The importance of reading August

If one wants to understand the sociology of the American people, the book which still tops the list of those recommended for the subject is Democracy in America by Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville. Published between 1835 and 1840, and based on the French author’s forays into the country in 1831, the volume at once became a foundational text, based on de Tocqueville’s remarkably astute and far-sighted awareness of the nature of American civil society, representational government and institutions, cultural tendencies and racial divides. He extolled the democratic culture for its practical abilities in provision of common services, critiqued the tendencies of representative institutions for their tendency to arrogate too much power to themselves, and still managed to keep a realistic eye on the tendencies toward a lowering of standards in the public sphere, the rise of American mass society and the possibilities for alienation within it. He foresaw the brutal impact which chattel slavery would have on the social fabric and political landscape in the coming decades, and the possibilities – alarming to him – of a strong central government developing a kind of soft despotism.

The irreplaceable services de Tocqueville provided both to America and to its observers in Europe, in articulating its basic tendencies, cannot be overstated. But he is very widely recognised as the first authority on American culture, and it would be a strange thing indeed for an expert on civics in the United States never to have read Democracy in America. An analogous, remarkably-astute outside perspective exists also for understanding Russia – though its author unfortunately is not as well-recognised outside of Russia. It seems to me that more American self-proclaimed experts in Eastern European affairs (and on Russia specifically) could stand to read a certain underrated German aristocrat’s record of his travels in that country: specifically, Studies on the Interior of Russia by August Franz Ludwig Maria von Haxthausen-Abbenburg.

Alexis de Tocqueville

August von Haxthausen was in several ways the mirror image of Alexis de Tocqueville. Both were writing at around the same time, for the benefit of audiences back home, about oft-misunderstood rising political powers whose culture and institutions were at that time in a transitional, developmental state. Alexis de Tocqueville was a reform-minded aristocrat who tailored his writing to the experiences under republican France, who felt that democracy was an inevitable and in many ways welcome development and who advocated for constitutional government. August Franz, on the other hand, was older and had a very different experience of the French Revolution and the Bonapartist government. He observed the anti-French resistance of the peasants in his native Westphalia, and inspired by their example fought with the Hanoverians against Napoleon. He developed a very keen appreciation for German peasant culture, folklore and folk songs, and forged out of their shared interests a fast friendship with the Brothers Grimm[1].

His politics were deeply reactionary, in the classical sense. He had a thorough distrust of the rising bureaucratic class, of the impositions of Napoleonic and republican institutions, and felt – very much unlike de Tocqueville! – that the revolutionary republican tendency was something to be resisted. But he saw the greatest resistance to these new tendencies not among the aristocracy, which he believed had already acquiesced to the new bureaucratic order, but among the peasantry. His peasant sympathies were very communitarian, even populist. The ‘statistical’ studies he undertook in his native Westphalia, and later in Prussia, reflected these sympathies. He developed a keen enthusiasm for the Slavic agrarian communes he found among the Prussian Pomeranians, which he felt contained the seeds for a strong social order that was at once egalitarian and communal, and at the same time anti-revolutionary[2].

Certain factions within the Prussian government were, to put it mildly, less than impressed. A mixture of jealousy and ideological disagreement amongst the liberalising bureaucratic class so scorned by von Haxthausen, led them to lobby the government successfully for his dismissal. But his work was noticed by the Russian diplomat Pyotr Kazimirovich, Baron Meiendorf, who invited him on behalf of Tsar Nikolai I to continue his studies on Slavic agrarian communes within Russia. This he undertook in 1843, and his Studies, a series of fourteen essays published between 1847 and 1852[3].

His Studies were incredibly well-received in Russia and abroad, and were popular both among left-wing radicals like Aleksandr Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin and Jules Michelet, and cultural conservatives like Aleksey Khomyakov and Konstantin Aksakov[4]. Of particular interest to both were his accounts of Russian agrarian-communal life; for the radicals, the holding and leasing of property in common was of particular interest. The conservatives, however, noted with interest that the Russian agrarian commune was solidly based on the peculiarly religious understanding of the Russian peasants – ‘the earth belongs to God […] Adam and his descendants, or mankind, hold the earth in fee’[5] – and the organic, patriarchal system of management whereby the father of the household disposes of all land-use rights within the family.

