Russian, Stalinist and Soviet Re-Readings of Kierkegaard: Lev Shestov and Piama Gaidenko

By Makolkin, Anna | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Russian, Stalinist and Soviet Re-Readings of Kierkegaard: Lev Shestov and Piama Gaidenko

Makolkin, Anna, Canadian Slavonic Papers

Russian, Stalinist and Soviet Re-Readings of Kierkegaard: Lev Shestov and Piama Gaidenko*

Basically my whole existence is the deepest irony. Irony is suspect both to the right and the left. That is why a true ironist never belongs to the majority. But the wag does.

Soren Kierkegaard, The Diary

ABSTRACT: This is a comparative analysis of the Russian re-readings of Soren Kierkegaard. The paper demonstrates a profound interdependence between the text and cultural context. Special attention is given to Lev Shestov's presentation of Kierkegaard as "Dostoevsky's Double" and Piama Gaidenko's modernist depiction of Kierkegaard as a "master of paradox and irony." The former was written in France at the beginning of the twentieth century, while the latter was realized during the "thaw" of the 1970s. This study of the Russian reception of Kierkegaard complements and links the existing European and North American interpretations of his philosophical system to the Russian intellectual tradition. The paper concludes that Gaidenko fruitfully joined the discourse on Being and Existence, even though she had no access to the mainstream postmodern debates, but she did so on the basis of Europe's shared cultural tradition.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the acclaimed "father of modern European existentialism" went largely unnoticed in Europe during his time and his proper place in the history of philosophy is still being defined. The present diachronic comparative analysis reveals the rather complex reception of the Danish philosopher in tsarist and Soviet Russia, disclosing some plausible reasons for his delayed recognition, pointing to his quite modernist argumentation and style, the unusual categories, while simultaneously capturing the interplay between history, politics and philosophy. In addition to the specific question of Kierkegaard's role in the history of European modern philosophy and existentialism, this article deals with the painful evolution of Russian nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical thought as a result of the October revolution and Stalin's dictatorship. Lev Shestov's interpretations of Kierkegaard-made outside Russia-are a contrast to tsarist amd Stalinist views. I place special emphasis on the reading of Kierkegaard constructed by Piama Gaidenko who brings forth some new aspects of the Danish existentialist.


The discovery of Kierkegaard in Russia follows the general pattern in Europe. Mentioned in the standard Russian tsarist reference sources, he was as unpopular in Russia as he was in Europe. Prior to 1917 it was due to the basic anti-- Hegelian premises of his philosophical system. All the mainstream Russian philosophers-democrats (Belinsky, Hertzen and Chernyshevsky) were very much infatuated with Hegel and responsible for his cult during Kierkegaard's lifetime. Only in 1935 did Lev Shestov rediscover the Danish philosopher, therefore acquiring the reputation of being his Russian interpreter and presenter. Lev Shestov, who had emigrated from Russia in 1914 to France and Switzerland, later claimed to be the expert on Russian culture and its broker in the West. On May 5, 1935 Shestov presented to the French Academy of Religion and Philosophy his paper "Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky," which became part of his well-known book Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. It was this book that earned him the reputation of a "Russian Columbus." It contained the following problematic statement:

Kierkegaard bypassed Russia. Not once did I so much as hear his name in philosophical or literary circles. I am ashamed to admit it, but it would be a sin to conceal the fact that just a few years ago I knew nothing about Kierkegaard. Even in France he is all but unknown.1

Was Shestov sincere or merely trying to promote his own discovery? He must have been aware at least of the 1902 edition of the Bol'shaia russkaia entsiklopediia (The Great Russian Encyclopedia), available even before his departure to the West.

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Russian, Stalinist and Soviet Re-Readings of Kierkegaard: Lev Shestov and Piama Gaidenko


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