Saturday, February 2, 2019

Russia Tragically Can’t Adequately Compete with or Alternatively Join East or West, Epstein Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 1 – Russia’s tragedy, one that has been manifested in its radical shifts from one thing to another, is that it can’t form a civilization of its own capable of competing with those of the West or East, but it is too large and proud to be willing to become part of other civilizations and come to terms with a subordinate role, Mikhail Epstein says.

            And as a result, the Russian-American literary theorist at Emory University says in an essay for Moscow’s Novaya gazeta, it “constantly rebels against the world order even though it cannot establish order even within itself” (

            Like Dostoyevsky’s “underground man,” Epstein continues, “Russia is  an ‘underground’ state,” one in which is has repeatedly happened that a revolutionary “’underground’” has been elevated “to the heights of power,” a trajectory that only encourages those who pass along it to think they can and should challenge all existing orders.

                Russia throws out “challenges to all,” including the successful, even though “it is itself incapable of establishing its own civilization to which other peoples could be attracted. It tortures itself and others – and in this is its existential foundation, its ability to remind everyone (including itself) that it is alive.”

            If it were not making these efforts, Russia would “long ago have been transformed into a dead open space – only suffering which it brings to others and itself enlivens it.” And that makes it “a dangerous and threatening country which does everything in order that its population splits into two unequal parts, thieves and criminals, and martyrs and saints.”

            In this way, Epstein argues, “Russia is a rare case of collective existential existence, all the time testing itself to the limit and acting beyond the limits.  Already for more than a thousand years, the country has been seeking itself, projecting itself as a task and subject of reflection and questioning.”

            As a result, he says, Russia is “not a nation in the traditional sense but a nation as project like Israel or America.” But unlike Israel it is not defined by God and unlike America it is not successful in building economic power.  Instead, “Russia is what wants to become Russia, a tautological idea, a nation as an existential reality.”

            Epstein reaches those conclusions after considering that “the special feature of Russia is precisely its readiness to raise the question about ‘its own idea’ – and its inability to find a definite answer to that question.”  Instead, it is ready to try one thing and then the exact opposite and then returning as before, Phoenix-like.

                As Fazil Iskander wrote, “the chief task of Russia is to think about itself,” and to do that in stead of acting.  It quickly falls in the sway of new ideas and just as quickly rejects them because it sees itself as a work in progress and an experiment, with the more radical the shift from one idea to its negation, the better.

            That has many implications, Epstein says. Among them is that “a revolution in Russia is not a leap forward, not a one-time event but rather a pivot around which everything continuously revolves.”  And ideas about this are understood by its intellectual leaders as a kind of apophatic theology in which Russia is defined not by what it is but by what it is not.

            Russia thus “understands itself via the rejection of all that it had become earlier,” and consequently, it is incapable of overcoming its geographic and historical space but rather continues to focus on how those make it different from everyone else and even from its own history.

            “The country then does not so much move forward in time as test out ever newer variants of its historical fate.” And in this, Epstein argues, is the secret of its intellectual and political life. It acts like the philosophy of the existentialists who argue that “existence precedes essence.” Such is the case with Russia: its space expanded before it defined what it was.

                According to the existentialists, the individual moves from nothing through everything back to nothing. Russia has raised this to a national level. “If the nation continuously alienates from itself in the form of ‘another true Russia,’ this means that this act of alienation … forms its existential concern.”

                “Neither Orthodoxy, nor collective life, nor communism, nor cosmism, nor Eurasianism is capable of exhausting and expressing the essence of Russia because this essence is defined as a task, and in this way it remains unresolved, always being put off further from where it is now,” the scholar says.

            According to him, “Russia tests itself in various historical genres, from anarchy to totalitarianism, from stagnation to times of troubles, from revolution to conservatism, from slave holding to capitalism, from communism to fascism – but the nature and essence of any social system is not as important to it as the moment of testing” and thus trying to learn what it is.

            That approach, Epstein says, constantly leads the country from one extreme to another and back again and to the testing of all limits both within its own borders and beyond, an existential dilemma that there is no sign that Russia in its existing borders will ever be capable of moving beyond. 

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