The Russia Program at GW Online Papers, no. 15, June 2024

Russian Philosophy at War

Juliette Faure

June 28, 2024

An original publication of this paper you can read here, in the daily French online newspaper AOC (Analyse Opinion Critique), on May 28, 2024.

During the Soviet era, Russian philosophers in exile continued to reflect on Russian identity, history and Orthodoxy. Today, Russian intellectuals forced to leave their country are reconstructing a critical body of work, opposing the philosophy of war that has since taken hold in Russia.

Ivan Ilyin (1883-1953) and Alexander Zinoviev (1922-2006) both fled the Soviet Union, having been persecuted for their anti-communist ideas. Ilyin, an aristocrat who left for Europe on the “philosophers’ ships” in 1922, settled in Germany and later in Switzerland. Initially attracted by the rise of Nazism, he eventually turned away from it to develop the principles of conservative monarchism1. In 1978, Zinoviev, targeted for his satirical and critical writings on the Soviet regime, was expelled and stripped of his citizenship. From Munich, Zinoviev became a vehement critic of “Westernism” (zapadnizm), which he associated with the phenomenon of globalization under US dominance and eventually returned to Russia in 1999, nostalgic for the USSR2.

Today, these two philosophers have been put at the forefront of the ideological mobilization carried out by the Russian regime since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Ivan Ilyin Higher Political School was recently established at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) with the aim of “developing and implementing a new approach (a new socio-humanitarian paradigm) in the instruction of humanities and social sciences disciplines in Russia that is to shape students’ worldview based on Russian civilizational identity and traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.” Appointed to head this new school was no other than Alexander Dugin, a long-time theorist of the reconstitution of an Eurasian autocratic Russian empire. He recently announced his goal of working toward the “total militarization” of Russia by promoting a “military ideology, the ideology of victory... that must assert itself in everything: in culture, in information policy, in education, in teaching, in the mindset of both elites and the masses, in the psychology of everyday life.”

Likewise, Zinoviev has gained popularity since Vladimir Putin issued a presidential decree in 2022 celebrating the centenary of his birth and ordering events to be organized in his memory. The Zinoviev Club, chaired by the philosopher’s widow, Olga Zinovieva, has promptly responded to this call with the organization of numerous conferences such as Why Russia is Right: A Holy War, Russophobia as the New Holocaust and New Decolonization as De-Westernization.
In January last year, members of the Zinoviev Club appeared on the TASS news agency’s platform for a conference on “The Sovereignty of Russian Philosophy.” Recalling the terms of the historical intellectual dispute between Slavophiles, defenders of Russian national traditions and Westernizers, the conference aimed to address the conflict between the “patriotic philosophical front” and those who promote a “cult of the West.” The target was the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IF RAN), Russia’s most prestigious academic institution, criticized by Zinoviev Club members for dismissing one of their own, Anatoly Chernyaev, from his researcher position. Olga Zinovieva opened the event by labeling the institute a “haven for scoundrels, traitors, foreign agents, defectors, Russophobes and extremists.” Chernyaev continued by explaining that the institute had become a factory for “destructive” Western philosophical concepts such as “LGBT ideology,” “gender studies,” “cyber sexuality,” “pornography” and “multiculturalism.”

Since 2021, IF RAN has been targeted by far-right groups, including Patriot Media, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin until his death in 2023, and the Tsargrad online news channel, owned by the monarchist oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. These media outlets describe the institute as the “brain of the liberal-destructive, dissenting and cosmopolitan movement in Russia“ working to “destroy the national, spiritual and state foundations of Russia.” Institute researchers were personally attacked, accused of prioritizing the study of foreign over Russian philosophy, collaborating with Western academic institutions and receiving funds from various US organizations such as the Open Society Foundations of George Soros.

The crusade against IF RAN intensified with the outbreak of the war. In the autumn of 2022, the far-right newspaper Zavtra took up the torch. In a series of articles, the history of the institute since the dissolution of the Soviet Union was reviewed through the lens of criticism of its international openness. Its collaboration with various organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation and UNESCO was cited as examples of the “political” nature of its work. It was described as “the center of postmodernist philosophical propaganda in Russia,” with feminism, multiculturalism, gender studies and environmental ethics cited as research fields “aimed at undermining Russia’s traditional values.”

