History of Literature

Russian literature


Pyotr Chaadayev

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Pyotr ChaadayevPyotr or Petr Yakovlevich Chaadayev (Russian: Пётр Яковлевич Чаадаев; born June 7 [May 27, old style], 1794, Moscow died April 26 [April 14, O.S.], 1856, Moscow) was a Russian philosopher born in Moscow.

Chaadayev wrote eight "Philosophical Letters" about Russia in French between 1826-1831, which circulated in Russia as manuscript for many years. The works could not be published in Russia because of its highly critical nature of Russia's significance in world history and politics.

The main thesis of his famous Philosophical Letters was that Russia had lagged behind Western countries and had contributed nothing to the world's progress and concluded that Russia must start de novo. As a result, they included criticism of Russia's intellectual isolation and social backwardness.[1].

When in 1836 the first (and only one published during his life) of the philosophical letters was published in the Russian magazine Telescope, its editor was exiled to the Far North of Russia. The Slavophiles at first mistook Chaadayev for one of them, but later, on realizing their mistake, bitterly denounced and disclaimed him. Chaadayev fought Slavophilism all of his life. His first Philosophical Letter has been labeled the "opening shot" of the Westerner-Slavophil controversy which was dominant in Russian social thought of the nineteenth century.

The strikingly uncomplimentary views of Russia in the first philosophical letter caused their author to be adjudged insane, and his next work was entitled, fittingly, The Vindication of a Madman (1837). In this brilliant but uncompleted work he maintained that Russia must follow her inner lines of development if she was to be true to her historical mission.

His ideas influenced both the Westerners (who supported bringing Russian into accord with developments in Europe by way of various degrees of liberal reform) and Slavophils (who supported Russian Orthodoxy and national culture.)

During the 1840s Chaadayev was an active participant in the Moscow literary circles. He befriended Alexander Pushkin and was a model for Chatsky, the chief protagonist of Alexander Griboyedov's play Woe from Wit (1824).

Most of his works have been edited by his biographer, Mikhail Gershenzon (two volumes, Moscow, 1913-14), whose excellent little study of the philosopher was published at St. Petersburg in 1908.



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