Cognition and Coercion

In his Russia’s Path toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics, and Reason, 1500-1801 (2016), Gary M. Hamburg proposed that two different ideas of ‘enlightenment’ (in Russian, prosveshchenie) came to exist alongside each other in eighteenth-century Russia: ‘one conception was based squarely on the [Russian] Orthodox idea of spiritual illumination; the other stemmed from attempts to define enlightenment as rationality’. Because the differences between these conceptions of enlightenment tended to be ‘latent rather than overt’, Hamburg argued, ‘most Russian political thinkers of the post-Petrine period regarded themselves as both Orthodox and rational’. Yet Hamburg also notes how the seventeenth-century Simeon Polotskii, ‘an outsider from the West’, initiated a line of thinkers – which in the eighteenth-century would include most famously Stefan Iavorskii and Feofan Prokopovich – educated in the Church schools on Muscovy’s so-called ‘western periphery’ (the former lands of the Polish-Lithuanian state). The new conception of enlightenment as rationality which these figures helped to introduce into Russian intellectual life was in fact definitely destabilizing within the Muscovite context: in Muscovy they were ‘regarded with suspicion and awe’, with the latter because ‘their erudition and familiarity with Western philosophical methods gave them a set of rhetorical weapons with which few Muscovites could compete’.[i]

As Hamburg shows, the dangerous emergent conception of enlightenment as rationality included within itself erudition: Polotskii and his student Sil’vestr Medvedev ‘subtly shifted the ultimate source of Church authority from revelation and from the ecumenical councils to rationality grounded in erudition’. Specifically, the newly emerging type of prosveshchenie was intrinsically philological: Polotskii’s and Medvedev’s ‘”Latin learning” and faith in good philology struck influential clerics as pernicious to faith itself’ (234). Medvedev was executed in 1691 as a state criminal, on the Place of the Skull in Red Square, site of the earlier execution of rebel leader Sten’ka Razin. As Hamburg stresses, the elite ‘connected unsound religious ideas with political rebellion’, which meant that Medvedev could be charged with ‘seditious thinking’: zlomysliv (229-30). This incorporation of zlomysliv within the emergent prosveshchenie seems to suggest a possible modification of Hamburg’s terms. Because Hamburg’s term ‘rationality’ in effect encompasses seditious thinking (as well as erudition and philology), I propose that the term ‘cognition’ could be used interchangeably with Hamburg’s ‘rationality’.

The prevailing compatibility in eighteenth-century Russia of a conception of enlightenment as rationality with a pro-autocratic idea of enlightenment as spiritual enlightenment is illustrated – for Hamburg – by Peter the Great’s 19 January 1716 letter to his son Aleksei, with its references to the contemporaneous Russo-Swedish conflict as a ‘school’, in the course of which Russia has ‘come out of darkness into the light’. Hamburg takes this letter as showing that, for Peter, ‘spiritual enlightenment (knowledge of the duties of an Orthodox sovereign and willingness to discharge those duties) and enlightenment as erudition (knowledge of warfare as a technical discipline)’ were ‘closely connected’ (236). A similar emphasis on erudition in the sense of practical rationality reappears in the 1763 declaration on the rights of the nobility drafted by Grigorii Teplov, for the so-called ‘Imperial Council on the Rights of the Nobility’ which formed that year (418-19). Teplov too connected practical rationality with a duty to serve the Orthodox state, commenting on the ‘badly educated Russian nobility’ of Peter’s time and their lack of inclination to serve the state, that provoked Peter ‘to coerce to serve those whose [sic] lacked the sense of honour inculcated by knowledge and the sciences’. Teplov implied that by contrast, being the beneficiary of scientific enlightenment, the Catherinian nobility was now willing to serve without coercion (421).     

