20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of publications by prominent scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this article, the author recounts the unheeded warning of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.


Vladimir Solovyov


I made my acquaintance with Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov in the autumn of 1967. At that time, I was a special correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta, the most popular newspaper in intellectual circles, with a circulation of one million. Traveling through half the country, I was horrified at what I was seeing and published several high-profile articles about the decline of Russian villages. Suddenly Alexander Chakovsky, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, proffered me an invitation to write an article about Solovyov. I was naïve, and so I rejoiced.

What did I know about Solovyov before my meeting with Chakovsky? No more than what any intelligent man in the USSR should have known. Anecdotes, jokes. However, these stories were impressive. I knew that in the 1880s, he underwent a brutal spiritual transformation, comparable only to the drama of the unknown Pharisee Saul, who turned into the flaming Christian Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Cases of great Russian intellectuals turning away from Westernizing beliefs toward Slavophilism were more than plentiful in the 19th century. The most famous examples were Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontiev. But no one, except Solovyov, had gone in the opposite direction.

I knew of only two people in Russia at that time—him and Leo Tolstoy—who publicly protested the execution of regicides in 1881. I knew that Leontiev, an arrogant man and a bully but “the sharpest mind to be born by Russian culture in the 19th century,” according to Peter Struve, worshiped Solovyov, although he once called him “Satan,” and complained in his letters of how difficult it was for him to object to “the man with the stamp of genius on his forehead.” I, however, knew about this from my dissertation, which was about Leontiev.

In abandoning his “patriotic” creed, Solovyov not only turned into its most severe critic, but also accurately predicted that European Russia would die because of it.

That was probably all that I knew about Solovyov. And what I was about to learn changed my life forever. Namely, that in abandoning his “patriotic” creed, Solovyov not only turned into its most severe critic, not only explained its degradation, but also accurately predicted that European Russia would die because of it.


Solovyov’s Formula

Here is what I wrote about this subject in one of my old books (After Yeltsin, 1995): “The formula proposed by him, which I call ‘Solovyov’s staircase,’ was the revelation, I think, no less significant than Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, and its insightful daring was even more amazing. Here is the formula: ‘National self-consciousness is a great thing, but when the self-consciousness turns into complacency, and complacency into self-admiration, it can only end in national self-destruction.’”

Get a grasp of this frightful formula and you will see that it contains something hitherto quite unheard of: in Russia, national self-consciousness—patriotism that is as natural as breathing—can be deathly dangerous for the country. Negligent handling of this deeply intimate feeling, a demonstrative display of it, Solovyov tells us, inevitably unleashes a chain reaction of degeneration in which the country’s cultural elite ceases to notice the fatal metamorphosis occurring within it.

No, Solovyov had no doubt of the vital importance of patriotism, which is as necessary for people as it is for a man to love his children or his parents. What was dangerous was that the boundary between patriotism and the second stage of Solovyov's staircase, “national self-complacency” (or, to speak the language of politics, national liberalism), is not obvious in Russia; it is amorphous and blurred. But when the country’s cultural elite substitutes national liberalism for patriotism, the slide toward rough, illiberal (“rabid,” by analogy with French Revolution-era radicals) nationalism becomes irreversible, and then national self-destruction is inevitable. Fourteen years after Solovyov's death (he died in 1900), this is exactly what happened with the cultural elite of Russia. The nation committed, as he predicted, collective suicide; it was “self-destroyed.”


The Case of Dostoevsky

I tried to explain how Solovyov came to his formula in my essay for Literaturnaya Gazeta. In the 1880s, he broke with the Slavophilism, which had degenerated in front of his eyes, clearly slipping to the third, suicidal step of his staircase. To prove this, it was enough to refer to Dostoevsky, who was extremely influential in Slavophile circles.

Here is Dostoevsky’s declaration: “If a great nation does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and in it exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to rise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people. A truly great people can never accept a secondary role in the history of Humanity, nor even one of the first, but will have the first part. . . . But there is only one truth and therefore only a single nation can have the true God. . . . Only one nation is god-bearing, that is the Russian people.” In other words, we, the Russians, are the first in the world. What is this if not national self-admiration?

However, Dostoevsky did not stop there. This declaration was followed by his half-crazed and aggressive recommendation to the government: “Constantinople must be ours, conquered by us from Turks, by Russians, and remain ours forever.” This recommendation was accompanied by a prophecy: “Your Europe is on the eve of a ubiquitous, general and terrible fall, there comes something that no one thinks of. All this parliamentarianism, banks, kikes, all this will collapse in an instant and without a trace. . . . All this is near and at the door. . . . I have a feeling that all this [is] coming to an end.” These words were written a century and a half ago. And today, Europe still resides “at the eve of the fall.”

Moreover, the unfortunate prophet Dostoevsky was still fiercely locked in debate with the “Father of Pan-Slavism” Nikolai Danilevsky, who, of course, had demanded that Constantinople be captured, but believed that it would be fair after the conquest to govern the city along with other Slavs. For Dostoevsky, such a proposal was not acceptable: “How can Russia share possession of Constantinople on an equal basis with the Slavs, each of their little nations separately and all of them taken together are in no way equal to Russia?”


Konstantin Leontiev


Something strange happened to this absolutely clear mind whenever he touched on the question of Russia's superiority over the rest of the world (for him, the conquest of Constantinople for some unknown reason was certainly imperative). On one hand, he assured readers, “Russia decidedly lives not for itself, but only for Europe,” and on the other hand, what is ours (or not even ours, but somebody else’s that we still have to conquer at the cost of a bloody war), do not touch! And we will not share it with Europe, for which, seemingly, we live in this world, and we are not going to share it with the little Slavic nations, so dear to our Orthodox heart.

