Russian soul

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The term Russian soul (Russian: Русская душа, russkaya dushá; also great Russian soul, mystifying Russian soul) has been used in literature to describe Russian spirituality. The writings of many Russian writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky offer descriptions of the Russian soul.

The Russian word "душа" (dushá), is most closely translated into the word soul. The Russian soul can be described as a cultural tendency of Russians to describe life and events from a religious and philosophically symbolic perspective. This word's widespread use and the flexibility of its use in everyday speaking is one way in which the Russian soul manifests itself in Russian culture. In Russia a person's soul or dusha is the key to a person's identity and behavior and this cultural understanding that equates the person with his soul is what is described as the Russian soul. Depth, strength, and compassion are general characteristics of the Russian soul. According to Dostoevsky, "the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything".[1] Dostoevsky's ideas about Russian soul are closely connected with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, its ideal of Christ, his suffering for others, his will to die for others and his quiet humility about it. Tolstoy on the other hand, has a more atheistic way of thinking, explaining his thoughts and feelings.

In the second edition of the story Taras Bulba, Gogol provides one of the early characterizations of what came to be known as the Russian soul when Taras exhorted his fellow Cossacks, saying: "There have been brotherhoods in other lands, but never any such brotherhoods as on our Russian soil. It has happened to many of you to be in foreign lands. You look: there are people there also, God's creatures, too; and you talk with them as with the men of your own country. But when it comes to saying a hearty word--you will see. No! They are sensible people, but not the same; the same kind of people, and yet not the same! No, brothers, to love as the Russian soul loves, is to love not with the mind or anything else, but with all that God has given, all that is within you."[2][3]

The Term[edit]

The concept of a Russian soul arose in the 1840s chiefly as a literary phenomenon. Famous author Nikolai Gogol and literary critic Vissarion Belinskii jointly coined the term upon the publication of Gogol’s masterpiece Dead Souls in 1842. At the time landowners often referred to their serfs as “souls” for accounting purposes, and the novel’s title refers to the protagonist’s scheme of purchasing claims to deceased serfs. Apart from this literal meaning, however, Gogol also intended the title as an observation of landowners’ loss of soul in exploiting serfs.[4]

Vissarion Belinskii, a notedly radical critic, took Gogol’s intentions a few steps farther and inferred from the novel a new recognition of a national soul, existing apart from the government and founded in the lives of the lower class. Indeed, Belinskii used the term “Russian soul” several times in his analyses of Gogol’s work, and from there the phrase grew in prominence, and eventually became more clearly defined through the writings of authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This famous brand of nationalism, however, was the product of a continuous effort by Russia’s various classes to define a national identity.[4]

Predecessors of the "Russian soul"[edit]

It is fair to say that Russia has struggled to define itself throughout its history, but the 19th century in particular saw a slew of attempts to delineate what Russia was and could be. Ever since Peter I’s reign the Russian people had been split between those in favor of Westernization and those who wished to return to pre-Petrine customs. As the 18th century dawned, Slavophilism was gaining support, in spite of (or in response to) the progressive reforms of rulers such as Catherine II and Alexander I. Many Russians feared the pollutive effects of Industrialization that they saw in the West , and wished to retain a Russian identity apart from the rest of Europe. Inspired by such sentiments and in an attempt to strengthen Russia as a world power, Emperor Nicholas I instituted (by way of his minister of education Count Uvarov) the policy of “Official Nationality.” The policy comprised three components - Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality - and in short it emphasized the uniqueness of Russia and the danger of swaying toward foreign influence. Official Nationality appealed to Slavophilic concerns by turning to Russia’s past for guidance and strength.[5]

Influence of German Romanticism[edit]

Meanwhile other strains of nationalism were emerging with the advent of German Romantic literature in Russia. Authors of the Romantic movement strove to affirm an independent and unique German identity, and starting in the 1820s Russia’s upper classes began to emulate those authors in a quest for Russia’s own unique character. Two German writers in particular affected the course of Russian self-assessment: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.[4]

