The Theories of the Slavophiles: on the Relationship between State and Society in Russia

This essay considers the Slavophile conception of the state and its relationship with society as part of the wider Slavophile program of the 1830s-1850s, which sought to address a sense of crisis within the integrity of Russian civilisation and of impending social collapse in nineteenth-century Russia. The state and the society governed by it are critical concepts to any historical-political analysis; thus, these concepts naturally occupied a central place in the Slavophiles’ analysis.

Society itself is constituted of individuals, each of them possessing their own desires, fears, and opinions. Thus, a conflict of interests between the will of the individual and the collective will of society is present throughout social history. The state usually arbitrates between these two conflicting forces. The Slavophiles, however, claimed that ancient Russian society was wholly harmonious because the values embodied in Orthodox Christianity were universally held and respected by the population, and ‘unanimity in belief led to unanimity in action’ (Kireevsky, I., A Reply to A. S. Khomiakov, 1839, in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 77), thus negating this historical antagonistic relationship. Furthermore, the powerful autocratic state had no need to interfere in society, they argued, as it existed only as a defender of the internal integrity of social life against external threats.

Against this background, this essay analyses the Slavophile presentation of an idealised image of the ancient relationship between the Russian autocracy and the society it ruled over, marked by harmony and a lack of any class conflict. This image is juxtaposed with the European state of affairs, dominated by rationalisation of all social relationships, culminating in a reduction of all relations to legal-contractual obligations like the ‘social contract’, leading to conflict, crisis and collapse – problems that the Slavophiles saw as beginning to affect Russia by the mid-nineteenth century.

This was, in part, due to the Westernising and modernising reforms of Peter I (reigning 1682-1725), which were seen as having destroyed the integrity of the ancient traditions and way of life of the Russian people. The imperial growth advanced by Peter I was further critiqued by the Slavophiles as having fractured society into two parts: one, made up of the peasants, remained true to their native ways; the second, constituted of the governmental elite, embraced Western culture and customs. This was perceived to have resulted in the destruction of the harmonious relationship between state and society, as that relationship was seen as being based on shared values and traditions.

This essay closes with a presentation of the Slavophile solution to Russia’s ills, concerning a redress of the relationship between state and society based on their conception of the ancient Russian configuration.

Translation Notes 

One issue presented by analysing conceptual works written in another language is the difficulty of translating terminology. Terms utilised by the Slavophiles have certain historical, political, and social connotations specific to Russian culture that cannot be communicated via literal translation of the terms into English. For example, the word ‘people’ in English lacks political connotations present in the Russian term ‘narod’, which has connotations of ‘nationhood’, of traditional folk culture, and of a contiguous body of people united by commonalities in beliefs and attitudes.

Likewise, ‘zemlya’ means ‘Earth’ or ‘land’ and is usually translated by English-speaking scholars of Slavophilism as the latter. When used by the Slavophiles to describe the masses, however, it denotes romantic imagery of peasants and serfs, dirty with soil and sweat from toiling in the fields. 

To solve this problem, this essay differentiates between terms such as the standard English word ‘people’, and ‘people-zemlya’, thereby signifying to the reader the extra connotations attached to these terms by the original thinkers in a way that would not otherwise be possible and permitting fuller comprehension of an important aspect of Slavophile ideology.

Another important term in the writings of the Slavophiles is ‘obschestvo’, literally meaning ‘society’. For the Slavophiles, this term has additional important connotations of authentic and organic relations between individuals, in contrast to the artificial and alien nature of the rational-legal, contractual relations promoted by the state. To better communicate the full meaning of this term, ‘obschestvo’ is presented in this essay as ‘organic society’.

An important exception concerns Konstantin Aksakov’s concept of ‘delo’,  which is a structural term and generally universal concept without any important connotations. It has therefore been translated variously in this essay as ‘sphere of operations’, ‘of affairs’ and ‘of influence’, depending on which best communicates the point being conveyed.

I. The Slavophile Program

The Slavophile program arose as a response to the perception in Russia of the decline and imminent collapse of Western European civilisation in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Slavophiles felt this decline and collapse occurred due to both structural and theoretical elements of political and social organisation in Europe. 