In actuality, of course, coercion to serve had been removed the previous year; 1762 had seen the abolition in Russia of obligatory state service for nobles. Hamburg’s discussion of the title of Denis Fonvizin’s play The Minor (first staged 1782) points to how this development momentously entailed the depoliticization of the nobility. The play’s title, Nedorosl’, Hamburg writes, adopted ‘a precise term denoting a male of noble origin who was too young to enter into state service’. But whilst under Peter the Great ‘the term nedorosl’ had a political coloration’, this political significance of the word was already becoming ‘archaic’ in Catherine the Great’s time. In the decades immediately after the abolition of coerced service in 1762, Hamburg summarizes, nedorosl’ was a term ‘passing from the legal-political into the sociological lexicon: its very history captured one of the key differences between the Petrine and Catherinian eras’ (465-66). Marc Raeff has noted how the removal of coerced state service from the nobility was accompanied, under Catherine, by a ‘growing concern for the serfs and peasants – at least in economic terms – which foreshadows the turning from the interests of the state (as an abstraction) to increasing attention to the welfare of the people and the nation’. Raeff refers in this connection to Peter Struve’s argument that, as Raeff puts it (with reference to the Supreme Privy Council’s 1730 attempt to limit the authority of the Empress Anna upon her accession), ‘this policy was a means for turning the nobility from political problems and making them forget their efforts in 1730’.[ii] The depoliticization of the nobility was accompanied by a maintenance of its socio-cultural rôle. ‘No longer did the state need the nobleman for service, but it still wanted him to help westernize and modernize the country, to be a social and cultural leader of the people.’[iii]  

The nobility, however, could experience its distancing from public affairs as a demoting form of internal exile, as it found itself reduced to ‘the function of guardian of peace and social leader of the remote countryside, of caretaker of narrow local concerns’. Raeff records how the demeaning separation of the nobleman from the state, post-1762, ‘was expressed by the saying that the nobility had been transferred from the authority of the Armed Forces to that of the Interior’. The noble’s sense of distantiation from the state, Raeff continued, was ‘accentuated by the bureaucratization of the new state institutions’, and the service nobility began to feel that ‘justice itself […] had been destroyed by the interposition of institutions and officials between the monarch and his subjects’. Raeff traced the emergence of the intelligentsia to this alienation: ‘the problems arising out of this attempt to give a new social role to the nobility were to give birth to the intelligentsia.’ For Raeff, the feeling of betrayal after years of service – ‘the nobility’s feeling of being let down, of not having been fully rewarded for its efforts’ – led it to divert its spiritual energies elsewhere, as ‘many noblemen now discovered the need for another focus of attention, another object for their loyalty and dedication’.[iv] However, Raeff’s argument here, I feel, can be complicated a little by what we have learned so far. We have seen that the intelligentsia in Russia began to form in conditions of a newly absent coercion, rather than in reaction to state coercion; we saw too that it was nonetheless in reaction to the depoliticization of the nobility effected by the removal of coerced state service that the intelligentsia developed. It seems worth stressing, therefore, that it appears as if the nobility was in some way nostalgic for its former coerced relation to politics and the state – as if it was (at least partly) out of a nostalgic relation to political coercion in the form of state service that certain elements of the nobility began to think.

Hamburg complicates Raeff’s picture of the origination of the Russian intelligentsia by focussing on eighteenth-century thinkers who in fact retained a live relation to political life on the national level. This approach confirms our sense of enlightened cognition’s relation to coercive politics. Hamburg notes how ‘virtually every Russian thinker of the Catherinian period either served in the government or was answerable to it’, ranging from the likes of the poet Gavriil Derzhavin (Catherine’s state secretary and then Alexander I’s minister of justice) to Nikolai Karamzin (a court historian with ‘virtually no direct impact on government policy’ (734)). Hamburg thus takes cognizance of W. Gareth Jones’s assertion that the status of a writer in Catherine’s Russia ‘depended on [the writer’s] proximity to the centre of political power and readiness to be of service to that power’ (686).[v]

