Beginning of Revolutionary Thought: 8 Philosophical Letters by Pyotr Chaadaev

09 November, 2014

Beginning of Revolutionary Thought: 8 Philosophical Letters by Pyotr Chaadaev

Пётр Яковлевич Чаадаев  (Pyotr Yakovlevich Chaadaev), was a famous Russian philosopher during the 19th century and is famous for writing eight ‘Philosophical Letters’, all of which were highly critical of Russia’s significance in world history and politics during the 19th century! On the 9th November 1836, he was declared criminally insane by the tsarist government for speaking out against the backward nature of Russian society in comparison to flourishing Western European nations, the first time that the tsarist regime labelled someone mad in order to suppress political dissent!

Who is Pyotr Chaadaev?

Chaadaev served in the military and was a defender of the motherland during Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812. In 1821, he resigned from his military post, apparently disillusioned with the Russian way of life. He had chased Napoleon all the way back to France, and was disappointed with the relatively little freedom that the Russian people enjoyed in comparison to the more developed societies that he witnessed in Western Europe. His first letter was published in Russia, in 1836, by Nikolai Nadezhdin, who worked for the journal ‘Telescope’. Nadezhdin was exiled to the far north of Russia for his actions because the letter was so critical of the political regime that was in place!

As for the letter itself, it is clear why the tsarist government censored the works of Chaadaev and were not at all happy that one of his letters was ever published in the first place! For example, Chaadaev writes that ‘we (the Russian people) are still discovering truths that are commonplace even among peoples much less advanced than we’! He was angry that Russia had stuck to its own roots and traditions instead of joining one part of the international community, neither the East nor the West. Chaadaev saw this as the reason as to why Russian society was extremely primitive and backward. He felt that Russia had offered no contribution to international progress and this is why ‘we stand outside time, the universal education of mankind has not touched us’!

In 1837, the Tsar Nicholas I forced Chaadaev to write another letter, in which he backtracked on his vicious and critical remarks. Chaadaev fitting called this an ‘Apology of a Madman’ as the state had dismissed his scathing comments as criminally insane! It is thought that Chaadaev initiated the fierce philosophical debate between Westernisers (Russian thinkers who wanted the country to adapt to European ways in order to develop quickly) and the Slavophiles (those who rejected Western values and wanted Russia to remain true to its own traditions). This debate dominated 19th century thought and was in fact the catalyst for the revolutionary thought that brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917!

This post was brought to you by Alexander, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz

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