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Slavery and the Church according to Chaadaev

October 18, 2012

Here is the first in a series of lectures on Russian thought by Sarah J. Young, mainly on Chaadaev’s philosophical letters. Here she quotes Chaadaev on serfdom:

What is this terrible ulcer [serfdom] which is destroying us? How does it happen that the most striking trait of Christian society is the very one which the Russian people renounced in the very bosom of Christianity? Why is the effect of this religion reversed in our land? I do not know, but it seems to me that this alone should cause us to doubt the orthodoxy which we boast about. […] You know that even the most stubborn sceptics admit that we are indebted to Christianity for the destruction of serfdom in Europe. […] you know that the clergy set an example everywhere, by freeing their own serfs, and that Roman Popes were the first to call for the destruction of slavery in the world subordinated to their spiritual authority. Then why did Christianity not have the same effects in our land? Why, on the contrary, did the Russian people fall into slavery only after having become Christian, namely in the reign of Godunov and Shuiskii? […] Can [the Orthodox church] explain why it did not raise its motherly voice against the repulsive violence committed by one part of the nation against the other? (Letter II, pp. 35-6)

In the American context it’s well known that Christianity was an ideological foundation and justification for both slaveholders and abolitionists. I didn’t know Chaadaev had drawn the contrast of Christianity helping enslave people in Russia even as it helped free serfs in Europe.

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