Slavophile thinkers noted that since the time of Peter I, Russia had appropriated many aspects of European political and social organisation, and thus these thinkers feared that Russian civilisation was headed for the same fateful destiny. The Slavophile program was therefore a logical progression of analysis of:

  • the structural and conceptual flaws in European civilisation and their historical origins;
  • the historical nature of ancient Russian civilisation, as distinct from the above;
  • Russia’s adoption of European institutions and ideas, in particular the reforms and imperial expansion of Peter I and their detrimental impacts on society; and 
  • how a Europe-like decline could be avoided by a return to the traditional governing principles of ancient Russian social life. 

To preserve the logical coherence of the Slavophile argument, the following analysis will broadly adhere to the progression of thought outlined above.

II. Slavophile Critique of European Civilisation

The Slavophiles traced the divergence between Russian and European civilisations to three main defining aspects of the latter, as outlined by Ivan Kireevsky, one of the founders of the Slavophile movement, in 1839. The formation of European civilisation had been influenced by the troika of Christianity, the ‘classical heritage’ of the Roman Empire, and the ‘barbarian races’ that eventually destroyed Roman civilisation (A Reply to A. S. Khomiakov, 1839, reproduced in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 79-88).

The second aspect is of particular importance to the development of defining distinctions between Europe and Russia. The dominant ideology of Roman civilisation, in Kireevsky’s analysis, was rationalism, which is understood as the “triumph of naked reason relying on itself alone, and recognising nothing above or outside it” (Kireevsky, I., 1839, in Walicki, 1979: 93).

Rationalism’s dominance permitted the Romans to excel at the practice of jurisprudence. The force of juridical rationalism thus came to define the Roman state. According to Kireevsky, while this force ostensibly held society together, in reality it actually destroyed the organic unifying social bonds between individuals that constitute society by rationalising and formalising them into contractual obligations under the law (Kireevsky, I., 1839, in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 83). As a result, ancient Roman society became merely an aggregation of atomised individuals, motived solely by private economic advantage, with no social bonds connecting them besides mutually beneficial business interests.

The role of the state in European civilisation, as the promulgator of juridical rationalism, necessitated that it become a formal, neutral, rationalised arbitrator of the law. The state had, as a result, become detached from society and had risen above it as an “alienated, external force” that “chained people together but did not unite them” (Walicki, 1979: 94).

The political institutions of Western Europe inherited the above configuration of socio-political organisation from the Romans, according to Kireevsky, and due to the pervasive lack of social unity originating from the rationalisation and destruction of organic social bonds, the history of development in Europe would necessarily be one of a struggle between mutually antagonistic interests (Walicki, 1979: 94).

This was borne out by history, the Slavophiles claimed. The dominance of rationalism had increased over time, due to the state as an alien force external to society, and reached its pinnacle with the concept of the ‘social contract’, representing in Kireevsky’s eyes the totalreduction of all human relations to a single rational legal obligation. A social contract was the only bond capable of connecting such isolated and atomised individuals, given the destruction of any organic bonds between them by the force of rationalisation (Walicki, 1979: 95).

Aleksey Khomiakov, co-founder of the Slavophile movement along with Kireevksy, argued that religion did not escape the force of rationalisation unscathed either. Christianity had been adopted by the Roman Empire and thus had become rationalised as part of a secular ideology. Thus, Roman Catholicism lost its force as a true moral unifier. The Roman Church could no longer unite people in society with purely moral compulsion through the universal values of Christianity and was forced to forge a material unity by projecting a secular force over its territory, exchanging the organic bonds of Christian love for rationalised institutional bonds (Khomiakov, On Catholicism, 1859, reproduced in Offord and Leatherbarrow, 1987: 89-90). Therefore, Roman Christianity became, just like the secular state that adopted it, an alienated force that chained society together in an external form of unity.

The authoritarian nature of Catholicism was met with dialectical reaction by the Protestant Church. If Catholicism meant, in Khomiakov’s phrase, ‘unity without freedom’, then Protestantism was ‘freedom without unity’ (Walicki, 1979: 95). Khomiakov saw this as a justifiable reaction given the tyranny he perceived in Roman Catholicism but argued that Protestantism was so disunified that it lacked any constructive force.

The above exposition suggests the existence of an inherent contradiction in Western European civilisation: a struggle between unity and freedom that originated in the initial destruction of organic bonds, which can, in Khomiakov’s eyes, unite individuals without sacrificing their individual autonomy. This was the case in ancient Russia, argued the Slavophiles, and this arrangement had allowed ancient Russia to avoid all of the above problems as it had not inherited the initial seeds of rationalism from the Roman Empire.

