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The Philosophers’ Ship

In 1922 Lenin sent Russia’s best philosophers off on a cruise and told them not to come home unless they wanted to be shot. Alexander Razin and Tatiana Sidorina describe a ‘humanitarian act’ by a totalitarian regime.

Any student of philosophy would agree that philosophy has roots in mythology and in a particular sense arose from mythology. To be more correct, philosophy did not simply rise from mythology, but surpassed it and became a higher kind of general worldview. But mythology did not disappear completely after the development of philosophy. On the contrary, a mythological mode of thought continues to influence people’s outlook and behaviour. It can still be a decisive opposition to any form of more reasoned or more prudential philosophy.

Losing many of its original functions during the history of humankind, mythology still inevitably accompanies and supports any ideology. It appears in a variety of forms in different societies, but it especially flourishes under the conditions of totalitarian rule.

For 70 years the former Soviet Union existed in the clouds of communist myth: socialist competition, communist labour, the moral code of a communist builder, the communist team of workers, the most happy childhood, respectable old age, free medical care, free education, a free flat for living, and in addition the first place in ballet, in space exploration, in amateur sport and so on. In opposition was all that could spoil the realisation of a communist ideal: the Doctors’ Plot, the undesirable influence of the West, Zionism, rock music, professional sports…

Nowadays most of these myths have disappeared. How this process has influenced the outlook of ordinary Russian people is a difficult and many-sided question. But in spite of the widely varying attitudes to the contemporary changes in Russia, one thing is clear. It is expressed by the well-known proverb: “everything suppressed becomes known somewhere.” One of the deeply suppressed things in former Soviet philosophy was knowledge about Russian pre-revolutionary idealist philosophers. Only a few people knew that their philosophical writings were stored in the so-called special collection of the Lenin State Library. Access to this collection was strictly limited. Permission to use it was granted only to professional ideologists (philosophers and historians working in that special field) who used these works only in a critical way. Most educated people in Soviet Russia came across the names of Berdyaev, Bogdanov, Bulgakov only during the study of Lenin’s famous work Materialism and Empiriocriticism, and they generally did not know such names as Soloviov, Shestov, Chicherin, Trubetskoy – major Russian philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were not mentioned in that book.

The Russian philosophers mentioned in Lenin’s works were described in the most unpleasant images, their philosophical ideas mainly characterised in abusive terms and grossly over-simplified. The study of former Russian philosophers on the basis of Lenin’s descriptions of them, rather than through their own writings, was the beginning of many ideological myths, in particular the myth of the inevitable, absolute enmity between idealist Russian philosophy and communist doctrine.

Actually this myth was not simply the coloured expression of a particular ideological position. It was also the hidden justification of a particular political action that took place in 1922. This was the expulsion from Soviet Russia of the most famous idealist philosophers alive at that moment. This act became known to historians as the ‘Philosophy Steamship’, because the Soviet government rented two German ships (Oberbürgermeister Haken and Preussen) on which were compulsorily gathered and deported the leading lights of the former Russian intellectual scene.

Another myth used to justify this action was that the deportation was for the good of the victims themselves, that this was the only way to save their lives or at least save them from exile in concentration camps in Siberia, because their possible activity would obviously contravene the boundaries permitted by the official Soviet materialist ideology. Even now the opinion prevails among Russian intellectuals that the departure of the philosophers was their salvation and good for the fate of their ideas. For instance the biggest philosophy magazine in Russia, Questions of Philosophy, said in 1990 that “of the three possible solutions to the problem as seen by the Party administration at the time, namely shooting, exiling to Siberia or deportation, the most humanitarian was chosen.”

One of the first ‘humanitarian’ justifications for the mass expulsion was offered by Leon Trotsky in 1922. He said: “These elements we send away and will send away in future are nothing in a political sense. But they are a potential weapon in the hands of our enemies. In case of new military conflicts, that cannot be excluded in spite of our peaceful policies, these irreconcilable dissident elements will be military-political agents of the enemy. In that case we will have to shoot them in accordance with the rules of war. This is why we prefer to deport them now, beforehand in the quiet period. I hope you will not refuse to recognise our prudent humanity…”

In reality this ‘humanitarian’ justification for the deportation of a great part of Russia’s intelligentsia seems highly doubtful. Firstly, from a contemporary perspective, it was a rude violation of a fundamental human right: to live where you want, or at least the right to live in your own country. Secondly, behind Trotsky’s talk of humanity was the hidden wish to be free from powerful (in their intellectual capabilities) opposition. In the third place this action was not humanitarian in the sense of historical responsibility. Nobody has the right to proclaim the ‘unique truth’ and assert this ‘truth’ as the one and only possibility for a whole nation’s historical development.

