Like thousands of other Stoppard fans, I’m reading Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers in preparation for doing a Coast of Utopia marathon in May—3 plays, one after another, starting at 11am on a Saturday morning. As soon as the New York Times and the New Yorker reviewed the plays and both referenced the usefulness of Berlin’s book as a theatergoer’s guide to the complexity of characters, all available copies of the book, new and used, disappeared overnight. Penguin reissued the book in February to meet the back order demand.


This 19th century exploration of how ideas impacted and defined the Russian future has so many other implications to ponder. I’m just venturing into this domain, so I’m sure Berlin’s point of view will color much of my thinking over the next few months. Here are a few related concepts to consider:

The truth is rather that the Russian is by nature mystically inclined, but this mystical inclination is at the same time intellectual. What meets us here is intellectual mysticism, or mystical intellectualism; that is, an intellect that express itself mystically.

Rudolf Steiner
Aspects of Human Evolution

The Russian revolution and its aftermath have done much to strengthen the belief, deeply entrenched in the Anglo-Saxon outlook, that a passionate interest in ideas is a symptom of mental and moral disorder…

This yearning for absolutes was one source of that notorious consistency which, as Berlin points out, was the most striking characteristic of Russian thinkers—their habit of taking ideas and concepts to their most extreme, even absurd conclusions: to stop before the extreme consequences of one’s reasoning was seen as a sign of moral cowardice, insufficient commitment to the truth.

Aileen Kelly
Introduction to Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin