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Spiritual Importance of Russian Culture for European History

Spiritual Importance of Russian Culture for European History

© Higher School of Economics

International Laboratory for the Study of Russian and European Intellectual Dialogue was established at HSE in 2017 with the purpose of showcasing the Russian philosophy, literature and art, and focusing on its universal spiritual significance for the fate of Europe and Russia. HSE News Service has talked to Leonid Luks, Academic Supervisor of the laboratory, about the place of Russian culture in the world and the research the laboratory is undertaking.

Russian Philosophers and the Zeitgeist

It is important to emphasize that Russia experienced the crisis of the modern age particularly strongly. Possibly, the reason for this was that the humanistic era with its belief in the human never really took root in Russia. That is why the late 19th-century crisis was noticed in Russia earlier than in the West (with the possible exception of Kierkegaard and one or two others), and Dostoevsky was the first to identify it. In his paper ‘Dostoevsky and the Crisis of Humanism’, published in 1931 by Hochland, a German journal, Semyon Frank wrote: ‘Dostoevsky didn’t know of Marxism or Nietzsche, but anticipated both of these trends in his works’.

Dostoevsky’s contemporary, Konstantin Leontiev, was no less perspicacious about the forthcoming crisis of the humanistic era. With his criticism of the century of the masses, and his predictions of the coming era of nihilism, Leontiev preempted many of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas; and with his theory on biological growth and the fall of cultures, was decades ahead of Oswald Spengler (although, Leontiev based his theory on Nikolay Danilevsky’s works to a certain extent). Leontiev couldn’t have dreamt of the huge success that both Nietzsche’s and Spengler’s ideas were met with in Russia. He was simply too early to say goodbye to the 19th century. Only the end-of-the-century crisis created a foundation for the pessimistic view of the world which was characteristic for Leontiev. But the ideas that had been first suggested by Leontiev were popularized by other thinkers, thinkers who were not ahead of the ‘zeitgeist’, but were expressing it.

In addition, Russian philosophers were pioneers when they detected the danger coming from revolutionary elites’ radical utopianism, from their willingness to destroy the ‘evil-based’ world in order to build an ‘earthy heaven’ on its ruins. In these ideas, the Russian thinkers, particularly the authors of the ‘Vekhi’ and ‘Iz glubiny’ almanacs, detected the outlines of totalitarian utopias, which eventually started to determine the development of the 20th century, at least in its first half. Russia was the first experimental field for this utopianism, the first totalitarian regime’s attempt to adjust the realities of a country it conquered to the prevailing totalitarian ideology. I believe that the analysis of this unprecedented anthropological experiment, which was witnessed by the authors of ‘Iz glubiny’, is still relevant today.

Unique Laboratory at HSE

The unique thing about the Laboratory for the Study of Russian and European Intellectual Dialogue is that it pays particular attention to one of the crucial periods for developing cultural and spiritual links between Russia and the West – the Silver Age and the era of religion and philosophy renaissance at the turn of the 20th century. A real creative outburst, which had been building up since Pushkin’s time, exploded in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. And the Silver Age led many trends in unexpected directions. For example, the old Russian debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles lost its importance, together with contra-distinction of the West and the East as such. The cultural wall between the West and the East, which had been invisible but deeply rooted in people’s minds, became transparent. Russian literature, music, and painting, after absorbing countless Western influences, started, in turn, influencing and inspiring the West. Thomas Mann wrote about ‘worthy of worship, sacred Russian literature’ in 1903. The fact that the Silver Age ended not because it had run its course, but was, instead, forcibly interrupted, increases its attractiveness in the eyes of subsequent generations. In this case, a thrilling story was not told to the end, and a huge creative potential was only partially realized. This is the reason for today’s attempts to reconnect the thread of historical evolution t to the point where it was forcefully broken in 1917. Numerous representatives of the St. Petersburg intellectual elite, whose forced emigration was characterized by Vladimir Weidle as ‘an expulsion of the Varangians’, are coming back to Russia posthumously today. They have been the topic of a number of conferences, workshops and studies carried out by the Laboratory, as well as publications by its staff. The Laboratory is going to continue paying special attention to the renaissance of Russian religion and philosophy that continued after the revolution in the Russian emigrant community.

