Magical Thinking: On Mikhail Epstein’s Expansive History of Recent Russian Thought

By Josh BillingsFebruary 2, 2022

Magical Thinking: On Mikhail Epstein’s Expansive History of Recent Russian Thought

Ideas Against Ideocracy: Non-Marxist Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953–1991) by Mikhail Epstein
The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953–1991) by Mikhail Epstein
Cries in the New Wilderness by Mikhail Epstein

TWENTY YEARS AGO, I watched my favorite professor deliver the least enthusiastic academic introduction that I had ever heard. The recipient was Mikhail Epstein, a Russian writer whose mysterious postmodern survey, Cries in the New Wilderness, had just been translated into English. With his beard and crumpled jacket, Epstein cut a suitably Gogolian figure given the context, and it seemed appropriate that he spent the majority of the introduction looking uncomfortable, as if he had just unpacked himself from a suitcase. It seemed especially appropriate when it came time for my professor to cede the podium, which he did on a lukewarm note, as if he wanted to remind us not to expect too much. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the closest we will ever get to the great Russian tradition,” he said, leaving it unclear whether by “we” he meant to include Epstein himself. Still, despite the faint nature of the praise, his guest did not look particularly upset. On the contrary, he looked indestructible, like the eternal Akaky Akakievich of “The Overcoat.” Maybe this is why, 20 years later, what I remember most clearly about that evening is not my professor’s introduction, or even the reading itself, but the weird mixture of anticipation and dread I felt as Epstein prepared to speak, as if his very presence were a kind of challenge, or question (Gogol’s word would be podvig, a “feat”) that those of us in the audience would spend the rest of our lives trying to answer.

Melodramatic as all this may sound now, it was not, I have since come to see, particularly unique. If anything, it’s a typical response to the confusion that Russian culture has always provoked, not just in its critics but in its fans — many of whom, weirdly enough, have been the same people. “The simplicity, the absence of effort, the assumption that in a world bursting with misery the chief call upon us is to understand our fellow-sufferers,” Virginia Woolf patronized, before pivoting to the windswept bluster of an on-site meteorologist: “[T]his is the cloud which broods above the whole of Russian literature, which lures us from our own parched brilliancy and scorched thoroughfares to expand in its shade — and of course with disastrous results.”

Although her reporting combines the imperial and the vulnerable in a way that feels unique to Woolf, it is in keeping with a larger tradition of misunderstanding, whose participants have ranged from Henry James to contemporary political analysts, and whose underlying assertion has been, essentially, that Russia is different. Different from the West, different from the East — different from everything. It is so different in fact that our first responsibility in encountering it is not to understand it, but to contain it — to protect ourselves, as Woolf suggests, lest its presence send our more sophisticated arrangements wheeling off their axes.

It is this Socratic, disruptive element of Russian culture that I was reminded of while reading Epstein’s new book, Ideas Against Ideocracy, which is not a sequel to Cries in the New Wilderness, but which often feels like the conclusion, or at least the latest entry, in a much larger work. Getting a handle on this project can be challenging, for in addition to being extremely diverse (he has written over 30 books, with a collected essays whose two-volume Russian edition runs over 1,500 pages), Epstein’s oeuvre displays an eclecticism that makes it difficult to fit within the more settled categories of Western publishing. Besides the more mainstream academic studies of Russian postmodernism that made his name in the United States, he has written extensively on topics ranging from fatherhood to Russian Orthodoxy (his original training is as a psychologist). Such breadth can strike the Western reader, with our penchant for specialization, as overreaching, but it places Epstein squarely in the Russian tradition of mysliteli, or “thinkers” (a word he once used to describe the similarly genre-bending writer Andrei Sinyavsky). Then there is the question of format. Like many Russian writers of his generation, Epstein came of age in an era where censorship required that certain types of writing be promulgated outside of official channels, via self-publishing (samizdat), publishing abroad (tamizdat), or even the official but restricted spetsizdat (Epstein describes each of these flavors in the introduction to Cries). During this period, one of the favorite clichés of Western critics was to lament how such scarcity re-sacralized books, lending them an aura of importance that was missing in the uncensored free market; but what went less remarked were the ways these conditions changed Soviet writers’ (and readers’) understanding of literary conventions themselves, opening up questions that the West had considered closed for centuries. What was a “book” when it was smuggled to you piecemeal via a series of photocopied leaflets? What was an author? Embedded as they were within the mechanism of production, such questions were ignored or rejected by many; but they were embraced by others, leading to careers whose bibliographies, in retrospect, bear less resemblance to tidy curriculum vitae than to fluctuating museum catalogs, rich with offshoots and variations. In Epstein’s particular case, it is hard not to see them as having encouraged the conceptual openness that is one of the most consistent features of his work, which makes even his most straightforward productions feel both exhaustive and weirdly incomplete — as if they were describing a subject that remained perpetually elusive, and therefore open to further investigation.

Openness like this is, again, not what we are used to experiencing in an academic survey; and yet, it is in many ways exactly what makes the encyclopedic form of Ideas Against Ideocracy, and its companion volume, The Phoenix of Philosophy, so appropriate to Epstein’s understanding of Russian culture in the late Soviet period (a time he defines as stretching from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991). For Epstein, the era is best represented, not by the kind of linear school-by-school or thinker-by-thinker progression one might find in a history of, say, English philosophy during the same period, but as a sprawl — a carnival whose center is everywhere. As one might expect, the philosophy that arises from this kind of environment can feel variegated, even motley. A lot of time it doesn’t seem like “philosophy” at all, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Epstein is careful to specify that his books’ actual subject is actually the broader category of “Russian thought”:

In Russia, philosophy is less a noun, a self-sufficient entity (a field, a discipline, a profession) and more an adjective, an attribute or a property of various philosophical activities; the philosophically oriented humanities, or philosophically inspired cultural creativity, or philosophical aims of sociopolitical undertakings.

Detached from traditions of rigor and accountability, such “adjectival” philosophy runs the risk of pointlessness: if philosophy can be everything, then how does it avoid being nothing? Indeed, there are large swaths of Epstein’s survey where the eclecticism of the thinkers under consideration makes their projects feel less vibrantly boundary-pushing than willfully evasive, as if the broadening of “philosophy” into “various philosophical activities” had served mainly to reduce its depth. This is especially true in those parts of the project in which Epstein chooses to focus on thinkers who themselves engaged most directly with the monoculture of Soviet Marxism, or its aftermath. Here, for example, is his description of the conservative Sergey Kurginian:

The unifying thread linking all of [Kurginian’s] teachings is their apocalyptic and messianic character: the catastrophic experience of the complete dissolution of the Russian imperial identity requires that history’s course be ruptured by the revitalization of national eschatological forces. What makes Kurginian’s views distinct within this rather conventional paradigm of catastrophic consciousness is his emphasis on communism after communism — in a way, reminiscent of the “life after death” model elaborated within religious teachings.

With its mash-up of nostalgia and messianism, Kurginian’s thought as described by Epstein has a ghoulish, even necrophilic flavor that harks back to an ancestor whose influence can be seen in many of the thinkers in both Phoenix and Ideas: Nikolai Fedorov. A contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky who combined radical scientific materialism with a deep commitment to Russian Orthodoxy, Fedorov suggested that mankind’s highest spiritual goals could only be achieved through the extension of its will into the natural world — an extension that would eventually result in human immortality and a literal resurrection of the dead. Paraphrased, his ideas sound cartoonish to the point of supervillainy, but they point to the literalizing impulse that powers many of the thinkers in these books. For them, philosophy not only can change the world, but must. It especially must in these dark times, when the “complete dissolution of the Russian imperial identity” has left an epistemological hole at the heart of experience too big to be filled by anything less than revelation.

The desire to rush for cover under some sort of Woolfian parasol in the face of such grandiose claims is strong (especially now that the West frequently lends its ear to its own domestic Kurginians), but as Epstein points out, the desire to use philosophy to change the world is one of the cornerstones of, not just Russian philosophy, but philosophy itself — maybe even the cornerstone. It is an impulse that runs backward, from Fedorov to Marx, not to mention the German idealism of Hegel and the granddaddy of utopianism himself, Plato, whose republic-building Epstein regards as the ultimate conceptual victim of the fallen Soviet state:

The relatively brief Soviet period of just over seventy years sums up the two millennia of Western thought that followed Plato’s quest for the world of ruling ideas. Among these footnotes to Plato that Whitehead believed to be “the general characterization of the European philosophical tradition,” Soviet philosophy appears to the attentive eye as the final entry, signifying “The End.”

