Idei v Rossii

Idee w Rosji

Ideas in Russia

Leksykon rosyjsko-polsko-angielski. Vol. 1. Edited by Andrzej de Lazari. Warsaw: Semper (ul. Bednarska 20A, 00-321 Warszawa, 1999. 492 pages. Paper.

Andrzej Walicki

The lexicon Ideas in Russia, edited by Professor Andrzej de Lazari from the University of ¸ódê, is an ambitious undertaking. Its aim is to contribute to a deeper understanding of the Russian mentality and culture by providing updated information on, and interpretation of, the Russian religious, philosophical and political thought from the Middle Ages to the present day. It is a trilingual publication, containing Russian, Polish, and English versions of each entry. It is conceived as a four-volume publication with some 600 entries, each volume containing entries arranged in alphabetical order, from the first to the last letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. The last volume will provide detailed indices covering the entire publication.

The recently published first volume, subject of the present review, is the work of 41 scholars: historians, literary historians, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists, Most of them are Polish, 14 are Russians (including the reviewer of the volume, Boris Egorov), one person (Vladimir Gonec) represents the Czech Republic, and Ewa M. Thompson of Rice University is the sole contributor from the West. The editors, i.e., Professor de Lazari and his Research Center at the University of ¸ódê, did not attempt to elaborate any consensus of opinions; hence many authors represent quite different views. In some cases, the book offers alternative, or complementary, explanations of the same idea.

Nevertheless, despite this programmatic endorsement of interpretive pluralism, the majority of authors represent in fact different versions of one broad school of thought: a school subscribing to the "essentialist" approach to Russian culture, that is, assuming the existence of a specifically Russian, culturally determined mentality, stressing Russia's essential "otherness" from Europe and, therefore, placing Russia outside Europe, as a separate, qualitatively different civilization. An extreme representative of this school was the Polish historian, Jan Kucharzewski, author of the monumental work, From the White Tsardom to the Red (7 vols.), available in a one-volume condensed version titled The Origins of Modern Russia (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1948). In the West, the leading exponent of the idea of Russia's otherness is the Polish-born American historian, Richard Pipes, who explains Russian history as largely predetermined by the unique cultural legacy of the Muscovite patrimonial autocracy.

This volume should be of interest not only because of what it says about Russian culture, but also because of what it says about Russian studies in contemporary Poland.
Such views, however, have not become dominant in the United States. At American universities, Russian Studies are treated, as a rule, as a part of European studies. Too much stress on Russia's distinctiveness is seen sometimes as a regrettable remnant of cold war attitudes. The view of Russia as a distinct civilization gained support in the influential Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 1996), but did not become widely accepted. The last book by Martin Malia: Russia Under Western Eyes (Harvard University Press, 1999), strongly critical of essentialist thinking about Russia and of interpreting it in terms of the "West-East cultural gradient" seems to reflect the opinions of a very significant number of American historians. On the whole, it is fair to say that the very problem of Russia's relationship to Europe does not arouse great passions among American intellectuals.

It is not so in Poland, and not so in Russia. In the Polish perception "Russianness" appears, as a rule, as something intriguingly alien, but not entirely incomprehensible; something definitely different but, at the same time, familiar enough to be understood "from inside"; something threatening but, nevertheless, capable of evoking a feeling of attraction and intellectual fascination. Hence, a sort of cultural "essentialism" in thinking about Russia often appears in Poland quite spontaneously, as something obvious and simply taken for granted. For different reasons, the same is true of Russia. The long period of self-imposed isolation from the West, the strong native tradition of seeing Russia as the opposite of Europe and, last but not least, the painful failure of the program of "returning to the common European home" created conditions for a powerful revival of different versions of the "Russian Idea," attributing to Russia a unique and incomparable historical fate. Another consequence of the widespread disillusionment in the westernizing reforms is a spectacular growth of Russian political nationalism playing with the idea of Russia's separate destiny. All these factors explain the increased interest in the specific features of Russia's cultural identity which united the Polish and Russian authors of Lazari's lexicon.

A short review article is not the place in which it would be possible to discuss individual contributions of so many authors. Therefore, I shall limit myself to a brief characterization of the main themes of this rich collective work.

The most controversial is the series of entries dealing not with ideas but with those cultural and social phenomena which were seen by the editor as peculiarly Russian and carrying a specific cultural meaning. Thus, rather unexpectedly, we find in the book such entries as "dvorianstvo" (V. Romanov) or "balalaika" (Lazari): evidently, the editor saw the Russian nobility, as well as the popular musical instrument called the "balalaika," as something peculiarly Russian, shedding light on some distinctive features of Russian mentality. More obvious are the reasons for including a number of entries on the broadly conceived semiology of Russian culture, such as "Alphabet," "The black double-headed eagle," "Calendar," "Heraldry" and "National Flag." All these entries, written by the Polish semiologist and literary historian, Jerzy Faryno, deserve to be seen as an original contribution to our knowledge of the subject, providing a wealth of interesting and useful information on the semiological context of Russian ideas.

Closely related to this series is an impressive number of entries dealing with Russian religious life and religious thought, such as two entries on "Antichrist" (Konstantin Isupov and Elzbieta Przybyl), "Dvoeverie" (Father Henryk Paprocki), "Space" (Ivan Esaulov), "Heretical Thought" (Urszula Wójcicka), "Holiness" (three entries by Bishop Szymon Romanczuk, H. Paprocki, and J. Faryno), "Old Belief" (Hanna Kowalska), "Starchestvo" (Józef Smaga), "Strastotierpstvo" (Sz. Romaczuk), or two entries on "Folly in Christ" (Sz. Romaczuk and Ewa Thompson). The interpretive difference between alternative entries are sometimes very sharp and significant. E.g., in the two entries on "sobornost'," the Russian scholar, Ivan Esaulov, defines "sobornost'" as "one of the four atttributes of Orthodoxy formulated at the second Ecumenical Council, whereas A. de Lazari sees in it one of the most important categories of nationalistic Russian thought.