However, Dostoevsky was not alone in this way of thinking. For all their disagreements, the luminaries of Slavophilism of that time, including Ivan Aksakov, Danilevsky, and Leontiev, also stood firmly in favor of war with the seemingly diminishing Europe, and the conquest of Constantinople. Didn’t the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev write about this in magnificent verse: “Then Sophia’s ancient vaults / Will once more house Christ’s altar in restored Byzantium / Fall before it, oh Czar of Russia / Rise as Czar of all the Slavs!”? And finally, how else can we understand—and, most importantly, how could the people themselves understand—without the help of Solovyov’s formula, how intelligent, serious, sensible people, the former national liberals and heirs of the Decembrists, became militant and aggressive maniacs? And why couldn’t they resist the temptation to annex another piece of foreign land, having behind themselves a giant uninhabited Siberia?

Is it surprising that Solovyov was shocked by this eye-catching abyss between the high rhetoric of his former comrades and their policy? What would you do in his place, when the men, moralists, and philosophers you respected proclaimed the people “holy, God-chosen and God-bearing, and therefore, in the name of all this, advocated a policy that could bring no honor to a saint and God-bearing people, nor even to common mortals”? This was the question Vladimir Sergeevich Solovyov himself asked.

It is no less strange that such an obvious and frightening contradiction between word and deed did not alarm the followers (or even the researchers) of the “Russian idea.” None of them ever tried to explain how, in only two generations, the heirs of the Decembrists—who, although they might be inconsistent, leery, still took Russia’s freedom as the cornerstone of their beliefs—turned suddenly into Pharisees and maniacs, the apologists of despotism and the Empire.


On “national egoism”

Even more strange, however, was that no one, either in Russia or the world, ever used Solovyov’s remarkable prognostic gift. But he not only predicted the vulnerability of patriotism in Russia and the degradation of Slavophilism. He did so casually, in one phrase that killed Slavophilism: “The internal contradiction between the requirements of true patriotism, wanting for Russia to be the best, and false claims of nationalism, confirming that it is the best anyway.”

He predicted something much more important. I will show two examples. Three decades before the First World War, who could have imagined that this war would became the “last” for European Russia and that it would not end with the conquest of Constantinople, but with Russia’s own “self-destruction” and the triumph of the “boorish” kingdom? Who but Solovyov? And nobody in 1914 could even think about this.

Here is another example. Speaking about the difference between patriotism and the “Russian idea,” a difference that tormented him, Solovyov let drop the idea that nationalism “is the same for people as selfishness is for an individual.” And then he unfolded his brilliant guess: “Our out-of-European or against-European deliberate and artificial unicity has always been merely an empty claim. To renounce this claim is the first and necessary condition for us. This is opposed only by foolish pseudo-patriotism, which, under the pretext of love for the people wants to keep it on the road to national egoism, i.e. to wish him evil and death.”

What did Solovyov actually mean when he spoke of “national egoism”? Exactly what we hear every day from the mouths of the overwhelming majority of our state officials—whether they be in America, China, or Russia—the absolute and indisputable supremacy of national interests. And nobody thinks that what they are saying is wrong.

Would you enter into business with a person who at every step proclaimed that his private interests trumped everything in the world? It is certain that no individual in his or her right mind, except Vladimir Zhirinovsky, would ever say so—at least in a polite society. But state officials and politicians pronounce this belief with pride and in the most respectable circles, although it is not entirely clear how national egoism differs from personal egoism.

The worst that could happen to the author of a great discovery happened: Solovyov’s discovery was simply forgotten.

It took the modern world, or at least the part of it that is Europe, three-quarters of a century and two world wars to come up with the understanding of how important it is to subordinate these formerly sacred national interests to the interests of the community. And by declaring that the security of the community is above the national sovereignty of individual states, these nations acknowledged the accuracy of a lone eccentric “with the stamp of genius on his forehead.” Alas, the pioneering laurels went to another. No one remembered Solovyov.


Nobody is a prophet in his own country

But that was in Europe. Nobody had listened to Solovyov at home (just as, indeed, nobody had listened to his most talented opponent, Konstantin Leontiev), and this was his and Russia’s trouble. They did not hear him before the fateful war and revolution, or after them. And the worst that could happen to the author of a great discovery happened: his discovery was simply forgotten, for nearly half a century—despite the fact that he succeeded in doing what eluded Leontiev: he created a school. His “philosophy of unity” inspired the brilliant group of Silver Age thinkers. Nikolai Berdyaev, Father Sergei Bulgakov, Semyon Frank, and Georgy Fedotov all considered him their teacher.

But here, Solovyov was unlucky again. He was idolized as a philosopher, but as a political thinker he went unnoticed, even to his pupils. He didn’t exist for them as such, though it was his most important quality. Berdyaev was certainly right when he wrote: “Any European country would be proud of Solovyov, but the Russian intelligentsia did not read the philosophy of Solovyov and did not know him.” Berdyaev, however, read Solovyov and thought that he knew him well. But how much did he understand? Here is what he wrote about the same “last” war in which his teacher saw the imminent death of the European Russia: “I strongly stood for the war to its victorious end. I thought that the world was coming to a conclusion of a great historical problem of the East and the West and that Russia was facing in this decision the central role.” Would Solovyov recognize the national liberal Berdyaev as his disciple?

And so “the man with the stamp of genius on his forehead,” the only one in the history of Russian thought, remained a tragic and forgotten figure to the end. This was the thrust of the article that I brought to Chakovsky in the winter of 1968. Needless to say, that article was never published. And nobody even apologized.