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 Napoleons invasions. He resigned his officers 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 literary circles. He died in 1856.
Letter One (excerpts)
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 do not belong to 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; we have nothing that binds, nothing that awakens our sympathies and affections, nothing that endures, anything that remains. Everything passes flows away, leaving no trace either outside or within us. We seem to camp, in our houses, we behave like strangers in our families; and in our cities we appear to be nomads, more so than the real nomads who graze their flocks in our steppes, for they are more attached to their desert than we are to our towns.
Our memories go back no further than yesterday; we are, so to say, strangers to ourselves. We move so oddly in time that, as we advance, the immediate past is irretrievably lost to us. That is but a natural consequence of a culture, which is wholly imported and imitative. There is no internal development, no natural progress, in our society; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but come from God knows where. Since all our ideas are ready-made, 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 in a diagonal, that is, a line which 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 they can call their own-all their knowledge is on the surface, their soul is not within them. That is precisely our condition
Peoples, like individuals, are moral beings. It takes centuries for their education, as it takes years for that of persons. We may be said to be an exception among peoples. We are one of those nations, which do not appear 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)
The full text of the first letter can be found in English in Marc Raeff, ed., Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology.