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PostSoviet Russian Philosophy

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Created: July 26, 2002
Latest Update: July 26, 2002

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New Section on Russian Philosophy
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Teaching Essay Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, July 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This essay responds to an instance in which you can see the importance of finding access to a research library. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is available online, but you must gain access through a university that subscribes. Why would you want such access? Because it offers considerable time-saving when most of us in urban cultures find transportation and the time lost in traffic an enormous drain on our energies. Access to online materials means more discretionary time for focussing on more scholarly pursuits than chasing after books. Also the online providers frequently enhance their offerings with such extras as I have illustrated below in the case of, for example, Post Soviet Russian Philosophy.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online.

Link to the Aileen Kelly preview article in the central logo at the top of the page.

Backup in you follow this search in the future.
Aileen Kelly (King's College, Cambridge University, UK) brings us an impressive selection of new articles on Russian Philosophy:

Russian Philosophy after the Soviet Period

The intellectual straitjacket forced on all aspects of Russian culture by the Bolshevik regime was most devastating in its effects on philosophy: the official ideology could tolerate no rivals. The Bolshevik Revolution was followed by a mass exodus of leading Russian philosophers; more left in 1922 in the forcible expulsion of around 160 prominent intellectuals. Many continued to write and publish prolifically in emigration, but their works were unknown in their homeland. Not all pre-revolutionary philosophy was suppressed: selected works of radical thinkers officially proclaimed precursors of Marxism were published with copious annotations supplying the ideologically correct interpretation of their ideas. After Stalin's death works began to appear on thinkers such as the Slavophiles, placed within a Marxist schema of interpretation, and even Marxism itself began to be a subject of cautious intellectual debate. Some independent thinkers, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Merab Mamardashvili, Aleksei Losev, and Valentin Asmus, survived: their work has now become known.

In the last euphoric years of glasnost the official Soviet philosophical organ Voprosy filosofii took the lead in reacquainting Russians with their philosophical heritage by publishing a series of volumes on Russian thought, including the works of previously banned philosophers. Along with other philosophical and literary journals, it devoted part of every issue to work on or by such thinkers. The post-Soviet period has seen a huge expansion in philosophical publications, some doomed to be ephemeral. There has also been a strong growth of interest in Western philosophy, reflected in impressive scholarship in areas such as philosophy of science and philosophy of mind.

Indisputably, however, it is Russian religious philosophy that has received most attention. Reasons for this include the desire to reclaim the past, the attraction of the once forbidden, and the growth of interest in religion among intellectuals in post-communist Russia. But the most common motivation seems to be a sense of disorientation and a crisis of identity caused by the discrediting of the ideological system under which the nation had lived for seventy years. For many the religious philosophy of the Slavophiles and their successors has enormous programmatic value as the basis of a new 'Russian Idea' (a topic on which this Encyclopedia will now carry a major entry) which will unite the nation and restore its pride. At the lowest level of public debate on this issue, philosophical texts are manipulated and misquoted by xenophobic nationalists to prove the superiority of Russia over Western cultures; but the resurgence of the Russian Idea has also generated a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion, conducted largely in philosophical and literary journals, on the intellectual and programmatic aspects of Russian philosophy, its relation to Western culture, and its role in the new Russia. The urgency of such debates is summed up in the theme of one of the many Round Tables dedicated to these issues: "How to Save Russia".

Attended by scholars from a wide variety of disciplines (including on occasion Western specialists in Russian philosophy), such discussion sessions have highlighted the significance of the corporatist bias in Russian thought, as expressed in the concept of sobornost and in theories of "Russian socialism". G.L. Tul'chinskii, a professor of philosophy at St. Petersburg University and prominent contributor to post-Soviet debates on the relation of ideology to politics, has observed that as the main theme of Russian thought, the idea of total-unity was the source of Russian opposition to the individualist spirit of the Western bourgeoisie, and a formidable impediment to the establishment of a civil society in pre-revolutionary Russia. Many on all sides of the debate have pointed to the impossibility of reconciling the Russian Idea with the Russian government's official programme of economic and social Westernization.

