Pre-Soviet Philosophical Thought & Contemporary Russia – Part I of III

Church on Spilt Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015
Church on Spilt Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, much has been written about “the Russian idea.”  Subsumed under this term are the very issues – moral, religious, and national/cultural – that [Dmitrii] Merezhkoskii treated in the works we have discussed.  In a replay of the fin de siecle, Russians are again discussing how to make Christianity relevant to life in this world, Christian attitudes toward sex, Christian art, and the proper relation of church and state.  They are trying to define a postcommunist Russian identity and to find the organizing principles by which they can reconstruct their world.

(page 143, Merezhkovskii’s Readings of Tolstoi by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal)

Russian Thought After Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage is a book of essays by various contributors (edited by James P. Scanlan), published in 1994, elaborating on the work and thought of several Russian philosophers of the pre-Soviet era and how this heritage is influencing the post-Soviet era. Rosenthal’s essay is about Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, who was a philosopher, playright, historical novelist and literary critic.  He was active in the years just prior to and during Russia’s revolutions of the early 20th century and focused much of his attention on the thought and work of the great Russian literary writers, namely Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.  However, the focus over the years would center on Tolstoy to the point of near obsession, representing a complex – often contradictory – assessment of whether Tolstoy was a prophetic saint or a nihilistic hypocrite.

Around 1900, he published a study and contrast of the two preeminent novelists, Tolstoi and Dostoyevskii, LIfe and Art.  A Study.  With a deep interest in morality and Christianity, Merezhkovskii believed that literature – which, at its best, can serve as a vehicle for exploring important moral and philosophical issues in all of their complexity and nuance – should be a guiding force in the inevitable choice between good and evil.  He was correct that Russians were about to face a momentous choice of paths to follow in the form of reform versus communist revolution.  Merezhkovskii believed that communism, particularly the Bolshevik manifestation, was the equivalent of evil, largely due to its atheism and repression of religion and spirituality.

Merezhkovskii’s apocalyptic Christianity was said to be a reaction to Nietzsche’s “God is dead” nihilism with Jesus serving in Merezhkovskii’s mind as the countervailing “Superman” who would return to earth offering a “Third Testament” that would reconcile paganism with Christianity and the spiritual with the earthly life.

In this study, Merezhkovskii held Dostoyevsky in high regard and “deconstructed” Tolstoy as having a “slave morality” and conducted a lengthy contrast between Tolstoy and the poet Pushkin, whom Merezhkovksii lionized, stating that where Pushkin represented harmony, successful integration of artist and intellectual, and reconciliation of the cultured man and the proud Russian, Tolstoy represented “rupture,” emotional and spiritual dearth, and advocacy of an “abstract cosmopolitanism” that rejected Russian patriotism.

He criticized Tolstoy’s characters for being passive contemplators and victims rather than heroes with a sense of agency.  He also expressed disdain for what he saw as Tolstoy’s “rational Christianity” lacking any sense of the mystical, mysterious or experiential, and attributed these shortcomings to a profound fear of death on Tolstoy’s part.  This fear, Merezhkovskii claimed, prompted him to view man’s relationship to God as “the criminal sentenced to death, and God is the executioner.” (p. 128)

Merezhkovskii also felt Tolstoy did not have a proper appreciation of the cause and effect patterns of history, stating “his Christianity did not grow from Russian or west European soil but fell from the heavens already prepared.” (p. 129)

Merezhkovskii’s views of Tolstoy would evolve over the years with Tolstoy’s excommunication by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in 1901.  By 1905, Merezhkovskii’s religious and political views had changed in a way that made them compatible with a re-examination of Tolstoy.  Advocating “religious revolution,” Merezhkovskii now recast Tolstoy as “a prophet of Christian anarchism” but criticized his rejection of the 1905 revolution (which decreased the Czar’s rule from that of an autocrat, at least on paper), and Dostoyevsky was now “a prophet of the Russian Revolution” but open to criticism for his theocracy. (p. 131)

As disillusionment with the 1905 revolution in the areas of society and culture set in, Merezhkovskii saw Tolstoy’s doctrinaire moralism no longer with disdain but with qualified acceptance.

