of a projected four volume collection of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s selected writings on philosophy and cultural history, edited by Henry Hardy and with a lucid Introduction by Berlin’s former student, Aileen Kelly. Russian Thinkers treats those Russian intellectuals who dominated their country’s thought in the mid-nineteenth century: Leo Tolstoy, the brilliant historical novelist and short story writer; Alexander Herzen, the exiled advocate of social revolution in Czarist Russia; Mikhail Bakunin, the spiritual father of Russian and European anarchism; Ivan Turgenev, the novelist and social critic; and Vissarion Belinsky, the liberal literary critic and mentor to so many Russian writers.

One cannot begin to appreciate the vagaries of the Russian intellectual tradition without coming to terms with the definitions that Sir Isaiah Berlin has applied to the work of those writers whose ideas permeated the consciousness of the Russian nineteenth century. In a famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” first published in 1953 and here reprinted as the opening essay, the cultural historian set out to analyze Tolstoy’s philosophy of history as it was reflected in the great novelist’s works. Taking his title from a fragment of a poem by the Greek poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing”), Berlin sought to construct a paradigm for understanding the role that ideas about history play in the mature development of a writer’s world view. Those writers who perceive life as the product of diverse influences, ascribing no one cause to historical development, are, for Berlin, “foxes”; while those who see life and history as dominated by a central controlling vision are “hedgehogs.” The paradox of Tolstoy’s creative life, Berlin believes, was that he sought to become a fox, embracing in his work a feeling for history as a product of chance, circumstance, and human passions, while at the same time, feeling an equally strong need to heed the dictates of a monistic vision. Berlin suggests that Tolstoy embodied in his work many of the contradictions inherent in this paradox. In his lifelong attempt to define his position—for himself as well as for his international audience—Tolstoy’s works became as complex and rich in meanings as the historical era he dealt with throughout his life. Tolstoy was a giant within the Russian intellectual tradition, and Berlin, the cultural historian fascinated by the impact of ideas upon history, notes how the writer’s work provided the base upon which others would build. Tolstoy sought suggestive nuances and trends from the study of history and thus came to understand many of the social, political, and philosophical contradictions of his own Russian world: the conflict between the individual and the state, between man and God, and between man and man.

The dynamics of Russian social and intellectual life during the nineteenth century owed much of its vitality to those intellectuals and political theorists who, like Alexander Herzen, disavowed the prevailing social orthodoxies. Herzen, the illegitimate son of a Russian aristocrat close to the Royal Court, financially provided for by his loving and tolerant father, chose to exile himself and his family from a land that he felt to be inhumane and devoid of any sense of social justice. Herzen devoted his life and most of his extensive fortune to the overthrow of autocracy in Russia. He was a rebel with a fervent belief that justice would triumph if only Russia could be rid of the incredibly brutal rulers who were leading his country to ruin. Herzen knew almost all of the major revolutionary figures of the century, and his detailed, vividly written autobiography, My Past and Thoughts, has become a classic in Russian literature, as well as in the canons of revolutionary thought in general.

For Berlin, Alexander Herzen was a seminal figure. He saw many of the inherent contradictions noted by Tolstoy; yet, as an intellectual who was as much at home in the greater European society as he was within the traditions of Russian thought, he was capable of seeing that the road to revolution was mired in death, political expediency, and social chaos. Unlike many of his contemporary revolutionary acquaintances and enemies, Herzen saw that the road to social liberation for Russia could also lead to the replacement of one brutal regime by another; it was possible for the Czar to be overthrown only to be replaced by an equally harsh regime in the form of a revolutionary government. Berlin’s sympathies are with the agonized Herzen; he sees Herzen bound to the revolutionary ethic in his life and writings (Herzen both edited and published a revolutionary paper in London that was enormously influential) while still being aware of the dangers of revolution. In effect, what Berlin sees in Herzen’s life and work is a most admirable trait from Berlin’s point of view. Herzen, ostensibly a hedgehog in his beliefs, like his revolutionary comrades, is really a fox. For he sees, beneath the veneer of his rhetoric, the harder realities; he realizes, as Berlin notes, that “houses for free men cannot be built by specialists in prison architecture.” Herzen the rebel, the outsider from all he was born to, the exile from his native country, saw clearly the eventual path that would be taken by the revolution he would never live to see.

Once Berlin has established that a man like Herzen, so fervently opposed to Russian society as it was constituted in his lifetime, was also a man of great tolerance and humanity, one can better see how the opposite end of Russian radicalism in the nineteenth century, the anarchist movement, stood in such stark contrast. Mikhail Bakunin, a friend of Herzen and a confidant of many of Herzen’s revolutionary friends, lived his long life as a rebel on the fringe of political radicalism. He shared, as Berlin points out in another essay, many of the beliefs of his friend Herzen: chiefly a hatred for Czarist oppression and culture. Yet, unlike Herzen, Bakunin felt that the entire fabric of Russian society was corrupt, and that the disease could only be cured by means of total revolution that would wipe out the last vestiges of the old order.

