Fyodor Tyutchev: “If we look at the course of events closely, the struggle between the West and us has never stopped…”
By Vyacheslav Katamidze
In the nineteenth century Russia produced a host of philosophers, writers, artists and composers who searched for ways to the future for their people and optimal solutions to political and economic issues, which, in their view, could ensure the prosperity of their huge country.
Among them there were romantics (e.g., some Decembrists), conspiracy theorists (Narodovoltsy – members of the “People’s Will” revolutionary movement), and Freemasons. They saw and interpreted their tasks in different ways. Most of them were a group of people living in a realm of their fantasies and utopias, since it is impossible to overtake the passage of time.
But in the nineteenth century a special group of Russian thinkers were realists. These were people who had received a comprehensive education, knew foreign languages, traveled extensively or lived abroad for years, where they communicated with people who openly expressed their opinions, read local newspapers, followed the speeches of leading politicians closely and, based on acquired knowledge, could evaluate the events taking place in Europe and the activities of major Western politicians – sometimes better than the majority of Europeans.
True, for the most part people in Western Europe were better educated than millions of serfs and middle-class residents in the Russian Empire, but representatives of the Russian nobility had already been receiving a brilliant education since the eighteenth century.
The most outstanding thinkers in the nineteenth century were Russian diplomats; they came from nobility and sometimes possessed encyclopedic knowledge, which gave them incomparable advantages in their confrontation with political opponents. But this, alas, was not always the case. The problem here was in two principles that they were guided by. The first principle suggested that nothing should prevent the nobility from fulfilling their “Divinely appointed mission”, and, therefore, it was better to ally themselves with the nobles of other countries than with their own people. The second principle was based on the postulates that their teachers had instilled in them: everything that was best and right came from “wise and enlightened Europe.”
We, people of the twenty-first century, remember the recent period of Russian history, when many sincerely believed that we must imitate the West in everything, that it was more intelligent, educated and moral. Meanwhile, postulates of this kind had been popular in a segment of the Russian society since the seventeenth century! And in the nineteenth century they became dominant in the elite.
Let’s take an average Russian diplomat in a Western European country in the 1840s. He was graduated from a lyceum [a privileged boarding school for noble children]and received an academic higher education. Perhaps he had lived abroad for some time before he received a university education and was affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or the Collegium of Foreign Affairs that existed until the 1830s simultaneously with the Ministry). He wrote poetry or prose and sometimes composed music. Most of his letters, whether official letters or love letters, were written in French. He was very attached to the country in which he carried out his mission as a diplomat, loved its nature and ancient castles and did not imagine what he would do in this “benighted Russia” if he were not a diplomat.
It was not only a generalized image of a Russian diplomat in Europe in the 1830s and the 1840s, but also its archetype. Like any archetype, it had its opposite, rare and unique in its own way. A classic example of such an opposite was Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev, a famous poet, philosopher and diplomat.
Tyutchev was born into a noble family, education and upbringing in which could have made him a Francophile or possibly someone indifferent to the interests of his people. The main language of communication in the Tyutchev family was French – none of them read Russian literature.
Everything changed when Tyutchev was ten years old when Semyon Egorovich Raich (Amfiteatrov) became his teacher. A priest’s son, he graduated from a theological seminary, but was not ordained, entering Moscow University. He received a bachelor’s degree at the Department of Law, and then a Master’s degree in Language and Literature. He earned his living by teaching. It was not just teaching, but a real immersion of young men entrusted to him in literature and history, in which literary images coexisted with the great figures of ancient and medieval history. It was based on his own encyclopedic knowledge: Raich, undoubtedly a talented man of letters, translated into Russian Virgil’s Georgics and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered.
His efforts to nurture comprehensively educated and, above all, highly literate young people bore fruit: besides Tyutchev among his students were Mikhail Lermontov, Eugenia Tur and other writers. As for Tyutchev, Raich taught him another lesson that was useful to him in his diplomatic work: to look at the world more broadly and see a panoramic picture of the development of mankind, especially the influence of religion on the masses.
After graduating from Moscow University and receiving his PhD, in 1822 Tyutchev was sent to St Petersburg to work at the State Collegium of Foreign Affairs. His relative Count Ostermann-Tolstoy was going to Munich at that time to work in the Russian mission, and he had Tyutchev appointed as a supernumerary official of this mission.
