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  • Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers and the Argument for Inclusion
  • Addis Mason (bio)

Although there has been quite a bit of debate over Isaiah Berlin’s life and legacy as a historian of ideas and political theorist, his Russian Thinkers is generally viewed as a classic in the field of Russian intellectual history.1 Even his detractors tend to pay tribute to its insight and importance. If Russian Thinkers is a classic, however, it is a largely overlooked one.2 With the increasing popularity of social history in the 1960s and cultural history and imperial studies more recently, Berlin’s history of the ideas of great men in Russia’s two capitals often appears outmoded and limited in scope. So, too, his relative inattention to the scholarly apparatus and apparent lack of systematic research run against the grain of intellectual history’s increasing emphasis upon archival research. Moreover, Berlin’s admiration for many 19th-century Russian thinkers undoubtedly sounds discordant among the more familiar dispassionate tones that predominate in academic study.

Why, then, look back to this largely overlooked classic? First, Russian Thinkers merits study precisely because of its stature and influence upon an entire generation of scholars. Through his series of essays on 19th-century [End Page 185] Russian thinkers, Berlin had a crucial influence in shaping the way Western (particularly Anglo-American) scholars understand the Russian intelligentsia. Second, during the highly politicized Cold War, his essays provided new insights and a new approach to the study of the Russian intelligentsia. As Aileen Kelly noted, rather than presenting Russian thinkers, and particularly members of the Russian intelligentsia as products of political, social, or psychological pathology or extremism, on the one hand, or as sterling, selfless representatives of Russia’s national conscience, on the other, Berlin emphasized the diversity of views among Russian thinkers.3 With the perceptiveness and insight of a novelist, Berlin drew complex pictures of various Russian thinkers and their ideas, which, while capturing their overall world views and moral and intellectual motivations, did not fail to mention the apparent inconsistencies which pulled them in opposing directions. Finally, Berlin anticipated some demands made by post–Cold War scholars of imperial Russia today. For example, he did not present the intelligenty as mere precursors of the Bolsheviks or the Soviet system. So too, not unlike the contemporary quest among historians to relate Russia to broader developments within Europe rather than to relegate it to the status of “other,” Berlin emphasized the many ties and contributions of Russian thinkers to their West European counterparts.4 Thus, in many ways, this classic still stands the test of time, not only for its vibrancy and insight, but also because it managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of Cold War scholarship on the Russian intelligentsia. His was not a narrative of the decline and fall of the Russian Empire: that is to say, of its failure to become fully European or Western.

Instead, Berlin argued for the inclusion of Russian thinkers into the broad stream of European intellectual history, proposing that they belonged to the “family of European nations,” and represented Western ideas, values, and aspirations. The problem with this argument, and indeed this general approach, is that it still retains a normative view of “Europe” and “the West” against which Russian intelligenty are measured and understood. Moreover, [End Page 186] by emphasizing the “Europeanness” of Russians and their capacity to adopt what he referred to as “western” values, ideas, and aspirations, he retained (and indeed buttressed) the same Western triumphalism. “Good Russia” for Berlin was necessarily “European” and “westernized.”5 This underlying assumption caused Berlin to overlook the extent to which 19th-century Russian intelligenty sought to forge a path that was not necessarily opposed to but different from that of various West European nations. Although rejecting essentialist notions of Russia as “the West’s” “other,” as a space of “absence” and “failure” to Westernize, his solution was to give Russia a place within a still idealized, normative “West.”6 By arguing for Russian inclusion rather than exclusion, Russian Thinkers is above all a more sophisticated defense of “the West.” A closer examination of this argument is merited, not only...


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pp. 185-200
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