Overview of Russian Philosophy


"The Karamazovs are not scoundrels but philosophers, because all real Russian people are philosophers..."

Dmitry Karamazov, in Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov

It is a property of the Russian people to indulge in philosophy. ...The fate of the philosopher in Russia is painful and tragic.

Nikolai Berdyaev. The Russian Idea


What is philosophy? There is no simple and universal definition and many thinkers consider the task of such a definition to be impossible. The most credible attempt is a nominalistic reference: philosophy is what Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel were occupied with. Perhaps, the single most famous and broadly cited--if slightly eccentric--definition belongs to A. N. Whitehead: philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.

If this is true, then Russian philosophy must be viewed as an indispensable part of the Western intellectual tradition since it provides perhaps the most elaborated footnotes to the most mature and comprehensive dialogues of Plato: The Republic and The Laws. Questions of social ethics and political philosophy, of an individual's relationship to a State, of adequate knowledge and virtuous behavior, of wisdom and power, of religious and aesthetic values, of ideas and ideals as guidelines for human life -- all of these are central to Russian philosophy and exemplify its continuing relevance vis-a-vis Plato's legacy and the Western tradition in its broadest sense. Moreover, the very status of ideas in Russian philosophy mirrors Plato's vision of them as ontological entities, "laws", or ideal principles--as opposed to mere epistemological units. In discussing Russian philosophy, especially that of its Soviet period, we are bound to consider the practical fate of such Platonic conceptions as we explore the final outcome of an ideocratic utopia, wherein philosophy was designated to rule the republic.

Nowhere else were the teachings of Plato regarding the relationship of ideas to the foundation of a State incarnated so literally and on such a grandiose scale as in Russia, and especially in in the Soviet Union. Russian thought always exerted itself in the task of embodying the most general ideas in social relationships and in the substance of everyday life. The ideal was to philosophize reality, to transform it into a transparent kingdom of ideas -- that is why the thought, in the very moment of its triumph, became a prisoner of the Crystal Palace established on philosophical foundation. In the Soviet State, philosophy, more than anywhere else in history, became a supreme legal and political institution, acquiring the power of a superpersonal, universal reason, which in its unrestricted dominion was equivalent to madness--since, being a State philosophy, it ruthlessly victimized individual thinkers.

In a certain sense, Russia has suffered not from a lack, but from an excess of philosophy. In other countries the supreme value and the highest level of authority is assigned to religious or mythological beliefs, or to economic profits, while in communist Russia it was philosophy that served as the ultimate criterion of truth and the foundation of all political and economic transformations. Loyalty to the teachings of dialectical and historical materialism was the prerequisite of civil loyalty and professional success. Neither worker nor peasant, scientist nor politician, writer nor artist, could succeed in their respective fields without a specific philosophical preparation, at least an understanding of the ABC's of "the dialectical forms of matter's movement."

Philosophical ideas in Russia rarely matured into well-balanced, self-sufficient systems, because it was the privilege of the State to consummate and elaborate them in a systematic way. The fate of Russian thinkers was to dissolve these ideocratic systems in a stream of capricious, spontaneous, prophetic, existential thinking which attempted to go beyond the systems, to undermine them rather than to consolidate them. Since the official philosophy functioned as a tool of power, it was the task and merit of non-official philosophy to advance anti-totalitarian modes of thinking, deconstructing any possible principle of systematization.

Thus, if we measure the philosophical character of thinking by its debt to Plato, who discovered the speculative czardom of ideas, then Russian thinkers, both Marxist and non-Marxist (or anti-Marxist) belong to this tradition perhaps to even a greater degree than Western thinkers. One might even say that the philosophy of the Soviet epoch is the final stage of the development and embodiment of Plato's ideas in the Western world. During this stage, the project of ideocracy came to a complete realization and exhausted itself. The czardom of ideas arrived at the threshold of self-destruction because the substance of Being resisted the yoke of idealism, and it is now in the process of returning to its primordial identity. Thus Russian philosophy both summarizes and punctuates more than two thousand years of the Platonic tradition and points the way for a return to foundations which are not susceptible to ideologic perversions.

A relatively short period of years sums up a two-millennium adventure of Western thought which escorted Plato in his search for the world of pure ideas. Among these footnotes to Plato, Russian philosophy appears to the attentive eye as the final entry, signifying "The End".

Russian thinkers most known in the West:

Mikhail Bakunin, the father of anarchism.

Leo Tolstoi, a great writer and a preacher of universal love
("tolstoism" - a Russian version of Christian evangelism).

Nikolai Berdiaev, a religious existentialist, a philosopher of personality and freedom whose basic concepts are "nothingness" and "creativity."

Vladimir Lenin, the father of Soviet "dialectical materialism."

Mikhail Bakhtin, the theoretician of the dialogue, polyphony, and carnival.