Hamburg writes of how ‘if Catherine’s Russia was not as forbidding an intellectual environment as those that existed in Muscovite or in Petrine Russia, the Catherinian state was still an absolute monarchy, which set limits on the expression of ideas’ (736). He argues that ‘Catherine’s version of enlightened politics stopped short of any limitation of autocratic power’, maintaining that her aim was ‘to build a unitary, dirigiste state that verbally accommodated such notions as religious toleration, penal justice, and freedom of expression without consistently embracing their substance’ (418). Hence Hamburg draws attention to the way in which certain intellectuals – such as Nikolai Novikov, Aleksandr Radishchev and Mikhail Shcherbatov – could initially benefit from Catherine’s patronage but then find themselves targets of her displeasure (686). The presentation of despotism in Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790) ‘so infuriated’ Catherine ‘that she ordered Radishchev’s arrest and later his exile to Siberia’ (628). Both Radishchev and Novikov would face questioning from the fearsome ‘ideological policeman’ Stepan Sheshkovskii, who interrogated Novikov in Schlüsselberg Fortress upon the latter’s removal there when his involvement with Freemasonry was being considered as being part of a political conspiracy (625). 

As an academic involved in the coercive – quantifying, regularizing, administering, functionalizing – conditions of contemporary academic publication, Hamburg is fascinated by the secretive, withholding behaviour which was occasioned by the eighteenth-century climate of ‘official constraints on ideas’ (736). It is as if the enforced publication under today’s coercion and the inhibited or impeded publication of eighteenth-century Russia constitute inverted mirror images of one another. Hamburg stresses how the difficulties experienced by the historian Vasilii Tatishchev in gaining a ‘wide public reception’ for his ideas made him a representative Russian thinker of his period, when ‘many writers worked alone or in semi-isolation; their ideas could not necessarily be published conveniently, and sometimes publication of their best books was delayed for decades’ (356):

‘Shcherbatov wrote his utopian Journey to the Land of Ophir and his On the Corruption of Morals in Russia “for the drawer,” entrusting the texts to his heirs for safekeeping. [Nikita] Panin and Fonvizin kept secret their most radical political proposals, with the consequence that these materials either circulated clandestinely in familial and radical circles, or were held out of sight, buried under seven locks and seven seals, or were lost altogether.’ (736)  

Composed in 1786-87, On the Corruption of Morals in Russia was not published until 1858 (677); Journey to the Land of Ophir was written in 1783-84 but not eventually published until 1896 (689).  

Nonetheless, if enlightened cognition’s reactive obscurity in the face of state coercion might be thought to reflect an outright conflict in the eighteenth-century, between a traditional conception of prosveshchenie and a more radical conception of enlightenment as cognition, it is worth remembering that for Hamburg, even ‘by mid-century’, when ‘shrewd critics like [Mikhail] Kheraskov and [Aleksandr] Sumarokov felt the tension between the two notions’ of enlightenment, they ‘still managed to reconcile them in practice’ (374). One development which helped ensure that in fact ‘the two conceptions of enlightenment could coexist and complement one another’ was what Hamburg terms ‘the gradual linguistic re-synthesis starting circa 1730’, product of a new scholarly theory of ‘one “Slavonic-Russian” language [slavenorossiiskii iazyk], with the forms of address used in Church and outside it regarded as “two registers” of the same language’. Another cause behind the blending of the two ideas of enlightenment was ‘the deliberate combination of academic autonomy and social conservatism in Moscow University’ (375). The instinct towards such a combination itself seems to resemble ‘Catherine’s objective of combining rationality and autocracy’, which, Hamburg argues, was ‘not far from’ Karamzin’s attempt ‘to reconcile universal Enlightenment principles with traditional Russian political institutions’ (698).

Hamburg underscores ‘an impulse of critical accommodation widespread among Russian enlighteners’, with reference to the Glasgow-educated legal thinker Semen Desnitskii’s ‘attempt to reconcile Western ideas of justice and the traditional Russian notions of a strong state and unitary Church’. For Desnitskii fused the use of ‘Western ethical ideas’ to ‘criticize the autocracy and religious persecution’ with support for ‘the ideals of “enlightened” monarchy and of an established but non-coercive Church’ (566). Hamburg presents Metropolitan Platon too as someone who ‘tried to accommodate’ Catherine’s enlightened absolutist government – ‘putting the Church’s interests subtly forward without confronting the secular authority’. But when ‘the empress turned against him, as empresses inevitably do’, Platon’s spirit of accommodation became more critical: ‘he adopted a firmer, more independent, even quietly confrontational posture toward the state’ (564). Platon’s mode of critical accommodation could even trigger destabilizing moments within coercive politics, as when he ‘bravely refused to collaborate with the emperor Paul and even obliquely warned Aleksandr that God’s justice was not to be mocked’ (565). In the same sort of way Shcherbatov is described as an inside outsider, at once ‘a player in the sometimes claustrophobic political universe of his own country and a thoroughgoing critic of that system’. Shcherbatov embodies destabilization, or his contemporaneous ‘uncertain times’ when ‘even the erstwhile elites may feel themselves to be marginal actors’ (676).  