Tyutchev’s first wife was the beautiful Eleanor – the widow of a former employee of the mission, Alexander Peterson, and Count Botmer’s daughter. Literary critics believe that most of Tyutchev’s early poems were dedicated to her. A year after her death Tyutchev married Baroness Ernestine Dernberg, the diplomat Friedrich von Dernberg’s widow, with whom he had had an affair when his first wife was still alive. Ernestine’s father, Baron Christian Hubert von Pfeffel, was also a diplomat – he headed the Bavarian mission and was ambassador to London and Paris.
Of course, Tyutchev’s personal life was reflected in his creative work. A very emotional man who perceived reality vividly, he was carried away by everything that pleased his eye. He most probably did not realize that his ideological and philosophical concepts were separated from his daily life and his life choices. For example, in a number of his letters and articles Tyutchev wrote about the benefits of Orthodoxy in contrast with Lutheranism and Catholicism, emphasising that the Russian Orthodox Church was closer to people and, therefore, we should obey its precepts and observe its traditions. Moreover, Tyutchev called for the creation of an “Orthodox empire” as the antipode of the Papacy – in order to reduce the latter’s influence on the fates of the world. At the same time, his personal life had nothing to do with the Church canons or the traditions of the Orthodox Church. There is no doubt that he repented. After the death of Elena Denisieva, the last woman he loved, he was very worried, realizing what a difficult situation he had put her in by living with her out of wedlock, thereby violating both secular and Church rules.
However, his ideological and philosophical ideas related to his patriotic aspirations and political position – even if they did not manifest themselves in his everyday life, but had a certain explosive nature explained by his emotions – deserve thorough consideration. Moreover, many ideas expressed by him, both in print and in letters, are in tune with the sentiments that are present in Russian society today and expressed by genuine Russian patriots.
Tyutchev was a realist. Having spent a total of twenty-two years abroad, he studied all aspects of Western European political and public life and became convinced that it was imbued with hypocrisy and controlled not even by monarchs, but by small groups of people who had created a huge shadow empire of super-rich and all-powerful noblemen of the highest ranks. They held in their hands the keys to control society, the Church and the economy of almost every Western European country and, more importantly, the destinies of many countries, because they decided matters of war and peace. He found confirmation of his observations by communicating in Bavaria and elsewhere in Europe with aristocrats and diplomats who had been initiated into the secrets of European monarchies and even palace intrigues. His Bavarian relatives – brothers and cousins of his aristocratic wives – also shared this information with him.
His knowledge and intuition told him that Europe was sinking deeper into crisis and would inevitably seek a way out in the aggravation of relations with Russia. At the same time, in his articles and letters (in particular, in a letter to Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, who was his regular correspondent and confidant), he repeatedly noted the unique nature of public thought in Russia. Tyutchev wrote: “… in order to orient ourselves it would be enough for us to stay where we were ordained by fate to stay. But such is fatality, which has been suspended over our minds for several generations, that instead of preserving in our thought about Europe the pivotal point that naturally belongs to us we bound it, this thought, to the West’s tail, as it were. I say we, but not Russia. For – and this must be firmly remembered – for sixty years minds in Russia have continuously been moving in a direction which is exactly opposite to the one to which Russia was guided by its destiny. Our intellectual future (notre avenir intellectuel) – actually for us – was the West…”
He must have been a real visionary to predict the events of the 1990s in such a remarkable way!
As a realist who was well aware of the “pulse” of the European political system, he was one of the first to foresee the inevitable beginning of the European war, which would be unleashed in the 1850s by Britain and France against Russia with the complicity of Turkey and its colonies in Europe. In early 1854 he wrote to Prince Vyazemsky, to whom he constantly sent political assessments of current events, the following:
“You see, Prince, that I have not exaggerated the seriousness of yesterday’s news. And now don’t you think that I may be right in foreseeing a European war next spring?”
Even earlier, in February, he wrote to his wife: “We are in all likelihood on the verge of one of the most terrible blows that had ever shaken the world. Russia is facing something more formidable than 1812… Russia is again alone against a united hostile Europe.”
The war broke out even earlier than he had expected and was bloodier than the Tsar and his entourage had foreseen.
It was neither a surprise for Tyutchev, nor a result of political intrigues. He stated: “Well, here we are in a fight with the whole of Europe, united against us by an alliance. However, ‘alliance’ is an incorrect word – the correct word is ‘conspiracy’.” He meant first of all that Britain and France had been conspiring for quite a long time, that they, as he put it, “dragged Turkey into their intrigues”, and then threatened Austria with punishment if it refused to help them.
He always proceeded from his concept of a permanent threat to Russia coming from the West: “I admit rapprochements provided that they are casual and, agreeing to them, the truth and dogma should not be forgotten for a moment that there can be no alliance between Russia and the West whether for the sake of common interests or principles. Because there is not a single interest or aspiration in the West that would not plot against Russia, especially against its future, and that would not try to harm it.”
