George L. Kline is someone you’ve likely never heard of, unless you have an interest in Russian philosophy. He is the Milton C. Nahm Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bryn Mawr College (where he taught for thirty-two years). I first encountered Kline’s name when I checked out of the library A History of Russian Philosophy by V. V. Zenkovsky. Kline was the translator for this two-volume work, published in 1953, which is (still) the best and most complete survey of Russian philosophy ever written. As I began to educate myself about Russian philosophy, I kept coming across pieces written by Kline; without exception, they were excellent. I eventually found out that Professor Kline is, more than anyone else, responsible for the development of Russian philosophy studies in the United States.
What’s so great about reading Kline is that you are not only learning at the hands of someone who has thoroughly mastered his field, you are doing so via writing that is at once scholarly and accessible, that doesn’t take ten pages to explain what only needs one page. Kline’s monographs are few in number – he seems to prefer writing articles and book chapters – and relatively brief in length. I recently purchased a used copy of his 1968 book Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia for under $10. At 179 pages, it can be read by anyone in a couple of evenings. If there is a better introduction to the topic, I’m not aware of it.
The heart of Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia is Kline’s commentary on ten “exemplary” Russian thinkers: anarchists Bakunin and Tolstoy; religious neo-conservatives Leontyev and Rozanov; religious existentialists Shestov and Berdyaev; “God-builders” Gorky and Lunacharski; Marxists Plekhanov and Lenin. Of the ten, Kline rates “Leontyev, Rozanov, Shestov and – with some qualifications – Berdyaev” as the most original and profound. I’m particularly grateful to Kline for turning me on to the singular genius of Rozanov (which I’ll save for discussion at another time).
Kline notes that all ten thinkers did their best work prior to 1917. In the book’s final chapter, he writes about the oppression that religious believers – primarily Orthodox Christians – endured after the Russian Revolution of 1917, during the first fifty years of the Soviet era. Here is a synopsis: Church property (land, buildings, icons, altars, crosses) was expropriated; in order to be used by a congregation, it had to be leased back from the government. Many priests and monks were accused of subversive activities, imprisoned, and either executed or sent to perish in the Gulag. Priests who survived these purges had their incomes taxed at up to 83 percent, whereas the highest tax rate for other Soviet citizens was 13 percent. “Spontaneous” vandalism destroyed thousands of churches. Church buildings that remained intact could not be leased from the government unless the congregation at all times maintained a dvadtsatka or “committee of twenty” responsible members. If for any reason (e.g. death, arrest, retirement) this number dropped below twenty, the congregation had only two weeks to find replacement members; failure to meet the deadline meant immediate dissolution of the congregation and conversion of the church building to other uses.
Some former churches – notably the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – were turned into anti-religious museums that included “chambers of horrors” exhibits that graphically portrayed torture practices used during the Spanish Inquisition. In 1960 alone, half a million people visited the anti-religious museum in Leningrad; many groups of children were sent there by their schools and they were treated to guided tours by museum staff who provided them with extensive anti-religious commentary. Religious instruction for children was restricted to private homes only, in groups of three or less. Since 1962, children could be baptized only if both parents applied for it, and both parents supplied a certificate from their workplace or place of residence (the issuers of these certificates were expected to do all they could to try to dissuade the “misguided” parents).
Many communist leaders believed, and openly predicted, that this relentless pressure over many years would eventually extinguish the desire for religion among the Russian people. But one of them, Lunacharski (who is one of the ten thinkers profiled in Kline’s book), was less sanguine about the possibility. In the early 1930s, he wryly admitted that “religion is like a nail: the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes in.” In 1937, an official census included, for the first and only time, a question about religious belief. Remarkably, given that it could not help and might easily harm one’s professional and personal standing in Soviet society, 57 percent (about 80 million people) declared themselves to be “religious believers.” For obvious reasons, the results of this census were not published.
In “George L. Kline: An Appreciation,” which is included in the 1994 book Russian Thought After Communism : The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (edited by James P. Scanlan), Kline’s beneficence and personal character are conveyed in the following encomium:
In many ways as important as Kline’s formal teaching is the informal help he has provided to a multitude of students and colleagues in the field, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Anyone who has sought George Kline’s advice or assistance on some matter relating to Russian philosophy is fully aware of his remarkable readiness to share information from his vast store of knowledge, go over a translation, review a paper, or comment on a research project – all with the most careful and patient attention, the highest scholarly standards, and the most humane sensitivity to the needs and interests of others.
It’s a joy to discover people like George L. Kline!