Epstein’s verdict here is unequivocal; and yet, as so many of the thinkers that he has arranged in Phoenix and Ideas demonstrate, there is life after The End — quite a bit of it, actually. There are dogmas and disputes, as each one takes his turn performing CPR on the communist corpse that no one is willing to pronounce dead … And here, I think, is where it makes sense to keep in mind Epstein’s training as a clinical psychologist, meaning someone for whom the adaptive function of ideas can be just as important as the ideas themselves. Such an orientation is not exactly the philosopher’s, though it may be philosophical. For a philosopher, the ultimate judgment of an idea is, presumably, whether or not it is true; but for a myslitel’ like Epstein the criteria of consideration are clearly less exacting. His inclusiveness cuts both ways. On the one hand, it allows him to paint a more realistic picture of Russian thought than he would have if he had allowed himself to get bogged down in more dogmatic refutations. On the other, it creates a distinct feeling of leveling across the two books, implying, at least on a formal level, that all the various ideas serve fundamentally the same role. They are merely ways of believing, which resemblance makes Epstein’s descriptions feel distinctly clinical — as if we were reading a pamphlet of fascinating case studies along the lines of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or better yet like William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book that explicitly treats the various phenomena it describes not as truths to be demonstrated or even lies to be debunked, but as tools that the human mind has developed to answer its needs.

Still, there are parts of both Phoenix and Ideas where paths emerge from Epstein’s comprehensiveness, pointing beyond resuscitation and toward the inroads that Soviet and post-Soviet thought made into thinking in a (post-?, neo-?) totalitarian world. In a move that is more typical of modernism than the postmodernism with which he clearly identifies, Epstein frames such steps forward equally as steps back — as refutations of the tyrannical utopianism of the Platonic tradition, claiming “foundations that are separate from the idealistic and ideological spheres.” What these foundations might be is left unspecified — necessarily, one imagines, given the range of thinkers. Nevertheless, certain common characteristics do appear.

The first and most obvious of these commonalities is a general movement away from totalization and toward more termite-level considerations. In the Russian tradition, at least, this orientation was pioneered by the early 20th-century philosopher Vasily Rozanov, a thinker who can stand as a clarifying ancestor for many of the anti-totalitarian thinkers in Phoenix/Ideas, in the same way that Fedorov presents a useful guidepost for the neo-totalitarian ones. Part of Rozanov’s usefulness is conceptual, via what Epstein describes as his “philosophy of everyday life”:

One example of Rozanov’s eccentric challenge to the idealist and rationalist tradition was the famous claim that nose-picking is a more profound and eternal truth than the lofty products of civilization, which inevitably rise and fall while humanity continues the eternal practices of ordinary life.

Perhaps just as important, however, were the formal innovations that he pioneered in books like Dead Leaves and Solitude, which eschew direct philosophical argument for a peripatetic, self-contradicting, and radically confessional diary form. Inheritors of this process tended to shy away from finished tracts, embracing instead a rhythm of accumulation rooted in the rituals and movements of daily life that Epstein sees as being related both to the Western existentialist philosophers and to the rhetorical techniques of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Here, for example, is his description of the mathematician and diarist Yakov Druskin:

Druskin’s thought is religious in nature, though apophatic, insofar as he identifies God by his absence: “God is farther. God has no distances. He is not having. God, as a bearer, is beyond any definite place. But close to myself, in my own place, I noticed the bearer: it is a kind of absence.” This absence, however, is defined only in relation to the author’s self; it may not be identified as a realm of things or ideas.

As is the case with fellow philosophical diarists Mikhail Prishvin and Lydia Ginzburg, Druskin’s thinking is described by Epstein as being less a “thinking about” than a “thinking away from” — an “apophasis,” in other words. The term refers to the rhetorical attempt to evoke an object by describing what it is not, a process that the American poet and translator Reginald Gibbons (whose essays on “Apophatic poetics,” collected in his book How Poems Think, provide an excellent introduction to the concept) understands as being connected to an Eastern Christian tradition that is not just Orthodox but neo-Platonist. Druskin describes God by describing his absence — by lingering on the traces of God’s daily passing in a way that both rejects idealism and subtly renovates it. Ideals do exist, his thinking suggests, although their pertinence to human lives is in many ways closest to Kafka’s response to Max Brod’s question of whether there was hope: “Oh, there is hope, an infinite amount of hope, just not for us.” For apophatic thinkers, there is God, plenty of God; problems arise when human beings try to move beyond this acknowledgment to the concrete realization of His Kingdom on earth. The point of philosophy for these thinkers, then, is not to climb out of the Platonic cave, but to inhabit it: to recognize it as the only home humanity has, and all attempts to perfect it as tragic overreachings.

