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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 349-366

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Joseph de Maistre between Russia and the West

Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences
pr. Vernadskogo, d. 82, k. 2
Moscow 117571
Russian Federation
Translated by Elizabeth Kristofovich Zelensky
Richard A. Lebrun, ed., Joseph de Maistre's Life, Thought, and Influence: Selected Studies. Montreal, Kingston: McGill University-Queen's University Press, 2001. 338 pp. ISBN 0-7735-22-88-3. $75.
Bastien Miquel, Joseph de Maistre, un philosophe à la cour du tsar [Joseph de Maistre, Philosopher at the Tsar's Court]. Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 2000. 252 pp. ISBN 2-226-11414-9. €14.99.

The fate of Joseph de Maistre is an excellent example of the fickleness of intellectual fashion. Over the last two centuries, he has been the subject of many widely disparate characterizations, some of them fairly harsh: he was called an "apologist for hangmen and war," one who "failed to shine at even a superficial level in his works" and "wrote weird, obscurantistic things."1 But, while minor historical figures usually lose much of their charm over time, de Maistre not only continues to interest the historian of ideas in Russia as well as the West but is actually undergoing something of a revival.

While research into de Maistre's thought has followed similar paths in Russia and the West, credit for the initial development of this subject belongs to Western scholars. This should come as no surprise, as he was much better known in the West. His complete works and letters were published in Lyons in the 1870s, which raised interest in his personality and political doctrines. If at first he was "co-opted" by the Right, which tried to turn him into a "living symbol" of reaction, over time scholarly objectivity came into its own. De Maistre, an unusual and extraordinary intellect, cannot be reduced to his own extreme conservatism. Everything about him was intriguing: his political passions and philosophical aloofness, his ultramontanism and Masonic past, his Christianity and reflections on the problem of violence. His biography itself fascinated, touching as it did both Europe and Russia, as well as the great writers, statesmen, and monarchs of the Napoleonic era. [End Page 349]

In Russia, de Maistre was less well known as a thinker and historical figure, despite the significant traces he left here, whether in our history (he helped bring about the dismissal of Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranskii, the greatest reformer of Alexander I's era) or our national symbols (at Alexander's behest, he selected the winning design for the magnificent monument to Minin and Pozharskii that graces Red Square). Yet we developed no tradition of translating his works—causing considerable problems for present-day translators—or of studying him historically. Spurts of episodic interest, however, did manifest themselves from time to time. The few (albeit often quite successful) works that did appear failed to build on one another. Each author decided arbitrarily which Western experts on de Maistre to use as sources of information, so alongside such well-known scholars as François Vermale one found serendipitous and obscure sources.

For its part, the West was similarly indifferent to Russian scholarship; of the works available (mostly essays and articles), only one appeared in Western bibliographies: the remarkable 1937 article on de Maistre from Literaturnoe nasledstvo. Thus, the Western and the Russian research trajectories hardly ever intersected. Only in the last few years have our Western colleagues become interested in the limited work that has been done in Russia, while Russian historians have only recently gained the freedom to study a conservative like de Maistre without worrying about state security, as well as the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Western scholarship. Unfortunately, the Western scholarship on Joseph de Maistre found in Russian libraries is limited to works published by the late 1960s. Unless one has direct connections with Western experts, it remains difficult to obtain current publications on this subject. The essay collections published by...


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