‘The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953–1991)’ by Mikhail Epstein reviewed by Corinna Lotz

Reviewed by Corinna Lotz

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Corinna Lotz’ book Finding Evald Ilyenkov – How a Soviet Philosopher who stood up for …


The stereotypical image of philosophy in the former Soviet Union is undergoing a sea change. Thanks to the work of scholars like Mikhail Epstein, amongst others, we can begin to understand in a deeper way the often paradoxical complexity of life in the USSR.

The aptly-titled The Phoenix of Philosophy explores in greater detail an overview of the main trends in the pioneering book recently published by Vladislav Lektorsky together with US scholar Marina Bykova.

As Cuban Marxist Rogney Piedra Arencibia noted in his essay ‘Evald Ilyenkov and the End of Classical Soviet Philosophy’, it would be arrogant to think that a huge multi-national state like the Soviet Union could only have a single philosophy – i.e. the state-sponsored versions of ‘diamat’ and ‘histomat’.

Demolishing this one-dimensional image, Epstein identifies some eight philosophical strands or ‘isms’ in his effort to categorise the complex range of approaches which, despite seemingly impossible odds, existed and developed. His account is adorned by Sergei Rozhin’s vivid pencil sketches of seven personalities, including one woman, Lidiia Ginzburg.

His primary concern is to provide concise overviews of the belief systems put forward by men and women in the period between Stalin’s death in 1953 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. It’s a huge span of history to navigate but the book brings to life a fascinating tapestry of thought. His evocation of the mythological bird which arises from the flames is appropriate.

While written in an unemotional style, The Phoenix of Philosophy makes you acutely aware of the vicissitudes and sharp contradictions experienced by Marxists and non-Marxists alike. Any serious thinker was likely to be ‘silenced for years or decades, or forced to chop up their thoughts to fit the procrustean bed of the state’s governing “reason”’, Epstein notes in his concluding chapter (234).

The twists and turns in Alexsei Losev’s long life – just to take one example – means that categorising such thinkers is a nigh impossible task. Indeed, Losev’s tumultuous career – if it can be called that – is symbolic of the revolutions and counter-revolutions of Soviet history. Born in 1893, he developed his project of ‘constructive dialectics’ in the late 1920s. He produced eight volumes about different modes of culture, which centred on his concept of ‘eidos’ – ‘the self-displaying integrity of an object’ (186).

Losev’s The Dialectics of Myth (1930) fell foul of the prevailing Stalinist ideology and all 500 copies were destroyed. He was sentenced to ten years hard labour in the gulag. Losev was not alone in being persecuted. Of the thirty-seven thinkers about whom Epstein writes, fourteen were subjected to arrest and imprisonment. Nine others emigrated to the West, while Evald Ilyenkov, ‘the most creative of the Marxists’ (234), committed suicide.

Earlier this year, aesthetician Vladimir Marchenkov, who was first educated in his native Soviet Union, wrote an extraordinary foreword to his translation of Losev’s Audacity of the Spirit. Marchenkov completed the first-ever English translation of The Dialectics of Myth into English in 2003, sixty-three years after it first appeared and disappeared. Maryse Dennes has shown how recent translations are stimulating a new interest in Losev’s work in the West (Bykova and Lektorsky 2019).

Such was the nature of those times that all writing – even that about ancient myths – was scrutinised and dissected by friends and foes alike in the hunt for hidden subtexts critical of the existing regime. Nothing was as it seemed, even in the most remote subjects, such as Losev’s History of Ancient Aesthetics.

A later generation, the ‘People of the 1960s’ –  the Shestidesiatniki, feature in the early part of The Phoenix. Epstein charts those ‘classical Marxists’ who, encouraged by the Khrushchev thaw, sought to renew dialectics and make Marxism into a creative, non-dogmatic philosophy. They had a window of hope and opportunity after Stalin’s death in 1953, but then experienced bitter disappointment when reaction and stagnation set in after Khrushchev was deposed in October 1964.

The early part of the book sets out the renaissance of studies inspired by the appearance of Marx’s previously unpublished writings and the renewal of dialectics from 1956. Epstein describes Ilyenkov as ‘second to none in validating the objective status of the ideal and the universal as elements of social practice and as categories of Marxist materialism’ (35).

Inspired by Ilyenkov’s theory of the ideal and building on Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, his follower Genrikh Batishchev sought to theorise human activity as the action of people dwelling and acting within the real. His works published in the 1960s, ‘stand as perhaps the last expression of a “sincere” Marxism, one that is equally hostile to non-Marxist views and to dogmatic perversions within Marxism itself’ (39).

Discussions around aesthetics became a major theme in Soviet philosophy between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. Various schools emerged, in particular the naturists versus the societalists as well as the productivists, who examined the nature, goal and role of art. Mikhail Lifshits and Aleksander Burov were leading figures in these discussions. Summarising the evolution of Iuri Davydov, Epstein traces how he dismissed the New Left movement in Europe, opposing revolution and becoming a champion of religious moralism. Epstein quite rightly asks: ‘Why did Marxism in the Soviet Union stray so far from the theory of revolution?’ (59)

Others were concerned with the natural sciences and technological advances. In discussing the philosophy of science, Epstein observes that Lenin’s polemics in his Materialism and Empiriocriticism  (1908) against people like Mach and Oswald  ‘were not directed at the empirical discoveries themselves, but at the idealistic interpretations that could be inferred from them’ (48).

