Was There an "Early Russian Liberalism"? Perspectives from Russian and Anglo-American Historiography

By Shneider, Konstantin | Kritika, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Was There an "Early Russian Liberalism"? Perspectives from Russian and Anglo-American Historiography


Shneider, Konstantin, Kritika


Nineteenth-century liberalism has traditionally occupied a prominent place in the study of Russian intellectual and political history. Presently there is an extensive historiography on Russian liberalism, but the specialist's attentive gaze will easily discover yawning gaps, foremost of which is the early stage in the development of Russian liberalism, the 1850s. Research into any historical phenomenon, including intellectual history, compels the scholar to address the problem of origins. When and how did the formative process of the liberal tradition in Russia take place? What was the first variant of Russian liberalism? The answers to these questions, in my estimation, are to be found in the history of mid-19th-century Russian socio-political thought. Tradition demands that we should give liberalism's "firstborn" a name, to show that this was the initial period in the history of Russian liberalism. This circumstance alone should cause us to adopt a term in universal and familiar scholarly use-"early liberalism." Identifying early Russian liberalism as an independent stage will help us in constructing a periodization for the entire history of Russian liberalism, whose initial pages remain to be written. This approach will also help us come to terms with Russian liberalism by separating it from mid-19th-century Russian radicalism and conservatism.

Interest in mid-19th-century Russian liberalism arose, most likely, in connection with the study of concrete historical topics such as the well-known Westernizer--Slavophile debate, the Great Reforms (1860s-70s), and the liberal zemstvo movement. Yet early Russian liberalism has hardly been considered as an independent intellectual phenomenon for very long. The genesis of Russian liberalism has often been tied either to Westernism or to so-called gentry liberalism and zemstvo activity. Westernism was a platform for heterogeneous ideological elements, however, primarily of a radical and liberal bent. Westernizers included A. I. Herzen, V. G. Belinskii, T. N. Granovskii, K. D. Kavelin, and other thinkers who laid the foundations in the 1840s of both the radical and the liberal traditions. Meanwhile, the concept of "gentry" liberalism-centered around estate identity and devoid of precise meaning-has acquired little currency among intellectual historians, while the zemstvo liberal movement did not appear until the 1860s. By contrast, the 1850s remain an understudied period. Thus, early Russian liberalism continues to be a topic of discussion in the scholarly community. The goal of this article is to study the fundamental scholarly approaches to early Russian liberalism in both Russian and Western historiography.

In Russian historiography, two phases are evident in the study of Russian liberalism's beginning stage. In the Soviet phase, which extended from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s, it was commonplace to acknowledge the mid-1850s as the formative years when Russian liberalism became a "significant social trend." (1) The earliest works devoted to the genesis of a liberal tradition in Russia emphasized that "the further formation of Russian liberal ideology and its political program took place" after Emperor Alexander II (1855-81) had ascended the throne in "a time of heightened social tension." (2) The membership of the "liberal family" in the 1850s was also established: in addition to K. D. Kavelin and B. N. Chicherin, V. P. Botkin, A. V. Druzhinin, and P. V. Annenkov were added to the liberal roster. (3) At the same time, various facts entered into historiographical circulation that subsequently gained universal acceptance among specialists. In particular, gentry intelligentsia circles in the two capitals were identified as the most important centers of the liberal movement that was forming in the mid-19th century-the Moscow circle of A. B. Stankevich and K. D. Kavelin's group in St. Petersburg 4 Additionally, the appearance of manuscript literature and its publication abroad in a series of articles in Golosa iz Rossii was acknowledged as an important event and is usually referred to as "Russian liberals' first public pronouncement. …

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