Hamburg’s account of ‘statesman and intellectual’ Dmitrii Golitsyn again shows the spirit of critical accommodation characterizing cognition’s relation to coercion in eighteenth-century Russia to involve a fusion of worldly pragmatism and individualizing secrecy. As the principal figure behind the drafting in 1730 of ‘the so-called “Conditions,” a set of political instructions to be imposed on Anna as the price for acceptance of the Russian crown’ (318), Golitsyn – whilst also being ‘perhaps even the period’s best-read Russian student of European political history’ – found himself having to ‘hide his knowledge from other members of the elite, to dissimulate his disagreements over the direction of his country, to pretend that he was a loyal subject of a crown he could not completely respect’. When he addressed the Supreme Privy Council, it was to be ‘without laying out the full justification for his programme, and even without spelling out the entire programme at one sitting of the council’ (325). A comparison with Hamburg’s Tatishchev – ‘a practical intellectual, famous in his day for shrewd policy advice, keeping his finest compositions under lock and key’ (328) – seems apposite here, as the structuring opposition (within Hamburg’s narrative) between public and private lives becomes increasingly visible.  

The public/private binary framing the activity of enlightened cognition in eighteenth-century Russia was reflected interestingly within the terms of Desnitskii’s legal thought. Hamburg points to the influence on Desnitskii of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) – the first volume of which Desnitskii translated for Novikov in 1780 (840 n. 5) – with its distinction between the ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ rights of persons. For Blackstone, absolute rights are those rights belonging to human beings in the state of nature, such as the right to life or to the enjoyment of the products of one’s labour. Because these are rights ‘which every man is intitled to enjoy whether out of society or in it’, Blackstone wrote that society’s chief purpose ‘is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of their absolute rights, which were vested in them by the inimitable laws of nature’. By contrast, relative rights had appeared ‘posterior to the formation of states or societies’, and were thus contingent upon interpersonal contexts and movements of history, politics or class. Blackstone argued that absolute rights underpinned relative rights, which meant that for him political (or civil) society was ‘no other than natural liberty so far restrained by human laws (and no farther) as is necessary for the advancement of the publick’ (quoted on 567-68; re-quoted on 651). But whereas in England ‘political or civil liberty flourish in their highest vigour, where it falls little short of perfection’, on the European continent – so Blackstone wrote – laws ‘are calculated to vest an arbitrary and despotic power of controlling the actions of the subject in the prince, or in a few grandees’ (quoted on 568).

Significantly, Hamburg notes that Blackstone’s absolute/relative rights dichotomy anticipated not just Kant’s theory of law, but also the nineteenth-century jurist Boris Chicherin’s categories of rights in the private sphere – ‘an arena of rights springing from autonomous personhood’ – and in the public sphere (‘an interpersonal arena where rights manifest themselves as a consequence of social-historical development’ (568)). Chicherin’s categories thus developed too the opposition between private and public lives structuring the activity of enlightened cognition in eighteenth-century Russia.

