The New Europe/Volume 2/Russia and Europe

Russia and Europe

Russia and Europe: Gregor Alexinsky. 1917. (T. Fisher Unwin.) 10s. 6d. net.

Russland und Europa. Studien über die Geistigen Strömungen in Russland. 2 vols. 1913. (Jena: Diederichs). 28 mk.

“Russia is what Europe was.” In these words Professor Masaryk sums up, in his monumental work on Russian philosophy and political thought, the truth which lies at the root of modern Russian history. It has sometimes been claimed that Moscow, the third Rome, is through Byzantium the true heir of Hellenism, and the bulwark of Christianity in its pristine form against the corruptions of the “rotten” West. In reality that strange blend of theocracy and reaction which has come to be known as “Tsardom” can only lay claim to such ancestry as a debased palimpsest can claim to have preserved the priceless text which it has obscured for so many centuries. It is to the vital and transforming genius of Italy that we owe the revival of Hellenic ideas, not to the stagnation of Orthodox Monasticism.

To the West, Russia is a perpetual source of mystery and of fascination, and this is above all because we see in her development a tremendous conflict between opposing ideas—in the words of Soloviev, between “two ideals which embrace the entire economy of the human species.” The process which first became noticeable under Peter the Great has reached its crisis to-day, and upon its outcome depends the fate not merely of Russia herself, but of the Western world as well. It is thus little short of a disaster that Russian thought and Russian political philosophy should still remain a closed book to English readers, and that while the novels of Tolstoi and Dostojevski have been read by thousands, their true moral and political significance should have remained incomprehensible because the milieu which produced them and made them a necessity is absolutely unknown. The two rival currents in Russian thought are represented by the “Slavophils” and the “Westerners,” but the lines of division between them have for the most part been false and arbitrary, and Dostojevski himself described their conflict as “merely the result of a gigantic misunderstanding.” In all the greatest Russians there has been a trait of universality, and it is perhaps something of an accident that Tolstoi should have been credited with a monopoly of such ideas. Pushkin, the most national of Russian poets, was always a convinced Westerner, and Mr. Alexinsky brings overwhelming proof of the influence exercised by western ideas upon almost every Russian writer and political thinker of the last two centuries. Perhaps the most extraordinary feature in the whole conflict of ideas is the fact that the strongest opposition to western ideas came from elements which were themselves alien in origin. Absolutist and reactionary ideas in Russia were positively strengthened by the so-called process of Europeanization—and this not merely under Elizabeth and Catherine, but later under Nicholas I. and his successors. The extremists who in their frenzied devotion to Orthodoxy in its narrowest form condemned the West as “carrion” and exalted Tsardom as a divine institution, were the unconscious tools of Prussian foreign policy and of a bastard form of European medievalism. “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism” were proclaimed as a sacred Trinity against the false gods of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It is characteristic of our superficial reading of history that we have long tended to regard autocracy as the very kernel of things in Russia. And yet autocracy is no more natural to Russia than to France; it has been a mere stage in development. The democratic era in Novgorod was a far more natural product of the race which has produced the Mir and the Zemstvo than was the “Militarized Byzantinism” of Nicholas I. It is worth remembering to-day that the Romanovs owed their election to the Zemski Sobor.

Those who sought to justify black reaction by disapproval of the corroding influence of non-Slav and Western ideas were guilty of the most hateful hypocrisy. “To combine the slavery of the East with the discipline of the Russian barrack—this was the naïve ideal of the autocracy and bureaucracy” under Nicholas I. Their hostility was directed ostensibly against Western thought, but in reality against the pernicious practice of thinking at all. When Nicholas himself imposed upon the unhappy poet Ševčenko the prohibition against writing or even drawing, or when he forbade his officials to use the word “progress” under any circumstances, he was merely carrying the system to its logical conclusion. Many of its adherents even went so far in their fear of new ideas from Europe, as to insist on regarding Russia as an Asiatic power and to urge her to seek her objective there rather than in Europe. Incompetence bred corruption and increasing paralysis of the body politic, and occasional attempts to mark time proved even more impractical than “resignation to the boldest constitution.”

Mr. Alexinsky brings out the influence of Russia’s wars in transforming the internal situation. In the war of 1812 the soul of the nation as a whole seems to have stirred for the first time. In the Crimean War “it was not the Russian Army which was conquered at Sevastopol, but rather the social and political system of the old autocratic Russia. A serf-owning country could not hold out against more civilised states.” In 1878 the diplomatic failure which followed upon military success reacted upon popular psychology and strengthened the rival currents of autocracy and nihilism. In 1905 the Japanese adventure, more than any previous war the product of Tsardom and its attendant satellites, precipitated the internal crisis and made a change of system sooner or later inevitable. The World War has brought this sham-theocratic system to a state of final bankruptcy and moral discredit. “Caesaropapism” is dead, and the dynasts of Central Europe are left as sole mourners at the funeral. The evolution of the Russian people has been long and painful, and we must still be prepared for terrible crises and perhaps even serious set-backs; but only the ignorant or the wilfully blind can deny that it has reached its majority and can be trusted to work out its own destinies. One of the most striking sections in Mr. Alexinsky’s book is devoted to copious extracts from the mandates addressed by their constituents to the deputies of the First Duma; and he is fully entitled to assert that “only a people that has arrived at a high pitch of self-consciousness could have produced such documents as these.” The philosopher, Čaadajev, held that “a day would come when the Russians would find a place in the midst of intellectual Europe, as we already stand in the midst of political Europe; more powerful then by virtue of our intelligence than we are to-day by virtue of our material strength.” The union of Rasputinism at home and Prussianism in foreign policy has sought desperately to hold Russia in shackles and to obscure the political outlook by mysticist theories which scarcely ruffle the surface of reality. The chains are falling from her limbs; have we more to hope or to fear from the lessons which she has in store for us? Surely the “divine despair” which has prompted all classes of the nation at this supreme moment, must command not merely our heartfelt sympathy, but also a calm optimism which not all the uncertainty of the future can quell.

Mr. Alexinsky is already well known by his earlier volumes on “Modern Europe” and “Russia and the Great War”; “Russia and Europe” should be carefully read by the growing thousands who are eager to understand Russia’a relations with the West and to play their part in strengthening them still further. We can only hope that Professor Masaryk’s book, published on the eve of the war under the same title, will be translated into English with as little delay as possible. The German edition already occupies the position of the standard book on Russian thought and political philosophy, and is continually quoted by all the foremost German historians and publicists, despite its author’s open antagonism to the German cause. It is a real misfortune that its rich stores of information and critical analysis are only accessible to Russia’s Western Allies in German garb; and the British or French publisher who would undertake its translation would be performing a real service to the Allied cause. In the meantime we hope to analyse its contents in greater detail in future numbers of The New Europe.R. W. S.-W.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.