Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

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

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

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

Article excerpt

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. This edition provides a rather concise but informative description of Kierkegaard's role in the history of philosophy and acknowledges familiarity of Russian scholars with the Danish philosopher.

The contributor and the author of the entry, P.O. Kaptenev, describes him as a thinker whose methodology and orientation "is remarkably parallel to that of Ludwig Feuerbach."2 Kaptenev maintained that, despite Feuerbach's and Kierkergaard's strong interest in Christianity, this interest took them in different ideological directions. In Kaptenev's view, the essence of Feuerbach's search was to arrive at the gist of Christian doctrine, with the goal of rejecting it. Kierkegaard, in contrast, became totally consumed by Christianity. Kaptenev's brief portrait of Kierkegaard concluded:

All of Kierkegaard's works are marked by a sensitive, creative and witty dialectics and united by his passionate enthusiasm to protect Christianity as the Gospel of suffering. His language is noble everywhere, full of poetic exaltation and mesmerizing eloquence, albeit occasionally hard to comprehend. His works had a great impact on contemporaries and the entire process of development of Danish literature. …

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