Lesley Chamberlain on russian philosophy


What motivated you to write a book on the history of Russian philosophy?

I came to Russian philosophy via German literature, when I was fired by the use Thomas Mann made of the ‘Russian’ element. That led to an interest in the Russian intellectual tradition in its own right. Tracing the German philosophical sources for characteristic Russian attitudes and the metamorphosis of German aesthetic idealism in Russia opened up a whole field in the history of ideas. But I’d like to distinguish between ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ in the Russian context. For the best part of two centuries the subject studied in Russia and the West was ‘Russian social and political thought’, which effectively meant the utilitarian and egalitarian, activist tradition leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. In my lifetime, which coincided with the Cold War, the Soviet Union insisted this was the only body of Russian thought that mattered; that alternatives had ceased to exist after 1917. Most Western scholars and university departments followed suit, because the most urgent political question in the world was how Communism was born and how Russia came to be Soviet. I formed a different view because was lucky enough to study with the nephew of one of Russia’s last significant religious philosophers, Semyon Frank, who died in 1950. My subject was born thirty years ago when I traced the work of Frank and his contemporaries back to their nineteenth-century inspiration in two great Russian-style philosophers, Aleksei Khomiakov and Vladimir Solovyov.

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