Is it, then, inevitable and/or desirable that Russian philosophy should lose its distinctive characteristic and become merely "philosophy in Russia"? This would seem a minority view. There is constant reference in the Russian media to the vacuum created by the demise of Soviet Marxism, the implication being that (as one writer puts it) post-Soviet society needs "an integrating ideology ... a new Idea". In their Introduction to the proceedings of a Round Table on "Religion and Politics in Postcommunist Russia" the editors of Voprosy filosofii observe that the Round Table was prompted partly by the fact that in present-day Russian society religion is seen as "an ideology that might provide a disoriented society with norms and values not subject to corrosion by time". Neo-Slavophiles assert the claims of Russian religious philosophy to this role on the ground that it expresses both the communal traditions of the Russian people and the truly Christian values of the Orthodox Church: as such, they argue, it possesses a grasp of the unitary nature of being that is denied to the "one-sided" analytical and systematizing traditions of Western thought. Sergei Khoruzhii, a leading authority on Russian religious philosophy, maintains that an authentic Russian philosophical tradition must be based on Russian Orthodoxy as the foundation of Russian culture, and that the task of Russian thought is now to develop philosophically the Orthodox legacy, leading to "the understanding of Orthodox positions on all anthropological and existential questions".

The term sobornost has become a banner for Russian religious nationalists whose ideal is a society based on a "conciliar consciousness" (sobornoe soznanie), as opposed to liberal notions of individual freedom, which they see as the source of social fragmentation and spiritual decline. One commentator has argued that the values of Russians are so antithetical to those of Western societies that Western and Russian character types may be characterised as "market" and "non-market" respectively. Another theorist claims that such Western "liberal inventions" as legal guarantees of rights would be superfluous in a society grounded in the spiritual values of sobornost. Others, however, believe that if Russian religious philosophy is to serve as the instrument of social regeneration, the concept of sobornost must first be modified as a consequence of recent historical experience. One writer suggests that the foundations for such a "new-style Russian Idea" can be found in the thought of émigré religious philosophers such as Evgenii Trubetskoi, Georgii Fedotov and Lev Karsavin who, shocked at the ease with which the collectivist ethos of Russian thought had lent itself to manipulation by tyrants, articulated a religious personalism which sought to reconcile traditional Russian concepts of community and solidarity with a respect for difference.

The search for a national philosophy which will harmonise theory with practice and cement society has led in many other directions. Some contend that the Russian communal spirit can best be embodied in a new humanistic form of socialism. The growing concern of Russians with environmental issues is reflected in the theory of "messianic ecologism" advanced by one writer as a way of accommodating the corporatist and messianic tendencies in the Russian national character. The doctrine of Eurasianism, which originated among Russian émigrés in the 1920s, has become immensely popular as a means of restoring a Russian sense of identity and national pride. Its proponents hold that Russia's mission is to develop its spiritual identity as a distinctive civilisation, separate both from Europe and Asia; they oppose all theories of globalisation, which they believe have been created by the governing circles of Western Europe and the US to further their goal of world domination.

Competing in popularity with this doctrine is a constellation of ideas which goes under the general label of "Russian cosmism" and emphasises the underlying unity of all cosmic existence. Its origins in Russia can be traced back to the influence of Schelling's pantheistic Idealism; its current adherents include both scientists and devotees of the occult. Despite the resemblance of "cosmic consciousness" to "New Age" philosophies in the West, some Russian intellectuals, such as the prominent scientist Academician Kaznacheev, emphasise its distinctively Russian character as a contribution of unique importance for the future of Russia and the entire world.

The search for a new national creed has been opposed by a number of Russian philosophers and academics who argue that the origins of the Russian Idea lie not in some historical or spiritual reality but in the psychology of Russian utopianism. They contend that as an idealization of a primitive institution, sobornost cannot serve as a philosophical foundation for a modern society. In his survey of the Russian philosophical tradition, Evgenii Barabanov contends that its image of the West is the product of a "neurosis of distinctiveness", arising from the need to compensate for the lack of a sense of self-sufficiency in the present by dreams of future national grandeur. Hence Russian philosophy "does not analyse the given but constructs an ideal, something expected, on the strength of which it attempts to 'transform' the given". He warns that neo-traditionalist attempts to combine philosophy with Orthodoxy will only hinder the development of a proper philosophical language by reinforcing the ideological orientation of Russian thought.