III. Slavophile Analysis of the Nature of Ancient Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia, according to the Slavophiles, possessed unique characteristics that allowed it to avoid the antagonistic struggle between individual freedom and social unity that plagued Europe. Traditional culture and religion, through their respective institutions of the peasant commune and the Orthodox Church, gave rise via a process of symbiosis to universal and unanimous values and traditions, termed sobornost, which governed ancient Russian social life and precluded both self-willed individualism and the constraint of individual freedom by society through the use of coercive force.

According to the Slavophile analysis, one aspect of the uniqueness of ancient Russia was its forms of social organisation. The central body of peasant social life was the obschina, the village commune. Under this mode of social organisation, individuals “belonged to the commune and the commune to [them]” (Kireevsky, I., A Reply to A. S. Khomiakov, 1839, in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 83). Land was held in common and distributed amongst the peasant families according to number of members in each family by the mir, an assembly of village elders. The members of the obschina-commune were united by certain universally held and unanimously respected values, based on ancient traditions and customs of peasant life. The mir-assembly also acted as a court, settling disputes and keeping the peace through a normative application of these traditional values. These principles were thus embodied in the commune as an institution and, according to the Slavophiles, had originally arisen due to an innate communal instinct present only in the Slavs (Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 65).

The Orthodox version of Christianity had not, as previously stated, been contaminated by rationalism or secularism and instead retained its organic qualities. Therefore, the innate communality of the Slavic peasantry was complemented and supported by the true Christian values of love for one’s brother, sacrificing oneself for others, and so on. The combination of innate Slavic communalism and true Christian values gave rise to the concept of sobornost, the governing principle of life in ancient Russia.

Sobornost, a term coined by Khomiakov and one of his major contributions to the Slavophile program, is the resulting state of affairs created by the synthesis of the above two precepts, reconciling both individual freedom and collective will. This is possible given that Orthodoxy, from Khomiakov’s Christian perspective, represented the absolute truth as revealed to man from God through the Bible. Faith in Orthodoxy was unanimous among the ancient Russian people, according to Khomiakov. Due to their faith, self-willed individualism was impossible because the people had knowledge of the truth concerning what constituted morally good behaviour, and thus every believer would act the same way, in line with what was dictated by this ‘truth’. In other words, unanimity in belief leads to unanimity in action, thus negating the possibility of individual behaviour that was against the will of the collective.

Obschina-communes were connected by the network of churches and monasteries across the country that promoted and protected Orthodoxy, thus ensuring pattern maintenance and integrity of the norms of sobornost all over Russia. It is possible to conclude from the discussion thus far that the Church clearly played a very strong role as fosterer of moral development and maintainer of social harmony in the Slavophile analysis of ancient Russia. In Europe, by contrast, the Slavophiles argued that due to the destruction of organic social relations by pernicious rationalisation, social harmony could only be maintained through rational-legal guarantees, such as rights. These were enforced by the state, a force external to society. However, as we have seen, the state, rights, or laws have all yet to be mentioned thus far in the Slavophile analysis of ancient Russia.

Indeed, Kireevsky argues in his Reply to Khomiakov that ‘rights’ in the rational-legal sense did not exist in ancient Russia (Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 77). Concepts such as ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ existed as part of Russia’s native customs and traditions, informed by the spirit of Orthodoxy and independent of any legal or contractual guarantees. The truth regarding these concepts had been revealed to the people by God; no state was required to act as arbitrator or enforcer.

The state might not be necessary according to Slavophile thought thus far, but an autocratic state was nevertheless a defining characteristic of ancient Russian civilisation. In order to understand the relationship between the two spheres of autocracy and organic society, it is necessary to first consider the Slavophile concepts of inner and external truths, which will clarify the above analysis of ancient institutions and their unity under sobornost. 

Inner truth is understood, in the context of the individual, as the voice of moral conscience. It is extrapolated onto a wider macro-social scale in the form of the entire body of values found in religion, tradition and custom originating from God and communicated through the Bible (Walicki, 1979: 96). This body of values representing the inner truth aids in the forging of organic social bonds based on shared conviction in the validity of these values, thus giving rise to the obschina-commune founded on unanimous agreement and a community of custom.

