Pyotr Chaadayev

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Pyotr Chaadayev

Pyotr or Petr Yakovlevich Chaadayev (Russian : Пётр Я́ковлевич Чаада́ев; also spelled Chaadaev, or Čaadajev; June 7 [May 27, Old Style], 1794 – April 26 [April 14, O.S.], 1856) was a Russian philosopher. He was one of the Russian Schellingians. [1]


Chaadayev wrote eight "Philosophical Letters" [2] about Russia in French between 1826-1831, which circulated among intellectuals in Russia in manuscript form for many years. They comprise an indictment of Russian culture for its laggard role far behind the leaders of Western civilization. He cast doubt on the greatness of the Russian past, and ridiculed Orthodoxy for failing to provide a sound spiritual basis for the Russian mind. He extolled the achievements of Europe, especially in rational and logical thought, its progressive spirit, its leadership in science, and indeed its leadership on the path to freedom. The Russian government saw his ideas as dangerous and unsound. After some were published, they were all banned by the censorship process. Because there was nothing to charge him with, Chaadayev was declared legally insane and put under constant medical supervision, though this was a formality rather than a real administrative abuse. [3]


Chaadayev was born and died in Moscow. His surname is probably derived from the Turkic word Chaadai. [4] More generally, it's assumed that he was of Tatar descent, [5] [6] with the name deriving from Chagatay, the second son of Genghis Khan. [7] After leaving Moscow University without completing his course in 1812, he entered the army and served in the Napoleonic Wars. Chaadaev's first hand observation of Tsar Alexander's reaction to a revolt in the Semenovsky regiment may have led to his resignation from service in 1820. From 1823 to 1826 he travelled in Europe, so that he was out of Russia during the Decembrist insurrection, though he was questioned on his return about his connections with many of the Decembrists. These connections may have contributed to his failure to find a position in the new government of Nicholas I.

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).


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. [2]

When in 1836 the first edition (and only one published during his life) [2] 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 Westernizer-Slavophile controversy which was dominant in Russian social thought of the nineteenth century. [2] He wrote in his "first letter":

We are an exception among people. We belong to those who are not an integral part of humanity but exist only to teach the world some type of great lesson.

The strikingly uncomplimentary views of Russia in the first philosophical letter caused their author to be declared "clinically insane" because he criticized the regime of Tsar Nicholas I. The 1836 case of Pyotr is believed to be the first recorded incident where psychiatry was used in Russia to suppress dissent. [8]

Living under house arrest following his declaration of insanity, Chaadayev next work was entitled, fittingly, "Apologie d'un Fou" [which has been translated as "Apology of a Madman" but may better be translated as "Apologia of a Madman"] (1837). It opens with a quote from Samuel Coleridge stating "O my brethren! I have told/ Most bitter truth, but without bitterness." [9] 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 Westernizers (who supported bringing Russia into accord with developments in Europe by way of various degrees of liberal reform) and Slavophiles (who supported Russian Orthodoxy and national culture.) [2]

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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  1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998): "Schellingianism, Russian".
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Pevear, Richard; Volokhonsky, Larissa, eds. (1975), written at Leningrad, "Commentaries on Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky" , Soviet Academy of Sciences, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (published 1994), 12: 715, ISBN   0-679-42314-1
  3. Yuri Glazov, "Chaadaev and Russia's destiny." Studies in East European Thought 32.4 (1986): 281-301.
  4. J. J. Saunders (2001). The History of the Mongol Conquests. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 247. ISBN   978-0-8122-1766-7.
  5. Charles J. Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History, Indiana University Press (1987), p. 112
  6. Stefan Berger & Alexei Miller, Nationalizing Empires, Central European University Press (2015), p. 312
  7. Thomas Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700, University of Chicago Press (2009), p. 191
  8. Gordon Thomas, Journey Into Madness: Medical Torture and the Mind Controllers (1988)
  9. Peter Iakovlevich Chaadaev, Sochineniia i pis'ma, ed M. Gershenzon, Moscow, 1913