Schelling introduced the concept of a “world soul,” essentially the potential for a creative connection between humanity and the divine. His proposition of what he called the Absolute expressed the simultaneous significance of individual and collective souls. Schelling excited many literate Russians by proclaiming a “great purpose” for Russia. Hegel, in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), formulated a more specific and practical conception of collective soul; he theorized that history progresses under the direction of nations which alternately possess an incarnation of God through a “national Spirit.” The ideas of Schelling, Hegel and others formed the bases of several, sometimes opposing, ideologies in Russia. Slavophiles and Westernizers alike cultivated a bold new nationalism that increasingly valued the common man and the power of human connection. The Slavophiles drew upon Hegel’s “national Spirit” to form the concept of a “Russian spirit” embodied by the peasantry. Though a predecessor of the more optimistic “Russian soul,” the Russian spirit represented the desire to seek Russia’s greatness in its pre-Petrine past.[4][6][7]

The concept of Russian spirit countered its contemporary Official Nationality. Both relied heavily upon the Orthodox faith, and both sought greatness in times gone by, but the Slavophiles found that greatness in the character of the peasant, while proponents of Official Nationality found it in allegiance to the autocrat. However, while these and other Romantic-influenced ideologies fell all across the spectrum of political thought, each trusted firmly in the inherent greatness of Russia.[4]

The Russian Soul[edit]

As the 19th century progressed, focus shifted from the landowning minority to the laboring majority. After Alexander I’s pivotal defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the Russian elite turned its attention to the peasants who had secured the victory. Around the same time and for the next several decades, serfdom was losing popular support, and more and more nobles favored abolition. Public estimation of the government fell steadily, and the simple hardworking peasant became the new embodiment of Russian character, the only hope for the fulfillment of its glorious national destiny.[5]

In such an atmosphere did Gogol’s Dead Souls arrive, in 1842. Gogol and his contemporaries established literature as Russia’s new weapon of choice, the tool by which it could inform itself of its greatness and urge the nation to its destined position as a world leader. Gogol may not have had such grand notions, but with the help of Belinskii he paved the way for a new concept of Russian identity - the great Russian soul. As opposed to the preceding “Russian spirit,” which focused on Russia’s past, “Russian soul” was an expression of optimism. It stressed Russia’s historical youth and its ability, by following the wisdom of the peasant, to become the savior of the world. Indeed, although the concept of the Russian soul grew upon Western ideas, its advocates believed that Russia had made those ideas its own and would use them to save Europe from itself.[4]

Culmination of the concept[edit]


The Russian soul evolved and entered into Western consciousness in the following decades, most famously through the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his novels and stories, Dostoyevsky exhibited an often anti-European nationalism and frequently suggested a "people's spirit" held together by "unexpressed, unconscious ideas which are merely strongly felt". By Dostoyevsky's death in 1881, the "Russian soul" had completed its evolution in Russia.[4]

After Dostoyevsky[edit]

From about 1880 to 1930, largely thanks to Dostoyevsky, the "Russian soul" concept spread to other countries and began to affect foreign perception of the Russian people. For many Europeans the idea offered a positive alternative to the typical view of Russians as backward, instead depicting the Russian people as an example of the innocence the West had lost. The popularity of the "Russian soul" continued into the 20th century but faded as Soviet power increased. By the 1930s the concept was slipping into obscurity, but it would survive in the work of the numerous writers who devised it.[4]

The Western view of the Russian soul[edit]

The Russian soul can be best understood in the West through western characterizations for the authors who were thought best to epitomize these characteristics:

  • Ivan TurgenevMelchior de Vogüé who popularized Russian culture in Europe in the late 19th century, attributed to the poet Turgenev "the dominant qualities of every true Russian, natural kindness of heart, simplicity and resignation. With a remarkably powerful brain, he had the heart of a child."[8]
  • Leo Tolstoy — de Vogüé found about him that "the skill of an English chemist with the soul of a Hindu Buddhist."[8]
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky — Martin Malia says of Dostoyevsky that "Dostoevsky's power of insight into the lower depths and the higher yearnings of the human soul was particularly Russian, born at once with the Russian people's intimate acquaintance with suffering and their unusual vitality of character."[8]


  1. ^ Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika, Nancy Ries, Cornell University Press (1997), ISBN 0-8014-8416-2.
  2. ^ Taras Bulba; by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol; The Project Gutenberg Etext of Taras Bulba and Other Tales; February, 1998; [Etext #1197]
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Robert C. Williams, "The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 573-588, accessed November 27, 2010,
  5. ^ a b Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 349-361
  6. ^ "Philosophical Connections: Schelling," accessed December 12, 2010,
  7. ^ "The Philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel," accessed December 12, 2010,
  8. ^ a b c Russia Under Western Eyes; Martin Malia; Harvard University Press; 1999; ISBN 0-674-78120-1