The Laboratory is headed by Vladimir Kantor, a renowned philosopher and writer, author of several dozen monographs on Russian philosophy and almost two hundred academic papers. According to one European ranking, published every25 years, he is among the top 25 contemporary thinkers. The Laboratory also employs such renowned researchers into Russian culture and thought as Olga Zhukova and Alexey Kara-Murza.

The laboratory is quite young but has already managed to do a lot. First, it has started to attract young researchers: HSE graduate and doctoral students. There have already been five international academic conferences with the participation of leading international researchers of Russian history, thought and culture. In addition, the Laboratory is actively collaborating with European research centres, including the Institute of Slavonic Studies at TU Dresden, with whom there is a joint project on the study of the heritage of Fyodor Stepun, who used to work in Dresden. There is also cooperation with the journal Forum for Contemporary East European History and Culture published by the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, which has published two very interesting proceedings of the Laboratory’s conferences.

Research Plans

‘Personally, I am greatly interested in the first Russian emigrant philosophers’ contribution in analyzing the European crisis and totalitarian regimes of the first half of the 20th century,’ comments Professor Luks. After moving to the West, many Russian philosophers understood that the events of 1917 were only the first act of a Europe-wide tragedy, and tried to warn their host countries about the forthcoming catastrophe. But they met no wide response. This wasn’t due to the language barrier, as many assume. Numerous works of Russian emigrants were translated into Western European languages; in addition to that, these authors usually spoke foreign languages fluently and often wrote their papers in the language of their country of residence. Western society’s lukewarm reaction to the warnings also can’t be explained by the lack of interest in Russia among German, French or English intellectuals. On the contrary, Russia was in the spotlight of Western society’s attention in the early 1920s. Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal even complained in 1921 that Dostoevsky was threatening to dethrone Goethe. So, why couldn’t the Russian emigrants take advantage of this interest in Russia? This underestimation of the Russian creative potential in their countries of residence was undoubtedly related to the fact that ‘Russia abroad’ was much less interesting for the German, French or English public than the Soviet state. Many Europeans were enchanted watching the social experiment being carried out by the Bolsheviks, despite the fact that a lot of Soviet citizens had to pay with their lives for this experiment.

Meanwhile, contemporary Western historiography and political science has a weak interest in immigrants’ research into 20th-century totalitarianism. And this is despite the fact that the Russian emigrant thinkers’ contribution to the studies of the 20th-century European crisis is comparable to the contribution made by such German emigrants as Hannah Arendt, Ernst Fraenkel, Theodor Adorno or Walter Benjamin.

An example of such underestimation of the contribution made by the first Russian emigrant thinkers in totalitarianism studies is the book ‘Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared’, Moscow, 2011, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick, which summarizes the studies of totalitarian systems. The vast bibliography of this book (90 pages) mentions almost no representatives of the first wave of Russian emigration. Nikolay Ustryalov is among the few exceptions.

Of course, there are some researchers in Western countries who are actively studying the ideas of the ‘first wave’ of Russian emigration. But the opposite trend is definitely the prevailing one. ‘The Laboratory’s conferences and research projects, including my project on the Russian emigrants’ contribution to the discourse around totalitarianism, are trying to oppose this trend,’ says Professor Luks.

Leonid Luks is ex-director of the leading research Institute for Central and East European Studies (ZIMOS) at the The Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. He is an author of articles and monographies in German, English and Russian languages about the history of Russian thought, and also a publisher of the only eight volume collection of works of Russian philosopher Semyon Frank. Leonid Luks is senior editor of ‘Contemporary Western European History and Culture Forum’ and ‘Forum für Osteuropäische Ideen und Zeitgeschichte’.

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