The University of Wisconsin Press

History / Slavic Studies / Philosophy / Religion


Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia
Victoria Frede

“Frede offers an intriguing, complex, often subtle, and always well-documented answer to the question, How did Russian intellectuals (unlike their European counterparts) come to ground their systemic worldviews on an assertive atheism?”
—David McDonald, University of Wisconsin–Madison

The autocratic rule of both tsar and church in imperial Russia gave rise not only to a revolutionary movement in the nineteenth century but also to a crisis of meaning among members of the intelligentsia. Personal faith became the subject of intense scrutiny as individuals debated the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, debates reflected in the best-known novels of the day. Friendships were formed and broken in exchanges over the status of the eternal. The salvation of the entire country, not just of each individual, seemed to depend on the answers to questions about belief.

Victoria Frede looks at how and why atheism took on such importance among several generations of Russian intellectuals from the 1820s to the 1860s, drawing on meticulous and extensive research of both published and archival documents, including letters, poetry, philosophical tracts, police files, fiction, and literary criticism. She argues that young Russians were less concerned about theology and the Bible than they were about the moral, political, and social status of the individual person. They sought to maintain their integrity against the pressures exerted by an autocratic state and rigidly hierarchical society. As individuals sought to shape their own destinies and searched for truths that would give meaning to their lives, they came to question the legitimacy both of the tsar and of Russia’s highest authority, God.

Victoria Frede is assistant professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley.

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September 2011
LC: 2011011567 BL
280 pp.   6 x 9   6 b/w illus.

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"A splendid book. Frede draws upon published as well as archival sources, integrating these materials seamlessly into a narrative that is remarkable for its clarity and its sensitivity to nuance. The resulting book is therefore a rarity, being self-evidently learned and yet a great pleasure to read."
—Gary Hamburg, Claremont McKenna College

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Updated October 7, 2011

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