A common theme in Russian philosophy of the 19th and early 20th century involved trying to reconcile difference forces and influences.  To some extent, these are universal concerns for most cultures at various points in their development, but for Russia, it is perhaps even more so due to the nation’s particular geography, climate and history.  The country is vast, situated between the West (represented by Europe) and the East (represented by Asia), multiethnic and multiconfessional, with a history filled with foreign invasions, natural disasters, and social upheaval that creates a yearning for security and stability.

After 70 years of relative cultural and philosophical stagnation under the Soviet system, Russians find they are grappling with many of the same issues that their pre-Soviet thinkers did with respect to religion, culture and the nature of the state.  Consequently, they have been getting reacquainted with these thinkers over the past 25 years.  Much has been made among the usual western pundits who have little depth of understanding when it comes to Russia, yet sally forth onto the pages of western newspapers and magazines anyway, about Vladimir Putin’s assignment of the works of 3 pre-Soviet Russian philosophers to be read by all the regional governors during the 2014 Winter holiday.  Those 3 philosophers were Vladimir Solovyev, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Ivan Ilyin.  This book includes essays dealing with all 3 of those philosophers and, due to their contemporary relevance to Russian political thought, the remainder of this review will focus on them.

Vladimir Solovyev

Solovyev has been categorized as one of the early Slavophiles, along with Ivan Kirveevskii, Alexei Khomiakov, and Nicolai Fedorov who were considered trailblazers of Russian philosophy in general.  The basic elements that underpinned early Slavophile philosophy included being pioneers of a philosophy that was unique and original to Russia, fitting with its culture and experience.

Pre-Slavophile Russian philosophers are typically ignored or dismissed by the Slavophiles, according to Scanlan, as being too heavily influenced by external intellectual forces.

Scanlan cites Russian philosophy expert,  Zinaida Smirnova, in pointing out that Slavophiles accepted some “bourgeoisie tendencies” like free speech and free hired labor, but opposed bourgeoisie views of absolute private property ownership, condemned individualist orientation and alienation, and advocated social ties based on custom rather than contract, law or constitutionalism. (p. 38)

To some degree, these preferences can still be seen in contemporary Russia in which surveys reflect majorities supporting socioeconomic equality over individual success and a nuanced but prominent role for religion in society compared to the more strident secularism and relativist values of the West.

As Andrey Shirin, assistant professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, recently explained:

Of course, by and large, Russians appreciate the newfound individual freedoms and opportunities afforded by the influence of Western values.  Nevertheless, to many in Russia these individual callings can find a sense of completion only in a larger communal context.

As a consequence of these values, Slavophiles revered the Russian village commune as a model institution rooted in an authentic collectivist tradition – appropriate to Russia at the time as the rural Russian village life was not yet perceived to be tainted by money, capitalism and industrialization.

Slavophiles also believed in sobornost or the universal, mystical nature of the Orthodox Church – often rejecting or struggling to reconcile with “rationalist” approaches to theology.

However, in the case of Solovyev’s Slavophilism, it appears to be more complicated.  He acknowledged the intuitive as well as the rational. He was friends with Dostoyevsky but had disagreements over Orthodoxy since Solovyev was an advocate of ecumenism and healing the schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.  Furthermore, he is credited with influencing Nicolai Berdyaev, Rudolf Steiner and the Russian Symbolists, among others.  He admired the Greek goddess Sophia who he characterized as the “merciful unifying feminine wisdom of God.”  Solovyev was adept at integrating several spiritual strands, such as Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Christian Gnosticism.

His view of sobornost was that it was an organic and spontaneous order through integration.  He believed that all bodies of knowledge and disciplines of thought could be reconciled through logic, reason and fusing all concepts into a single system.

Solovyev’s debates with his Slavophile contemporary, Fedorov, highlight his views on the nature of spirituality and integration – believing that humans needed to recognize that they were a part of nature and seeking to elevate spiritual development within the world as opposed to Fedorov’s inclination toward wanting to control nature via technological fixes such as cloning and conquering death through the literal resurrection of the dead.

As one of the book’s essayists, George M. Young, Jr., points out, the debates between Solovyev and Fedorov reflect issues and questions that are just as relevant today:

What happens if technology outpaces morality?  Should we permit some people to enjoy extreme longevity, even approach immortality, while others die after a “natural” span of years?  Can a democratic society undertake a task as grandiose as the resurrection of the dead, or must there be a benevolent autocrat to set and keep us on the long project?  What is the point of space exploration when so many problems exist on earth?

….How much control should man attempt to exert over nature?  How do we alter one part of an ecological system to our benefit without altering other parts to our detriment?  If we insist on individual freedom, what are the alternatives to a pornocratic, parricidal culture? (p. 70)

Young elaborates further on the philosphical differences between Solovyev and Fedorov and their implications:

Our technological progress has made Fedorov’s thought more plausible.  On the other hand, with Solovyev, the lack of spiritual advancement over the last century may be one reason for the renewed interest in his thought that we find in today’s Russia.  Solovyev offers practical steps for precisely the kind of spiritual development that has been missing in the cage of Soviet Marxist thought. (p. 69)

It is interesting to note that, of all the early Slavophile philosophers, Putin chose the one who was the least strident and most open to the synthesis of differing values and viewpoints.

Moreover, Solovyev is generally considered by both Russians and western academics as one of Russia’s greatest philosophers ever, despite the fallacious denigration heaped upon him by the likes of David Brooks, Mark Galeotti and Maria Snegovaya after learning of the Russian philosophers that Putin had assigned the regional governors to read.  The articles by these writers reveal them to be either tendentious or lacking any substantive understanding of the philosophers they are criticizing.

As Paul Grenier writes in his insightful article, “Distorting Putin’s Favorite Philosophers”:

Up until these articles in March-April of 2014, I do not recall reading a single negative assessment of either of these Russian thinkers [Solovyev or Nicolai Berdyaev], at least not among Western specialists, nor a single one accusing them of being hostile to the West, nor a single one suggesting that they are friendly to Russian chauvinism or nationalism.

Grenier goes on to describe Solovyev’s ideas and how they contradict the characterization presented by Brooks, et al.:

How can Solovyev be described as a “nationalist” when his magnum opus, The Justification of the Good (the book which Putin is said to have urged his governors to read), states precisely the opposite?  It is hard to imagine a more absolute condemnation of national exceptionalism than that contained in Solovyev’s definitive work of ethics:

“It must be one of the other.  Either we must renounce Christianity and monotheism in general, according to which ‘there is none good but one, that is, God,’ and recognize our nation as such to be the highest good that is, put it in the place of God – or we must admit that a people becomes good not in virtue of the simple fact of its particular nationality, but only in so far as it conforms to and participates in the absolute good.”

This same anti-nationalist theme runs through Solovyev’s entire corpus.  He argued bitterly against the Slavophile nationalists of his day.

The spiritual aspects of pre-Soviet Russian Slavophile philosophers and the revival of the Orthodox Church may appeal to a general human spiritual need, particularly in the aftermath of the chaos, trauma and social dislocation of the 1990’s, as well as the need for social cohesion.

Putin appears to grasp this on some level as is evidenced by his Address to the Federal Assembly in 2012 in which he lamented a shortage of empathy and solidarity in Russian society:

Colleagues, today, in our cities and villages, we are seeing the results of what has been happening in our nation, in society, in schools, in the media, and in our heads for the past fifteen to twenty years. And this is understandable. That was the time when we discarded all ideological slogans of the previous era. But unfortunately, many moral guides have been lost too. We ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water. Today, this is often manifested in people’s indifference to public affairs, willingness to tolerate corruption, brazen greed, manifestations of extremism and offensive behaviour. And all of this occasionally takes an ugly, aggressive, provocative form; I’ll go even further and say that it creates long-term threats to the society, security and even integrity of Russia.

It is painful for me to say this, but I must say it. Today, Russian society suffers from apparent deficit of spiritual values such as charity, empathy, compassion, support and mutual assistance. A deficit of things that have always, throughout our entire history, made us stronger and more powerful; these are the things we have always been proud of.

Putin appears to be in touch with the average Russian view of this as recent surveys of Russian opinion indicate that Russians believe in separation of church and state but believe that the church should have influence over social and cultural life.   Also, revealed is that most Russians identify as Orthodox Christian, but do not necessarily attend services, reflecting a desire for a spiritual and cultural anchor but not necessarily a shrill or fundamentalist form of religiosity.

Part II will cover the part of the book pertaining to Nicolai Berdyaev. 



3 thoughts on “Pre-Soviet Philosophical Thought & Contemporary Russia – Part I of III”

  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.

    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just
    wanted to say great blog!

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