Soviet leaders did a cold accounting of all necessary steps and all consequences of the idealist philosophers’ deportation. They mainly did it for political rather than humanitarian reasons. But later the action really did acquire a humanitarian aspect in comparison to the terror and suppression of free thought that was to spread all over the country for years.

In this article we are going to describe this tragic event and its consequences for Russian philosophy and culture.

The deportation of the intelligentsia in 1922 was not an impromptu event, but was the realisation of an idea that grew over several years. Opinions differ as to who exactly was the initiator of the plan. L.A.Kogan stresses that although the idea of exiling could have occurred to different people simultaneously, Lenin was undoubtedly the inspirer and leader of the action. The French historian and Sorbonne professor M.C.Geller expresses the same view: “Lenin was the initiator of exiling as well as the architect of the whole policy that finished in the deportation of these representatives of Russian culture.”

The processes taking place in Russian philosophy in the early 1920’s included a growing hostility between idealist philosophy with an intuitive, mystical orientation (very popular in the former national consciousness) and the new, official materialistic worldview. In 1918 Nikolai Berdyaev organised in Moscow the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture. ‘Spiritual’ was always apprehended in Russian tradition as something more than simple cognition, or knowledge. It supposes moral qualities and some special intuitive apprehension of the connections between a man and a whole society, humankind and the universe. In this tradition worked such prominent Russian philosophers as Semyon Frank, V.Ivanov and F.A.Stepyn, who all taught at Moscow University. Under the leadership of L.M.Lopatin and later I.A.Ilein, the Moscow Psychology Association restarted its work. This association was a special division of Moscow State University. A Philosophy Association was organised in St Petersburg. Among its founders were the symbolist poets Beliey and Blok. The Sociological Society began to function in 1919 under the leadership of N.I.Kareev. Its active members included the very well known philosopher and sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. In 1919 the St Petersburg Philosophy Society was also revived. Nikolai Lossky and E.L.Radlov began to publish a new philosophy magazine called Thought. But its existence was brief. Lossky recalled: “We had been able to publish only three issues. The fourth one had been prepared for printing when the Bolshevist government forbade the magazine’s publication.”

So, many different philosophical organisations and many different approaches to solving the main philosophical problems existed in this period. The most famous philosophers were mainly in opposition to the official Marxist point of view. Among the main publications of that period were Lossky’s The Intuitive Philosophy of Bergson and Logic; Frank’s Essay on the Methodology of Social Science; L.P.Karsavin’s East, West and Russian Ideas; Sorokin’s The Main Problems of Lavrov’s Sociology, Militarism and Communism, Starvation as a Factor; and Oswald Spengler and the End of Europe by Berdyaev, Stepun and Frank. Even the titles of these works show the variety of Russian philosophers’ interests and the level of their activity in the twenties.

Kogan writes, “Lenin watched with concern the activity of the Russian idealists. In his Kremlin library could be found the books of Alekseev, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Volinskiy, Ivanov- Razumnik, Ilein, Karsavin, Lapchin, Novgorodtsev, Rozanov, Stepun, Trubetckoy, Shpet, Frank, Iakovenko; but not because he had any sympathy with their views. Most of these authors were included in the deportation lists.”

Lossky remembered: “A new thunderstorm, that was not suspected by any of us, moved on the Russian intelligentsia in the summer of 1922. Zinoviev, the Chief of the St Petersburg North-West region, reported in Moscow that the intelligentsia had begun to raise its head. He wrote that different groups of intellectuals were launching journals and societies; for the moment they acted in separate ways, but sooner or later they would unify and would represent quite a considerable force.”