In the German press of the 1840s maxims were repeatedly heard expressing annoyance about the size and wealth of Russia. Curiously enough, 150 years later Madeleine Albright, who served as US Secretary of State at that time, revived Western European sentiments, saying: “It’s unfair that Russia possesses such vast territories as Siberia…”. Six decades before her Hitler thought the same way.
Persistent Russophobia and the desire to destroy Russia and use its natural resources have always been at the heart of Western policies, and the current confrontation between Russia and NATO is another manifestation of these policies. Tyutchev had no doubt that such recurrent intensifications were inevitable: “If we look closely at the course of events, the struggle between the West and us has never stopped. There has not even been a long pause – there have only been short breaks. Why conceal it from ourselves now? The struggle between the West and us is ready to flare up even more intensively than ever…”
Thanks to his position and political necessity Tyutchev, while working at the Munich mission, constantly got acquainted with Bavarian and other German periodicals. Even as a young man he had appreciated the power of the printed word in politics, realizing that the political orientation of newspaper articles often depended on the international political conjuncture, which was not created by Divine Providence, but by unscrupulous people. By the 1840s the conjuncture had developed in such a way that the Western powers were seriously interested in weakening Russia and for this purpose used what is now called “soft power”. That is, the publication in the Russian press of articles in which the wisdom of the Royal Government’s political steps was questioned, its policies towards European countries in particular. An auxiliary soft power was the wide export to Russia of Western European printed matter, including lampoons written by British, French and Austrian Russophobes.
In his articles Tyutchev warned Russian society that, while demonising Russia in every possible way Western countries were slowly but steadily forming a coalition of the UK, France, Austria and Turkey, planning to use any pretext for a war with Russia. He wrote: “It has become possible with the help of the refrain repeated to the current generation since its birth to turn the power, which the generation of 1813 greeted with noble delight, into a monster for most people of our time, and many mature minds have returned to simple-minded childishness in order to enjoy looking at Russia as at some cannibal of the nineteenth century.”
The fact that they were trying to hammer such an image of Russia into Russian people’s heads, denying in every possible way the aggressive role of the Napoleonic invasion and convincing them that its main idea had been the liberation of the Russian peasantry from serfdom and the establishment of free trade relations characteristic of the new era, Tyutchev considered as one of the most serious problems.
He was also aware of the danger that the radical left-wing press, which called itself liberal, was writing, and that, taken together, such kind of propaganda, backed up by Western publications, could be corrupting for society, not least during a period of confrontation with Western Europe.
This is what Tyutchev wrote to one of the members of the State Council: “It is not possible for the Government not to be seriously concerned about a phenomenon that appeared a few years ago and is gaining such importance, the consequences of which no one could foresee. You understand, dear Prince, that I mean the establishment of Russian newspapers and magazines abroad without our Government’s control. This fact is undoubtedly very serious and deserves the closest attention. It is useless to try to conceal the growing success of this literary propaganda. We know that now Russia is flooded with publications of this kind: they are sought after, they are being spread quickly and have already penetrated if not into the illiterate masses, then at least into fairly low social strata. It must be admitted that without resorting to oppressive tyrannical measures it is very hard to prevent the import and sale of these publications and the export abroad of manuscripts intended for printing. Well, let’s have the courage and give ourselves an account of the true meaning and importance of the fact under consideration; this is simply the abolition of censorship, but its abolition in favour of a harmful and hostile influence; and in order to be able to fight it let’s try to understand what makes it strong and brings it success.”
Tyutchev’s persistent appeals to Government officials had their effect. His position and his views on the danger of propaganda hostile to Russia were appreciated, and it was decided to use his talent and political maturity in practice. The interest was first of all shown by the State Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov. In early 1848 Tyutchev became a senior censor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; at the same time, he was promoted to Full State Councilor, a rank which gave the right to hereditary nobility. Tyutchev’s duties included reviewing newspaper articles and notes on foreign policy issues, and leading the entire group of censors. It meant that not only did he define the main provisions the censors were guided by, but also worked out the working procedure of the censors in different areas of their activities. After ten years of work he was appointed Chairman of the Foreign Censorship Committee.
His activities allowed a significant reduction for quite a long time of the potential of Russian enemies’ propaganda, among whom in the mid-nineteenth century there were many capable people who could have caused ideological and political harm to Russia. It is impossible to overestimate Tyutchev’s efforts in this sphere: he proved to be a true patriot and thinker, whose actions were in tune with the ideas of genuine Russian patriotism.