Bakunin’s own life was filled with violence and occasional lapses into self-willed martyrdom for the revolutionary cause. Through years of exile and imprisonment, as well as participation in the Revolution of 1848, Mikhail Bakunin detested the powers he saw guiding the lives of men. Unlike his contemporary and political enemy Karl Marx, Bakunin’s political program was vague and confused. He knew little of what would follow the revolution that he hoped would sweep over Europe (Bakunin did not confine his feelings to Russian affairs). He sensed, as Berlin points out, that the working classes would somehow come to the leadership of the new world he envisioned. Yet his lack of clarity about the eventual path the revolution would take, and his feelings that, in the end, the goal of a new life for everyman would be worth the price in human suffering it would entail, clearly marks Bakunin as a hedgehog. His vision was unobscured by the complexity of human affairs; he failed to recognize that those who would eventually inherit much of his diffuse ideology would be unable to deal with the realities of governing men. In Bakunin’s case, the desire for freedom could lead to an anarchy incapable of solving the problems of man. Human rights, Berlin notes, are often the victims of those who, like Bakunin, wish to preserve those rights by standing on vague, ill-defined, and violent political platforms. Still, much of Bakunin’s ideology had an impact upon the Russian radical tradition. He became a symbol for those who stood in absolute opposition to all authority.

Berlin’s essays dealing with Belinsky and Turgenev share a central theme: the extent to which critics and writers can use their art as vehicles for social criticism. Belinsky, a much admired critic, was a devout believer in the culture of Germany and the Continent. He is venerated by Russian literary historians precisely because he felt that literature should serve a social purpose. Berlin notes how Belinsky, in his search for a critical aesthetic, accepted much of the current criticism of society being offered in Germany and England. It was important, Belinsky felt, to note the extent to which writers dealt with the world as it existed, and not, as the Romantic tradition demanded, with the world as it should be. Didactic in his criticism, Belinsky sought to convince his limited and fervent audience that the purpose of literary art should be to change the world by describing it in great detail. Belinsky saw in Pushkin’s and Gogol’s works manifestos for a new world. Although he may be incorrect in totally ignoring many of the Romantic critics who preceded Belinsky, Berlin makes a strong case for seeing in the young writer a forerunner of a kind of criticism that demanded that art deal, at least in part, with social concerns. Petulant, often hateful towards those who, he felt, neglected the realities of Russian life, Belinsky was still admired and fawned upon by many Russian intellectuals. Turgenev, for example, dedicated his great novel Fathers and Sons, a searing treatment of generational differences in early nineteenth century Russia, to Belinsky.

In “Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament,” Professor Berlin details the manner in which the writer, in his search for a more equitable society, eventually began to espouse solutions that were often as absolutist as the existing society. In his own writing, Turgenev made clear his opposition to a stultifying reactionary society which did not abide by notions of justice and codes of rational behavior. He was, however, willing, as Berlin notes, to allow his passions to run away with his rational sense of what could be done. Turgenev sought to become a conscience for his own generation in Russia: he would write about the world as it was developing in his own time. Yet, at the same time, he was trapped into believing that the end product of a radical tradition and critique—a new society, free from the constraints of absolutist government—would be worth the moral and political costs.

In another essay, “Russian Populism,” Berlin further examines the dilemma he noted in his Turgenev analysis: that the best of intentions and hopes for a new world on the part of those who, like the young Russian populists who wished to convert the peasantry to the radical tradition they passionately believed in, can lead to a new form of intolerance. It was a case of one hedgehog replacing another, of one world view—reactionary, backward, incapable of seeing the need for reform—being toppled by another world view of the opposite political persuasion.

The Russian intellectual tradition as it was lived in the nineteenth century was, as Professor Berlin succinctly points out, a way of life. It drew into its orbit many of Russia’s finest, most creative minds. They debated the fate of their art and their world unaware that their words and intense arguments, as well as their deeds, would profoundly affect the Russian world they never lived to see.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

The Christian Science Monitor. Review. June 28, 1978, p. 19.

Hausheer, Roger. “Isaiah Berlin and the Emergence of Liberal Pluralism,” in European Liberty: Four Essays on the Occasion of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, 1983.

The New Leader. Review. LXI (September 25, 1978), p. 17.

Ryan, Alan, ed. The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, 1979.

The Times Educational Supplement. Review. July 7, 1978, p. 28.

The Washington Post Book World. Review. June 18, 1978, p. E6.


Critical Essays