On 31st August 1922 the newspaper Pravda published an official announcement about the deportation of the most active counterrevolutionary elements among professors, doctors and writers in the north of the country. The decision was authorized by a statement from the State Political Department (GPU). The announcement, entitled ‘The First Warning’, did not nominate particular families or state the number to be deported. It said only that no great scientists would be among the exiled. Actually at the moment of publication some of those to be exiled were already under arrest and had signed documents agreeing to leave Russia using their own financial capability. People unable to pay for their own departure had to await their deportation in prison.

But the Pravda announcement was not the first danger sign. In the winter of 1918, after a strike of the staff of Moscow High Technical School, Lenin suggested dismissing many professors. Following his advice the Soviet government eventually carried out a complete changeover of the professors not only in the High Technical School, but in almost all universities. The old ‘reactionary’ professors were replaced by new, ‘red’ ones. Lossky, who was a professor at St Petersburg University, was among those dismissed. He recalled: “Till the autumn of 1921 the Bolshevists’ Government intruded very little in the educational process, at least in the teaching of philosophy. I could continue my work in the same way as before the revolution… But over three years the Bolshevists had prepared a new staff of ‘red’ professors for many fields of science, and in the autumn of 1921 there was a meeting of the State Scientific Council to decide which of the former professors should be dismissed… The Department of Philosophy of St Petersburg University was absolutely destroyed after that. All tutors and two professors (Lapchin and me) were discharged. Only Vvedensky was retained as a professor. But the young man Borichevsky was made a professor as well, and he, by the way, was ordered to deliver a course in logic alongside the one already taught by Professor Vvedensky. This Borichevsky had been sent abroad by the Bolshevists for his philosophy education. He managed to enter the University of Losain where he studied the philosophy of Epicurus. After coming back, he began to deliver public lectures on such topics as ‘Spinoza as a materialist’. His knowledge of philosophy was extremely limited. For example, when he spoke about Plato’s philosophy, students saw his mistakes and laughed about him.”

On 12th March 1922 Lenin’s article ‘On the Meaning of Struggling Materialism’ was published. It was a program article devoted to ideological questions, and the future exiling of the intelligentsia could be easily seen in it. “The Russian worker has gotten his power”, wrote Lenin, “but he still is not capable of using it, or else he would politely remove such teachers and members of scientific communities to the countries of western ‘democracy’.”

The next episode in this play was Lenin’s letter to the public commissar of jurisprudence, I.Kursky, dated 15th May 1922. In it Lenin argued for the necessity of amending the Legal Code; in particular he urged changing capital punishment by shooting to deportation abroad (for a particular time or forever) in accordance with a decision of the Presidium of the Union Central Executive Committee, and also the need to make shooting the punishment for returning illegally. Four days later in a letter to Feliks Dzerdginsky dated 19th May 1922 Lenin discussed preparations for exiling ‘counterrevolutionary’ writers and professors.

Further events developed very quickly. Changes were made in the law, lists of those to be exiled were prepared, evidence for conviction was gathered and concocted. On 10th August 1922 the Union Central Executive Committee prescribed exiling abroad or in particular districts of the country for those persons involved in counterrevolutionary activity. E.Kuskova and S.Prokopovich were banished in June, being among the first; they were the leaders of the Committee for the Help of the Hungry. The main group were prepared for departure in August.

First of all a wave of arrests passed through Moscow, St Petersburg and some other big towns. In accordance with the pre-prepared lists selected people were arrested and put into prisons where they were kept for times ranging from two days to two months. During this period those arrested had to sign a paper warning that they would be shot if they returned.

We ought to mention that a complete list of those exiled still does not exist. Maybe the failure to clarify the situation is due to the GPU destroying evidence in order to keep secrets. It is known that separate lists that were compiled simultaneously for Moscow, Petrograd, and the Ukraine. All these lists were corrected and the numbers listed and actually exiled were changed. Kogan mentions that on the Ukrainian list there were originally 77 people, on the Moscow one 67, and on the Petrograd list were 30 people. Finally, after much revision, 160 people were listed for exile. Other modern researchers put the numbers exiled at anything between 60 and 300 people. Investigation is complicated by the fact that the deportees quite quickly spread out between different countries after their arrival at the original place of deportation – Germany. Many went to the United States, France, Czechoslovakia or other countries.

