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Russian Thinkers (1978)

by Isaiah Berlin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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623630,746 (4.28)29
Few, if any, English-language critics have written as perceptively as Isaiah Berlin about Russian thought and culture. Russian Thinkers is his unique meditation on the impact that Russia's outstanding writers and philosophers had on its culture. In addition to Tolstoy's philosophy of history, which he addresses in his most famous essay, 'The Hedgehog and the Fox,' Berlin considers the social and political circumstances that produced such men as Herzen, Bakunin, Turgenev, Belinsky, and others of the Russian intelligentsia, who made up, as Berlin describes, 'the largest single Russian contribution to social change in the world.'… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
A classic collection of Berlin's essays on nineteenth-century Russian writers, which has suffered a bit from being too much on student reading-lists: the current Penguin edition has expanded so far that the poor little text is almost completely swallowed up in notes and editorial material. But it is worth fighting your way in thought the thickets of forewords and glossaries to get to grips with Berlin's alarmingly concise summaries of what was important in Russian intellectual life, and how the currents of European thought and the concrete events of Russian history influenced the way it developed.

Berlin's big idea, of course, is his repugnance, developed out of his experience of the first half of the 20th century in Europe, for any idea of history or politics that is founded on aggregated utilitarian principles of a common good, or on some sort of promise of future good in exchange for present sacrifice. The primacy of the rights of the individual is always central for him, and that comes through in his choice of heroes: he approves of the social thinker Alexander Herzen and the critic Vissarion Belinsky, who were always ready to dismiss an abstract idea if they didn't like it, but doesn't have much time for dogmatic opportunists like Lenin and Bakunin. Similarly, in literature his preference is for Tolstoy and Turgenev, who let their human characters drive the stories, even if it comes at the expense of the theories they are trying to promote. Poor old Dostoyevsky doesn't even get an essay to himself, although Berlin does approve of the fact that he was arrested for reading out Belinsky's "Letter to Gogol".

I loved Berlin's self-confident, offhand put-downs of things he doesn't like — for instance when he compares the Russian reception of Turgenev's A sportsman's sketches to that in America of Uncle Tom's cabin "from which it differed principally in being a work of genius". He's a critic who bores down to the essentials with great precision, but also someone who doesn't mind telling us about the simple pleasure he takes in a text.

Slightly tough going, and written from a very clear political standpoint, but it makes for a useful overview of who was who: I'll probably come back to it when I've read more Russians.

(I read this in the Penguin edition as a Kobo e-book, which had all sorts of odd formatting errors, most bizarrely the way that all the acute accents in French quotations got turned into grave accents: "èmigrè" — do publishers never read the books they produce?) ( )
  thorold | Oct 7, 2020 |
A classic, but at this distance I found it overly vivid and viewpointy. Probably because I didn’t see eye to eye with his portraits, or (want to) recognise his Turgenev, his Dostoevsky.

Funnily, Aileen M. Kelly sent me to Isaiah Berlin, of whom she is follower in Russian intellectual history; and she explains his great importance in the historiography, as a solitary figure against the tides of his day – yet she didn’t mention how different, in the end, her understandings of these thinkers are. Her portraits (Toward Another Shore: Russian Thinkers Between Necessity and Chance) were more persuasive to me, and weighed, I think, with more balance. Perhaps she also learnt to value prose style from Berlin, because his is splendid, and I had been struck by hers. ( )
  Jakujin | Aug 23, 2016 |
In these ten essays Isiah Berlin explains the political thought and philosophy of several prominent thinkers of 19th Century Russia, while illuminating the historical context necessary for their appreciation. Among these thinkers are the great Russian novelists Tolstoy and Turgenev, as well as more overtly political figures such as Bakunin, Belinsky, and Alexander Herzen, who receive an essay each.
Russia over this period was involved right through with discontent at current social situations, with inequality, poor governance, and revolutionary thought and action in response to this.
This situation is reflected in the literature of the time from multiple angles: by those writing and thinking at the time about their own personal political philosophy in their correspondance, novels, and other forms of literature; secondly by the shaping of such literature by the censorship of government and publishers on the one hand, and by the contemporary currents of thought in society on the other.
Berlin makes it clear that there was quite a variety of opinions among the intellectuals of the time, with major disagreements over the influence that Russia should tolerate from the West, with its advancements of philosophy, art, science and technology, over the sort of society that they desired to create, the nature and desirability of liberty and individuality, and the methods that ought to be used to obtain change. Many of these topics are still relevant to politics and political philosophy today, as well as being interesting from an historical point of view.
Reading this volume served a useful and engaging introduction to Russian thought in the 19th Century, for someone who had not previously read much in this area. Particularly, the writings of Alexander Herzen and Turgenev stand out as being of interest, not only for their literary quality but for their philosophical approach to political questions that requires a more nuanced understanding of human nature and society than is provided by those further to the left such as Marx. ( )
2 vote P_S_Patrick | Jul 6, 2014 |
My current standard for critical writing. Berlin is just masterly in his command of his subject, and he's able to convey that mastery to the reader. While for my own sake, I could wish he didn't use such complex syntax -- it can be a little too easy to get lost in his dense sentences -- I can easily understand why such complicated, nuanced concepts demand such writing. The essay on Tolstoy's historiography is fascinating, and has probably made me think more about my own attitudes and assumptions toward writing and history than any other single piece of writing. ( )
1 vote cricketbats | Mar 30, 2013 |
Classic work on Russian literature and ideas. Included in his excellent collection of essays, Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin has a fascinating essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this essay Berlin uses the distinction found in a fragment of the poet Archilocus that argues that there are two types of thinkers: Hedgehogs, who know one big thing and foxes, who know many things. Berlin goes on to categorize the great thinkers of the ages into groups based on this distinction. Hedgehogs like Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal and Dostoevsky versus foxes like Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Goethe and Balzac. He goes on to attempt to classify Tolstoy and analyze his view of history. It is a worthy task and I will recommend to all that they read the essay and decide for themselves what Berlin succeeds in accomplishing with all his analysis. It is essays like this one that document the seriousness of the thought of Isaiah Berlin. His insight into Russian authors like Turgenev is magnificent. This is a delightful collection of essays. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Nov 25, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Isaiah Berlinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hardy, HenryEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kelly, AileenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Few, if any, English-language critics have written as perceptively as Isaiah Berlin about Russian thought and culture. Russian Thinkers is his unique meditation on the impact that Russia's outstanding writers and philosophers had on its culture. In addition to Tolstoy's philosophy of history, which he addresses in his most famous essay, 'The Hedgehog and the Fox,' Berlin considers the social and political circumstances that produced such men as Herzen, Bakunin, Turgenev, Belinsky, and others of the Russian intelligentsia, who made up, as Berlin describes, 'the largest single Russian contribution to social change in the world.'

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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