The last few days have been one of those periods when three no. 57 buses have just gone past and you’re waiting and waiting for another one to come along – i.e. a bit of a drought in suitable blogging stories. So I thought I’d muse a little about what I’m reading, and about to read, at the moment.
As I progress in studying the subject of Russian liberalism, I have finally more or less completed my research into the Imperial period, and so have moved into the Soviet era, a time that was not at all conducive to liberal thinking. But something that one could call liberalism did appear in the USSR in the 1980s under Gorbachev. So where it did it come from? I don’t think that it makes sense to imagine that it just appeared out of nowhere fully formed some time around 1987. Clearly, some intellectual shifts had been going on for a while that then got a major boost by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Which makes me wonder whether is something that could rightfully be called ‘Soviet liberalism’.
It’s with that in mind that I got hold of Mikhail Epstein’s recent book The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991. I’ve got as far as reading about a guy with the name of Vladimir Lefebvre, who I’d have guessed was a Frenchman if Epstein didn’t tell me that he’s actually Russian.
Lefebvre emigrated to the USA in 1974 where he came up with a theory of two systems of ethical cognition – Western liberal, and Soviet totalitarian. Roughly speaking, I learn, Lefebvre said that Westerners and Soviets made ethical judgements differently. Westerners were process-oriented; Soviets goal-oriented. To the former the means mattered more than the ends; to the latter, the ends justified the means.
Hmm. Call me a bit of a sceptic. I’d like to see some empirical justification for this claim. It smacks a little of the old Homo Sovieticus theory to me, and suggestive that Soviet people were ethically inferior.
George Washington University professor Stuart Umpleby describes it like this: imagine two castles made out of paper, each of which is attacked by a fire-breathing dragon. Castle A sends out someone to negotiate with the dragon, only to have it breathe out fire and kill everyone. Castle B instead sends out a hero to fight it, but with the same results. If asked which castle they’d prefer to live in, says Umpleby, the closer you are to Moscow, the more people say castle B, and the closer you are to California, the more people say castle A. Umpleby says that this demonstrates the different ethical perspectives. Personally, though, I don’t see the difference – either way, you die!
Lefebvre, like the inventor of Homo Sovieticus. Alexander Zinoviev, was a member of something called the Moscow Methodological Circle, founded in 1952 by graduate students at Moscow State University. Another member of the circle was the guy in the bottom right of Epstein’s book cover above, Merab Mamardashvili. I’d never heard of him until a few months ago, when the conservative Russian website Russkaia Ideia polled readers to identify the most influential Russian philosopher and Mamardashvili topped the bill (to the consternation of some who pointed out that he was neither a conservative nor a Russian). Anyway, it seemed like a good reason to look him up, so next on my reading list is this new book of Mamardashvili’s works translated into English by Julia Sushytska and Alisa Slaughter.
Epstein says that ‘Mamardashvili’s influence cannot be overstated,’ though it seems more due to his enormously popular lectures than to anything he wrote. Epstein says also, ‘The theme of his reflection was philosophy itself, which he regarded as a moral imperative to question the identity of all values.’ If I get that right – and I’ve yet to study him – his influence was largely in terms of prompting Soviet intellectuals to question, which in the Soviet Union was a somewhat dangerous thing to do.
Beyond that, I’ve also read that he helped manifest a new openness to European ideas, having spent some time in Prague prior to the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’, working at the journal Problems of the World and Socialism. Flicking through the Mamardashvili book, I read the following from one of his later essays:
Today we talk about the need to take care of our common European house, but for this, at minimum, we first need to reinstate our membership in this house. The main task that confronts social thinking and the citizens of the Soviet Union is reunification with their homeland, and this homeland is irreversibly Russia’s European fate. … At one point this problem had already begun to be solved, but we were derailed and became feral. Now … if we want to go back to our European house and have a right to talk about it as its defenders, we ourselves have to first become civilized – more civilized or at least civilized people.
Mamardashvili wasn’t the only influential figure working at Problems of the World and Socialism. Another was Anatoly Cherniaev, who became one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s close advisors. At this point, things are beginning to come together, in the sense of philosophy and politics uniting to produce Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’. As it turns out, Problems of the World and Socialism wasn’t the only journal, or institution, laying the ground for the future. From the mid-1950s onwards, a number of Soviet research institutes similarly acted as incubators for new ideas within the communist system.
This is the topic of the next book on my to-do list, Robert English’s Russia and the Idea of the West. ‘Ideas mattered’, says English in his introduction. Throughout the 1960s and 70s ‘a broad reformist elite’ came into being sharing a commitment to ‘the early post-Soviet era promise of liberalizing, humanizing, and opening their country to the world.’
In a 2013 article, University of Colorado professor Mark Lipovetsky argued that the main purveyors of this Soviet liberalism were what he called ITRs (inzhenerno-tekhnicheskie rabotniki – engineer/technical workers). It was thus no coincidence that so many dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov, came from among the ITRs.
ITRs were a natural source of liberal ideas because scientific progress required some degree of free thinking. Lipovetsky argues, however, that ITRs had certain flaws – they were on the one hand believers in the power of reason and science, and on the other hand contemptuous of the ‘idiocy of the masses’ (the latter is beginning to be a bit of a theme). According to Lipovetsky, this helps explain contemporary Russian liberal culture, with its anti-democratic tendencies and its ideological certainty about the scientific correctness of Western models.
Is Lipovetsky right? To help answer that, I’ve bought yet another book – Maria Rogicheva’s The Private World of Soviet Scientists from Stalin to Gorbachev.
According to the blurb, the book ‘explains what motivated the scientific intelligentsia to participate in the late Soviet project’, by means of a study of the scientific town of Chernogolovka. Judging by the blurb, the book doesn’t seem to bear Lipovetsky out. For it says that Rogicheva ‘argues that Soviet scientists were not merely bought off by the system, but that they bought into the idealism and social optimism of the post-Stalin regime.’ It will be interesting to see what the book has to say.
Where does all this leave me? Well, certainly, it seems that the foundations of perestroika were laid long in advance, but went unnoticed by observers who were too focused on external signs of Soviet conformity. It makes one wonder what new ideas are fermenting nowadays underground not just in Russia but elsewhere. I guess that only time will tell.