August von Haxthausen’s work is, in part, a ‘statistical’ anthropology of the type popular among Prussian scholars of the time. But though statistical figures do feature prominently throughout in his discussions of the various regions he visited, this is a fundamentally humanistic work. He shows throughout his work an unvarnished sympathy and admiration for the Russian peasant, though both are appraised realistically in full view of the flaws he observed. He did not observe among them a simple, ‘Oriental’ servility, but rather a healthy extension of the natural familial relationships to the realm of government and to the realm of religion. At the same time, he noted that the Slavic communal expressions were never fixed or geographical, but instead centred on the people. The German peasant makes reference to his village and to his landmarks as signifiers of ‘home’; the Russian peasant makes reference to his relatives – among whom are included, ultimately, all other Russians. Attachments to place are not as deep as attachments to family, even adopted family. There are traces of an ‘Oriental’ sensibility in this approach, but not in the pejorative way meant by Marx and Custine. Rather, the fluidity of the geographical and associative bonds Russian peasants von Haxthausen describes, echo in certain ways (but not in all ways; Russian familial ties are elastic almost to the point of universality, and inculcate a universalistic sensibility) the ‘differential mode of association’[6] articulated by Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong in reference to the rural peasant life of his own country. But von Haxthausen himself seems to have attributed this to the pastoral roots of the Slavic peoples[7].

However, von Haxthausen also notes that the Russian people, never having developed class divisions or even their own aristocracy – the latter having been imported from the Finnic Varangians under Rurik – and for whom the city was merely the natural extension of the rural commune rather than a separate mode of life in its own right, also never developed a bourgeois mentality the way the Germans had[8]. Von Haxthausen notes that the imposition by Tsar Pyotr I and Tsarina Ekaterina II of actual cities in the western European style, bourgeois institutions and bourgeois trade (though in von Haxthausen’s own


view they were inevitable developments of social progress), turned out to have some detrimental effects – not so much primarily on the lifestyle of the average Russian peasant but rather on the moral character of the Russians transplanted into city life[9], as well as on the nobility[10]. The imposition of bourgeois norms meant in practice an importation into Russian high society of the worst vices of the western European bourgeoisie – usury, speculation, profligacy, hustling, naked exploitation, corruption in various forms – and very few of the virtues. To these ends, von Haxthausen recommended a strong preference for generalising throughout Russia the German institutions as they existed in the Baltic states[11].

August von Haxthausen, in painting his picture of Tsarist Russia in 1843, shows a society which is at once communitarian and communistic, but at the same time marked by a strong preference for the power vertical. On the small scale, this manifests in an unconditional love and respect for the father of the house, for the batushka. Owing to the relative looseness of their geographical and blood signifiers, Russians have no conceptual difficulty in scaling this love and respect upwards to the feudal lord, to the Tsar, to God, and their fraternal obligations outward toward all their fellows under the Tsar, and under the Orthodox banner of Our Lord Christ[12]. It is not merely a figure of speech, in 1843 or nowadays, when a Russian calls an Armenian, a Serbian, a Greek, a Syrian, or a Coptic Christian brat – ‘brother’. It is said with the full depth of meaning.

Though, like the Slavophils whom he influenced so heavily, von Haxthausen’s work definitely looked toward the Russian peasantry and the indigenous institutions of Russia as foundational to any reforms that the Russian state might bring to bear in the future, and though he shared with the Slavophils a number of political concerns (chief among them the abolition of serfdom[13]), and though he made the friendly acquaintance of a large number of the Slavophils who were active in the 1840’s (the aforementioned Khomyakov and Aksakov, as well as Aleksandr Koshelev, Ivan Kireevsky, Yuri Samarin and Mikhail Pogodin)[14], von Haxthausen himself was emphatically not a Slavophil. He viewed the Slavophil historiographical treatment of Tsar Pyotr I and Tsarina Ekaterina II especially as wrongheaded – the modernising reforms they undertook had been, in his view, necessary, and were at any rate irreversible. As a result, he saw the political programme to reintroduce certain pre-Petrine cultural practices and legal institutions amongst the Russian people as misguided and counterproductive, and in light of his own reactionary leanings, he feared that the Slavophil enthusiasm might give vent to revolutionary or republican expressions amongst the Russian people[15]. Better, in his view, to work within existing institutions – even those which were German or French imports – and integrate them more effectively into Russian everyday life, the better to buttress an already-stout bulwark against the revolutionary and republican ardour that was plaguing his own country.