The departure of Russia’s intellectual elite is often connected with the symbol of the ‘Philosophy Ship’. Although philosophers made up only a small proportion of the exiles, they were the best representatives of Russian religious-idealistic philosophy, people of the so-called Russian religious renaissance. We can doubt their methodology now, but their dream to consider a man as an immortal being was a great dare, and their analysis of the logically noncontradictory conditions of immortality was quite important. Most of the Russian idealist philosophers of that time supposed that a person cannot achieve moral perfection without immortality and that immortality supposes an exit to another, timeless, world. Losing its leading thinkers, especially losing all of them at once, Russia lost the possibility of any serious philosophical discussion of the huge changes in ethical and spiritual values then taking place. The exiled philosophers included Berdyaev, Frank, Lossky, Bulgakov, Stepun, Trubetskoy, Vicheslavtsev, Lapchin, Ilein, Karsavin, Izgoev. The exiling of the great historians A.Kizevetter, A.Florovsky, V.Miakotin and A.Bogolepov was also a terrible loss. The exiled sociologist Sorokin later gained world recognition and became one of the founders of American sociology.

As the passengers of the ‘Philosophy Ship’ later recalled, it was difficult to leave Russia, and also difficult to begin a new life in another place, especially taking into account that most were not young. For example, Lossky was 52 years old, Bulgakov was 51, Trubetskoy 60 and Berdyaev 48. The writer M.Osorgin remembered that each exile was permitted to take one summer coat and one winter coat, two skirts for the day and two for the night, two pairs of pants and two pairs of stockings, together with the equivalent of just $20 in hard currency. He wrote that they went to begin a new life only with pennies.

Though exiled, Russian philosophy nevertheless continued. The philosophers wrote a lot of books after their forced departure. For example Berdyaev wrote The New Middle Ages: Reasoning about the fate of Russia and Europe (Berlin 1924), The Worldview of Dostoevsky (Prague 1923), Self-knowledge (Paris 1949), The Destiny and Essence of Man (Paris 1931), The Sources and Meaning of Russian Communism (Paris 1955), and many more. In total Berdyaev wrote 43 books and nearly 500 articles. Ilein’s works included On Armed Resistance Against Evil (Berlin 1925) and Axioms of Religious Experience (Paris 1953). Frank wrote Living Knowledge (Berlin 1923), Religion and Science (Berlin 1924), The Spiritual Foundation of Society: Introduction to Social Philosophy (Paris 1939) and others. V.V.Zenkovsky, who had emigrated earlier (in 1919) wrote a seminal History of Russian Philosophy. (Vol.1, Paris 1934, Vol.2, Paris 1950).

This list of names and works could easily be continued, but it is more urgent to try to give a detailed evaluation of this episode. Remember again that there is an opinion that the mass expulsion was a humane act compared with the possible alternative of execution by shooting. But it is possible to doubt the degree and the real basis of this humanitarianism. Of course exile was better than shooting, in spite of all its material troubles, humiliation and spiritual suffering. But why do we so easily accept capital punishment as a basis for comparison? Who had the right to threaten people with death just for their ideas? In a softer view of the deportation, that prevailed during the Soviet years, it was said that their departure was good for the idealist philosophers themselves, not only because it saved them from the firing squad, but mainly because of the eclipse of their own philosophical perspective due to the spread of materialism. This view supposed that idealist philosophy was obviously wrong and was becoming more and more unpopular. So, if the famous idealist philosophers had remained in Soviet Russia their ideas would have been seen as mere curios and this would have been a personal tragedy for them. We personally do not think that this sophisticated motivation was important for the people who really made the decisions concerning deportation. It is more likely that the Russian leaders of that time were just afraid of the international community’s reaction. For this reason they preferred forced exiling to putting in concentration camps or shooting.

What were the consequences of this action for the fate of Russian philosophy, national consciousness, and spiritual life? We aren’t saying that everything was perfect in the views of Russian idealist philosophers or that everything in their writings would be very important for contemporary life. On the contrary it is very well known that before the revolution, Russian national consciousness tended to favour a mystical attitude to life, rational knowledge in many cases being defeated by mystical intuition. The communitarian approach obviously predominated above the libertarian one. No doubt some of these things have changed. Nobody today is going to live absolutely in accordance with the recommendations of Russian idealistic philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th century. What we want to stress is the fact that traditional ideas supported the traditional morality. A gradual change in such ideas often takes place during the transformation of society and allows some degree of social stability to remain. But it is dangerous to destroy them all at a single stroke. After the revolution Russia’s new socialist government faced the disintegration of the economy and of civic life, the so-called razrucha (devastation). Former Soviet science explained this mainly by historical circumstances such as the consequences of the first world war, intervention, and civil war. But we think the rapid destruction of the traditional moral foundation was one of the essential circumstances of the devastation that took place after the October Revolution.

