Who Was Petr Chaadaev?

By Austin Hall

As Jacob Beard, a Ph.D. student in Russian Literature at the Ohio State University, regaled his audience with the trials and tribulations of Peter Chaadaev’s philosophical and literary career, it became clear that Chaadaev was a key figure in the development of modern Russia. Part of the Fall 2018 lecture series sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies on the theme of “Russia Abroad,” Beard’s September 5 lecture helped his audience better situate Chaadaev’s historical significance.

Chaadaev’s “Letter 1,” published in 1836, along with an analysis of the literature of the previous decade such as Alexander Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, shows that the salon mentality of the early nineteenth century allowed for a reimagination of where Russia was in the global atmosphere. Was Russia part of the East? Part of the West? For many Russians, there was no definitive answer to that question. Although many Russians did not take the chance to speak out against the tsarist state, Beard showed that Chaadaev believed that Russia had no place in the world at the time because it was caught between the East and the West. This assertion was the key to understanding the entire lecture and Chaadaev’s point of view.

After reading John Glad’s “The Politicals” and Marc Raeff’s “The Emergence of the Russian European”, Beard’s lecture was even more intriguing. Focusing on a variety of Russian authors, Glad’s analysis of the literary and salon atmosphere of the early nineteenth century provides greater insight to support Beard’s argument that Chaadaev was attempting to construct a philosophy that could move Russia toward a European political and economic atmosphere. As Beard stated, “Chaadaev was a Hegelian who assumed that humanity was one and that Western civilization was its vanguard.”[1] Beard took this fact and argued that Chaadaev’s “Letters” were an attempt to illuminate Russians to their state in the world, and that Russia needed to Westernize to construct a true national image.

This assertion is also backed up by Raeff’s “The Emergence of the Russian European.” Raeff tracks the beliefs and strategies of the Russian leaders Peter the Great, Catherine II, and Paul I to display the ways that the rulers brought Russia into the European atmosphere. Through literature, economics, and the aristocratic salons, the intelligentsia began to usher in a new era of Russian society.[2] As Beard brilliantly argued, the salon culture of Chaadaev’s time was utilized by Russians to foster ideals, strategies, and even philosophical ideas to change the shape of the Russian Empire from a nation without an identity to one with a European character.

Yet another insight and parallel to Beard’s statements about Chaadaev is Alexander Griboyedov’s The Woe to Wit. Throughout the play, Griboyedov satirizes the entirety of Russian society even a decade before Chaadaev’s “Letter 1.” The youthful idealism of the young protagonist Alexandr Andreyevich Chatsky, who Beard noted was based on Chaadaev, displays the want of a changing atmosphere of Russia’s status to European entity. Even writing the play in rhymed, iambic verse, a style that set Griboyedov apart from his contemporaries, displays the allure of the West. It reminds the author of a Shakespearean style of writing, demonstrating a fondness and ideological alliance to the West. This admiration for European ideals aligns perfectly with Beard’s lecture on Chaadaev.

As Beard noted during his lecture, Russia was changing from what Chaadaev believed was a nation without an identity—an assertion exposed in his “Letter 1”—to one that aligned with European trends. Beard decisively argued that the salon atmosphere and the shift in philosophical thinking drove the Russian thinkers to change the landscape of Russia forever.

[1] John Glad, “The Politicals,” in Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics (Hermitage & Birchbark Press, 1999), 73.

[2] Marc Raeff, “The Emergence of the Russian European,” in Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825, Edited by Cynthia Hyla Whittaker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 124-26.

Austin Hall is a second-year M.A. student in History.

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