The above concepts that form the inner truth are self-contained and contrasted with external truth, which represents artificial elements of civilisation, created by man and external from organic society, such as the state and the secular, rationalised law implemented by it. These are considered artificial in that they are not the product of the values embodied in tradition and religion, which have not, by contrast, been degraded and weakened via rationalisation, and thus have retained their organic nature as part of the inner truth.

Konstantin Aksakov, a later Slavophile theorist of the 1840s, argued that these two spheres must not interact, as doing so would violate and damage the sacred, organic inner truth of society. Thus, the relationship between state-autocracy and organic society (which he refers to as zemlya) in the Slavophile conception of ancient Russian civilisation is governed by a principle of mutual non-interference (Walicki, 1979: 98).

Any discussion of the relationship between state-autocracy and organic society necessarily pivots around the freedom of the latter and restrictions imposed on this freedom by the former; this is the essence of such a relationship. Therefore, this analysis begins with an examination of the Slavophiles’ notion of ‘ancient Russian freedom’, as distinct from Western European understandings of the concept.

Aksakov attacked the Western European concept of political freedom on the basis that it “presupposed the peoples’ active participation in politics” (Walicki, 1979: 96); in ancient Russia, a society that had not suffered from rationalism, such participation would destroy the organic principles of social life. Rather, ancient Russian freedom should be understood as freedom from politics, the liberty to live according to the unwritten laws of faith and tradition, and the right to “full self-realisation within the [inner] moral sphere” upon which the state would not impinge (Hughes, 2000: 161).

Aksakov continues his analysis, building on Khomiakov’s concepts of inner and external truths, by arguing that because the Russian people had no desire for political power (preferring instead to pursue their own inner spiritual perfection). This unique state of affairs in the ancient relationship between the state and people-zemlya is thus defined by a division between the affairs of the state and the people into two distinct structural spheres of operation and influence, termed ‘delo’ in the original Russian.

This division into distinct spheres of operations occurred because the Russian people sought to “preserve their own inner, non-political, communal life; their customs; their mode of existence”, expressed in simple terms by Aksakov as “a peaceful life of the spirit” (Aksakov, Memorandum on the Internal State of Russia, 1855, reproduced in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 97).

The essential difference between European states and the state-autocracy in Russia was that the latter had not become the “principle upon which social organisation was founded” (Walicki, 1979: 97). The Russians, Aksakov reasoned, were non-political people, who sought only to pursue spiritual growth within their own moral sphere. Only when the situation demanded, due to the threat of external invasion that would have destroyed the inner moral sphere, did a state arise. This argument is based on the legend of the ‘Calling of the Varangians’, the tale that the Russian people ‘called their rulers from beyond the sea’ in the form of the Rurikid Dynasty, supposedly of Viking origin, to avoid dirtying themselves in the business of statecraft and thus damaging the purity and integrity of their inner spiritual lives. Therefore, continues Aksakov, the Tsar was afforded autocratic powers so that the people-zemlya could avoid all contact with the external truth (which is the reasoning behind Aksakov’s argument that ancient Russian freedom constituted freedom from politics).

Thus, the ancient Russians carved out their own autonomous sphere of operations, the delo zemly, or ‘affairs of the land’, leaving the “kingdom of this world in the hands of the [autocratic] state” (Aksakov, Memo., in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 97) and focusing on their spiritual path to the kingdom of Heaven.

The state had its own obligations with regards to the sphere of the people-zemlya, taking on the role of external defender of the inner truth against foreign invasion and thus preserving the spiritual freedom of the people from violation. This role of guardian constitutes the delo gosudarstva, the ‘sphere of affairs of the state’. Importantly, Aksakov claimed that historically, the Russian people had never violated the boundaries of the sphere of operations of the state, since as an inherently apolitical people, they had never sought political power.

Aksakov is later forced to clarify his argument, due to the historical and structural impossibilities of his claim that there was no interaction whatsoever between the spheres of people and state. The spheres “don’t intermingle […] but do nevertheless impinge upon one another” (Ibid.: 100). Neither sphere interferes in the other’s affairs, which allows him to conclude ultimately that the governing principle of the relationship between the two was primarily one of mutual non-interference. This, however, was a functionally negative relationship; and in order for the Slavophile program (a return to these ancient modes of organisation to avoid collapse a la Europe) to be tenable in the mid-1800s, it was necessary to produce a concrete analysis on the form of the functionally positive, constructive interactions between state-autocracy and people.

