Freed From Ideology, Russian Philosophers Explore Limitless Possibilities (NYT)

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Sat Mar 13 06:36:28 PST 1999

March 13, 1999

Freed From Ideology, Russian Philosophers Explore Limitless Possibilities


MOSCOW -- Vladimir Fedorovich Titov is not bitter. True, he was chairman of the department of Marxist-Leninist philosophy at the prestigious Moscow State University when the faculty voted in 1991, as he put it, to "liquidate completely" his department.

But as he explains: "We decided the question pacifically. Professors understood the political situation." He offers a gentle smile, revealing a gold tooth. His large ears and thick, rectangular glasses seem to have outgrown his cropped gray-haired head. This 60-year-old Marxist is now teaching existentialism.

"It was a great mistake," he says of his department's elimination. "Marx was a great thinker. Without him you can't do philosophy."

The narrow faculty room with its mismatched chairs in neon-aqua tints is cold, and Titov warms himself with a cup of English breakfast tea. Gazing down from a photograph hanging above a tall wooden bookcase is Karl Marx, his face partly obscured by a plant.

For 70 years Russian philosophy was Marxism-Leninism. It was more than a dusty schoolroom requirement; it was the national religion, the source of the state's political authority and legitimacy.

Vladimir Mironov, the chairman of Moscow University's philosophy department, remembers a teacher once telling him, "You get paid a high stipend not because you know philosophy, but because you're going to be an ideologue."

These days ideological work doesn't pay that well, and the benefits aren't great either. But no one knows yet what will replace it.

Of course, the old guard, professors like Titov, still have their teaching jobs, and some of the textbooks have changed nothing more than their titles. But Russian philosophy, freed from the Marxist straitjacket, is clumsily stretching its arms, testing its reach.

Instead of looking at every problem through the lens of scientific socialism, philosophers can now reinvent themselves: they can be analytical or mystical, try logic or phenomenology. The ethics of political and economic success are suddenly acceptable subjects for ethicists, as are abortion and organ transplants. In epistemology, the study of knowledge, scholars can now examine a subject once off-limits, like the religious roots of science.

This freedom has pitched Russian philosophy both backward and forward. In some cases Russians have looked inward, sifting through their own past to rediscover the philosophical heritage that was suppressed during most of the Soviet period.

Some have turned to the religious philosophy of the Christian Orthodox church, while others are re-examining the 19th-century notion of the "Russian idea," the nation's unique historical mission. Still others have looked outside, to Europe's and America's postmodernists.

What philosophical school is most popular now? "What day is it?" Mironov responded with a laugh.

The "all of the above" option is, to some degree, precisely the point of a post-communist world. Yet as these and other ideas rush to fill the vacuum left by communism, the question is whether Russians will be tempted by a substitute orthodoxy.

"People understood Marx very dogmatically," explained Ruben Apresyan, who teaches at the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow, historically a more autonomous institution than Moscow State University.

Now "they are replacing one set of axioms with another." In this sense, how the born-again field of philosophy develops is a bellwether of Russia's intellectual life in general, and of its ties to the country's politics and economy.

The most predictable impulse after the fall of communism was Russian scholars' desire to fill in the gaps of their history. Although some of the writings of homegrown philosophers like Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilian began to be available in the Khruschev era, they were often carefully controlled. You could talk about them, says El'mar Sokolov (whose parents chose E for Engels, L for Lenin, M for Marx), but you couldn't write about them.

Sokolov's thin face, gray hair and weathered pin-stripe suit are illuminated by St. Petersburg's iron-tinted afternoon light. Outside is the snowy garden he ran through as a boy during the Nazi siege of Leningrad; inside this professor's study are black-and-white photos of his family, Czars Alexander II and Nicholas II, and Berdyaev.

Even though small public lectures on Berdyaev were allowed in the mid-1980s, "a friend had problems because he said Berdyaev was more important that Lenin," Sokolov remembers. "He was fired, then sent to a bad university to teach. Then he emigrated."

Berdyaev, one of the best known Russian philosophers, turned his back on Marxism in 1922 and was deported to Paris, where he wrote about Russia's destiny as the new Jerusalem. The Russians, he said, were a special spiritual, organic people with a mission to transform society.

Like many other intellectuals and writers he was deeply influenced by Solovyov, the 19th-century philosopher whose complete works are now being published for the first time. Solovyov, who coined the term "the Russian idea," had a mystical bent and saw Christianity as the repository of supreme wisdom.

The return of "the Russian idea" worries those who fear that a belief in Russia's exceptionalism could turn into a dangerous messianism. When many Russians feel humiliated, the notion of a divine mission offers psychological compensation.

It also seems to set the stage for a replay of the tug of war between nationalist, conservative Slavophiles and progressive, secular Westernizers, a struggle that Dostoevsky savagely satirized in his 1872 novel "Demons."

