[Paleopsych] TLS: Russia's intellectual disasters

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Russia's intellectual disasters
The Times Literary Supplement, 5.2.2
Rachel Polonsky
02 February 2005
A philosophical history of Russia
Lesley Chamberlain
331pp. | Atlantic Books. £25. | 1 84354 285 4

Consolation still comes to the political prisoner in the form of
Philosophy. Like Boethius in his dungeon at Pavia, out of favour with
his ruler, accused of "using unholy means to obtain offices
corruptly", and awaiting the "confiscation of [his] property", Mikhail
Khodorkovsky has turned to the "remedies of reasoning". Recently,
through the internet, the Russian oil billionaire, in prison for over
a year facing charges of fraud, conveyed regret that he had not
relieved himself of the "tyranny of property" years ago, to enhance
his "inner freedom" by "devoting most of [his] time to studying world
history and idealist philosophy".
In Russia, the contemplation of abstract and ultimate questions has
long been a provocation to tyrants as well as a consolation to
prisoners. Soon after the French Revolution, Russia's outstanding
Enlightenment thinker Aleksandr Radishchev, who had written an ode in
defence of tyrannicide and embraced the concepts of natural law,
universal rights, and the social contract, was banished to Siberia.
Thus ended Russia's "Age of Reason". In the early nineteenth century,
where Lesley Chamberlain begins Motherland, her "philosophical history
of Russia", Tsar Nicholas I purged the universities of their
philosophy departments in response to the Decembrist attempt on his
life of 1825: a "touching story", Chamberlain writes, "of idealism
wildly miscalculating the effects of reasonable action in an
unreasonable country". Repeatedly, throughout the nineteenth century,
university courses in philosophy were officially proscribed or
censored. Original philosophical speculation took place elsewhere,
often in a morally and politically urgent but technically
undisciplined fashion, as svobodnoe myslitel'stvo (free
thought-mongering) conducted in solitude or in informal kruzhki,
intelligentsia discussion "circles".
Contemporary Russian historians who have, since 1991, at last been
allowed freely to survey their national philosophical tradition,
routinely distinguish between universitetskaya and kruzhkovaya
philosophy. In the often "underground" milieux of the
mid-nineteenth-century discussion circles, philosophical ideas from
abroad - French socialism, German metaphysics and English empiricism -
took on unique and often toxic Russian forms: obscurantist
nationalism, anarchism, revolutionary materialism and "nihilist"
terrorism. Dostoevsky evoked the social fruit of the intellectual
culture of the "circles" in his novel The Devils (1872) which, in
Chamberlain's words, "depicted a moral-intellectual life so
highly-charged, so frenetic and so consumed by self-doubt . . . that .
. . no man could bear to live there by reason alone". The disjuncture
in the nineteenth century between a social life stultified by tsarist
autocracy, in which "ideas were not at home", and the
"imaginative-speculative visions of the totally-meaningful life [that]
loomed from studies of Hegel and Marx", led Russia to what Chamberlain
calls its "taste of the . . . end of philosophy".
In the years immediately following the Bolshevik seizure of power in
1917, Lenin
and his henchmen initiated a massive and systematic purge, attempting
to bring about the end of philosophy in the name of Marxist
dialectical materialism which had, for them, the combined value of
religious dogma and hard science. At that time, the philosophy
departments in Russian universities and the editorial boards of
philosophical journals and publishing houses were dominated by
idealists, which, in this context, meant religious philosophers such
as Nikolai Berdyaev, Semyon Frank, Gustav Shpet, Nikolai Lossky and
Pavel Florensky. Those members of that "reactionary professoriate" who
were not deported in 1922 met their deaths in the Gulag. These
idealist philosophers (in whose notions of what Chamberlain calls
"radical inwardness" and freedom from the world a political prisoner
might still find comfort) have enjoyed a renaissance since 1991, both
in Russian universities and among general readers. For Lenin,
"idealism" meant, in Chamberlain's words, "any description of
individual minds as free to see the world in their own way".
In the Soviet period, Russian philosophical speculation moved
underground, submerged in imaginative literature, in "philology" and
"culturology", and even in the natural sciences. Contemporary
university courses in the history of Russian philosophy are markedly
eccentric by Western standards; they typically begin with the Church
Fathers, survey a pantheon of nineteenth-century journalists, poets,
visionaries, revolutionaries and priests, and culminate with diverse
philosophical non-philosophers of the twentieth century, ranging from
the cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to the novelist Andrei Platonov,