Aksakov therefore uses the example of the zemskii sobor, ‘Assembly of the Land’, to demonstrate how the state can consult public opinion without any integral damage to the inner truth of the sphere of operations of the people-zemlya. These assemblies were held intermittently throughout pre-Petrine Russian history and consisted of representatives of all groups of Russian society. This institution, reasoned Aksakov, was the only means by which a “powerless people can relate to an all-powerful government” (Ibid.: 101).

In order to maintain the integrity of his argument, Aksakov claims that the public opinion transmitted to the autocrat via the zemskii sobor carried only a moral compulsion on the autocrat, purely informing the state-sphere of the vague desires of the people-zemlya, which the autocrat was free to reject. In Aksakov’s succinct phrase, “action was the government’s prerogative, opinion the county’s” (Ibid.: 102), and therefore the principle of mutual non-interference remained intact. Thus, the extent of the functionally positive relationship between state and people in Aksakov’s analysis can be described as public opinion forming a moral (and thus apolitical) bond between these two institutions, which are otherwise  isolated from, although obliged to, one another.

IV. Aksakov’s Argument on the Historical Relationship between People and State

Aksakov’s claim that the Russian people are fundamentally apolitical, and thus “throughout Russian history there has not been a single uprising against authority in the name of political rights for the people” (Aksakov, Memo., in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 95) is one of his most contentious, and at first glance appears incorrect, given that peasant uprisings are a recurrent feature of Russian history.

Aksakov is thus forced to clarify his position, accepting that uprisings by the people have occurred, but that these were always in the name of “legality” against “unlawful power” when the state-autocracy had violated the principle of mutual non-interference. Regarding attempted coups and plots by the nobility, like the Decembrist Uprising or the attempted power grab by the Supreme Privy Council under Empress Anna, he further notes that “not a single one of these attempts found any favour among the people […] and quickly faded without trace” (Ibid.: 96).

The above historical claims shall be tested with reference to various uprisings, demonstrating that Aksakov’s views were generally corroborated by history. Among the most famous of these are the Bolotnikov (1606-07) and the Stenka Razin (1670) rebellions. Both were aimed at destroying the nobility (Avrich, 1976: 50) as opposed to the tsarist autocracy, as the former had come to be seen as a parasitic and unnecessary intermediary between the just ruler and his people. The Razin uprising was slightly more nuanced in that the revolters attacked the Tsar’s recent political incursions into their inviolable inner sphere of operations, but they nonetheless supported the concept of autocracy and tsardom, seeking simply a Tsar who was responsive to the needs of the people  and not just the noble elite. Therefore, from a brief consideration of the main uprisings in Russian history, it would appear that Aksakov was broadly analytically correct on the particular historico-political level of abstraction which he uses in his claim that rebellions only occurred to restore the traditional boundaries of the sphere of operations of the state, never in the interests of obtaining political power, and thus that the Russian people were inherently apolitical[1] .

Another uprising with special pertinence to a critical analysis of Aksakov’s claims is the Pugachev Rebellion (1773-75), an examination of which will provide additional context for the Slavophile critique of the Petrine reforms. Peter I, reigning from 1682 to 1725, implemented various modernising reforms that the Slavophiles argued had violated the integrity of the sphere of the people-zemlya in several respects. Industrial development was a flagship Petrine policy, and enterprises were encouraged by a decree giving owners complete jurisdiction over products “found or grown” on their estates, including all of the fruits of their peasants’ labour (Raeff, 1970: 162). Thus, economic activity in the sphere of the people-zemlya underwent a process of legalistic rationalisation.

Social and political aspects of Russian life also felt the force of rationalisation in the eighteenth century. Catherine II (reigning 1762-1796) further expanded Peter I’s European-leaning reforms, with a particular focus on a rationalisation of the relationship between the state and the nobility. In particular, Catherine II’s land survey of 1765 ratified all ownership claims of land that were uncontested in court, effectively ratifying the numerous land seizures carried out by the nobility (Raeff, 1970: 168) at the expense of peasants and small-holding ‘middle class’ landlords.

