Over the next two terms I will be publishing fortnightly lectures from my undergraduate course on Russian thought. I’ve been teaching the course for a few years solely as seminars, but am changing it this year to lectures and seminars. I’ve decided to do so because for many of the students this is an entirely new topic, and I’ve found that faced with the philosophical essays of Kireevsky, Herzen and so on, and even with reading Dostoevsky’s fiction as philosophy, they often don’t know where to start. The result is that I’ve ended up using half the seminar to give an impromptu lecuture to each group. Rather than continuing to do that, I realized it would be better for the students (and more efficient overall) to have more formal lectures to provide them with the background knowledge they need, and hopefully they will be able to bring what they learn from the lectures to better use in the seminars when we discuss the texts in more detail. I decided to post the lectures on my blog so that the students can concentrate in the lectures themselves on understanding the major points, but don’t need to make notes on absolutely everything, as they can revisit it and look into the details later. I have made clear to the students that reading the lecture online is NOT a substitute for attending it in person – the two are meant to go together.
The course is called “The Person, Love and Utopia in Russian Thought” – it acquired the title before I began to teach it, I believe when two earlier courses were amalgamated. I think having the thematic focus makes sense, but it doesn’t preclude a chronological approach to the subject, as charting its development in the nineteenth century is also important. But while that chronology makes for a fairly obvious set of readings for the first half of the course (Chaadaev, the Slavophiles and Westernizers, the Nihilists, Dostoevsky), the picture becomes much more varied thereafter, meaning that any such course will end up having to pick and choose its topics and some things will inevitably be left out. The three themes that form the main focus of the course work well together and feed into each other. They are present in the earlier, chronological section – the person in particular relates strongly to the overarching theme of Russian identity and the questions of the individual and communality in the Slavophiles/Westernizers debate (when utopianism also features), and human nature is central to the work of both Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky – but become more strongly delineated in the later period, for example in the work of Tolstoy, Solov’ev and Fedorov.
Many years ago when I was an undergraduate, a lecturer who shall remain unnamed told us at the beginning of our course on Russian intellectual history that Russia had never even produced a second-rate philosopher, only third-rate ones. This, unsurprisingly, made me wonder what the point of the subject was, particularly as I soon discovered that a good deal of Russian thought does indeed have its flaws – it is generally unsystematic, in places prone to loose and even dubious argumentation, and at times derivative (although on the other hand it also acquires very distinctive features, and one could hardly call Fedorov, for example, unoriginal). But aside from the very real fascination some of these thinkers inspire, the point is not necessarily the quality of the ideas and writing – this is not a philosophy course, it’s a cultural studies/intellectual history course. The importance of the subject is that these writers stand at the intersection of Russian culture, history and society. Last year, one of my students said that this was the course where everything else made sense – where Solov’ev’s esoteric poetry and the rise of Bolshevism came together. Whatever their flaws (and sometimes within their flaws), one can discover in very different thinkers common ways of approaching specifically Russian questions, which can provide significant insight into Russian culture. I hope that’s what this course enables, and I hope these lectures will help overcome some of the challenges the texts present.