Monday, August 29, 2011

Review of "Rulers and Victims", Part 2: the Soviet Union and the Enlightenment

I wanted to point out something problematic I came across in Hosking's Rulers and Victims (see the previous post for the first part of the review). The author aims for a succinct characterization of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Hosking is right to point out that the United States represented a unique kind of enemy in Russian history, because Russia, as one of the great land empires, had for centuries dealt with nearby and internal enemies all with competing territorial claims to Eurasia. This was not so of the United States, an entity with no land border that presented the Soviet Union with a purely ideological confrontation. However, I do not know if I completely understand the next statement: "In some respects the two countries resembled each other: both were partly European [yes], both had grown out of visions of the perfect society generated by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment [?], and both aimed to spread their particular version of it around the world [ok]" (Hosking 228). I am strongly familiar with idea that the United States was founded under the auspices of the Enlightenment. For example, Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws is certainly fundamental to the origins of American legal culture, and in the twentieth century this culture certainly began to be widely adopted and spread around the world.

But what Enlightenment philosophy provided the ideological foundation of the Soviet Union? Granted, we can of course certain trace lines in intellectual history, from, for example, Kant to Herder to Hegel to Marx to Lenin. (Even if we grant this connection, an understanding of Marxism is only helpful in understanding what some Russians thought the Soviet Union should be. There were also conservative thinkers, such as the Smenovekhovtsy, who understood the Soviet Union as a successor great power state to the Russian Empire, and who I will discuss in a future blog post). The first two German philosophers, Kant and Herder, are traditionally considered members of the Enlightenment. I doubt, however, that there was any sincere eighteenth-century tradition explicit in the Soviet Union. One can, of course, make certain specific comparisons which would seem on the surface to be completely unintentional and certainly lacking any approval from the Soviet authorities. For example, Andrey Sinyavsky (aka Abram Tertz) in his On Socialist Realism claims that Socialist Realism in many ways represents a revival of Neoclassicism. So when the eighteenth-century poet Gavrila Derzhavin "wrote the ode 'To the Great Boyar and Military Commander Reshemysl,' he gave it a subtitle: 'or the image of what a great lord should be.' The art of socialist realism might be given the same subtitle: it represents the world and man as they should be" (Sinyavsky 200). Similarly, the English Augustan poet Alexander Pope described an ideal world order in his Essay on Criticism modeled on the Neoplatonic great chain of being.

However, several pages later Hosking does argue that after World War II during the period of Zhdanovism the Soviet authorities did try to cultivate an attitude towards science and the role of positivist thinking through Russian history that might seem at first glance related to the Enlightenment's emphasis on rationalism and empiricism. However, the important point is that this narrative was adopted not to advance any true eighteenth-century values of impartiality, objectivity and cosmopolitanism, but as a way of contextualizing a new Russian nationalism; "At the height of the 'anti-groveling' propaganda, Russians were credited with having invented the steam engine, the electric light bulb, the radio, and the aircraft, while the eighteenth-century polymath Mikhail Lomonosov was lauded as the founder of modern science" (Hosking 232). Because of this rather blinkered attitude to science (and all other academic disciplines, for that matter) as a tool for advancing other ends, research and inquiry were certainly not promoted for their own sake. Hosking describes how cancer research was crippled in the 1950s due to the desire of Soviet scientists to work with others abroad (and particular with researchers in the United States). Particularly in the later years of the Soviet Union, the Academy of Sciences became a place (though one that was certainly restricted and limited) where these Enlightenment values could be pursued outside the needs of the regime: "Science at the highest level requires the freedom to think, facilities for keeping up with the latest international research, and opportunities to discuss ideas with leading foreign colleagues; the regime thus had no choice but to provide these resources, even if on a tightly rationed basis" (Hosking 340). So, clearly, the Soviet Union cannot really be understood as a true follower of the Western Enlightenment.


  1. you might be interested inIsrael's works on "the Radical Enlightenment" and The Democratic Enlightenment for the idea that a more rqdical enlightenment based on materialism and atheism contested with the more familiar Montesquieu and Voltaire.

  2. Thanks for the reading suggestions!