Nikolay Yakovlevich Danilevsky

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Nikolay Yakovlevich Danilevsky (28 November 1822–7 November 1885) was a Russian naturalist, economist, ethnologist, philosopher, historian, and ideologue of the pan-Slavism and Slavophile movement who expounded a view of world history as circular. He was the first writer to present an account of history as a series of distinct civilisations. He is viewed by many Russian historians as the father of the SNOR Movement.


Danilevsky was born in the village of Oberets in Orlovskaya Oblast. As a member of a noble family, he was educated at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, and after graduation went on to an appointment with the Military Ministry Office. Dissatisfied with the prospect of a military career, he began to attend the University of St Petersburg, where he studied physics and mathematics.

Having passed his master's exams, Danilevsky was preparing to defend his thesis on the flora of the Black Sea area of European Russia when in 1849 he was arrested for his membership of the Petrashevsky Circle. The circle was studying the work of French socialists, and also included Fyodor Dostoevsky. The most active of its members were sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment); Danilevsky was imprisoned for 100 days in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and then sent to live under police surveillance in Vologda, where he worked in provincial administration.

In 1852 he was appointed to an expedition led by Karl Ernst von Baer, whose purpose was to assess the condition of the fishing industry on the Volga and the Caspian Sea. The expedition lasted four years, after which Danilevsky was reassigned to the Agricultural Department of the State Property Ministry. For over twenty years he was responsible for expeditions to the White Sea, the Black Sea, the Azov and Caspian Seas, and the Arctic Ocean. The expertise that he gained from these expeditions led to the publication of his 1872 book, Examination of Fishery Conditions in Russia.

Aside from his work on fisheries and the seal trade, Danilevsky was head of the commission setting the rules for the use of running water in the Crimea from 1872 to 1879, ran the Nikitsky Botanical Gardens from 1879 to 1880, and was part of a commission appointed to deal with the [hylloxera epidemic in the 1880s. His papers on the climatology, geology, geography, and ethnology of Russia earned him a gold medal from the Russian Geographical Society.

Danilevsky died in Tiflis, Georgia, and was buried at his estate in Mshanka, on the Crimean coast, opposite Constantinople.


Danilevsky was mainly remembered for his opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and for his theory of historical-cultural types until the advent of SNOR, and has now been inextricably associated with it.

Theory of historical-cultural types

Danilevsky first published "Russia and Europe: a look at the cultural and political relations of the Slavic world to the Romano-German world" in the journal Zarya in 1869, though it was republished as a monograph, and was the work that brought him international fame. It is this work that is credited as one of the seminal pieces of the SNORist background.

The work pioneered the use of biological and morphological metaphors in the comparison of cultures. Danilevsky compared the cultures and nations to biological species, denying their commonality, and arguing that each nation or civilisation is united by language and culture, which cannot be passed on to any other nation. Thus he characterised Peter the Great's reforms as doomed to failure, as they involved the attempt to impose alien values on the Slavic world.

Danilevsky distinguished four categories of historical-cultural activity: religious, political, sociopolitical, and cultural; these gave rise to ten historical-cultural types: Egyptian, Chinese, Assyro-Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Slavic, and Romano-German. He then applied his teleological theory of evolution, stating that each type went through various predetermined stages of youth, adulthood, and old age, the last being the end of that type. He characterised the Slavic type as being at the youth stage, and developed a socio-political plan for its development, involving unification of the Slavic world, its capital at Constantinople, ruled by an Orthodox Emperor. While other cultures degenerate in their blind struggle for existence, the Slavic world should be viewed as a Messiah among them. In Danilevsky's view there is no genuine or absolute progress, however, as history is circular.

Aspects of Danilevsky's book were important influences on Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. It was the subject of much controversy, however, and polarised its readers. On the one hand it was praised by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, while on the other it was severely criticised by such Occidentalists as Nikolai Kareev, Pavel Milyukov, and Nikolai Mikhailovsky.