Such an acceptance of the necessary role that emptiness plays in daily life may seem fundamentally at odds with the rocket-powered agon of much Western philosophy — which difference may explain why another common element of many of the thinkers in Phoenix/Ideas is their embrace of both particular Eastern philosophies (Taoism, Zen Buddhism), and the “Eastern” understanding of nothingness as simultaneously a destructive and a fructifying force. This is especially true of the artist-writer-philosopher Ilya Kabakov, whose investigation into the zero at the heart of Soviet existence looms over the final grouping of thinkers in Ideas. These are the postmodernists, a category whose members, in Epstein’s taxonomy at least, range from the Medical Hermeneutics Inspectorate (whose on-site investigations sound like something out of a Charlie Kaufman movie) to the “new sincerity” of “Shimmering Aesthetics” — among many others. As a theorist and practitioner of what Epstein calls “conceptualism,” Kabakov stands out among them, not only because of the relatively large amount of space that the survey devotes to his ideas, but because of the way that his work links the relentless productivity of his colleagues back to the inherent vacuity of Soviet life:

The central category of [Kabakov’s] worldview might be called emptiness, or void, which he views as fundamental to Soviet reality. The qualities of “emptiness” and “vampirism” that […] Andrei Sinyavsky identified in the national genius of Pushkin, Kabakov attributes to Russia itself, which he calls “a hole in space, in the world, in the fabric of being.” Emptiness in this view is not merely a lack of essential positive substance, a space waiting to be filled and organized; in Russia, according to Kabakov, unlike in Western Europe, emptiness is a principle of destruction and disorganization that actively transforms all being into nonbeing.

Far from rejecting this “hole […] in the fabric of being,” Kabakov’s conceptualism hurls itself toward Russian nothingness like Joan of Arc throwing herself on a bonfire. Observed through Epstein’s paraphrase, its irony feels, ironically, only a step away from the more domesticated apophasis of Druskin. For example, in his treatise “The Fly with Wings,” Kabakov pulls an entire metaphysical system out of the tiny top hat of a common housefly. “By contrasting the superficiality of the topic with the gravity of his chosen genre,” Epstein explains, “Kabakov not only deconstructs the methodology of serious philosophy, but elevates the trivial to the status of a topic worthy of philosophical meditation.” A neat trick — and yet, the pearl-clutching reader is bound to ask: does this elevate the housefly, or demean the universe? As a philosophical movement, conceptualism’s success seems to depend on its refusal to come down squarely on either side of this rhetorical fence, suggesting instead (in a move that again relates them to the apophatic tradition) that living with the void may require that we leave certain questions unanswered.

It may also require a sense of humor, especially when it comes to utopian ambitions — for as Kabakov’s fellow conceptualists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid remind us, Plato himself suggested that “the genius of tragedy is the same as the genius of comedy.” What this means for the ideal state, not to mention the state of ideals, has been a source of speculation for as long as there has been a Western philosophy to speculate about it; but in Komar and Melamid’s interpretation, what it really opens up is the tantalizing possibility that in splitting metaphysical hairs we are missing the larger point. We are taking seriously something that was meant as a joke, or at least an ironizing of utopia itself — the republic that comes to seem more and more impossible as The Republic progresses because, in the conceptualist reading of it, Plato wanted to show us that it was. Thus, as Komar and Melamid put it, “[Plato’s] ideal state is the first anti-utopia, a parody whose key has been lost in the darkness of the ages” — an idea that returns us once more to the The End inscribed throughout late Soviet thought. Here is Epstein:

It is a commonly held opinion that the Soviet implementation of Marxist ideology distorted the purity of the communist project, engendering a farcical realization of Marx’s vision. But what if the farce preceded the vision? What if, that is, the very concept of utopia, as promulgated by Plato, was originally conceived of as a joke, as an anti-utopian fantasy? Then we could say that what became “utopia” is the distortion of a primordial parody, a kind of anti-parody that has approached in all seriousness what was meant to be taken as humor. Thus the Soviet implementation of Marx’s vision might well be understood as the perfect realization of a joke that posterity failed to get.

Playful as it may seem, the conceptualist reframing of Platonic idealism — as if the entire philosophic podvig were nothing more than a long-winded, self-consuming joke, a sort of metaphysical version of “The Aristocrats” — puts its finger on the challenge posed by the thinking in Phoenix/Ideas. For as much as we would like to cordon off the comedy of Soviet thought into a localized and therefore unimportant reaction to a particular historical situation, we cannot ignore the examples that it offers us. How do we think in a way that accepts the limits of thinking? More importantly, how do we continue to find meaning in our lives, when day-to-day experience continues to bring home the fact that there is a hole at the center of our universes — a core of meaninglessness that no amount of thought can ever make us forget? Such questions have perhaps seemed more and more pertinent as the predicted End of History corrodes into an increasingly ghastly parody of itself; and yet again and again, instead of learning the lesson of this absence, the republics of philosophy and politics rush to exhume familiar modes of Republic-building. The Russian punch line remains ungotten, the great tradition far away, locked in places that we insist have only remote or abstract bearing on our own lives. My professor turns out to have been right. This is as close as we get.