Another small but very compact thematic group deals with Russian attitudes toward law: "Law" in general (Lazari), law as "acts, regulations" (Esaulov), "Legal systems" (Faryno) and "Canon law" (two entries: by Faryno and Paprocki). Predictably, the Polish authors stress the continuing importance in the Russian tradition of enmity toward law (Lazari), and of treating law as merely an instrument of the ruler (Faryno), seeing this as a negative feature of the Russian cultural heritage. Esaulov, however, tries to give it a positive connotation. He reminds us that in the Russian tradition, the category of law (zakon) was held from the earliest times in opposition to "grace" (blagodat') and sees this as consonant with the truly Christian, Orthodox values.

A very important group of entries discusses different aspects of Russian nationalism. All these entries have been written by one author: Andrzej de Lazari. Read in the chronological (not alphabetical) order, they present a coherent development of proto-nationalistic and nationalistic ideas in Russia: from "Moscow-The Third Rome" through "Narod,""Narodnost'," "Official Nationality," "Pochvennichestvo," to "National Bolshevism," "Eurasianism" and "Russian Fascism." All of them competently summarize the vast international literature on the subject, adding to it the results of the author's own research in this field. The author's original contribution is especially visible in the analysis of the different meanings of the Russian terms narod and narodnost', and in the entry on pochvennichestvo, or the "return to the soil" movement. Lazari's interpretations of Russian nationalism are often directly polemical; he is extremely critical of the nationalistic ("Russophile") trends in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, sometimes exaggerating their strength and real influence. But, in the entry on "Yanov, Aleksandr," he warns also against the "Russophobic" demonizations of Russian nationalism, stressing that, first, it has many faces, and second, it should not be presented as a dominant, quintessential tendency of contemporary Russian thought. And, most importantly, he is fully aware of the possibility and legitimacy of alternative interpretations.

A good example of this awareness is offered in the two entries on "Moscow - The Third Rome." One of them, written by Lazari, treats this idea as "the archetype of Russian nationalism," whereas the other, written by Elzbieta Przybyl, stresses its purely religious content.

Closely connected with the entries on Russian nationalism is a very informative entry on "Anti-Semitism" by the Kraków historian of Soviet Russia, Józef Smaga. He is also the principal author of the series of entries on Russian Communism: "Bolshevism," "Menshevism," "Lenin," "Scientific Communism," and "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat." This last entry is somewhat one-sided because it ignores the history of the notion of "the dictatorship of the proletariat in classical Marxism." Otherwise, however, Smaga's entries represent very solid and reliable knowledge. His entry on Menshevism ends with the interesting observation that while the Bolshevik leaders consisted mostly of Russians, the leading group of Mensheviks was made up of Jews. This fact, emphasized by Stalin, "contradicts the widespread belief that Jews played the most destructive role in the bolshevization of Russia after 1917."

The largest group of entries deals with the history of Russian philosophy and social thought, i.e., with the subject known in the United States as "Russian intellectual history." It includes a synthetic article on "Old Russian Thought" (by Grzegorz Przebinda), two ambitious surveys of the Russian perception of ancient philosophy ("Aristotle in Russia" by Przebinda and "Plato in Russia" by Sergei Goncharov), a few entries on specific categories and concepts (such as "Rational Egoism" by Przebinda, or "Superfluous Men" by Krystyna Chojnicka), and a great number of entries on individual thinkers. Nineteenth-century Russian thought received thorough coverage in Janusz Dobieszewski's entries on the Slavophiles (K. Aksakov and A. Khomiakov), and Populists (P. Lavrov and P. Tkachev), Przebinda's entry on N. Chernyshevskii, Marian Broda's entry on Leont'ev, and Wasilij Szczukin's entries on the Russian radicals (A. Gertsen) and liberals. The three entries by Lucjan Suchanek ("Chaadaev," "Pecherin," and "Simeon Polotskii") turn attention to the problem of Catholic influences on Russian thought. Especially impressive are the entries on the Silver Age in Russian culture: Slawomir Mazurek's entries on Russian religious philosophy ("Catastrophism," "Nikolai Berdiaev," "Simon Frank" and "Vasilii Rozanov"), Marek Styczyski's entry on "Aleksandr Bogdanov" (as well as his alternative entry on Berdiaev), and Jerzy Kapuscik's entries on "God-building" and "God-seeking."

And this is not all. The lack of space makes it impossible to mention all entries and the names of authors.

On the whole, Ideas in Russia is an impressive achievement. It is remarkable that the penchant for an "essentialist" understanding of Russian mentality which defined the general conception of the book, was pursued with moderation and tolerance for different views. The book presents not only the leading exponents of "the Russian idea" but also a number of Russian Occidentalists, among them Boris Chicherin (an entry by Szczukin), a thinker who, in Berdiaev's view, was completely alien to everything distinctively "Russian." Thus, despite an emphasis on the enduring presence of some specific features of Russian intellectual culture, it is up to the readers to decide if Russia should be seen as an eternal prisoner of its history.

Unfortunately, the publisher has not done a good job. The book lacks illustrations (very much needed in the case of visible symbols like flags or heraldic emblems), and falls apart after one reading. But its authors deserve praise and encouragement. Their work should be of interest to Western scholars not only because of what it says about Russian culture but also because of what it says about Russian studies in contemporary Poland. The best entries prove that Poland, despite its reputation of shunning everything Russian, has produced in this field quite a few original, mature scholars. The bibliographical references which accompany the entries show that Polish literature on the subject is unexpectedly rich and merits serious attention.

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