Yet this opposition between East and West has often been exaggerated. The simple idea that Russia has a unique character, a particular "Russkii mentalitet," appeals not only to fierce nationalists, but to religious leaders, poets, anti-communists (who see Marx as a Western import), as well as young, liberal Western-educated scholars who don't want to see Russia's form squished into a one-size-fits-all American-style suit.

That is particularly true at the moment, when Western-style liberalism has taken such a battering here. Instead of rose-colored glasses, many Russians now see the West through what Apresyan calls "gray glasses." Intellectuals in Moscow and St. Petersburg agreed.

"There is a disenchantment with Western liberal ideology," said Vladimir Lektorsky, editor of the leading philosophy journal, Voprosy Filosofii (Problems of Philosophy). "Liberalism was reduced only to minimal government and private property, with disastrous results."

In theory and practice liberalism itself had turned into a kind of dogma. Corruption, poverty, a dwindling industrial base and agricultural system, and governmental chaos hadn't exactly help salvage the capitalist dream.

One Western import that has captured the imagination of the younger generation of scholars, however, is French postmodernism. "Every second person considers himself a postmodernist," Mironov said.

In many ways postmodernism seems the perfect philosophy for a post-communist society. After years of listening to the ruling party dish out the "Truth," postmodernism's insistence on competing notions of truth is a refreshing change.

Its skepticism of authority extends to Western assumptions about the straight path of progress and common attributes. Thus, those who hold on to a sense of Russia's uniqueness are drawn to it as well.

Anna Kostikova, 34, teaches at Moscow State University and has a ready giggle. She chose contemporary French postmodernism as her speciality even before the Soviet Union was disbanded. Postmodernism is not necessarily the most popular field, she said, but it does characterize the country's state of mind.

"You can't not be a postmodernist in contemporary Russia," she said, her dark brown hair haphazardly tied back. "Our country is very unstable both economically and politically, and no ideology can be adequate to the situation. In this sense postmodernism is being realized not as a popular philosophy but as the acceptance of various philosophies and their existence."

Svetalan Shakirova, 31, also considers herself a postmodernist. She got interested in philosophy after reading "Das Kapital" in the eighth grade, but she wrote her thesis on the idea of male and female in philosophy.

Philosophy is the "science of elderly men," she says through a translator. Perhaps. Yet she and 10 colleagues also from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (formerly part of the Soviet empire), nonetheless traveled 1,500 miles to St. Petersburg for a seminar on gender theory.

This unfamiliar intellectual stew has fed anxiety about the future of Russian intellectual life. This generation of scholars is a transitional one; what will the next one bring?

Intellectual life has suffered from the loss of state support. Gone are the comfortable salaries, subsidized journals, research grants and other perks.

A senior professor now earns $100 to $200 a month; circulation of the once subsidized Viprosy Filosofii has fallen to 7,000 from 85,000 in 1990. At St. Petersburg University the philosophy faculty's phone service was cut off for several months in 1997 because no one paid the bill.

Yet intellectuals have also suffered from the loss of an authority to fight. In a repressive society, defiant writers and thinkers carried moral authority; they were prophets who could speak truth to power. No more.

"There's already a crisis of confidence in intellectuals," Ms. Kostikova said. "People don't trust them."

Nikita Pokrovsky, a Jefferson scholar and sociologist who, like most professors in Russia has had to stitch together three teaching jobs to survive, is pessimistic. "In about a decade or earlier, the quality of teaching and research will decline dramatically," he said. Only 1 or 2 percent of his students end up pursuing a career in academia. "You can make 10 times as much as a secretary. We're seeing the degradation of the intelligentsia."

Pokrovsky repeats the litany of complaints: Students are blockheads; juicy pulp fiction has replaced serious literature; jobs are scarce and money more so; talk of the ruble has replaced the "kitchen discussions," philosophical nights at which shots of vodka, cigarettes and rich conversation would be consumed.

Students "can buy abridged versions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky," said Mironov of Moscow State University, "You have speed-reading courses everywhere; but how can you read Heidegger that way?"

To others, such gloomy ruminations are more suited to Russian literature than life.

Marietta Stepaniants, 63, who heads the Oriental Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy, says intellectual life is still vital and more expansive.

Over tea in her uncommonly bright office, with its varnished wooden floor and new computer, she said that when she published a book on Sufism in 1987, it was the first on the subject; people stood in line to buy a copy. Now there are several in print. If Russians don't queue up for serious books today, she says, "all it means is we didn't publish enough."

Perhaps because she saw how her own thinking evolved in difficult times, she is more optimistic. As a teen-ager she cried when Stalin died, almost getting trampled in the scramble to see his coffin. A trip to India in 1959 and a stay in the United States in 1961 with Quakers introduced her to unaccustomed ideas.

"I was not a revolutionary or a dissident," she explained, adding a description that could also be applied to the coming generation of Russian intellectuals, "but I developed."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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