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Philosophy in Russia

An American in Moscow

Tim Madigan reports from the 4th Russian Congress of Philosophy.

I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Russian Congress of Philosophy from May 24-28, 2005, where I gave presentations in sections devoted to ‘Ethics’ and ‘Humanism as a Value System’. The Congress was held in conjunction with celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of the founding of Moscow State University, and there were over two thousand professors in attendance.

This was my fifth visit to Russia to participate in philosophical conferences. I had previously been to Moscow in 1996, 1998, and 2001, and to St Petersburg in 1999. I cannot, alas, claim that this is due to my proficiency in the Russian language (basically all I know how to say is nyet, babushka and spasiba) or my deep knowledge of Russian thought. Rather, I attribute it to the kindness of Russian philosophical friends whom I originally met when I was an undergraduate and then a graduate student in philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. During the Cold War years the University at Buffalo was one of the few institutions in the United States which had an exchange program with Russian universities. For most of the years I was a student at SUNY-Buffalo during the 1980s, there was usually a visiting professor from the Soviet Union on campus. I became good friends with several of these individuals, and have remained so ever since. It was an excellent opportunity for me to learn at least a bit about the then very mysterious Soviet Union, and to get a sense of how philosophy was addressed outside of the United States.

Professors of philosophy had a high status in Russia during the Cold War years, and were considered to be members of their country’s prestigious ‘intelligentsia’. No doubt this was because the country’s educational program itself was ostensibly based upon the philosophical writings of Karl Marx. All professional philosophers were assumed to be adherents of Communism, and were often spokespersons for this ideology. In the USSR, all intellectual activity was theoretically connected with Marxism, much as during the Middle Ages almost all intellectuals in one way or another connected their views with the teachings of Christianity. An understanding of dialectical materialism was considered to be an essential component of any philosopher’s program.

But in getting to know many of the visiting Russian professors, I realized that often their primary concerns were not with Marxism per se but rather with some area of philosophy – ethics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics or metaphysics – which they then covered with a veneer of Marxism. They seemed to appreciate, during their time in the United States, being able to discuss such areas without constantly having to espouse Communist propaganda.

I had hoped to attend the World Congress of Philosophy in Moscow in 1993, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but things were very chaotic during this period. I found it impossible to get the information I needed to book a flight, get a hotel room or make reservations for the Congress. Unfortunately this was a common experience, and the Congress was rather poorly attended. Still, I continued to hope that I would be able to visit Russia, and was able to do so a few years later, in 1996. I remember my surprise then, when I was told that the building in which we were meeting had once been the headquarters of the Communist Party. Since my own philosophical leanings were toward pragmatism, particularly the humanistic and anti-Communist views of John Dewey, Sidney Hook and Paul Kurtz, I was rather nonplused, but also appreciated the intellectual sea-change this signified.

There are still many remnants of Marxism evident in 2005 Moscow, from the hammer-and-sickle symbols that festoon Moscow State University’s campus (built in the waning years of Stalin’s reign) to the several statues of Lenin found throughout the city. Communist ‘kitsch’, including hats, buttons and t-shirts with “CCCP” emblazoned upon them, were offered for sale in Red Square along with matroyshka dolls and wooden bears. I also came across many ambiguous references to Stalin, as the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II was being celebrated during the time of the Congress. Indeed, President George W. Bush had been in the city just two weeks before, and had made rather insensitive comments about the former Soviet Union which threatened to stoke anti-American feelings. Fortunately, this did not occur, and I felt very welcome at the Congress.

Regardless of all the symbols that remain, it is my impression that Marxism as a philosophical study is almost completely absent in Russia today. The Congress itself, for instance, had dozens of sessions on topics such as the Philosophy and Methodology of Science, Philosophical Anthropology, Philosophy of Mind, and the Philosophical Problems of Globalization, but as far as I could see the various speakers, much as in the rest of the Western World today, steered clear of Marxist analysis. How different this must have been from philosophical congresses held before the end of the Soviet Union!

If Marxism is no longer the dominant philosophy, what is replacing it? There does seem to be a revival of interest in Russian thought as something unique, a synthesis of knowledge and being which non-Russians cannot appreciate. In addition, there is a renewed emphasis on the connections between Religion and Philosophy. This was nicely symbolized during the opening session of the Congress, when an Orthodox priest read a welcome from the Moscow Patriarch, while standing under a huge medallion of Karl Marx!

