The Politics of Friendship in Nicholaevan Russia

Vadim Shkolnikov, Columbia University

Ultimately drawing on a number of perspectives from Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, this paper attempts to re-conceptualize the historical significance of philosophical circles as a cultural institution in Russia during the 1830s. Focusing primarily on the ideological development of the Stankevič Circle and its seminal role in the evolution of the concept of Reality in Russia, the analysis, in a sense, follows Lidija Ginzburg’s lucid reading of the Circle’s correspondence but opposes her reduction of the Circle’s ideological strivings to a purely humanistic search to understand the self. Instead, emphasizing both the cultural context of post-Decembrist tsarist repression and the inter-cultural significance of assimilating Western philosophy, I propose to examine the social dynamics of life in the Circle, together with the emerging theory of Reality, as the becoming-political of friendship: that is, if, in Derrida’s sense, we view friendship as “the question of the political, for this question is not necessarily, nor in advance, political.”

As in the Hegelian scheme (articulated in the Philosophy of Right) to which Derrida implicitly responds, the becoming-political of the Stankevič Circle is predicated on replacing the immediacy of love with a rational basis for social unity. Reality becomes the Circle’s central preoccupation as it displaces Stankevič’s conception of Universal Love: in the wake of his admission of his own emotional emptiness, the members strive to affirm an analytical basis for explaining their failure to live in harmony with the Absolute – that is, their failure to live up to the elect status that they assumed was the foundation of their friendship. It is in this sense, then, that the developing conception of Reality within the Stankevič Circle accords with Derrida’s manifold interpretations of “Oh, my friends, there is no friend.” The fierce debate over the nature of Reality that ensues between Belinskij and Bakunin exemplifies Derrida’s complex interrelationship between friendship and enmity. Moreover, in terms of Derrida’s notion of grief in friendship and his analysis of friendship’s radically disjointed temporality, the Belinskij/Bakunin debate may be conceptualized as an act of anticipatory mourning for the already dead Stankevič. The outcome of this debate, the Hegel-influenced ideology of “reconciliation,” has generally been viewed as an outright withdrawal from political action. Instead, I would argue that this controversial culmination to the Circle’s activity reveals what was its latent political potential, as its members, carried by the impetus of their deteriorating friendship, begin to think Reality at higher levels of social organization.