It’s not clear why there is no mention of M.E. Omelyanovsky, the physicist Vladimir Fock, Bonifaty Kedrov and the Bulgarian Todor Pavlov, philosophers of science who were translated into English in the late 1970s, amongst others. These men challenged the anti-scientific dogmas of Stalin’s bureaucrats, by working to grasp Einstein’s theories and quantum mechanics from a materialist dialectical point of view. Fock in particular stood up to Stalin’s ideological frontman, Andrei Zhdanov (a riveting account can be found here).

Epstein describes the Georgian-Soviet philosopher Merab Mamardashvili as the ‘most creative Soviet phenomenological thinker of this period’(103). Unlike most of his peers, he was able to travel and communicate with French philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser. Mamardashvili investigated the nature of consciousness, sharing with Ilyenkov the assertion that the ideal exists objectively in the outside world. He came to be seen in the Soviet Union as a philosopher of freedom and ‘transculturalism’. He saw this, Epstein says, ‘as a special mode of existence, spanning cultural boundaries, a transcendence into “no culture”’ (110).

In the middle section of the book we meet a group of philosophers who fall under the rubrics of ‘personalism’ and ‘existentialism’. They include Mikhail Prishvin, Iakov Drushkin, Lidiia Ginzburg, Gregorii Pomerants, Boris Khazanov, Mihalo Mihajlov and Boris Paramonov.

Various forms of religion featured strongly in these personalist as well as liberal Soviet thinkers – Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity as well as ecumenism. Epstein explains how personalism came to be associated with a religious outlook because ‘in the USSR official aetheism came to be associated with political despotism while religion appeared as a way of transcending the ideology of the state’ (139).

Finding strength from within oneself – often allied to a religious belief – gave people confidence which made it possible to resist the repressive atmosphere. It’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King was inspired by American personalist philosophy, which can be defined by the view that reality is personal and persons are the highest, though not the only, intrinsic values.

It’s a inspiring read since in the face of bureaucratic monstrosity, these thinkers championed the complexity and uniqueness of individual human beings. They seemed to be the opposite to the grey, monolithic uncivil society of Soviet life under Stalinism. Their thinking showed there was a vital stream of living, suffering and creative human beings who resisted the official mainstream.

Thinkers like Grigorii Pomerants, who like the physicist Andrei Sakharov was involved in the human rights movement, were critical of the politics of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of the Gulag Archipelago. Like others, Sakharov opposed the latter’s nationalism and prophetically warned it could lead to a revitalised authoritarian state. The younger historian Andre Amalrik spent time in Siberia and in the Kolyma prison camp but continued to defy state repression. His 1975 warnings of the rise of neo-Stalinist nationalism, like those of historian Aleksandr Ianov, are eerily prophetic of Putin’s autocracy.

One of the most illuminating sections of this book is the discussion on ‘culturology’ and its exponents. Epstein describes it as a ‘metadiscipline’ which embraces a host of humanistic disciplines, tracing it back to the German intellectual tradition. This approach was a way of investigating the diversity of cultures and their modes of interaction.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Aleksei Losev, Vladimir Bibler, Sergei Averintsev and Georgi Gachev are gathered under this umbrella. We also meet the amazing Olga Freidenberg, whose project ‘encompassed the whole nexus of literature, mythology, folklore, ritual, primitive thinking, language, religion and theatre’ (193). (Freidenberg was better known for her correspondence with her cousin Boris Pasternak.) She came under fire in 1936 for her book The Poetics of Plot and Genre: The Period of Ancient Literature and was persecuted as a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ and fired from Petrograd University.

Perestroika and the opening up of the Soviet Union to new influences provoked its very own backlash. Conservative elements resorted to a mystical from of ‘neo-Bolshevism’ which sought to restore communism as a religion. Sergei Kurginian’s book Postperestroika promoted a messianic form of communism, mixing together ancient Russian paganism, Islam, anthroposophy, Fedorov’s doctrine of the ‘common cause’, Nietzsche’s vision of the superman and Bogdanov’s collective voluntarism, Epstein writes.

Russia had its own schools of structuralism, with an east-west flow of ideas between France and Russia. They carried out semiotic research with conferences held in Gorky and Moscow in the early 1960s. Iurii Lotman, who died in 1993, was a seminal figure in developing literary theory as a scientific endeavour. His contribution included proposing an ‘extralinguistic character of reality that gives rise to the variability of languages’(91) and well as their mutual untranslatability. Human activity formed the basis of what is variously called the ‘general methodology’  or ‘systematic thought-activity’ theory, led by Georgii Shchedrovitsky.

The Phoenix of Philosophy benefits from its author’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the many philosophical tendencies and the individual philosophers he describes. He is brilliant at summarising their ideas. However, in describing the rejection of official ‘Marxism’, he has a tendency to depict state-sponsored dogmas as an uninterrupted continuum from the early days of the revolution, through the Stalinist period to the demise of the USSR. Nevertheless, Epstein’s work is a great achievement. As he concludes:

What makes Russian thought so remarkable is its internal tension, its struggle against itself, against its own ideational constructions and political extensions […] this self-contradictory movement of thought, shattering its own foundations, is what lends Russian philosophy its unprecedented, at times “suicidal” character. (235)

11 December 2019


  • Bykova, Marina F. and Lektorsky, Vladislav (Eds) 2019 Philosophical Thought in Russia in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: A Contemporary View from Russia and Abroad London: Bloomsbury

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