Leontiev in Donetsk

As I toil away writing a book on the history of Russian conservatism, I find it reassuring when I come across evidence that it is of more than just academic interest.

Following Alexander Zakharchenko’s remark about aliens (see my last post), Lenta.ru published a collection of the DPR leader’s bons mots, which you can read here. Among them was something Zakharchenko said in October 2015:

The Russian world is a colourful, lively, genuine spring. It is not a nationality, it is a community of nations. Kazakhs and absolutely anybody can join it. And what is Europe, Western civilization? It is globalization. People are placed on the same footing as featureless beings, which know neither family nor tribe – all are identical, that is they are a common, grey mass. A mass of consumers. And there is a war between the living, genuine and colourful, and the grey and dead.

Superficially, this seems like a fairly typical anti-Western, anti-globalization rant. But if you look more closely, you see some markers which identify a very specific philosophical influence – late nineteenth century writer Konstantin Leontiev. While Zakharchenko could have picked up the ideas in his statement from any number of intermediate sources, they are distinct enough that their origin, it seems to me, is fairly clear.

Leontiev looked at the world in aesthetic terms. Diversity and colour were good. Bland uniformity was bad. Civilizations, he wrote, began simple, peaked during a period of ‘blossoming complexity’, and then decayed again into simplicity. According to Leontiev, the West was entering into a period of secondary simplicity. Capitalism and the 19th century version of globalization were turning the West into a grey mass of bourgeois uniformity, blurring all distinctions between nations and classes. Russia needed to avoid the same fate. Zakharchenko’s use of words and phrases like ‘colourful’, ‘the same footing as featureless beings’, ‘common grey mass’ and ‘mass of consumers’, and his final phrase about the ‘war between the living, genuine, and colourful, and the grey and dead’, are pure Leontiev.

Konstantin Leontiev

Now, Zakharchenko doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who sits down each evening to a relaxing couples of hours reading esoteric 19th century philosophy. So, what interests me here is how the theories of a rather eccentric 19th century diplomat-turned-monk ended up being repeated by a gruff engineer-cum-soldier 150 or so years later.

German scholars distinguish between Ideengeschichte and Geistesgeschichte, i.e. between the history of ideas, normally recounted in terms of the writings of ‘great’ thinkers (Kant, Hegel, Marx, etc), and the history of the undercurrents which generate those ideas. These two approaches would suggest two explanations for why Zakharchenko sounds so much like Leontiev:

  • Ideengeschichte: The writings of philosophers like Leontiev really make a difference. Very few people may ever have actually read them, but those who have are what we might term the ‘opinion formers’ of society. They spread these ideas through schools, universities, and the press, until eventually they have dispersed throughout the general population. In this way, philosophers do over time change the way we think.
  • Geistesgeschichte: Philosophers are rather like generals in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. They don’t actually change anything. What really moves history along is impersonal forces, such as economics. What marks the ‘great’ philosophers over the not-so-great ones is that, like Tolstoy’s Napoleon, they ride the wave of these impersonal forces and give them expression. But that’s all they do. So, if Zakharchenko sounds like Leontiev, it’s not because the latter influenced the former, but because there are some powerful political, economic, and social forces (in this case, connected with Russia’s relationship with the West) which are common to both men’s eras.

If you lean towards option 1, then you will see ideas as an independent force driving history. For this reason, you will consider the likes of Leontiev worthy of study, not just within the context of their own times, but also for the light they shed upon the way people think today. If you prefer option 2, however, you may be disinclined to view the works of philosophers as particularly important. With option 1, you might find yourself wanting to order a copy of Byzantism and Slavdom via interlibrary loan. With option 2, probably not.

There is, of course, a third alternative: that the coincidence of ideas is just that – pure coincidence – and I am making far too much of it all. But I’m not convinced by this. The similarities in this case are too striking to be mere coincidence. If Zakharchenko sounds so like Leontiev, it’s probably due to some mixture of options 1 and 2 – in part a result of some unconscious philosophical influence and in part a product of common ‘undercurrents’. Even in his own time, Leontiev’s ideas were far from mainstream, and he has probably never been on very many people’s reading lists, but if this example is anything to go by, perhaps he should be.

3 thoughts on “Leontiev in Donetsk”

  1. Thumbs up for this post, and these intriguing reflections. Tough questions, though. I’ll get back to you if I come up with anything.


  2. If by ‘Europe’ Zakharchenko means the European Union he has a point. Its ultimate aim is not ‘a community of nations’ in all their glorious diversity. Its aim is ‘the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’. This is a utopian vision of the most sinister import. The nations will be eliminated. The ‘peoples’ will become ‘identical, a common grey mass. First, though, they have to be made to accept their common future. This means indoctrination including the establishment of common rites ( 9 May is Europe Day sounds like a slogan from 1984), symbols, education, special museums about ‘Europe’ after 1945, and youth training camps. The EU spends a great deal of money on programmes of this nature. A useful book on the philosophical basis of such ideas and how they have been used is Melvin J Lasky, Utopia and Revolution, U of Chicago Press, 1976 which I picked up in a bookshop in Hay on Wye a couple of weeks ago!


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