In this weekend’s New York Times, the academic and journalist Mark Lilla reviews Lesley Chamberlain’s “Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia.”
In the 19th century, Pilate’s question “What is truth?” was transformed into a nationalist question, “What is Russian truth?” Pride and shame motivated the search for a distinctly Russian path through modernity, one where “integral knowledge” would replace Western logic and “organic personality” supplant Western individualism. Yes, Russia might be a backward land of serfs and despots, but by being true to itself it would one day become the leading civilization on earth. That, Chamberlain persuasively suggests, was the operative fantasy. It is in this light that she considers the history of Marxism, down through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. These are her most engaging pages. Marxism was in fact a late import into Russia and was never philosophically deep; Lenin, we learn in an endnote, did not read Hegel until 1914. And the bogus science of dialectical materialism, though dogmatically imposed in Soviet education right up until the end, did not decisively shape the vision or practice of Soviet communism, Chamberlain maintains. Rather, Marxism permitted a modern expression of old Russian ideas of solidarity, sacrifice, hope and collective redemption. The noble peasant would be transformed through revolution into the noble laborer; the Holy Fool would be reborn as Stakhanov, the mythic Soviet worker who exceeded every daily quota. It was not the stuffed suits of the Kremlin who were the rationalists, it was the dissidents — the Andrei Sakharovs and Elena Bonners — who became physicists and doctors in order to cut through Russian dreaminess and devote themselves to truth.