The Petrine reforms were interpreted by Aksakov as representing an incursion by the state into the affairs of the village council-mir system, under which land was held in common and was allocated to each family based on the number of family members. This therefore also represented an “illegal” incursion (illegal not in the sense that it broke a rational-legal guarantee, but that it was a moral violation of the spiritual inner truth) into the sphere of the people-zemlya, and resistance was justified.

Leading up to the Pugachev Uprising, Peter III (husband to Catherine II and ruler in 1762 until his murder), contrary to the above, improved the well-being of the peasantry by enacting laws forbidding the killing of a serf by his master and also effectively freeing serfs owned by the Church. This was interpreted by the peasantry as a precursor to full emancipation (Raeff, 1970: 170). Catherine II, however, after seizing power from Peter III, annulled this act; this, according to the Slavophiles, likely created in the minds of the peasantry an impression of the Empress as an ‘illegitimate’, ‘evil’ ruler who had cheated them out of the freedom granted by the ‘true Tsar’ Peter III (Raeff, 1970: 163).

This alienation between the state-autocracy and people-zemlya worsened with a decree in 1767 that prohibited the direct petitioning of the Empress by the peasantry. This constituted an even greater violation of the ancient relationship between state and people; as was outlined by Aksakov, a channel of (moral, apolitical) communication between the autocracy and the people is necessary in Russia since the people are politically powerless (of their own volition) and thus have no other means of communicating their desires to the monarch.

The land-owning nobles retained the right of petition and thus became intermediaries between the two constituent institutions that previously existed in harmony, creating an impenetrable barrier between the spheres of people-zemlya and state-autocracy and destroying any remaining traditional links between the two. Accordingly, when Pugachev appeared in 1773 under the guise of Peter III, declaring himself to be alive and well as the legitimate sovereign robbed of his throne by the ‘evil’ Catherine, he found much support amongst alienated peasants and Cossacks.

Thus far, it is possible to tentatively conclude that the Pugachev uprising was in line with Aksakov’s analysis that Russians have occasionally risen up in arms, but only as a reaction of ‘moral legality’ in the face of ‘illegal’ actions by the autocracy concerning the sanctity of the spheres of operations of state and people-zemlya. However, such a conclusion depends not only on the context and causes of the uprising, but also on its form, nature and goals.

Raeff (1970: 190) argues from a Slavophile perspective that the peasantry regarded their relationship with the ruler as having special and personal characteristics. This view of the relationship was founded upon the ancient legend of the Tsar as an unwilling leader, carrying out his autocratic duties only due to the moral compulsion of the people. As such, the Tsar had the best interests of the people at heart and was viewed paternally (if also distantly) as a loving father of the peasantry. When the reality of Russian life discredited this image, the peasantry generally blamed the nobility as parasitic and unnecessary intermediaries obstructing the caring, paternal activity of the Tsar for their own gain, as demonstrated by the Bolotnikov and Stenka Razin rebellions.

Pugachev appealed to this feeling, promoting himself as an embodiment of the true Tsar as dictated by legend and tradition under the guise of Peter III. In support of Aksakov’s argument, therefore, we can conclude that the rebellion was clearly not of an anti-tsarist or anti-autocratic nature, at least conceptually; the revolters simply sought the morally correctform of autocracy and tsardom, as enshrined in ancient Russian legend and tradition.

Yet as a counterpoint to the claim that the Pugachev Uprising represents an affirmation of Aksakov’s claim of the apolitical nature of the Russian people, it should be noted that Pugachev emulated many aspects of Petrine statehood, attempting to recreate the Petersburg bureaucracy to govern the areas under his control. Slavophiles, as shown above, would see this bureaucracy and the expansion of government as a rationalisation of social relations and general interference in society. Furthermore, Pugachev granted estates to his followers and gave away serfs in much the same way that Catherine II rewarded her loyal nobles.

This was, however, at the height of the uprising during a state of war, which may have necessitated the buying of loyalty through such means. Much can be deduced about the goals of the uprising by considering the decrees issued by Pugachev (reproduced in full in Firsov, 1907), which outlined his vision for the Russian state. He foresaw a dramatic reorganisation of Russian society based around the universal principle of service to the state, regardless of social status. Serfs would be removed from private ownership and become ‘servants of the state’, possessing free reign over the land on which they worked (Firsov, 1907: 135), whereas nobles would revert to their pre-Petrine position as salaried ‘servicemen of the Tsar’, giving up their present occupations of serf-owners and estate managers. Pugachev guaranteed, essentially, freedom from the nobility to the peasantry, and in turn the freedom to pursue a spiritual, moral life that was a hallmark of the traditional sphere of the people-zemlya. The role of the autocrat in this model, therefore, is that of a guarantor of “welfare of all within the framework of a [reciprocal] universal obligation to the sovereign” (Raeff, 1970: 198).