the biologist V. I. Vernadsky, and the rocket scientist Konstantin
Like the Russian academics who have reformed the teaching of their
nation's philosophical history since the bloodless overthrow of
dialectical materialism (diamat) in 1991, Lesley Chamberlain, a
distinguished English kruzhkovaya philosopher, is concerned to redeem
some philosophical value from the past two centuries of Russian
history, which she describes, in a characteristic paradox, as "an
intellectual disaster but not an imaginative or moral failure". Her
book, with its impressive range of intellectual sympathy and
understanding, is an intrepid non-Russian contribution to the familiar
quest for a "Russian truth", for some key, in philosophy, to "the
mystery of that country and culture". There is no stable algorithm for
the relationship of ideas and history; in Russia, which Chamberlain
calls "the most philosophical country in the world", the drama of
their dialectic has played out in violence. Chamberlain tries to
explore Russian philosophy neither as the passive victim of political
repression, nor solely as the origin and motor of a ruinous
totalitarian ideology, but as "a story of hope and belief" with its
own internal impulses, achievements and pathos. She follows
self-consciously in the steps of Isaiah Berlin, whose intellectual
presence is vivid in her opening and closing pages. In an
interpretation of his liberal pluralism that may provoke dissent among
his admirers and would perhaps have surprised Berlin himself, she
unmasks him as "a Russian anarchist in mild Oxford disguise". His true
philosophical identity as "a Russian-style anti-Cartesian" is, she
says, "mainly concealed in his writing". Berlin embodies, for her, the
similarity between English common sense and Russian anarchism which
share a "distrust of the application of abstract universals to real,
warm, living life".
In keeping with this reverence for "warm, living life", Chamberlain
emphasizes in a tortuous preface that her subject is, variously, the
Russian "experience of philosophy", "Russia's experience of itself as
a different place", and Russia's "self-perception". She has, she says,
"tried to recreate in this book the pain of
Russia's experience of itself . . ." and to convey the "pathos of two
centuries of intellectual disaster". Accordingly, Motherland is not a
"series of arguments" but "a story". Nonetheless, like an argument,
her book has a "key premise", namely that "the experience over the
last two hundred years has been of a piece". By this, she means, I
think, that many diverse interests and values often ignored in Cold
War accounts of the path to totalitarianism are integral to Russian
philosophical history. However, this hazardous premiss necessarily
leads her to some unsatisfactory conclusions. To say that "Russia's
experience of philosophy", is "of a piece" is to imply that it is
uniform and consistent. Russia is a place, though, not a single
experiencing subject or choice-making agent. Phrases like "Russia's
choice of an anti-Western path" and "Russia's experience of itself"
undermine Chamberlain's admirable appreciation of the country's rich
and various intellectual history. Philosophy has led masses of
individual Russians to experience either one end or the other of the
executioner's gun, one side or other of the prison bars. The
dictatorship of the proletariat and the freedom of the individual soul
are both ideas with philosophical roots; they are neither exclusively
Russian nor "of a piece".
At times Chamberlain coerces her subject matter into apparent
coherence by conflating thinkers and theories. Anarchism,
postmodernism, liberalism and deconstruction tend to collapse into one
another; Emmanuel Levinas, Bakhtin, Isaiah Berlin, Lev Shestov are
made to speak interchangeably in their shared "poetic crusade to save
life from cogitation".
At times, her fascinatingly subtle "story" loses tension as she
relaxes into generalization or, conversely - (to adapt a phrase from
Levinas that she admires) - allows the "labour of thought" to win out
over "the otherness of things and men". To say that "Russian thinkers
wanted to find a moral way of being" does not distinguish them as such
from any of the non-Russian thinkers, including the many that
Chamberlain invokes, who have, over the millennia, asked the same from
philosophy. To remind us, as she does, that the "Communist idea was
also, lest we forget, a moral idea" does not make it "of a piece" with
any of the other "moral ideas" it so murderously opposed. For all
Lesley Chamberlain's sophisticated, sometimes electrifying insights,
and her knowing ease with German and Russian philosophical literature, her
story would have held together better if she had resisted the desire
to make it cohere as an argument. It is not to denigrate its
achievement to say of this book that it succeeds in re-creating the
painful experience of intellectual self-defeat that it sets out to

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