For all von Haxthausen’s astuteness and Romantic sensitivity to the Russian peasantry, too, there is also a troubling thread running through his work of the somewhat patronising German attitude toward Russia that has existed since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This thread is expressed for the most part benignly, and with every intention of being helpful to the Russian government and, by extension, the

August von Haxthausen
August von Haxthausen

people. But von Haxthausen nevertheless gives voice to the old stereotype – the genius of ‘German diligence, German love of order, advanced culture and morality… can serve as a standard for the government and as a model for all the Russian peoples’[16], whereas the Western Europeans can and should learn from Russia’s attachment to its own religious and communal institutions, and from the ‘passive resistance’ of Russia’s ‘national character’[17]. This juxtaposition of an active, working ‘masculine’ German national principle and a passive, receptive ‘feminine’ Russian national principle is not specific to von Haxthausen, nor did it stop with him. Indeed, it was prominent and general enough that it could be intelligibly critiqued as such by no lesser and no less German-influenced a philosophical mind than Nikolai Berdyaev – who asserted against this imperialistic stereotype the masculinity and heroism of the ‘Russian quest’[18].

But von Haxthausen never allows his own native biases to cloud his astute observations. In cases where true differences of cultural expression arose, he was very keenly attuned to them. In Jaroslavl he was careful to distinguish between the polovnik peasant communes and the more common serfdom arrangements[19]; and generally also between communes beholden to individual lords and communes beholden to the Russian state. Also, he saw very significant differences between the Germanised, individually-held agrarian practices of Galicia (now in the western Ukraine)[20], and the wholly-Russian, communal practices of Kursk and Kharkiv in the east[21]. And far from being a chauvinist about his native German law, he has nothing but contempt for the local landlords in Russian Galicia who have recourse to it, and abuse it the better to oppress their serfs; for them, he reserves his harshest language of ‘despicable bloodsuckers’ who ‘oppress and harass the peasants for their own profit’ and ‘provide the peasants with new reason to hate the aristocracy’[22].

It is worth note that many of von Haxthausen’s observations will look hopelessly dated, and some of his prescriptions and predictions – correct as they were in the case of Tsarist Russia – did not take into account the Soviet revolution… though he did predict correctly that the form such a revolution would take would be foreign in orientation and would be led by the educated upper classes, rather than by the peasantry[23]. But the Soviet experiment is no longer in place, and the Russian nation and her people still evince many of the same tendencies that von Haxthausen describes herein. He very correctly assesses that any further eastward expansion or conquest on Russia’s part would be folly, and that its relations with China and Iran would be largely peaceable – and that Russia’s future military involvement in Europe would be of a defensive and counter-revolutionary nature. Given that the Atlanticist and European Union projects are fundamentally revolutionary ones at the level of culture, this observation in particular ought to give us pause. And his final paragraph is worth quoting in full:

‘Russia’s thirst for conquest is decried throughout Europe. Yet in the past twenty years she has not conquered a single village. England’s conquests seldom meet with protests or criticism in spite of the fact that she has been conquering territories and subjugating nations for a hundred years and has more than quadrupled the area of Old England and her population. And seldom does a year go by that she does not conquer new lands.[24]

Though certain parts may need to be taken with a grain of salt, this anthropological work of a seldom-sung German aristocrat is an invaluable resource even today for any Western observer who wants to understand the cultural and political orientation of Russia, as well as its place in world history.

[1] August Franz von Haxthausen. Studies on the Interior of Russia, trans. Eleanore L. M. Schmidt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), x-xii.
[2] Ibid., xv.
[3] Ibid., xliii.
[4] Ibid., xxx-xxxiii.
[5] Ibid., 92.
[6] Fei Xiaotong. From the Soil: the Foundations of Chinese Society (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992), 60-79.
[7] Haxthausen, Studies, 280.
[8] Ibid., 283-4, 290.
[9] Ibid., 28-30.
[10] Ibid., 74-5.
[11] Ibid., 238, 252-7.
[12] Ibid., 288-90, 292.
[13] Ibid., 74.
[14] Ibid., 226.
[15] Ibid., 228-30.
[16] Ibid., 172-3.
[17] Ibid., 291.
[18] Nikolai Berdyaev. The Russian Idea (Great Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 1991), Kindle edition.
[19] Haxthausen, Studies, 52-9.
[20] Ibid., 202.
[21] Ibid., 206-7.
[22] Ibid., 201.
[23] Ibid., 314.
[24] Ibid., 322.

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