The rebellion aimed, in the final analysis, to restore the morally correct and traditional relationship between ruler and ruled along the Aksakovian lines of delo, spheres of operation, along with a renewal of organic and direct bonds and channels of communication between the two, thus entirely in support of Aksakov’s wider argument in his Memorandum. Therefore, the Pugachev rebellion does corroborate Aksakov’s seemingly contentious claims that there had “never been a single attempt by the people to win participation in government” (Aksakov, Memo., in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 95), and therefore that the people were “the true mainstay of the Russian throne” and “wholly anti-revolutionary” (Ibid.: 104).

V. Slavophile Critique of the Petrine Reforms

Given the idyllic state of affairs described by the Slavophiles; the rigidity and ensured maintenance of the people’s way of life due to the unanimity and universality of sobornost, and the historic possibility of an uprising by the people-zemlya, the question arises of how exactly Russia reached the state of discord and alienation that so alarmed the Slavophiles. As implied above, the Slavophiles lay the blame for Russia’s ills largely at the feet of Peter I and the Western-inspired modernising reforms that he brought in, resulting in an expansion of the state into the sphere of the people-zemlya and the destruction of their sacred inner way of life.

The Slavophiles broadly considered the pre-Petrine elite to be part of the organic people-narod, which was defined as all sections of society that remained faithful to the customs and traditions of ancient Russia. Walicki (1979: 98) provides an illustration of the long-established Muscovite mercantile families, contrasted with the newer Petersburg merchants. The former had their origins in the customs of the narod and were familiar with them, thus constituting a part of that group, whereas the latter arose from the Petrine Westernising modernisation program of reform and thus belonged to the severed externality of obschestvo, or ‘society’, with particular connotations of aristocratic ‘high society’.

The blame for Russia’s discord, according to Slavophiles, lay with those members of the elite who were “dazzled by the purely external achievements of European nations” (Walicki, 1979: 98). European civilisation, argued Kireevsky and Khomiakov (in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987), was based on rationalism and so could evolve more quickly than Russia, which as a society had more rounded, integral Biblical values at its core. European civilisation therefore was able to outpace Russia in the material sphere because the development of Russian civilisation was focussed on the inner perfection of its spiritual human potential, as opposed to material or technological progress. In short, Russia and Europe were founded upon, and developed according to, totally different principles.

However, the technological advances arising from Europe’s material-rational criteria for progress aroused the envy of Peter I and the governmental elite. Accordingly, Peter I reconfigured the administration of Russian society along European lines, creating a class of state bureaucrats. This rationalisation along European lines cleaved apart the ‘upper strata’, the elite, and the people-narod in a process that shall now be examined.

Peter I pursued a massive imperial expansion, which he perceived as necessary to signify Russia’s power as a rival to that of the European empires. According to Kireevsky (Hare, 1964: 106), the “material hypertrophy” of this imperial expansion was accompanied by a correlative decline and destruction[2] of inner organic spiritual unity and growth. This lack of internal spiritual unity meant that Peter was forced to forge a formal physical unity, a ‘society within a society’ in the form of the Petersburg state bureaucracy, which was externalised from the people-narod and their traditions and customs.

Therefore, the Petrine reforms resulted in a cleavage of the structure of Russian social organisation, creating two antithetically opposed parts, the people-narod and society-obschestvo, the latter of which constituted an external and artificial (in the sense that it had no roots in organic Russian traditions) product of the reforms.

This social antagonism, combined with the decline of inner spiritual values as the guiding principles of Russian life, was firstly criticised by the Slavophiles as being objectively, materially harmful in that it produced social discord and thus put Russia on the path of collapse that Europe was currently engaged in. Secondly, the Slavophiles considered that the state’s traditional role was simply to further the spiritual growth and development of the people, and that it had a moral duty to fulfil this role due to the origins of the autocracy as a voluntary ceding of political power by the people to the autocrat so that they could preserve their spiritual inner truth without contamination from politics. In light of this moral duty upon the state to protect and aid the spiritual growth of the people, the Slavophiles’ second criticism of the contemporary state was that it was morally harmful.

