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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Thinkers Dump Marx for Existentialism

Vladimir Fyodorovich Titov is not bitter. True, he was chairman of the department of Marxist-Leninist philosophy at Moscow State University when the faculty voted in 1991, as he put it, to "liquidate completely" his department.

But as he explains: "We decided the question pacifically. Professors understood the political situation." He offers a gentle smile, revealing a gold tooth. His large ears and thick, rectangular glasses seem to have outgrown his cropped gray-haired head. This 60-year-old Marxist is now teaching existentialism.

"It was a great mistake,'' he says of his department's elimination. "Marx was a great thinker. Without him you can't do philosophy.''

The narrow faculty room with its mismatched chairs in neon-aqua tints is cold, and Titov warms himself with a cup of English breakfast tea. Gazing down from a photograph hanging above a tall wooden bookcase is Karl Marx, his face partly obscured by a plant.

For 70 years Russian philosophy was Marxism-Leninism. It was more than a dusty schoolroom requirement; it was the national religion, the source of the state's political authority and legitimacy.

Vladimir Mironov, the chairman of Moscow University's philosophy department, remembers a teacher once telling him, "You get paid a high stipend not because you know philosophy, but because you're going to be an ideologue.''

These days ideological work doesn't pay well, or offer many benefits . But no one knows yet what will replace it.

Of course, the old guard, professors like Titov, still have their teaching jobs, and some of the textbooks have changed nothing more than their titles. But Russian philosophy, freed from the Marxist straitjacket, is clumsily stretching its arms, testing its reach.

Instead of looking at every problem through the lens of scientific socialism, philosophers can now reinvent themselves: they can be analytical or mystical, try logic or phenomenology. The ethics of political and economic success are suddenly acceptable subjects for ethicists, as are abortion and organ transplants. In epistemology, the study of knowledge, scholars can now examine a subject once off-limits, like the religious roots of science. This freedom has pitched Russian philosophy both backward and forward. Some have turned to the religious philosophy of the Orthodox Church, while others are re-examining the 19th-century notion of the "Russian idea,'' the nation's unique historical mission. Still others have looked outside, to Europe's and America's postmodernists.

What philosophical school is most popular now? "What day is it?'' Mironov responded with a laugh.

The "all of the above'' option is, to some degree, precisely the point of a post-communist world. Yet as these and other ideas rush to fill the vacuum left by communism, the question is whether Russians will be tempted by a substitute orthodoxy.

"People understood Marx very dogmatically,'' explained Ruben Apresyan, who teaches at the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow, historically a more autonomous institution than Moscow State University.

Now "they are replacing one set of axioms with another.'' In this sense, how the born-again field of philosophy develops is a bellwether of Russia's intellectual life in general, and of its ties to the country's politics and economy.

The most predictable impulse after the fall of communism was Russian scholars' desire to fill in the gaps in their history. Though some of the writings of homegrown philosophers like Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyayev and Ivan Ilian were available in the Khruschev era, they were often carefully controlled. You could talk about them, says El'mar Sokolov (whose parents chose E for Engels, L for Lenin, M for Marx), but you couldn't write about them.

Even though small public lectures on Berdyayev were allowed in the mid-1980s, "a friend had problems because he said Berdyayev was more important than Lenin,'' Sokolov remembers. "He was fired, then sent to a bad university to teach. Then he emigrated.''

Berdyayev, one of the best known Russian philosophers, denounced Marxism in 1922 and was deported to Paris. He wrote about Russia's destiny as the new Jerusalem. The Russians, he said, were a special spiritual, organic people with a mission to transform society.

Like many other intellectuals and writers he was deeply influenced by Solovyov, the 19th-century philosopher whose complete works are now being published for the first time. Solovyov, who coined the term "the Russian idea,'' had a mystical bent and saw Christianity as the repository of supreme wisdom.

The return of "the Russian idea'' worries those who fear that a belief in Russia's exceptionalism could turn into messianism. When many Russians feel humiliated, the notion of a divine mission offers psychological compensation.

It also seems to set the stage for a replay of the tug of war between nationalist, conservative Slavophiles and progressive, secular Westernizers, a struggle that Dostoevsky savagely satirized in his 1872 novel "Demons.''

Yet this opposition between East and West has often been exaggerated. The simple idea that Russia has a unique character, a particular Russky mentalitet, appeals not only to fierce nationalists, but to religious leaders, poets, anti-communists (who see Marx as a Western import), as well as young, liberal Western-educated scholars who don't want to see Russia's form squished into a one-size-fits-all American-style suit.

That is particularly true at the moment, when Western-style liberalism has taken such a battering here. In theory and practice, liberalism itself had turned into a kind of dogma. Corruption, poverty, a dwindling industrial base and agricultural system, and governmental chaos hadn't exactly help salvage the capitalist dream.

One Western import that has captured the imagination of younger scholars, however, is French postmodernism. "Every second person considers himself a postmodernist,'' Mironov said.

In many ways postmodernism seems the perfect philosophy for a post-communist society. After years of listening to the party dish out the "Truth,'' postmodernism's insistence on competing notions of truth is a refreshing change.

Its skepticism of authority extends to Western assumptions about the straight path of progress and common attributes. Those who hold on to a sense of Russia's uniqueness are drawn to it as well.

Anna Kostikova, 34, teaches at Moscow State University and has a ready giggle. She chose contemporary French postmodernism as her speciality before the Soviet Union was disbanded. Postmodernism is not necessarily the most popular field, she said, but it does characterize the country's state of mind.

"You can't not be a postmodernist in contemporary Russia,'' she said, her dark brown hair haphazardly tied back. "Our country is very unstable both economically and politically, and no ideology can be adequate to the situation.''