Motherland: a Philosophical History of Russia by Lesley Chamblerlain
Marcus Wheeler is provoked by Lesley Chamberlain’s history of Russian philosophy.
This book is a tour de force if only in that it encompasses an enormous subject – the ‘long tradition’ of Russian philosophical thought from 1815 to 1991 – in fewer than 350 pages. The author is not a professional or academic philosopher but a writer and journalist: she has however studied Russian and German language and literature and philosophy, and the present work is informed by a deep understanding of these three intellectual disciplines. When she writes on the last page that Russian philosophy “is a branch of German philosophy, perhaps even of German poetry”, she restates, albeit in a deliberately provocative way, what British philosophy students used to be told fifty years ago – that philosophy in Russia was wholly derivative from Hegel and German Idealism (and, by implication, not worth bothering with). Like many of us, Lesley Chamberlain was first drawn to 19th century Russian thought by the writings of Isaiah Berlin – his celebrated articles in Encounter on “A Marvellous Decade” and these and the other essays assembled in Russian Thinkers and elsewhere. Chamberlain surprisingly presents Berlin himself as a philosopher in the Russian tradition: in fact, his claim to fame rests far less on his original, recognisably Western-style contributions to philosophy than on his work as a historian of social and political ideas.