Let’s perform a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that what happened to Russian philosophy after 1917 had also happened to Russian literature. This is Stanislav Dzhimbinov’s idea in his article, “The Return of Russian Philosophy,” in the aforementioned book, Russian Thought After Communism. In other words, Dzhimbinov asks us to consider, what if the great Russian writers had been made to pass through the strict filter of the Communist Party’s “revolutionary democracy” and materialist atheism, the way that philosophers were made to? Which writers would have disappeared from publishing rosters, library shelves and card catalogs in the Soviet Union?
Tolstoi and Dostoyevskii were too religious, so they’d have been axed. Gogol’ would’ve been too because, as Dzhimbinov says, “everyone knows how he ended up.” About Pushkin and Lermontov there would have been debate, but they’d have gotten the boot too, because their worldviews weren’t materialist enough. The following would also have been eliminated: Derzhavin, Zhukovskii, Batiushkov, Krylov, Karamzin, Baratynskii, Tiutchev, Kol’tsov, A. K. Tolstoi, Goncharov, A. N. Ostrovskii, Leskov, and Pisemskii. The two atheists – Turgenev and Chekhov – couldn’t reasonably have been called “progressive,” in a “revolutionary-democratic” sense. That would’ve left just two, according to Dzhimbinov, who might have passed muster with the Communist Party: Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and Nicholai Nekrasov. Oy vey!
It would have been a near-total purge and a catastrophe, but, thankfully, it didn’t happen. Not even a totalitarian state could separate the Russian people from their beloved literature (i.e. the classic, pre-revolutionary literary inheritance – certain literature written during the Soviet era was another story). The following passage, written by the philosopher Vasilii Rozanov in 1918, and cited by Dzhimbinov, explains why it wasn’t possible:
Strictly speaking, the only brilliant thing, in a sense monstrously brilliant, in Russia was literature. Not our faith, not our church, not the state – nothing was as brilliant, as expressive, and as strong. Russian literature, despite the fact that it existed for only one century, rose to become a quite universal phenomenon unsurpassed in beauty and in its merits by any nation, not excluding the Greeks and their Homer, not excluding the Italians and their Dante, not excluding the English and their Shakespeare, and, finally, not yielding even to the Jews and their Holy Scriptures, their “hieratic parchments.” Here it is a question of self-perception, of the soul, of the heart. The century Russia lived through so passionately in literature was a century in which it believed totally, it believed in every line written, that it was living through some sort of holy scripture, some sacred manuscripts.
Unfortunately, as Dzhimbinov points out, the situation with philosophy was different. Its foundations in Russia were neither as old nor as deep as literature’s. The golden age of Russian philosophy had only occurred in the dozen or so years before the Russian Revolution. In 1917, many of the great Russian philosophers were alive and at their productive peaks. Dzhimbinov is certain that “if Russian philosophy had been given the chance to develop freely for another whole two decades in its homeland, treasures of worldwide significance, difficult now to imagine and comparable to Russian literature of the nineteenth century, would have been created.” But within five years of the Revolution, virtually all of the philosophers had been sent into external exile by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The exiled philosophers included Berdiaev, Bulgakov, Frank, Nikolai Losskii, Il’in, Karsavin, Vysheslavtsev, Stepun, and Lapshin. Shestov and Merezhkovskii left Russia on their own. Rozanov died in 1919. Only Florenskii and Losev remained; both were eventually imprisoned. The former was shot; the latter was eventually freed and nearly became a Marxist. In the following years, all of them, except for Losev, became personae non gratae. In published works one could not even refer to them in order to rail against them – they simply no longer existed. And so “philosophy” in the Soviet Union quickly became a moribund thing, unworthy of the name.
“And yet,” Dzhimbinov writes, “something was stirring, even if it was at great depths.” In 1954, right after Stalin’s death, exiled philosopher Nikolai Losskii’s book, History of Russian Philosophy, was published in Moscow. The print run was less than 1,000 copies, each book was numbered and stamped “distributed according to a special list” (which basically meant to comrades who were “tried and true”), and placed in libraries in “special” archives that weren’t accessible to the general public. “But at least it was published,” Dzhimbinov writes, “and one could cite it in bibliographic references.” In 1956, the exiled priest and historian Vasilii Zenkovskii’s book, A History of Russian Philosophy, was also published in Moscow, and accorded the same restrictions, although by the 1970s, faded xerox copies of both books were surreptitiously circulating “underground.” (The underground press (samizdat) in the Soviet Union is a whole topic unto itself, which Dzhimbinov mentions only in passing; his article concentrates on officially sanctioned publications.)
Of all genres, the encyclopedia would seem the least likely to present “cutting-edge” possibilities and yet, according to Dzhimbinov, such was indeed the case for philosophy in the Soviet Union. In 1960, an official Philosophical Encyclopedia began to be appear (in multiple volumes, spread out over years). It actually contained articles about the previously forbidden Russian philosophers, but, per Dzhimbinov, they were “written in the most orthodox, tooth-cracking manner.” But when the fourth volume of the encyclopedia came out, in 1967, something extraordinary occurred. There were ten articles in it written by Sergei Averintsev, including one entitled “Orthodoxy” that caused great excitement in certain quarters. Dzhimbinov reports first hearing about the “Orthodoxy” article by word of mouth, from priests, who related that “any of us could have put his name to such an article without changing a single word.” True, there was a short addendum to the article, under another name, that spouted the official atheist position, “but who read this addendum, who paid any attention to it?”
But it was the fifth and final volume of the Philosophical Encyclopedia (middle of the letter ‘S’ to the end of the alphabet), that came out in 1970, that really caused a sensation. The article on Vladimir Solov’ev (who had died in 1900, but whose work was an anathema as far as the Communist Party was concerned) was longer than the article on Engels had been! Let’s hear more, directly from Dzhimbinov:
But what was most important was not the size of the article but its tone: serious, businesslike, and thoughtful, without any vile Marxist abuse. I began to study the volume and first made a complete list of the articles by Averintsev (with a pencil) on the flyleaf at the back of the volume, so that later I could read them one by one and enjoy them at my leisure. Indeed, it was almost a physiological delight. Not only the tone but the very texture of the articles was completely different – dense, satiated, and satisfying. This was a voice from another world. A modern secular theologian was living and working among us, a person who was almost our peer in age. Such was Bulgakov, too, before he was ordained in 1918. . . . Averintsev showed that one can make a name for oneself writing articles in a reference publication, where it would seem that the very nature of the articles precludes individuality.
Rumors of a possible backlash, in the form of a new (replacement) fifth volume, wholly rewritten in the atheistic, Marxist spirit, were circulated, but no such revised volume ever appeared. Still, the men whose hands were on the levers of state power did not acquiesce easily or quickly. In the years before perestroika there were several more “earthquakes,” followed by crackdowns. But according to Dzhimbinov:
. . . the return of Russian philosophy was inevitable, even if there had not been a perestroika. . . . Something was irreversibly set into motion at the end of the seventies. . . . The Iovchuks would forbid one thing, but something else would appear. They would forbid this something else, and a third would appear. . . . Repression no longer functioned as effectively as before.
And soon the walls came tumbling down.