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  • Russian Intellectual History since 1991Overcoming the Left–Right Divide
  • Victoria Frede (bio)

In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union raised hopes that a new era was about to begin, not only in former Soviet countries, but in the world at large. Many anticipated that the dismantling of the political system in the East would open up the possibility of creating a new social system in the West, one based on new philosophical and moral conceptions. Not only did that system fail to emerge, but the intellectual renaissance that was supposed to underpin it never took shape either. Ideas appeared to have lost their vibrancy and power as a force in history; the history of ideas as a scholarly field suffered as a consequence. Russian intellectual history (or call it the history of Russian thought, or philosophy) was struck with special force: the collapse of communism made it obvious that the field needed to be reinvented. It remained unclear, however, what values should underpin this quest.

The declining fortunes of intellectual history in the West have left at least some scholars feeling nostalgic about its status during the Cold War. David Saunders recently captured this feeling: “The history of Russian thought used to be fashionable. Indeed, in the 1950s and early 1960s it occupied centre stage in English-language writing about Russian history.”1 Among the leading lights Saunders lists are Isaiah Berlin, Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, Martin Malia, and Marc Raeff, whose studies defined the field for decades. Those must indeed have been exhilarating times. Berlin, Riasanovsky, Malia, and Raeff knew one another reasonably well: all spent time at Harvard in the late 1940s. There were very few English-language publications in the field when [End Page 807] they took their doctoral degrees—almost any topic they chose to write about would represent a major contribution. No less enviable was their confidence about the governing role ideas play in history. This certitude may partly have been a product of wartime experiences. Raeff, Riasanovsky, and Malia were all born in 1923 or 1924; the former two were refugees from Nazism and communism, and all three served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the final years of World War II. For them, as for many in their generation, there could be no doubt that ideas matter. As Riasanovsky remembered, to emphasize the importance of ideas and ideologies was not to insist that their “impact” was “rational.” On the contrary, “these could be irrational and utopian.” That point, he said, was especially important to Malia.2 Another shared assumption of their generation was that ideas naturally fall along a political spectrum from left to right. Riasanovsky recalled that this had been the organizing principle behind the course in Russian intellectual history, which he and Malia famously co-taught at U.C. Berkeley: “I introduced subjects from the Russian Right, Martin from the Russian Left (in some relationship to our respective research interests).”3 This was an uncomplicated division of labor.

The first years after 1991 saw the publication of two significant works that maintained the importance of ideas and ideology in history: Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy (1994) and Andrzej Walicki’s Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom (1995). In The Soviet Tragedy, ideology is essentially what happens when ideas are extended beyond reasonable limits. The ideology that mattered most to Malia was socialism, and he would define it as “a utopia, in the literal meaning of that term: a ‘non-place’ or a ‘no-where.’ … The full reality of socialism is reserved for the realm of faith, ‘the belief in things unseen, the hope in things unknown.’”4 Reason, Malia believed, always followed a logic, even if that logic had disastrous consequences.

Reason’s cunning, however, ceased to captivate younger scholars. On the contrary, the new generation of intellectual historians would steer away from anything that smacked of determinism or teleology in the realm of ideas. So, for example, Andrei Zorin would describe the “ideological sphere of culture [End Page 808] … as a kind of reservoir of metaphors, from which people of entirely different professions and areas of activity can draw, and which they replenish.”5...


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