As Hamburg explains, Desnitskii’s work placed him ‘at the head of a long line of Russian thinkers interested in the law, moral philosophy, and politics’ – his work raising crucial questions about personal rights and ‘the role of the state in modern economic life’ (610) – whilst Blackstone’s concerns were of fundamental relevance to Russia in the late eighteenth-century. Radishchev’s long poem of the 1790s, ‘A Historical Song’ (1807), with its (anti-Catherine) tribute to an ‘immortal Montesquieu’ who had stressed how ‘there is no tyranny worse or more brutal than that which occurs under the noble cover of the laws and the protection of the judicial system’ (quoted on 673), illustrates how the Russian politico-cognitive context resonated with Blackstone’s interests in ‘conceptions of natural rights and of the government’s role in society’, that, as Hamburg writes, ‘strongly gestured toward a theory of popular sovereignty and toward the right of active resistance to ungodly magistrates’ (568).   

We can find Desnitskii pursuing Blackstone’s concern with how laws – and the magistrates wielding them – can fail to protect ‘natural liberty’ (and ‘absolute rights’), and instead enable autocratic government to control ‘the actions of the subject’, in the concerns of his 22 April 1772 Moscow University lecture ‘A Juridical Discourse on Things Hallowed, Sacred, and Pertaining to Piety’ (605). In this lecture Desnitskii focussed on how the ancient Romans had ‘divinized the political order’ (Hamburg) by declaring their statutory law code ‘a holy thing’ and their tribunes ‘sacrosanct and inviolable’ (Desnitskii), and the way in which subsequent Russian law codes ‘followed the Roman example in prohibiting disrespect toward magistrates and toward the laws’ (Hamburg). Speech derogating the emperor was also banned. Crucially, as Hamburg adds, ‘Desnitskii saw in Russia the chilling effect of religious prohibitions on political criticism’, or the effect of state coercion on cognition. Hence while ‘he could affirm the historical value of laws sacralizing the political order’, he also ‘rejected their contemporary application’. But Desnitskii was still, Hamburg perceptively points out, ‘feeling his way toward a view of the law that could support religion in the private sphere while making the public sphere neutral with respect to faith’. In other words, in his legal thinking Desnitskii was ‘discovering the narrow path open to believing Christians who in the public sphere behaved as secular men’ (606).

Hamburg later emphasizes how Desnitskii’s programme was one of trying ‘to square the goals of an Orthodox state and religious toleration by combining energetic promotion of Orthodoxy with desacralization of the public sphere’. Desnitskii’s ideal, again, was a fusion of a noncoercive approach to private religion with public secularity. But this public secularity would involve a redefinition of the public sphere. Desnitskii, Hamburg summarizes, sought to redirect ‘the climate of opinion in Russia – the Russian religious and political ethos’, away from ‘sacralizing the laws, from divinizing the tsar and from absolutizing Church authority’, and in the direction of ‘a civil society based on free acceptance of Orthodoxy, on individual virtue, and on self-interest’ (740). That is, Desnitskii aimed towards the transformation of the Russian public sphere from the coercive, absolutist society in which he lived into a noncoercive civil society. Blackstone’s idea of political or civil society as being ‘no other than natural liberty so far restrained by human laws (and no farther) as is necessary for the advancement of the publick’ may well have been Desnitskii’s model. Desnitskii’s imagined noncoercive public sphere, after all, whilst not rejecting the activity of enlightened cognition, also rests on what Hamburg calls ‘free acceptance of Orthodoxy’. This means that it would be the sort of public sphere that rejects (for example, sacralizing ideology) enforcing heteronomy of religious belief (or secular nonbelief), and instead fosters ‘natural liberty’ – ‘absolute rights’ – nurturing private autonomy of belief.  




[i] Russia’s Path toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics, and Reason, 1500-1801 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 15, 191 (further references to Russia’s Path toward Enlightenment are given after quotations in the text).

[ii] Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1966), p. 212 n. 182; compare Hamburg, pp. 318-25, regarding the events of ‘the cold and tense winter of 1730’ (p. 325).

[iii] Raeff, p. 109.

[iv] Raeff, pp. 110, 109, 110, 111.

[v] W. Gareth Jones, ‘The Image of the Eighteenth-Century Russian Author’, in Russia in the Age of the Enlightenment: Essays for Isabel de Madariaga, ed. by Roger Bartlett and Janet M. Hartley (London: Macmillan in association with the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, 1990), pp. 57-73 (p. 62). 


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