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Russia’s intellectual history captured in new book

Cambridge University Press

Press release issued: 21 April 2010

An inspiring exploration of Russia’s intellectual development lends fresh perspective to Russia's unique cultural heritage, focusing on the seminal ideas that established its place in European history.

A History of Russian Thought, published this month by Cambridge University Press, brings together some 16 eminent scholars in Russian intellectual history from North America and Eastern Europe as well as the UK, and charts not only the socio-political importance of Russian ideas from the 19th century through to the present day, but also the influence of its literary heritage.

Prior to this volume, which includes brief biographies of over 50 Russian thinkers and writers, the most comprehensive work on Russian thought was Andrzej Walicki’s History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, published in 1979.

Co-editor and contributor Professor Derek Offord from the University of Bristol believes it is a book that will be relevant not only to scholars of Russian history but also to anyone interested in discovering the origins of present day Russia’s nationalistic, religious and authoritarian preoccupations.

“Instead of offering a chronological survey of classical Russian thought which privileges thinkers who have come to be regarded as canonical, the book is divided into sections which focus on key intellectual currents, themes and concerns, seen against a broad political, social and cultural background,” says Professor Offord, whose previous books include Portraits of Early Russian Liberals, The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s and most recently Journeys to a Graveyard: Perceptions of Europe in Classical Russian Travel Writing.

The book opens with a contextual analysis of the social, political, moral, aesthetic, religious, economic and scientific environment in which Russian writers and thinkers were formulating their ideas.  Spanning the major intellectual currents to have emerged in Russia, from the 18th century Enlightenment, to the Conservatism of the age of Alexander I and Nicholas I, through to Nihilism, the religious renaissance and the Silver Age, A History of Russian Thought captures “the continuing vitality and significance of [Russia’s] intellectual tradition”, showing how Russian thinkers were ahead of their counterparts in surrendering themselves to the pursuit of ideas “with a lifelong singleness of purpose seldom known outside of religious life in the West”.

Charting the development of ideas about Russia’s changing relationship with the West and Asia and its establishment as an expanding imperial power, writers including other Bristol university experts Ruth Coates, Richard Peace and Charles Ellis reflect on the quest of Russia’s thinkers to arrive at an idea of “the essence of the Russian nation”.

The book builds on the work of earlier scholars who have sought to emphasise the role of Russian ideas in shaping the nation, most notably Sir Isaiah Berlin who, as Professor Offord says, did so much to promote awareness and respect for Russian thought in the English-speaking world in the 1950s and 1960s, and according to whom ideas “played a greater and more peculiar role in Russian history than anywhere else”.

Over the course of 16 essays, the contributing scholars address the ideas of notable Russian figures from the world of philosophy, science and literature, from Bakunin, Belinsky, Berdiaev, Chaadaev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen and Solovev to Pavlov and to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

With such a broad analysis, matched by a  bibliography of almost 500 titles, A History or Russian Thought should appeal not only to students of Russian history, but also to the general reader interested in understanding Russian affairs, past and present.

Further information

A History of Russian Thought, edited by William Leatherbarrow and Derek Offord, is published by Cambridge University Press. For further details visit Prof Offord is also a listed contributor in the forthcoming A History of Russian Philosophy 1830-1930, also published by Cambridge University Press. For further details visit
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