Lesley Chamberlain is a British journalist who fancy herself an authority on Russia. She is entitled to her opinions, but I think she is being judgmental and patronizing. It seems to me that she suggests that the Russian nation is accountable for obscurantism, at least "guilty" of some kind of tainted second-rate philosophy. But she does it "nicely" - using phrases like "Longstanding Russian practice of adapting truth to hope" or "Naïve poetic Russia was the antidote to Hegel and Marx, to the legacy of the cogito [Descartes]" and "The Russian temptation was perennially to handle truth cheaply". That sounds disparaging to me.
My first criticism - she isn't telling the whole story. There are key books missing from her bibliography, the most noticeable is "The Icon and the Axe", a terrific review of the Russian intellectual life. Secondly, she doesn't mention some key people: Mikhail Lomonosov, Nikolay Novikov, or Grigory Skovoroda just to name a few. Incidentally, the Russian-Ukrainian Skovoroda, who called himself the Russian Socrates, was one of the Russia's first speculative philosophers. Thirdly, she completely ignores the Russian freemasons. This is regrettable. The influence of higher order masonry on the development of intellectual and philosophical life in Russia can hardly be exaggerated.
I am aware of the contemporary fashion of writing where Russia is portrayed as simply a huge, barbarian mass, ruled by despots, where just few pro-western individuals are bravely swimming against the tyrannical and philistine regime. These are biased books denying that Russia is civilization on its own right. The writers like that usurp the honor of having civilized Russia.
I am very much against this point of view. Russia - including philosophical Russia - is not a mere "bent twig" growing out of a tree of the splendid European civilization. Her interpretation of the philosophical history of Russia seems to be a kind of gesso on which she spreads around her own view of the world of a Cartesian rationalist. The hub of her argument is that Russia ostensibly rejected Descartes [a code-word for a "western-type" rational reasoning] and it coused problems for Russia.
Where should I start to refute this silliness of hers? Rene Descartes was the guy who sat in the stove [seriously, he philosophized inside a huge stove - "dans une poêle" by his own account] trying to answer the questions: "What is truth?" and "What is knowledge?". While Socrates used to meditate all day in the snow, Descartes's mind only worked when he was warm. Immediately a suspect to me and my Russians friends. And it's not just weather-wise.
To me, as a Russian, the idea of timeless truths about universal human beings sounds suspicious. Truths of Russians are not truths of Britons, despite our common human nature. I believe Isaiah Berlin, a Riga-born authority on Russia whom she iserts at the end to give valitidy to her ideas, would have been absolutely against abstract reasoning of Descartes and against her thesis. Berlin spent much time writing about the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, such as Vico, Herder, and Hamann. He saw a lot of truth in their teachings. Vico and Herder [another Riga-born] and Hamann [a friend but intellectual opponent of Kant] were right to assert against Descartes that natural languges and civilisation are the products of imagination and of poetic invention and of metaphor, and not of abstract [Cartesian] reasoning and of clear and distinct ideas. Berlin is constantly insisting on the natural roots of national sentiment and contrasting this naturalness with the artificiality of appeals to universal and timeless standards of rationality, which are appropriate to mathematical reasoning, but not to moral reflection.
The author says about the Russians: "To Descartes they preferred Pascal" (page 139). May be. I surely hope so. Descartes and his followers worshiped reason which for them was a kind of magical eye, which sees non-empirical universal truths. Pascal who was famous for his use of satire and wit, was ever skeptical. He wrote: "The heart has its reasons, of which reason is ignorant". We like to think that reason guides our lives, but reason itself is only - as Schopenhauer puts it, echoing Hume - the hard-pressed servant of the will. Our intellects are not impartial observers of the world but active participants in it. The shape the view of it that helps us in our struggles.
One should take this book with a grain of salt, perhaps after reading "An Anthology of Essays" by Isaiah Berlin first as an antidote.