In accordance with the will of Socialist leaders Marxism became an official ideology. But it was not the Marxism of Marx, which was primarily a scientific theory open to criticism and having unsolved questions. When Marxism was adopted as the official ideology of an actually existing society, it was necessary to remove any doubt concerning its theoretical statements. Therefore from the very beginning of the Soviet Union’s existence its Marxism was simplified down into the Great Marxism-Leninism. For example, in Lenin’s work State and Revolution no attention is paid to Engels’ deep analysis of the positive function of the State during the whole history of class society. Lenin’s one thought was that the state was a machine for exploitation and had to be dismantled. This was an obvious over-simplification and even distortion of the original ideas of Marx and Engels. Marx’s thesis about the leading role of the working class during the socialist revolution was converted into the doctrine that it had to play the leading role during the whole period of building a new society. It was forgotten that Marx saw the limitations imposed on the working class by its lack of knowledge. Moreover, he wrote that the working class would destroy itself during the socialist revolution, and that capitalists and workers actually represented different opposites of the same historical alienation. From these kinds of thoughts obviously arise the conclusion that the working class cannot be the only force in the development of a new society. But this understanding was not needed by the elite that built a totalitarian state under the covering of a humanistic ideology.

The one force that could perhaps have stopped the oversimplification of Marxist theory, and the development of a totalitarian society was removed by the exiling of the leading Russian intellectuals, because of the closing of the possibilities of open philosophical discussion and the extreme limitation of real democracy that followed.

Moreover Marxism, a theory developed in Western countries, was uncritically accepted in Russia in spite of the fact that it was not realised in the land of its birth under conditions that correlated with the main statements of its teaching. The violent, artificial transformation of society called for by Marxism resulted in terrible consequences for millions of people. It is worth mentioning that Berdyaev foresaw the inevitable dangers of the attempt to build a society in accordance with a single theoretical principle. He wrote that any abstract principle inevitably contained simplification in itself and the attempt to build a society that followed this principle would finally lead to the development of a totalitarian regime.

The introduction to an issue of Questions of Philosophy devoted to the ‘Philosophy Ship’ said that: “With the exiling of a philosophy began the period of sectarian existence for communist ideology. The absence of dialogue with other streams of world philosophical thought and culture finally led to the self-isolation of Marxism and its conversion into a dogma.” It is difficult to argue against this statement. All of us who had a higher education in the former Soviet Union felt the consequences of that conversion of philosophy into dogmatic Marxism. Most of the former Soviet intelligentsia, especially that part of it aged over 40, is influenced by a hatred of philosophy (or they are indifferent at best), continuing to believe that philosophy simply is dialectical and historical materialism.

Unfortunately the majority of our contemporary students, excluding those intending to become professional philosophers themselves, also have a negative attitude towards philosophy. The social cost of this is that few people wish to develop themselves culturally or spiritually. They prefer an exclusively pragmatic life and do not regard as meaningful any activity oriented toward the achievement of mutually-shared socially valid goals. Their moral attitudes seem to be based only on ancient beliefs, or on ‘commonsense’.

We have already stressed that Russian culture and Russian pre-revolutionary philosophy contain a great mystic component, but paradoxically the exiling of the people who in a high degree were the bearers of this component did not improve the situation in the long term. On the contrary the interest in mysticism is increasing in Russia now. With all our respect for former famous Russian philosophers, we at the same time cannot approve of the way their writings are used in the contemporary public life of our country. The unpleasant thing is that a lot of contemporary Russian philosophers just pick up quotations from Berdyaev the same way they picked them up from Marx in former times.

© Alexander V. Razin and Tatiana J. Sidorina 2001

Alexander Razin teaches in the Department of Ethics at Moscow State University and is a contributing editor of Philosophy Now, while Tatiana Sidorina is a professor at the High School of Economics, also in Moscow.

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