Other important Russian thinkers:

Petr Chaadaev, the first original Russian thinker, from whose love-hate for Russia both Westernizers and Slavophiles originated.

Nikolai Fedorov, the founder of Russian "cosmism" and the doctrine
of the "resurrection of the dead".

Vladimir Soloviev, the greatest and most systematic of all Russian philosophers, the founder of the philosophy of "all-unity", the theology of "Godmanhood" and "Sophiology."

Vasily Rozanov, the most original existential thinker, inspired by Dostoevsky, a philosopher of sex, marriage, and everyday life.

Pavel Florensky, a theologian, priest and mathematician, a philosopher of the Orthodox rituals and universal symbolism.

Lev Shestov, the staunchest anti-rationalist who attacked Plato, Hegel and science.


1. 1830s - 1870s. The problem of national identity. How Russians relate to the rest of the world and especially to western Europe? What is their historical and religious mission? Slavophilism - Westernism. Chaadaev. Kireevsky, Khomiakov - Belinsky, Herzen, Bakunin. Intuitivism - rationalism. Nation - individuality. Conservatism - liberalism. Organic spirit - criticism. National roots - social progress.

2. 1880s - 1890s. The religious problem: how to overcome evil and deify man and the world? Godmanhood. The formation of all-comprehensive religious utopian systems: Solovyov, Fedorov, Tolstoy. Man takes upon himself the job of God. Total-unity and universal kinship versus egoism. Immortality through love and through resurrection of the dead.

3. 1900s - 1970s. The socio-historical problem: how to create the ideal society by material means (class struggle, political revolution). Russian and Soviet modification of Marxism: Lenin and Stalin. Dialectical and historical materialism; scientific socialism and communism. Science and atheism versus religion. Collectivity versus individualism. Materialism and dialectics versus idealism and metaphysics.

4. 1910s - 1940s. The ethical problem of personality. Existentialism and personalism. Rozanov. Shestov. Berdyaev. Bakhtin. Freedom versus natural and social laws. Self-determination of personality. Existential relationship of man to God: one to One. Individual versus general. Faith and creativity versus objective knowledge. Life and will against reason. Dialogue against objectification. Polyphony against monologism.

5. 1950s - 1980s. Linguistic and semiotic problems. Culture as a multi-layered system of natural and artificial languages. Structure versus personality. The relationship of a sign to reality and to other signs. The theory of information and communication. Language - speech. Text - grammar. Code - message. Synchronical - diachronical. Sign - referent. Structuralism. Poststructuralism. Deconstructionism. Conceptualism. Lotman. Kabakov. Proliferation of signs in the absence of reference. Emptiness of reality and and the world of simulacra (hyper-reality).

The Significance and Impact of Russian Thought: 12 theses.

1. In the modern epoch, Russia was the first non-Western nation to challenge Eurocentric historical models and cultural canons, such as rationalism, legalism, individualism, and offer an alternative model of civilization (the dispute between Slavophiles and Westernizers). Contemporary multiculturalism goes back to the Russian intellectual search for non-European national identity.

2. The Russian synthesis of philosophy and religion, the phenomenon of "religious philosophy," is unique in the history of thought. Revelation and rationalization, faith and reason were approached as complementary aspects of "integral knowledge." The concept of integrity, or totality, is the seminal Russian contribution to the theory of knowledge. This principle also extends to the ontological dimension, as the axiomatic unity of knowledge and being.

3. Russian philosophy is unique in its devotion to the goals of practical transformation of life and society. Intelligentsia is a characteristically Russian phenomenon: in European philosophy, this term refers to a speculative and contemplative capacity of mind, while in Russia it became the name of a powerful social stratum whose specific task was the implementation of general ideas in reality. Intelligentsia attempts to live and act in accordance with philosophical ideas and impose them on society as a whole.

4. Russian philosophy produced large-scale projects of comprehensive transformation of the world, including such ideas, proclaimed by Solovyov and Fedorov, as "Godmanhood," "total-unity," eschatological transfiguration and the end of history, the restoration of Christian unity, the victory over blind forces of nature, infinite cosmic expansion and the resurrection of dead. Russian philosophy introduced new universal dimensions and criteria into world thought, though the immediate outcome of these projects could have no practical value and even entailed a danger of totalitarianism.

5. Russian philosophy elaborated, with attention to the smallest details, the utopian project of Marxist thought, systematized it as "dialectical and historical materialism," and convincingly demonstrated both the advantages and perils of its practical applications. What remained a speculative, if influential, theory in the Western social sciences, was tested in the practice of Russian communism and proved its unfitness for the improvement of human society: such is the crucial negative lesson of Soviet Marxism.

