The Original Slavophiles: The Roots of an Abiding Debate

Russian Life, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Original Slavophiles: The Roots of an Abiding Debate


In many ways, the upbringing of the brothers Ivan and Peter Kireyevsky was typical for children of the Russian nobility during the early 19th century, but since they were both born with exceptional abilities and grew up among people for whom poetry, philosophy and history were as essential as oxygen, the boys received a truly remarkable education.

Like most young nobles, the brothers were fluent in French, but they also spoke many other languages, both modern and ancient. They spent most of their time reading and thinking, and few saw anything unusual in this.

The brilliantly educated young men could have chosen any of a number of prestigious careers in the Foreign Ministry, where they undoubtedly would have held top positions, perhaps becoming ambassadors or ministers. But they chose another path.

Peter and Ivan Kireyevsky--who were fluent in the languages of Europe, who read the German poets and philosophers in the original, who had made Western Europe their second home--gradually began to turn their backs on the West and focus their attention on Russian culture. Peter Kireyevsky devoted many years to the study of Russian folklore. He collected, published, and researched thousands of folk songs and tales. Ivan Kireyevsky went even further and attempted a philosophical study of Russian history.

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In some ways, this behavior was rather odd for an educated young noble in 19th century Russia. For many, French was their first language. Travels through Europe--sometimes lasting years--often formed the core of the privileged young Russian's education. French novels, English poetry and German philosophy were standard fare, more familiar (and in many ways less "foreign") than anything written in their "native" language. But, at the same time, by the middle of the 19th century, many Russian intellectuals were beginning to ask themselves questions they had not previously contemplated: Who are we? How did our country arise? What can our history tell us about ourselves?

It is worth noting that such questions were also being raised by young people in Germany, Italy, and France. It may be that the Kireyevsky brothers, like many of their friends, began to ponder Russian history and culture after reading German and French books. But, before long, their thinking began to follow an independent course. Indeed, they began to question whether the roots of Russian culture had anything to do with Western Europe.

For more than a century--since Peter the Great's reforms--the Russian nobility had not questioned the idea that Russia was a part of Europe. They followed European fashions, ate European food, spoke French and adopted the dances of France and England. They were clothed by French tailors; French tutors educated their children. If life in their native land differed in any way from life in Paris, London, or Vienna, this was the fault of backwardness and ignorance, which were being gradually eradicated.

But the Kireyevsky brothers and their generation had a different view of the world. Ivan Kireyevsky had taken up a career in literature and social activism by launching a journal called The European. Within a few years, however, he ceased to see himself as a European. After lengthy contemplation of Russian history, he came to the conclusion that his country had followed a completely different course of development than the countries of the West.

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