The Russian Intelligentsia

Russian Thinkers

The Russian Revolutions of the twentieth century were born in the intellectual ferment of Russia in the nineteenth century. Berlin was fascinated by the intellectual currents that engendered these Revolutions, and explored how thinkers and writers such as Alexander Herzen, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Vissarion Belinsky, Mikhail Bakunin, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and others viewed the problems of their time, and the often-radical solutions many grasped for. As Aileen Kelly writes in her introduction to Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, his collected essays on the subject, Berlin’s approach was ‘directed by his interest in how ideas are “lived through” as solutions to moral problems’, and Russia’s history shows the creative and destructive power of ideas like few others.

The Russian Empire was a vast autocratic state, supported by a large bureaucracy and an obscurantist Church, ruling over a population composed mostly of peasants. Currents of repression and liberalisation ebbed and flowed from the government, but the autocracy remained in power. The small Russian intelligentsia, described by Berlin as located ‘between the oppressors and the oppressed’, looked for radical change. After the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825 this intelligentsia increasingly found solace in German idealism, infusing into many a sense of historical purpose in the face of their authoritarian government and the problems posed by a society of ‘ill-treated, economically wretched peasantry’. A lack of education, of political liberty, of any kind of reform, meant the population were largely illiterate and unable to articulate, let alone defend, their own interests.

In Russian Thinkers Berlin explores the complexities of this intelligentsia, showing how many of these thinkers were caught in a bind Berlin knew well. The ‘most sensitive’ were drawn towards two contradictory desires: wanting to reject absolutes, and yet being unable to resist them as answers to the social problems they faced. But these sensitivities and tensions varied, as Berlin shows us: at one end of the scale, the populists, who ‘went to the people’, argued over whether ‘democracy’ could ever reach the serfs, or should be forced upon them; and at the other, Tolstoy agonised over competing visions of reality, which Berlin explores in one of his most famous essays, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Tolstoy, Berlin writes, wished to be a fox – that is, able to see many paths and know many things about reality – but was by nature a hedgehog, a creature in possession of one all-encompassing idea about the world. It was these monist ideas, for Berlin, that could lead to terror: in the name of a people, or a class, or a race, one might do terrible things.

It was the struggle Russian thinkers faced over how to see and change the world that particularly interested Berlin. He described Bakunin as a man who ultimately submitted to monist dogma, being ‘a man who, in his love for humanity in the abstract, was prepared, like Robespierre, to wade through seas of blood’. Belinsky finally rejected this paradigm, denouncing, as Kelly puts it, ‘Hegel’s doctrine of progress as a Moloch to whom living human beings were sacrificed’. Alexander Herzen defended liberty via pluralism, calling on his compatriots to reject abstract ideals that imprisoned the people they were supposed to free. Turgenev, Berlin says, embodied the ‘liberal predicament’: ‘profoundly and painfully concerned’ with exploring society’s ills, yet with ‘sober realism’, he was unable to embrace the radical currents around him.

Above all, these Russian thinkers, and their times, represent a complex series of reference points for Berlin’s own life, biographical and intellectual: their collective influence had an effect whose ripples touched Berlin’s childhood, while their individual examples inspired and embodied his fascination with pluralism, the agony of choices, and the terrible costs some ideologues and visionaries are willing to pay to achieve supposedly beneficial ends.

Related reading
  • Russian Thinkers, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, with an introduction by Aileen Kelly (Bib. 157)
  • The Power of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (Bib. 245)

You will find these and many other related books, essays, articles, interviews and broadcasts in the IBO catalogue.

Return to 'Russian Literature and Russian Thought'