In addition to attacks in the media, this coalition of ultra-conservative groups seeks to take control of the institute’s leadership. In December 2021, they received support from the minister of science and higher education, Valery Falkon, who appointed Chernyaev as the interim director of IF RAN. This promotion was a clear political victory for the “patriots.” Even though he had recently been removed from his administrative responsibilities at the institute, his appointment was understood in light of his research interests in “Russian culture within the Eurasian civilization,” “philosophical and theological thought of the 20th-century Russian diaspora” and “the relationship between the Church and society in Russia.” According to Yulia Sineokaya, former deputy director of the institute until her emigration to France in 2022, Chernyaev, in cooperation with Tsargrad and the Zinoviev Club, aimed to “transform an academic institution into an ideological stronghold in anticipation of Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine.”

However, this change in leadership immediately met opposition from the institute’s scientific council, which publicly expressed its “categorical disagreement” with Chernyaev’s appointment, highlighting his inability to “carry out administrative work within a scientific team.” The statement was accompanied by a letter addressed to Vladimir Putin recalling the institute’s commitment to fulfilling “the state’s mission by emphasizing the study of traditions and identity and the foundations of values and civilizational perspectives for the development of Russian society.” The letter also emphasized the institute’s research alignment with the norms and concepts promoted in the official political discourse, such as the multipolarity of the world order and Russia’s identity as a distinct civilization.

The scientific council ultimately prevailed. Shortly after, Chernyaev was replaced by Academician Abdusalam Guseynov, who had previously served as the institute’s director from 2006 to 2015. However, the success of this effort was evidently conditional on the institute’s subordination to the research directions imposed by political and administrative authorities. Indeed, a few months later, in March 2022, with the war already ongoing for several weeks, a general assembly of the institute’s staff was convened. According to the newspaper Argumenti Nedeli, Guseynov presented the “new rules of the game” dictated by the Presidential Administration, whereby IF RAN must henceforth focus on formulating a Russian philosophy distinct from Western philosophy.

Despite this political-administrative supervision, the ongoing power struggles within the institute reveal the persistence of plurality within the Russian philosophy field. In particular, two factions have faced off since the beginning of the war, both aiming to establish an alternative space for the production of philosophical discourse outside IF RAN. On one side, Chernyaev, Dugin and other “national-patriotic” ideologues are dedicated to developing a “frontline philosophy” legitimizing imperialism, war and violence; on the other side are philosophers who have left Russia, like Yulia Sineokaya, founding collective structures to maintain a critical philosophy in opposition to the war. Although geographically separated, these two camps have clashed and polarized the Russian intellectual debate.

A network of centers producing the “philosophy of war” has emerged in Russia and the occupied regions of the Donbas. Several organizations, including Sun of the North (Solntse severa), the Donetsk Philosophical Society and the Donetsk Higher Combined Arms Command School, collaborated in May 2022 to organize an online philosophy conference (sobor) named The Great Russian Rectification of Names. The conference led to the publication of a book of the same name, intended for distribution to units on the front lines. Among the chapters: “The Phenomenon of War: Metaphysics, Ontology and Borders” (Alexander Dugin); “Pacifism and Euthanasia” (Vladimir Varava); “The Real Objective of the Special Military Operation and the War: De-Westernization of Ukraine and Russia” (Yuri Pushchaev); and “Russia’s Holy War in the Eschatological Logic of History: The Ideocratic Foundations of the Third World War” (Anatoly Trukhan). In addition to these publications, Sun of the North also offers online courses on various topics, including the Russian philosophy of war, the philosophy of war and death, the history of Russian philosophy, the metaphysics of empire, the history of Christianity and the history and philosophy of esoteric studies.

These ideologues’ activities are directly sponsored by the state, through the Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives, created in 2021. The foundation has supported Sun of the North in creating an online university aimed at integrating residents of the occupied Donbas regions into a “unified Russian cultural and civilizational framework.” The institution, called the Daria Dugina People’s University – named in honor of Alexander Dugin’s daughter who was assassinated in 2022 – offers courses in philosophy, history, religious studies and anthropology.

On the other end of the philosophical spectrum, intellectuals who have left Russia are also actively engaged in reshaping their discipline.

