Northern Illinois University Press

The Revolutionary Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev

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There can have been few Russian thinkers and writers as consistently misunderstood as Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev. During his lifetime he was generally considered to be a Slavophile, which he was not, and this myth flourished for a hundred years after his death in 1891 and is alive even today. Others dismissed him an arch-conservative and black reactionary in the mold of the Czar’s chief advisor Konstantin Pobedonostsev. This view was equally mistaken, but of course it colored his memory right through the Soviet period until a revision set in following Perestroika.

Century-old rooted opinions take time to change however, and such revision as has occurred has been largely confined to Russian language publications. I should like to give a special mention here to the valuable and exhaustive work done by Olga Fetisenko, the co-editor of Leontiev’s most recent Collected Works, in amassing and collating the very large amount of new material which has emerged in recent years, which I found invaluable in making my own analysis. But in the West since Perestroika there have been only a handful of studies touching on aspects of Leontiev’s thought; indeed there has been no comprehensive assessment in English of the man and his ideas in more than fifty years.

There has been no comprehensive assessment in English of the man and his ideas in more than fifty years.

In fact Leontiev was much more of a revolutionary than a conservative and it was no doubt their instinctive appreciation of that fact that explains why he was kept at arm’s length by true conservatives as the nineteenth century drew to its close. Take his relations with the Slavophiles for example. Leontiev certainly sympathized with their views but he also considered that in putting Slavic community of blood at the centre of their political agenda they were committing a serious error which would end by destroying the cause of Slavdom and sowing the seeds for the destruction of Russian culture as well.

Konstantin Leontiev aged thirty-two
in 1863, the year he joined the Russian
diplomatic service.

Leontiev’s rejection, in an age of rampant ethnic nationalism, of the idea of racial homogeneity as the basis for political union certainly has a striking resonance for us today. Leontiev’s insight was that in order to succeed a political program needed a central unifying idea around which peoples could rally, and he saw community of blood without such an informing idea as sterile, indeed as dangerous. This explains why, for all his fulminations against them, Leontiev harbored a certain admiration for the Russian revolutionary groups, the nihilists, whose central idea, though destructive, he saw as clear, simple and perilously alluring to the masses.

Leontiev was much more of a revolutionary than a conservative.

It is not the least of the enigmas surrounding Leontiev that one of the most famous (or infamous) aphorisms made by a Russian statesman in the nineteenth century, the view expressed by Pobedonostsev that it was “necessary to freeze Russia a little, so that she does not decay,” was a direct quote from Leontiev himself. As I mentioned earlier, this association was to bedevil Leontiev for more than a century. Yet there was in fact little common ground between the two men. Pobedonostsev was a true reactionary in that he opposed all change with a view to maintaining the status quo at all costs, whereas Leontiev’s study of history had taught him that historical movement is inexorable in the long run. It might perhaps be channelled but, as Canute demonstrated, it cannot be stopped by the arbitrary interventions of statesmen and kings.

If Russian culture were to be rescued therefore, it would not be through the vacuities of Pobedonostsev and his camp. For Leontiev a redemptive idea was essential. What then could this idea be? Here we glimpse Leontiev’s most revolutionary notion of all. The Russian Czar, he argued, must put himself at the head of the revolutionary movement and introduce into Russia a form of autocratic socialism, in the same way that the Roman Emperor Constantine had taken the radical decision to place himself at the head of the Christian movement early in the fourth century. The enduring strength this gave Christianity had in Leontiev’s view led eventually to the great flowering of Christian culture known as the Renaissance.  An equally radical move on the part of the Orthodox Russian Czar might save Russia from nihilist devastation and preserve the possibility of a similar renaissance in Russian and Slavic culture.

Leontiev argued that the Russian Czar must put himself at the head of the revolutionary movement.

Of course, Leontiev’s proposals were not taken seriously by those in positions of power and influence in Petersburg and the attempt was never made. A quarter century after his death the Revolution came to Russia and swept away much of the cultural heritage Leontiev had striven to preserve. Ironically though, a socialist autocrat now indeed emerged at the head of the revolutionary movement – Joseph Stalin. It has been observed that at the height of his power Stalin’s regime mirrored uncannily the prescription set out by Leontiev half a century before. From a cultural standpoint, of course, the Soviet regime can hardly be said to have brought about the flowering Leontiev hoped for. Politically though his perspicacity is astounding. But then Leontiev was never afraid to follow his thoughts to their conclusion. “By the fundamental law of our Empire,” he wrote, “by the essential spirit of our nation, everything that proceeds from the Highest Power is lawful and good... The will of the Sovereign is sacred in all circumstances, even when the wrath of God seems to be upon us, as in the time of Ivan the Terrible.”

Here we have Russian history epitomized in two sentences, sentences with which it is difficult to envisage today’s “autocrat” Vladimir Putin disagreeing at all radically.

*Featured image: A mid-nineteenth century view of the Kremlin and the Moscow River.

Cover image for Disenchanted Wanderer
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Glenn Cronin is contributing author to Ideology in Russian Literature. He holds a PhD in Russian studies from University of London. He retired recently from a career with the Department of Transportation in the United Kingdom.

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