Since the collapse of Marxism-Leninism, which was the source of the Russian state’s political authority and legitimacy for seventy years, the Russian people have been seeking an alternative to fill the empty void. The intellectual battle at Russian universities has been fascinating to watch. At state universities, the required sequence of courses in Marxist-Leninist thought and the history of the Communist Party was abolished in the early 1990s; students are no longer obligated to sit through the courses designed to make them model citizens of the Soviet state.
Professor Vladimir Mironov, chairman of Moscow State University’s philosophy department, recalls a colleague telling him, “You get paid a high stipend not because you know philosophy, but because you’re going to be an ideologue.” But now, things have changed — ideological work does not pay well.
In some Russian universities, the same professors who taught the required courses from a Marxist-Leninist perspective are still employed. Their course titles have changed, but not much of the substance. Courses in “The History of the Communist Party of the USSR” are now titled “The History of Modern Political Movements.” While the first few lectures contain new material, the remainder of the course is often unchanged from what was taught in the 1960s and 1970s.
For most faculty, however, the search is on to find ways to reinvent themselves. Russian university students are restless and are asking tough questions about their country’s future, as they live through a series of painful economic and political crises. Developments in the field of philosophy at Russian universities illustrate these intellectual struggles.
The Rediscovery of Russia’s Religious Philosophers
For some scholars and students, the collapse of Communism sparked an intense desire to rediscover the true history of Russia and to fill in the gaps created by Soviet censors. Russian philosophers from the early 20th century attracted the attention of many intellectuals. Writers such as Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Berdyaev, whose books gradually were brought back into print in a controlled fashion in the decades before Glasnost, attracted the interest of some. Berdyaev’s condemnation of Marxism and his forced exile to Paris made him a hero to those who were drawn to his vision of Russia’s destiny as the “New Jerusalem.”
In similar ways, Soloviev’s writings about “the Russian idea” also attracted a following among intellectuals. He valued the wisdom to be gained from Christianity, which was closely intertwined in Russia’s historical experience and, like Berdyaev, felt Russia had a unique destiny. This argument for Russia’s “exceptionalism” is attractive, offering solace to those who were humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union as a superpower.
The Appeal of Post-Modernism
Today, however, the intellectual battle on Russian university campuses is not being won by those who have rediscovered Russia’s great religious philosophers of the early 20th century. Instead, the philosophy that is capturing the imagination of Russia’s “Generation Nyet” is another Western import – post-modernism. In post-Communist societies, this philosophical approach has enormous appeal.
After years of listening to party ideologues dishing out “The Truth” in required classes on Marxism-Leninism, and then witnessing the total collapse of the Communist regimes that so regulated their lives, it is not surprising that today’s young Russians are drawn to post-modernism. In sharp contrast to official proclamations of “truth” articulated by party spokesmen, who themselves cynically knew the party line was a smokescreen, post-modernism emphasizes that there is no truth, only competing “claims” to truth. Everything is relative. A person’s view of what is right is grounded in their particular experience, which may or may not be relevant to another person’s experience.
Post-modern theorists believe that our understanding of our place in the world, of our identity, and of our sense of good and evil are human or social constructs. Since each person’s worldview is merely a human invention, conditioned by the social context in which it was shaped and not given to us by nature or revelation, no one can make any claims that their perspective is the “truth.”
In a volatile environment, where the old foundation of society has collapsed and new footings have not yet been dug, post-modernism is filling the void. This approach appears to fit in a world where no one has any answers, where no one knows what it will take to reconstruct a society after seventy years of Marxism-Leninism. No ideology seems adequate to meet the complex challenges facing the new nations of the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. This helps explain why “Generation Nyet” is so cynical, so hesitant to commit to any new “truth.”
For those of us who work in Russia, and who relate to Russian youth, understanding the appeal of post-modernism is an important beginning point. “Generation Nyet” is not looking for easy answers or for simple formulas generated in the West.