Even before the war broke out, a group of professors from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) took advantage of the development of new online teaching methods used during the pandemic to create the Free University (Svobodny universitet) in 2020. Conceived as an independent, self-managed online educational institution, the Free University has over 100 professors and offers courses in the social and natural sciences. Far from the prevailing philosophy landscape in Moscow, the program includes courses covering the history of 20th-century feminist ideas, Western Marxism and existentialism.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a new wave of intellectual emigration, leading to the creation of two more significant collective projects. The first was a compilation of articles in Russian, titled Pered litsom katastrofy (In the Face of Catastrophe), published by the German publisher LIT Verlag. Coordinated by philosopher Nikolai Plotnikov, the book comprises 15 chapters written by members of the Russian diaspora or recent emigrants. Following the tradition of philosophy publications during the Soviet era, the volume aims to provide a “philosophical and historical understanding of the ongoing catastrophe.”

The second project for exiled philosophers is the Independent Institute of Philosophy (IIP), founded in 2022 by Yulia Sineokaya, former deputy director of IF RAN. Based in Paris, the IIP brings together an intergenerational group of around 70 researchers, mainly located in Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

These three initiatives share a common goal of creating a space for free, independent and critical intellectual discourse, in opposition to the changes taking place in Russian academia. The Free University’s declaration of values, which emphasizes academic freedom and autonomy, is presented as a response to “government intervention in the teaching of the humanities,” “censorship and restriction of academic freedom,” “repressive education laws” and “political repression.” Similarly, the IIP aims to support the “voices of free, critical thought.”
Unlike the intellectuals who emigrated during the Soviet Union – who tended to engage with pre-revolutionary thought by reflecting on Russian identity, history and Orthodoxy – national, Russian frameworks do not define this new wave of exiled intellectuals. Instead, they seek to embrace their place in a globalized intellectual environment. The decision of the Free University and the IIP to avoid using the term “Russian” in their names underscores this desire to integrate into global academic communities. In this regard, the IIP envisions “the future of the Russian philosophical community as a part of the worldwide ‘Republic of Scholars.’” While the majority of its members are Russian, the IIP also includes Belarusians, Ukrainians and Western academics, who collaborate in several languages, including French, Russian and English. Sineokaya thus emphasizes that one of the positive outcomes of emigration is the possibility “to expand the concept of homeland, of the philosophical world, and dialogue.”

The collective work In the Face of Catastrophe adopts a different relationship to the Russian language and thought. In his preface, Plotnikov emphasizes the need for exiled philosophers to write in Russian to preserve a “discursive space of freedom... where public intellectual discourse in Russian can thrive without fear of censorship and self-censorship.” In an interview, he also stresses the importance of working in Russian: “it was crucial for me to publish the collection In the Face of Catastrophe in Russian, even though it would have been easier to publish it in German or English. It is important that this reflection takes place in the language where the orders for shelling and bombing Ukrainian cities are currently given, so that the intellectual resources of resistance are strengthened in this language.”

These different groups of exiled philosophers share a common research agenda: critically confronting the “philosophy of war” emanating from Moscow. In In the Face of Catastrophe, Plotnikov states: “it is imperative to deconstruct all the historical, political and philosophical myths – such as ‘traditional values,’ ‘unlimited sovereignty,’ ‘distinctiveness’ (samobytnost’), ‘Russian civilization,’ ‘empire,’ ‘Great Russia’ and the dozens of other national superiority myths, big and small, that have served as discursive justification for Russia’s military aggression and have fostered a consciousness of imperial hubris.”

One of the research projects of the IIP – the Dictionary of Political Language of Putin’s Russia – shares a similar objective. The Free University’s journal, Palladium, has also dedicated several issues to the critical evaluation of concepts such as the “Russian world” and “Z ideology“ while developing the epistemological frameworks for the “sociology of war.”

Just as they promote the philosophy of war, the state authorities also strive to regulate the influence of exiled philosophers. The publication of In the Face of Catastrophe and any criticism of this work are censored on the Russian internet. Additionally, some exiled philosophers, such as Sineokaya, have been designated as “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice, which constrains their engagement with the audience inside Russia3. However, unlike the Soviet era, online media and communication tools have allowed the clash between the philosophers of war and exiled philosophers to continue, maintaining a certain diversity of views within the authoritarian Russian public sphere.
  • Juliette Faure

    Teaching and Research Attachée at Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, Research Associate at Sciences Po-CERI
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