“Jolting from one panacea for evil to another”

Gary Saul Morson has a wonderful article in The Weekly Standard:

…Russian “populism” (narodnichestvo, from narod, the people) began in the 1870s… The importance of Russian populism lies less in its programs than in its ethos, a guilty idealism…

Jolting from one panacea for evil to another, Russian intellectuals at last arrived at worship of “the people,” a term usually meaning the peasants, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population.

Central to the narodnik sensibility was “reverence for the Russian people’s innate wisdom.” However, a more sensible branch of narodnichestvo admitted the peasantry’s multiple imperfections but blamed oppression and ignorance for the worst of them. The enlightened classes, it followed, had a duty to serve the people by providing services such as health care and education. Accordingly, educated young men and women would move to rural areas to serve as doctors, teachers and nurses. This was made possible by one of the great reforms of the 1860s, which devolved health care and elementary education to rural assemblies, zemstva. Their record was mixed but their overall achievement was impressive.

Narodnichestvo died with the peasant class of the former empire but a sort of reverse, mirror-image narodnichestvo seems to be common among Russia’s educated classes today. It basically holds that most Russians outside some imaginary circle are not merely benighted or politically ignorant but incorrigibly flawed in some fundamental way.

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