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Between East and West: Hegel and the Origins of the Russian Dilemma

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 2, April 2001
pp. 335-358 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0019

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.2 (2001) 335-358

Nikolai Berdiaev, the eminent twentieth-century Russian philosopher, wrote that the "problem of East and West" was an "eternal" one for Russia. Attempting to make sense of the violent upheavals that shook Russia in 1917, Berdiaev believed that the source of Russian troubles lay in the "inconsistency of the Russian spirit" due to the "conflict of the Eastern and Western elements in her." Russia, he argued, always contained within its wide territory an invisible and shifting border between two continents, and thus Russian society was forever torn between two cultures. Berdiaev insisted that Russia could not discover its true calling or its place in the world until it resolved its internal conflict between East and West.

Berdiaev was contemplating the course of the nineteenth century, when Russia's geographical destiny had deeply troubled Russian intellectuals. In the late 1830s Russian thinkers began their minute analyses of cultural and historical sources, hoping to determine the essential character of their nation and believing that their research would enable them to predict Russia's future. Often, diverse questions of progress and stagnation, tradition and innovation, and the individual and society were all framed within this overarching problem of East versus West.

It is tempting to see this Russian dilemma as longstanding and natural, given Russia's position between two continents. Indeed, many recent scholars have argued that Russian encounters with Asia, taking place within the framework of Russia's territorial expansion eastward, forced Russians to examine their relationships with the Eastern, Asian world. It is true that European geographers and historians have debated the location of the border between Asia and Europe since the Middle Ages. But before the nineteenth century this ambiguity hardly troubled Russian minds. The Muscovite state of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example, was well acquainted with cultures and lands to its East, engaging in trade and diplomatic relations with Muslim Tatars and others. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that Muscovy was concerned about its position between Eastern and Western countries. Even Peter the Great, whom historians have credited for bringing European customs into Russia, was little concerned with the European/Asian divide in Russian culture. For him the most important geographical question was Russia's place among the northern states, and he was particularly obsessed with Sweden as Russia's primary military rival.

After Peter's reign, educated Russians, as they became increasingly acquainted with Western European culture, experienced their first pangs of envy and self-doubt in the face of perceived European superiority. Nonetheless, throughout the eighteenth century few cultured Russians had trouble embracing a diverse historical legacy and national character -- German, Slavic, Asian. After all, Europeans themselves were proud of their barbarian past. Peter the Great's chief historian, V. N. Tatishchev, wrote with full confidence and little concern that the Russian empire was located "in both Europe and Asia," noting that though more Russian people lived in Europe, Russia had more territory in Asia. In passing he mentioned that "where the border between these two large and most important cultures is located, no one has as yet determined for certain." According to him, the Slavic people as a whole could be divided into Asian and European branches, thus both cultures were of importance in Russian history.

The first of the great nineteenth-century Russian historians, Nikolai Karamzin, was proud of Russia's diverse heritage. Russia, he wrote,

raising its head between the Asiatic and European kingdoms, represented within its civic life the characteristics of these two parts of the world: a mixture of old Eastern customs, brought by the Slavs into Europe and renewed, so to speak, by our long connection with the Mongols; Byzantine customs borrowed by the Russians along with the Christian religion, and some German customs imparted by the Varangians....

This cultural "mixture," he argued, was a natural product of history, and Russians accepted it as an integral part of their national character.

A transformation in the approach to Russian history and culture occurred in the 1840s and especially in the 1850s, when such casual references to the variegated nature of Russian national character became unfashionable. A new...

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