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Research Note: The Intersection between Russian Tselostnost’ and Russia’s Security Vigilance Norm – the Isaiah Berlin Connection

In an excellent introduction to a revised edition of Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, the set of magnificent essays on 19th century Russian history and literature, Aileen Kelly notes that Berlin revealed the nature of a passion for a certain genre` of historical determinism and wholeness among many Russian thinkers. Berlin himself was offering a vigorous and profound rejection of both materialist and “historiosophical” or “metaphysico-theological theories of history,” a phenomenon he obviously found oddly fascinating and certainly did not confine to Russian thinkers alone.[1] Berlin discovered, in Kelly’s words, “monist visions” in Western political thought and extending to Hegelian and Marxist analyses which propose “a fundamental unity, deriving from a single universal purpose, underlies all phenomena.”[2] These phenomena can be discovered and used to determine how humankind, whether as a group, groups, or individual, should live. An aspiration to, and/or a belief in wholeness, the craving “to find a unitary pattern in which the whole of experience, past, present, and future, actual, possible, and unfulfilled is symeterically ordered”  is, according to Berlin, “(i)s one of the deepest of human desires.”[3] This passion for monist explanations, a “transcendant whole,”[4] is driven in part by a desire to throw off the burden of individual responsibility in an unfathomable, chaotic world by handing it over to, in Berlin terms, a “vast amoral, impersonal, monolithic whole – nature, or history, or class, or race, or the ‘harsh realities of our time’, or the irresistible evolution of the social structure – that absorb and integrate us into its limitless, indifferent, neutral texture, which it is senseless to evaluate or criticize, and against which we fight to our certain doom.”[5]

Perhaps as nowhere or no other time in world history, 19th century Russian history was gravely plagued by a harsh reality, and Western monist visions mixed with powerful native ones to produce peculiarly monist, absolutist, maximalist, and utopian revolutionary visions. In my most recent book, Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Culture, Thought, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022), I demonstrated that wholeness is indeed a predominant inclination in Russian culture, thought, history, and politics and may very well be a signigicant departure from the tendency to monism extant in most other cultures but not so radical departure that Russian becomes some sort of perverse civilizational outlier, as many nowadays are claiming.[6] In sum, we might say, using Berlin’s comparative analogy, that Russians are hedgehogs, tending to focus on one big thing, more so than many other peoples, who tend to be foxes, knowing many things.[7]

Berlin argued that monist dreams – conservative or radical, metaphysico-theological or materialist – have tended to predominate in mankind through most of world history, often born of crisis. They have “often appeared in the history of mankind, always at moments of confusion and inner weakness” and are “one of the great alibis, pleaded by those who cannot or do not wish to fact of human responsibility, the existence of a limited but nevertheless real area of human freedom.”[8]

The cycle of historical crises supported the inclination towards monist answers in Russia. In a recent effort, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), I showed that Russian history has been punctuated if not largely populated by a series of existential crises, most connected to or directly inflicted by the West on Russia: military invasions, military interventions, political and cultural interference, and the fomenting of dissent, opposition, and division. These great crises – times of trouble known variously as the Smuta, Napoleon’s in vasion, the Nazi invasion, and numerous lesser events – developed in Russia a powerful security vigilance norm. Thus, security vigilance shapes both Russia’s strategic culture that focuses on potential military threats from abroad, mostly from the West, as well as its political culture, which most often promotes the norm of national solidarism emphasizing ontological security through identity and cultural unity and political stability through political solidarity. I noted with regard to Russia, as did Berlin did regarding humankind, there have been intermittent pluralist breakthroughs. While Russia’s security vigilance usually has been the dominant strand in Russian culture, there have been brief periods in which vigilance relaxes, pluralism in the political and broader sense replaces monist tendencies, and Russia becomes more open to and accepting of the West and its values.[9]

In other words, Russian Tselostnost’ and The Russian Dilemma each focused in part on the issue of wholeness as first touched on by Berlin. There is a connection between the Russian aspiration to, belief in tselostnost’ and Russia’s relations with the West. As Berdyaev notes, Russian tselostnost’ was held up by Russian thinkers, particularly more traditionalist ones beginning with the Slavophiles and first of all Khomyakov, as a counter or alternative to Western “fragmentation and dissection.” It then circulated throughout Russian culture often changing content influenced by new strands of thought, some also emanating from the West. In his The Roots and Meaning of Russian Communism, Berdyaev wrote:

“This is especially necessary to say about the Slavophiles, in whom the influence of Schelling and Hegel also fertilized theological thought, as the influence of Plato and neo-Platonism once fertilized the theological thought of the Eastern teachers of the church. Khomyakov creates an original Orthodox theology, which includes recycled motifs of German idealism. Like the German Romantics, Russian thought strives for integrity and does it more consistently and radically than the Romantics, who themselves have lost tselostnost’. The integrity of the Christian East is opposed to the rationalistic fragmentation and dissection of the West. This was first formulated by I. Kireevskii and became the main Russian motif rooted in the depths of the Russian character. Russian atheist communists assert integrity, totalitarianism no less than Orthodox Slavophiles. Psychologically, Russian orthodoxy is tselostnost’, totalness. The Russian Westerners, who were alien to the religious type of Slavophiles, were carried away by Hegelianism, which was for them an equally totalitarian system of thought and life, covering absolutely everything. When Belinskii or Bakunin were Hegelians, they were just such Hegelians. A Russian young man belonging to the generation of idealists of the 30s and 40s professed totalitarian Schellingianism or totalitarian Hegelianism in relation to all life, not only the life of thought and social life, but also personal life, in relation to love or a sense of nature. Belinsky, a revolutionary by nature and temperament, who laid the foundations of the Russian revolutionary-socialist worldview, at one time became a conservative because of his passion for philosophy Hegel.”[10]

         Thus, relations with the West, including influences from and reactions to such influences such as Slavophilism, helped to reinforce Russian tselostnost’ after its origination in Orthodox monism. Furthermore, this is likely to have proceeded in waves determined by relations with the West, since like the security vigilance norm, tselostnost’, which overlaps with the noted norm through their shared value of solidarism, is held by Russian traditionalist thinkers as is the security vigilance norm. Thus, we can hypothesize that the other forms of tselostnost’ besides solidarism – monism, universalism, and communalism – rise to dominant status or fall into recessive status along with the rise and fall of the security vigilance security norm in accordance with the extent to which the West is not harming Russian national or ontological security (integrity) by way of invasion, intervention, interference or inordinate influence.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitablity,” in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (London: Vintage Books, 2013), pp. 119-90, at p. 187.

[2] Aileen Kelly, “Introduction: A Complex Vision,” in Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, revised edition (New York: Penguin, 2013), pp. xxiii-xxxv at p. xxv.

[3] Berlin, “Historical Inevitablity,” p. 180.

[4] Berlin, “Historical Inevitablity,” p. 154.

[5] Berlin, “Historical Inevitablity,” p. 189, see also pp. 152-4.

[6] Gordon M. Hahn, Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Culture, Thought, History, and Politics (London: Europe Books, 2022).

[7] Isaiah Berlin, “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” in Berlin, Russian Thinkers, pp. 24-92, at p. 24.

[8] Berlin, “Historical Inevitablity,” p. 189.

[9] Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland, 2018).

[10] Nikolai Berdyaev, Istoki i smysl’ Russkogo kommunizma, (Paris: YMCA, 1955), p. 24.










About the Author 

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu

Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.

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