So, what is the prevailing philosophical attitude in Russia? This is as difficult to say as saying what the prevailing attitude is in the U.S. or U.K. today. The Congress program was quite eclectic. I did sense an emphasis on Post-Modernist thought, a movement which is on the wane in the U.S. and U.K. One problem which several Russian philosophers pointed out to me is the continuing lack of translations into Russian of the thoughts of philosophers writing in English.

It seems to me that pragmatism, and the theories of John Dewey in particular, could be helpful to Russia today. Dewey was a forceful critic of totalitarianism in general and of Josef Stalin in particular, as well as a great advocate of democracy. As Russia continues to develop democratic institutions, the writings of Dewey are increasingly relevant. I was glad to learn that many of his seminal writings on democracy have now been translated into Russian. The writings of Sir Karl Popper, especially The Open Society and Its Enemies, are also important in this context. Russia is still trying to shake off the effects of 75 years of utopian thinking. The Marxist worldview shaped the opinions of three generations, and the present danger is that Russians might be searching for a new utopian vision to replace it. As Dewey and Popper emphasized, such utopianism is bound to fail. Democracy, for all its flaws, offers a political and philosophical world view which allows for fallibilism, and which accepts that human knowledge itself remains very much a work-in-progress rather than an overriding program which all must accept. Nationalism and religious orthodoxies are dangerous alternatives which should be carefully scrutinized rather than wholeheartedly embraced.

Ironically, perhaps, Marxism as a philosophy is also quite relevant to understanding the present situation in Russia. The power of economic oligarchies, the growing inequalities of wealth, and the rise of conglomerates are conditions that are remarkably similar to the Western societies Marx was critiquing in the late Nineteenth Century. Perhaps it will be a true sign of Russian intellectual maturity when Marxism can be accepted as simply another philosophical system.

What I found most encouraging on my most recent visit was the eagerness of the young people I met to learn what they could about Western philosophy. A generation has now grown up which was not raised on Communism and which is doing its best to understand current debates. This generation is seeking guiding principles to help it adapt to the Twenty-First Century. Russian thought, whatever that might mean, can play a vital role in these debates.

The theme of the 4th Congress was ‘Philosophy and the Future of Civilization’. One aspect of this is the need for a new cosmopolitan ethics, based upon a community of seekers of truth from differing worldviews. The SUNY-Buffalo exchange program of the Cold War era provided a good model that should be continued. Philosophers throughout the world must encourage more such exchanges. Friendships that transcend cultural boundaries, it seems to me, provide a real model for a future civilization of human beings working together to solve their problems.

One of the sessions of the Congress, led by the noted scientists Sergei Kapitza and Yuri Rizhov, was devoted to the 50th Anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Written during the height of the Cold War and endorsed by Nobel laureates who fervently wished to lessen the tensions between the United States and the USSR, and thereby alleviate the awful possibility of a thermonuclear war, this manifesto was drafted by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the physicist Albert Einstein, both prominent public intellectuals of their day. While the Soviet Union is no more, the danger of nuclear war remains very real. It was the hope of Russell and Einstein that public intellectuals from throughout the world could make a difference by focusing the attention of the world upon those issues which unite us rather than divide us. The stirring words of that manifesto – “Remember your humanity and forget the rest” still ring true.

One of my most cherished memories was getting to meet Andrei Sakharov when he visited the United States in 1987. I accompanied Paul Kurtz to New York City, where he bestowed upon Sakharov the International Humanist of the Year award. Sakharov, winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, had dedicated his life to the cause of human rights. His courageous stance on behalf of intellectual honesty played no small role in toppling the Soviet Union. As the saying goes, he spoke truth to power, and he lived long enough to see the beginning of democracy take hold in his country. While being given a tour of the new library at Moscow State University, I was very happy to see that Sakharov’s portrait holds a prominent position on a wall dedicated to Nobel Laureates connected with the institution. This alone shows the remarkable changes that have occurred in Russia since Sakharov’s death in 1989. His devotion to the power of reason and the necessity for compassion remain beacons for those who truly desire a peaceful future for civilization.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2006

Tim Madigan is a US Editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches Philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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