RUTR 274/374

Professor David Herman

Slavophiles versus Westernizers


As a result of the 19th Century Identity question in Russia, a debate among intellectuals ensued within the public discourse. This debate was focused on one essential question: Where should Russia go? To be put another way, if Russia is to advance in the eyes of its neighbors in Western Europe, should it adapt the customs, technology and politics of Western Europe itself thereby advancing by precisely the same tools the West had used? Alternately, should Russia return to its roots and look within it's own borders for the answer on how to advance into prosperity?

This polemic took place between two distinct groups of intellectuals: the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. The Slavophiles essentially held that Russia was unique because of its institutions. The institutions they often used in their arguments were the Orthodox Church, the peasants and inherently then the village community and mir (see Russian Vocabulary page). In addition, the Slavophiles argued for emancipation of the serfs and freedom of speech and press. As the 19th Century progresses, the Slavophiles become nationalistic, often supporting Pan-Slavism (the movement to politically and culturally unite all Slavs). Prominent Slavophiles were Khomiakov, Kireevsky and Aksakov - all felt that Russia should follow it's own superior path based on values and principles, embodied by the Russian Orthodoxy tradition. Slavophiles often argued that the Orthodox Church was a congregation that denounced personal egoism and individuality, favoring a more group-based "natural" union of love, faith, and customs. Keeping this in mind it is easy to see why the peasants were often used as a pointing device for the Slavophiles to look to. For the Slavophiles the peasants were the answer. The brotherhood and unity that existed in the peasant communes was an extension of what "was Russian." The values and virtues of the Russian Orthodoxy tradition were therefore manifested in the peasant commune. This is where, the Slavophiles argued, Russia was separate and superior to the individualistic West.

In contrast to the Slavophiles, the Westernizers adopted the view that Russia's further development on the world stage would depend on the integration of Weestern technology and liberal government into their current system. The Westernizers were essentially a liberal group. Prominent among the Westernizers was Piotr Chaadayev, a Roman Catholic who attacked Russian institutions such as autocracy, serfdom and the Church. Another notable Westernizer was the literary critic and writer Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky was a critic for the major 19th Century Russian writers, including Dostoevsky, Lermontov and Gogol. Belinsky's emphasis was on the use of literature for the expression of social and political ideas. For the Westernizers the West embodied individualism and social bonds existed not in communes or virtue, but by contracts and laws that structured society.