And yet, and yet (there is always another “and yet” with Russia!) … Leaving the lessons of the Phoenix/Ideas survey here, on a note of regret, neglects another key context — that is, their relation to the larger and often more explicitly comic dimension of Epstein’s work. Specifically, it ignores Cries in the New Wilderness, the book whose arrival on American shores I witnessed almost 20 years ago, and whose presence I cannot help but feel peeking impishly from behind the serious scholarship of these later books, like some sort of weird, irradiating beacon — the Paradiso to their Inferno/Purgatorio, let’s say. The comparison is heretical, but it is suggested by Epstein’s own invocation (repeated in Phoenix/Ideas) of Paul Valéry’s famous call for a 20th-century “Comedy of Ideas” to follow the divine and human comedies of Dante and Balzac. With its light touch and parodic inventiveness (the book takes the form, again, of an academic survey, although this time of mostly invented post-Soviet religious sects), Cries feels like an attempt, not just to describe the comedy of 20th-century Russian ideology but to embody it — to cut a door into the frayed curtain of post-Soviet thought and allow us to experience what it might be like on the inside. The results are, frequently, hilarious — although the great surprise of the book is that they are often much more than hilarious. They are touching and even seductive: demonstrations of language’s ability to pull up its own drawbridge, retreating into worlds of paradox so convincing and self-sufficient that under their influence reality itself seems no more weighty than a soap-bubble. Again, it is impossible to ignore Epstein’s background as a psychologist here — and yet how much more than simple pathologies these New Sects seem to be when given room to speak (the effect recalls, albeit in a totally different register, the nonfiction novels of recent Belarussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich)! Or rather, how much pathos is revealed in these articulations of human beings’ desire to weave themselves a little snail-shell of certainty in an uncertain world: “Only one who acts without thinking of reward deserves to be rewarded. The real winner is one who plays without thought of winning. We must go beyond Pascal’s calculation: by calculating further, we get beyond calculation altogether.”

As incarnated in the various manifestos of Cries’s host — this sometimes frightening, sometimes lovable mixture of Folls, Greys, Thingwrights, Foodnicks, Steppies, and Bloodbrothers (a deep bow here to translator Eve Adler for her elegant rendition of these names, which splits the difference between Dickens and J. K. Rowling) — the language of thought reveals itself as something inherently unreal, even anti-real. More than just acknowledging paradox, it actively courts it — it depends on paradox, really, like a science-fictional spaceship that, for all the technical-sounding bluster of its crew, is eventually revealed to run on some mystical, obviously made-up element. Recognizing this, we are tempted to dismiss the resulting flights of fanaticism as simple delusions. But are we actually ready to do so? And if we are, what do we then do with the “serious” thinkers described in Phoenix/Ideas — the men and women who, in many cases, sacrificed their lives or livelihoods for the right to think their way out of the ideocratic prison, but who often seem, at least in the larger, leveling comedy of Epstein’s surveys, to be only more official flavors of the same misguiding impulse? Or to put it another way, how do we avoid the skeptical, even nihilistic cynicism that seems to be one of the inherent dangers in so much thinking about thinking: that frowning, who-cares shrug that has come so naturally over the centuries to people who think of themselves as being the butt of some gigantic cosmic joke?

To his credit, Epstein even at his most ironic does offer an answer to these questions, at least as I read him — actually, he offers two. The first, more explicit answer, to which he returns at the conclusion of Ideas, is that, even after it has failed us spectacularly, we are never rid of idealism, as the Kurginians of the world remind us (and there will always be Kurginians), which means that we will never and should never be done with the thinking that is a necessary check on idealism: the autocritique that helps us see the various ways in which our best and most valiant thought is often against ourselves. This feels like a good enough reason to keep thinking, but it is the second, more implicit answer, which to me is the great point of Cries in the New Wilderness, that I have come to feel is more useful. That answer is, simply, that though the varieties of post-Soviet imagination may be specific to their time and place, the emotional facts — of loss, or fear, or insignificance — that undergird this imagination are human ones. The joke is on all of us, which is to say that it is still being told, right now. There is no way out. Thinking about that may not seem like much — may seem like a disaster, or a disappointment, or at least not what we expected. At the same time, Epstein’s work suggests, it is what we share. Whether or not we find that particularly funny probably depends on, among other things, our sense of humor. But at least there’s a hope.


Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine.

LARB Contributor

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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