VI. The Slavophile Solution

The solution proposed by the Slavophile program, as the sum of all of the above analysis, consisted of the return of the elite members of society-obschestvo to the traditional views and modes of social existence preserved in the peasant commune, thus allowing a resurrection of the native communal principles of sobornost, described by Khomiakov, as the governing principle of organic social life and of the direction of the state. This would be combined with a return to the traditionally defined boundaries of the spheres of operation of both the people-narod and the state-autocracy, made possible because of the apolitical nature of the Russian people, with the relationship between these two institutions governed by the principle of mutual non-interference as outlined by Aksakov.

VII. Conclusions

This essay has considered the Slavophiles’ analyses of the state and its relationship with society as part of the wider Slavophile program aimed at averting the collapse of Russian civilisation. The Slavophiles critiqued European civilisation, due to its historical origins in Ancient Rome, as suffering from excessive rationalisation which destroyed the organic bonds of society and would lead Europe to destruction. Russia, however, had been spared this doomed course, as the Slavophiles claimed that the historical nature of ancient Russia was distinct and separate from that of Europe. However, Slavophile theorists criticised the Petrine reforms for bringing the European predilection for rationalisation of society into Russia, destroying her ancient and harmonious way of life and producing the same form of crises as those unfolding in Europe. Lastly, in order to avert this potential civilizational collapse, the Slavophiles argued for a solution consisting of a return to the qualitatively unique ancient Russian configuration of society, based on a firm division between the spheres of the state and organic society and marked by harmonious social relations arising from a universal belief in Orthodoxy and the innate communalism of the Slavs.


Aksakov, K. (1855) O vnutrennem sostoyanii Rossii. [online: accessed 2nd February 2013]

Avrich, P. (1976) Russian Rebels, 1600-1800. New York: Schocken Books.

Christoff, P (1972) An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Slavophilism vol. I: Khomiakov.Princeton: Mouton. 

Christoff, P (1972) An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Slavophilism vol. II: Kireevsky.Princeton: Mouton.

Christoff, P (1972) An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Slavophilism vol. III: Aksakov.Princeton: Mouton.

Firsov, N. (1907) Pugachevschina. Moscow. [online: accessed 5th February 2013]

Hare, R. (1964) Pioneers of Russian social thought. New York: Random House.

Hosking, G. (1997) Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917. London: Harper Collins.

Hughes, M. (2000) ‘State and Society in the Political Thought of the Moscow Slavophiles’. Studies in East European Thought, 52: 159-183.

Offord, D. & Leatherbarrow, W. (1987) A Documentary History of Russian Thought. Ardis.

Raeff, M. (1970) Pugachev’s Rebellion. In: Forster, P. (ed) Preconditions for Revolution in Early Modern Europe (152-202). Baltimore: John Hopkins.

Walicki, A. (1975) The Slavophile Controversy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walicki, A. (1979) A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism. California: Stanford University Press.


[1] Hare (1964) argues that Aksakov’s “underlying motive” – that of establishing the possibility of the reorganisation of the Russian nation along the lines that he proposed – “merely required him to prove it a practical possibility” (Hare, 1964: 170). Indeed, because Aksakov’s argument was a discussion of the future, even if it were shown that he was wrong in his claim that the Russian people were “inherently apolitical” (Aksakov, Memo., in Offord & Leatherbarrow, 1987: 95), so long as he establishes the ontological possibility of such a state of affairs (and this much he does do) then his argument remains logically coherent and consistent.

[2] Kireevsky argues that historically in Russia, spiritual growth was inversely proportional to growth in material and territorial realms. “Christianity suffered a defeat in Russia” due to the Mongol-Tartar conquest and subsequent 200-year rule, and this necessitated the “formation of a crassly material unity” through “the construction of an enormous unwieldly Empire for the sole purpose of reconquering her independence from the Tartars [and to prevent future invasions]” […] “Our material hypertrophy has stultified a corresponding spiritual growth. That explains many things, including the reasons for the geographical immensity of Russia.” (Kireevsky in Hare, 1964: 106)

About the Author

Rupert Holland

Rupert Holland is a 2013 graduate of Russian Studies BA at the University of Birmingham. e plans to undertake a research Master's degree in Russian and East European Studies.

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Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

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