6. In the USSR, philosophy for the first time in human history became the guiding principle of all economical, political, and cultural activities. The philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism played the role that in traditional societies belongs to mythology and religion. The Soviet ideocratic State was a unique experience in conceptualizing and philosophizing the entirety of reality, as a laboratory for the testing of general concepts. The cherished union of State and philosophy that since Plato's "The Republic" inspired major Western thinkers, including Thomas More and Hegel, was implemented` in Russia - and proved to be the most tyrannical force in history.

7. During the Soviet epoch, philosophy was the most dangerous occupation in Russia, and the overwhelming majority of first-rate thinkers, such as Berdyaev, Shestov, Florensky, Bakhtin, Losev, were persecuted, exterminated, or silenced (exile, death sentence, labor camp, ban on publications, etc.). This persecution testified, as never before in history, to the vitality and validity of philosophical thought for the cause of spiritual liberation. The readiness of a thinker to sacrifice his life and freedom for the sake of his convictions gave a deeper meaning to the very profession of the philosopher.

8. Since Russian thought suffered most severely from totalitarian temptations, it also elaborated philosophical strategy of resistance to totalitarianism. Such trends and schools, as existentialism, dialogism, culturology, Christian liberalism and ecumenism, structuralism, and conceptualism, arose in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism and demonstrated the variety of intellectual methods challenging State ideocracy. Such concepts as "self-constructing personality," "ethics of creativity" (Berdyaev), "dialogue," "carnival," "polyphony" (Bakhtin), "semiosphere," "typology of cultures"(Lotman) "national image of the world"(Gachev) "national repentance and self-limitation" (Solzhenitsyn), provide a wide range of strategies for anti-totalitarian and anti-utopian thinking.

9. In the beginning of the 20th century, Russian thought, inspired by Dostoevsky, was the first to embrace existentialism as a coherent set of new philosophical ideas. Russian philosophy laid a foundation for the criticism of rationalism, objectification, and "essentialism" - the metaphysics of general laws which was indifferent to individuality. Rozanov, Berdyaev and Shestov anticipated major changes in European thought; they expressed existentialist views twenty or thirty years before existentialism became a leading movement in Western philosophy.

10. Russian culturology and structuralism are important contributions to the philosophy of culture and sign systems. In Russia, these schools emphasize the integrity and interrelatedness of all cultural activities and languages and the necessity of dialogue among various cultures. As distinct from American multi-culturalism which stresses plurality and self-identity of cultures, Russian thought is more inclined to a trans-cultural approach: each culture can achieve its identity only in the eyes of another culture.

11. Russian conceptualism is an innovative contribution to post-modernist and post-structuralist thought. By demonstrating the relativity and self-referentiality of all sign-systems, conceptualism criticizes the basic notion of 'reality" as projected by ideological schemes. Conceptualism marks the breakthrough of Russian thought into the post-ideological and post-utopian dimension, the demystification of all authoritative and objectivistic discourses, including those of Marxism and structuralism.

12. Philosophical thought of the post-Stalin epoch, including such movements as structuralism, personalism, culturology, and religious philosophy, has anticipated and stimulated to a large degree the current Russian transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Demystification of ideology, the freedom of personality, the plurality of cultural languages and the interaction of different cultures and religions - these are some of philosophical premises of the contemporary democratic transition.


Two opposing tendencies are peculiar to Russian philosophy: one asserts the primacy of generalization and unification as tools for religious and historical transformation of reality and leads to ideocracy and totalitarianism; another defends the unsurpassable value of individuality and reveals the relativity and futility of all general ideological constructs.

The totalitarian tendency developed during the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, under various names: "sobornost', " "national unity," "back-to-the-soil movement," "integrative knowledge," "communality," "social equality," "total-unity," "Sophiology," "unification of churches," "comprehensive kinship," "the resurrection of fathers," "common task," "armies of labor," "proletarian internationalism," "classless society," "communist future," etc.

However, beginning in the early 20th century, the opposite, anti-totalitarian tendency of Russian thought developed, also under various names: "personalism," "existentialism," "the philosophy of everyday life," "intuitivism," "religious liberalism," "dialogue," "polyphony," "carnival," "pluralism," "the typology of cultures," "individualization of codes," "conceptualism," "self-referentiality of language," "the critique of ideology," "post-utopian thinking."

The first tendency lost its inspirational force as it merged with official Soviet ideology; in the 1950s it began to decline, and by the late 1980s it almost disappeared from philosophy (which does not preclude its future revival). The second tendency is now at the height of its influence. The differentiation and interaction of these two tendencies - generalization and individualization, totalitarianism and personalism, utopianism and conceptualism - determine the peculiar character of Russian thought and its contribution to world philosophy.

See brief outlines of the four Russian thinkers' major ideas:

1960s-1990s. The Phoenix of Philosophy: On the Meaning and Significance of Contemporary Russian Thought, by Mikhail Epstein (published in Symposion. A Journal of Russian Thought, 1996).

Visit the Gallery of Russian Thinkers:

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