Some fear that efforts to conduct an objective revaluation of Russia's philosophical heritage may lead unintentionally to the same result. Summing up the proceedings of a Round Table on the "Russian mentality", P. Ogurtsov, a member of the editorial board of Voprosy filosofii, noted that definitions of this concept tended to coincide with the political preferences of various groups and parties, and suggested that it was in danger of becoming yet another of the collective abstractions, such as state, church, and Party, with which Russians habitually identified as determinants of their personal fate.

At an international conference on Russian philosophy held in Moscow in 1993, two of the foremost Western authorities on the subject, Andrzej Walicki and James Scanlan, spoke of the danger that new ideological biases could impede an objective reappraisal of the Russian philosophical tradition.

Walicki argued against identifying Russian thought with a specific national character, pointing out that in the West the concept of a "Russian Idea" as reflecting a unique and unchangeable syndrome of national characteristics has long been used by Russophobes to explain communist totalitarianism as an expression of "Russianness" and to demonstrate that the Slavophiles were Lenin's precursors. He also made a plea for the proper revaluation of those secular thinkers by whose ideas the entire Russian intelligentsia had lived. Misrepresented by Soviet ideologists, they were now in danger of being altogether written out of Russian thought. He suggested that if Russians continued to stress the uniqueness of their philosophical tradition and downplay its links with the West, it would continue to be seen outside Russia as a cultural curiosity of interest mainly to Slavists.

Scanlan warned that the tendency to emphasise "organicism" as the distinguishing characteristic of Russian thought could lead to the neglect of the significant minority of thinkers who opposed the anti-individualism of the majority, such as the liberal philosophers of law of the early twentieth century, whose theories, he suggested, had more relevance to Russia's current needs than the collectivist bias of the Russian Idea.

Despite the misgivings of its critics, the Russian Idea has entered the twenty-first century as a highly significant element in the intellectual life of the new Russia, as indicated in the published proceedings of the second Congress of Russian philosophers held in Moscow in June 1999. Its theme was "The twenty-first century: Russia's future in its philosophical dimension". Six hundred and sixty-nine delegates attended from all regions of the country. The subject of the most intense attention was the Russian spiritual tradition, and one of the most popular topics of the congress was the "metaphysics of the Russian spirit". The question of religion's status as a philosophical discipline was a central theme of discussion, and a special place was given to analysis of the key role of Orthodox spirituality in the Russian Idea, which many delegates argued would be the country's salvation. But dissenting opinions on this issue were also recorded; many speakers gave particular attention to the question of tolerance, and interest in religions other than Orthodoxy was noted as a growing trend.

Messianic systems continue to exercise a strong appeal in Russia, but they have to compete with other tendencies within a rapidly evolving and ever more multifaceted cultural environment. As the editor of a Moscow literary journal has commented (in an issue partly devoted to the impact in Russia of the ideas of Michel Foucault), the first post-Soviet decade has seen the transformation of the Russian cultural scene, largely as the result of truly colossal labours in the translation of Western works in the humanities and the social sciences.

In this broadening of cultural horizons the small but significant number of anti-dogmatic and anti-collectivist Russian thinkers has not been neglected. A striking example of this is the enormous interest of Russian scholars in the work of the most remarkable of those philosophers who survived Stalinism - the great literary scholar, philosopher of language, and cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose concept of dialogue was developed in opposition to all deterministic philosophies that understate individual responsibility and the openness of time. Herzen, too, is being rediscovered in Russia as a radical humanist, and liberals of the early twentieth century, such as Struve and Novgorodtsev, have been the subject of a number of studies.

The tendency that these figures represent, opposed to prescriptive systems which do not adapt ideals to real needs and circumstances, is being taken further by some contemporary thinkers who are seeking to develop theories of freedom and progress that would allow Russia to avoid the mistakes of the past. Rejecting neo-Slavophile corporatism and deploring the past hostility of Russian philosophy to "bourgeois" notions of personal independence and rights, they also oppose uncritical Westernism, attempting to find a balance between the classical liberal ideal of freedom and forms of solidarity that are rooted in Russian national experience.

This distinctive strand in post-Soviet Russian thought may still be only a minority tradition, but it is intellectually vigorous and is sending out a clear message: in the words of G.L. Tul'chinskii, "there is no single mandatory or well-trodden path to freedom".

Teaching esssay notes and analysis to follow later. jeanne. July 26, 2002.