Petr Chaadaev, First Philosophical Letter

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Petr Chaadaev, Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Lady (1829)

Chaadaev was born in 1794 the son of wealthy nobleman. In 1812, he cut off his studies at Moscow University to fight in the campaign against Napoleon's invasion. He resigned his officer's commission in 1821, reportedly just before he was to have been appointed an adjutant of Alexander I. In the years that followed he lived as a semi-recluse, spending much of his time abroad, and devoting himself to intellectual pursuits. His Philosophical Letters were written in 1829, and circulated in manuscript form for several years. In 1836 the first of the philosophical letters was published by Nikolai Nadezhdin in the journal Telescope, apparently at the behest of Chaadaev himself. In the uproar that followed, Nadezhdin was exiled to the far north, the censor, Boldyrev, was removed from his position, and Chaadaev was declared a madman. During the 1840s Chaadaev was an active participant in the Moscow intellectual circles. He died in 1856.

It is one of the most deplorable traits of our strange civilization that we are still discovering truths that are commonplace even among peoples much less advanced than we. This is because we have never moved in concert with the other peoples. We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either. We stand, as it were, outside of time, the universal education of mankind has not touched us.

Look around you. Everyone seems to have one foot in the air. One would think that we are all in transit. No one has a fixed sphere of existence; there are no proper habits, no rules that govern anything. We do not even have homes; there is nothing to tie us down, nothing that arouses our sympathies and affections, nothing enduring, nothing lasting. Everything passes, flows away, leaving no trace either outside or within us. In our homes, we are like guests; to our families, we are like strangers; and in our cities we seem like nomads, more so than those who wander our steppes, for they are more attached to their deserts than we are to our towns...

Our memories reach back no further than yesterday; we are, as it were, strangers to ourselves. We move through time in such a singular manner that, as we advance, the past is lost to us forever. That is but a natural consequence of a culture that consists entirely of imports and imitation. Among us there is no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but tumble down upon us from who knows where. We absorb all our ideas ready-made, and therefore the indelible trace left in the mind by a progressive movement of ideas, which gives it strength, does not shape our intellect. We grow, but we do not mature; we move, but along a crooked path, that is, one that does not lead to the desired goal. We are like children who have not been taught to think for themselves: when they become adults, they have nothing of their their own--all their knowledge is on the surface of their being, their soul is not within them. That is precisely our situation

Peoples, like individuals, are moral beings. Their education takes centuries, as it takes years for that of persons. In a way, one could say that we are an exception among peoples. We are one of those nations, which do not seem to be an integral part of the human race, but exist only in order to teach some great lesson to the world.

Source: P. Ia Chaadaev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i izbrannye pis'ma, t. 1, (Moscow, 1991), p. 90, 92-93.

Translated by Nathaniel Knight

The full text of the first letter can be found in English in Marc Raeff, ed., Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology.</p>