Epstein: on Russia’s “anti-world”

13 10 2023

Scanning the Israeli press (for reasons unrelated to Ukraine), I came across an interview that came out earlier this year with Mikhail Epstein, who is one of the most prolific (he has reportedly published 37 books and some 700 articles), creative, and (to my mind) enjoyable of Russian expat philosophers and intellectuals. Epstein’s books on Russian philosophy, spirituality, literature, and culture include After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), A Philosophy of the Possible: Modalities of Thought and Culture (Brill, 2019), The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), the weirdly brilliant quasi-fiction Cries in the New Wilderness: From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism (Paul Dry Books, 2002), and most recently, in Russian, Русский антимир: Политика на грани апокалипсиса (The Russian Anti-world: Politics at the Edge of Apocalypse, 2023).

The interview, entitled “Russia Became an Abyss and We Might All Fall Into It,” was carried out by Israel Hayom‘s David Baron. Its themes echo an article Epstein published last year in Studies in East European Thought entitled “Schizophrenic Fascism: On Russia’s War on Ukraine.” In that piece, Epstein traces the roots of Russia’s “schizophrenic fascism,” or “schizofascism,” which he describes as “fascism under the guise of the fight against fascism.” Schizofascism, he writes, is a “serious, dangerous, and aggressive caricature” of fascism, which “embraces the contradiction between archaic myths, chauvinism, and xenophobia, on the one hand, and corruption and cynicism, on the other.”

Part of the “schizo” nature of this fascism is the simultaneous dependence on and opposition to the West, a “love-hate relationship” that manifests as overt demonization of all things Western — “a hysterical hatred of freedom, democracy, everything foreign, and people of a different identity,” he writes in the article — even as the Russian elite has driven incessantly to purchase assets in the West. This results in “a culture of jealousy and competition that finds its purpose in challenging other cultures and marginalizing them based on the accomplishments that were adopted from them.” Putin has become the world’s Dostoyevskian “underground man,” who is “incapable of suggesting anything to the world but rather only annoys it and tries to pinch it.”

Among other things, the interview traces the “Russian world” (Russkii mir) ideology — “the primary guiding concept of today’s Russia” — to Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov. Compared to previous ruling mythologies — such as “Orthodox Kingdom,” “Third Rome,” and Center of World Revolution — the current one is curiously vacuous, based mostly on a territorial vastness accompanied by a feeling of historical loss.

When asked about how to prevent Russia from “galloping toward its history’s depths,” Epstein replies:

“If Russia’s central government were to be taken apart, different ‘Russias’ could be created – Ural’s Russia, Siberia’s Russia, etc. – that together can create something like the European Union. Maybe this union will be even more organic because of the language all the new Russias share. This is the only way this territory will not threaten the world. We speak about the fear of what will happen to nuclear weapons if Russia falls apart. Let’s start with the fact that it is most difficult to supervise nuclear weapons in the hands of an imperialistic superpower like Russia in our times. If Russia falls apart, we can negotiate how to destroy its threatening nuclear arsenal.”

The full interview can be read here.



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