Chaadaev, Petr

Chaadaev, Petr Iakovlevich


Born May 27 (June 7), 1794, in Moscow; died there Apr. 14 (26), 1856. Russian thinker and publicist writer.

Chaadaev was born into a family of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry); his mother was the daughter of the historian Prince M. M. Shcherbatov. From 1808 to 1811, Chaadaev studied at Moscow University, where he became closely acquainted with N. I. Turgenev and I. D. Iakushkin. Chaadaev fought in the Patriotic War of 1812 and in the foreign campaigns of 1813–14. In 1816 he joined the Masonic lodge United Friends; the other members included A. S. Griboedov, P. I. Pestel’, S. P. Volkon-skii, and M. I. Murav’ev-Apostol. That same year, Chaadaev became a close friend of A. S. Pushkin. In 1819, Chaadaev became a member of the Union of Welfare, and in 1821, of the Northern Society of Decembrists. However, he was not an active member of the secret societies and regarded them skeptically and with many reservations.

From 1823 to 1826, Chaadaev traveled in Germany, Great Britain, and France and became acquainted with F. W. von Schelling and F. R. de Lamennais, whose religious and philosophical views influenced him profoundly. On returning to Russia, Chaadaev lived in Moscow. From 1829 to 1831 he wrote his principal work, Letters on the Philosophy of History (in French), which became known under the title Philosophical Letters. The publication of the first of the letters in the journal Teleskop (Telescope) in 1836 aroused the displeasure of the authorities owing to the bitter dissatisfaction that Chaadaev expressed in the letter concerning Russia’s alienation from the “universal education of mankind.” The letter also attacked Russia’s national self-satisfaction and spiritual stagnation, which hindered her awareness and fulfillment of her historical mission, which had been ordained from above. After the publication of this letter, Chaadaev was declared insane “by the highest authority.” In response to the accusation that he was lacking in patriotism, Chaadaev wrote his Apologia of a Madman (1837). Speaking of Russia, Chaadaev asserted in this work that “we are called upon to resolve most of the problems in the social order . . . to respond to the very grave questions which preoccupy mankind” (Soch. i pis’ma, vol. 2, Moscow, 1914, p. 227). The Apologia of a Madman was not printed during Chaadaev’s lifetime.

Although deprived of the opportunity to express himself in print, Chaadaev remained a major intellectual figure in Russia; his chief contribution was that he posed the problem of Russia’s historical destiny. He influenced both Westernizers and Slavophiles, including A. I. Herzen, V. G. Belinskii, M. A. Bakunin, Iu. F. Samarin, and K. D. Kavelin.

Although Chaadaev in his Philosophical Letters asserted that he adhered to a number of Catholic tenets, Herzen justly called Chaadaev’s world view a “revolutionary Catholicism”: Chaadaev was inspired by a “strong faith in mankind’s future happiness” that was not commensurate with Catholic orthodoxy. Chaadaev placed his hopes in the fulfillment of the earthly aspirations of the people as a superrational entity that had overcome egoism and individualism, traits that were not in conformity with the universal destiny of man as the motive power of a universe directed by a divine force of reason and by an earthly force of will. Although Chaadaev was unsympathetic to socialism, he predicted that it would be victorious, asserting that “socialism will win out not because it is right, but because its opponents are wrong.” Chaadaev’s philosophical and historical thought was a powerful stimulus to the development and self-assertion of Russian philosophy.


Soch. i pis’ma, vols. 1–2. Edited by M. Gershenzon. Moscow, 1913–14.
“Neopubl. st.” In the collection Zven’ia, books 3–4. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.
“Tri pis’ma [I. S. Gagarinu i Shellingu].” Ibid., book 5. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
“Neizd. ‘Filosoficheskie pis’ma.’” In Literaturnoe nasledstvo, no. 22–24. Moscow, 1935.


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