‘Ministry of Darkness’ Review: An Intellect of Empire

From The Wall Street Journal:

Russian intellectual historians usually are drawn to figures who can be readily classified—as revolutionaries or reactionaries, or as Slavophiles or Westernizers—while neglecting those who cannot. In her splendid book “Ministry of Darkness,” Lesley Chamberlain instead trains her attention on Sergei Uvarov (1786-1855), a paradoxical figure so original as to transcend all familiar categories. Ms. Chamberlain, an independent historian and novelist, persuasively shows how he nevertheless exercised a profound influence on Russian education and thought.

Uvarov was the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, superintendent of the St. Petersburg educational district under Alexander I, and Minister of Enlightenment under Nicholas I. He founded St. Petersburg University and made Russian institutions of higher learning world-class. For the first time, university education emphasized learning for its own sake; previously, it had been treated as vocational training for government service. Students were encouraged to travel abroad, and education was made available to those outside the nobility—even to serfs. Uvarov did everything he could to resist those who wanted to restrict thought and impose military discipline on students. After Nicholas I did impose such discipline, in 1849, he resigned.

When Uvarov became president of the Academy of Sciences in 1818, it was decrepit. He transformed it into the prestigious institution it has remained. He sponsored scholarships and voyages of exploration, making Asia a focus for universities and establishing an important museum devoted to the East. He also arranged for translations of Greek lyric and epic poetry, while making sure they caught the tone of the originals. Uvarov was himself a minor poet, but he does not figure in histories of Russian literature because he wrote in French.

. . . .

Despite all of his accomplishments, Uvarov is most often remembered for inventing the infamous formula describing Nicholas I’s pronounced conservatism: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”—evidently a reply to the French revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” For Uvarov, each term defined what Russia did not believe: “Orthodoxy” meant a rejection of anti-clericalism, “Autocracy” was opposed to revolutionary democracy, and “Nationality” meant avoidance of radical European ways of thought. “Nationality” emphatically did not mean Romantic nationalism or the cult of the Russian people. Quite the contrary: Uvarov wanted Russia to achieve Western levels of technology and education, perhaps even some liberalism, if it could do so gradually and without compromising pure learning with political activism. “The Empire of intelligence,” he wrote, “should be, like the Elysium of the Ancients, separated from the real world by the river of oblivion.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you encounter a paywall)