BY Noemi Smolik in Features | 17 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Out of the Picture

Vladimir Solovyov is now – thanks to Lenin’s censorship – the most important philosopher you’ve never heard of

BY Noemi Smolik in Features | 17 SEP 09

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov, 1895. Courtesy: Bridgeman Art Library

For Kazimir Malevich he was the great pioneer; for Lenin he was the enemy. In the West, no one has heard of Vladimir Solovyov. When I was at Prague University studying pre-Russian Revolution art magazines, I hadn’t heard of him either. That was shortly before 1989, when Moscow still had the city firmly in its dictatorial grip. ‘Early-20th-century Russian magazines are full of references to a Vladimir Solovyov’, I said to the librarian. ‘He must be an important thinker, but I can’t find his name in the catalogue. Don’t you have anything by him?’ ‘We do,’ she said, and led me to a locked steel cabinet. ‘There are plenty of his books, but no one is allowed to borrow them.’

After Peter the Great prescribed Western culture for the Russian aristocracy in the late 17th century, two forms of knowledge co-existed in Russia: that of the gentry, transmitted at the universities, which employed Western-style imagery as its visual medium; and that of the rest of the population living in the Russian Orthodox tradition, which found its expression in the icon. In 1861, however, serfs were emancipated and non-aristocrats were granted access to universities, sparking a dispute that persisted until the October Revolution.

Blinded by the supposed superiority of Western knowledge and its scientific triumphs, the first generation of non-aristocrat scholars replaced Orthodox piety with a belief in the power of natural sciences. It was this mindset that informed Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality (1855), in which he declared: ‘until now our art has not been able to create anything like an apple or an orange, let alone the sumptuous fruits of tropical lands.’1 His conclusion was to deny art any justification unless it made itself useful as part of the imminent initiation of non-aristocrats into Western wisdom. The icon came under attack as the expression of an outdated form of knowledge and, in this spirit, the ‘Peredvizhniki’ (Wanderers or Itinerants), a group of painters led by Ilya Repin, took their realist paintings into the countryside in order to convert the peasants. Such episodes often ended in fist-fights because, as artist Naum Gabo recalled, the peasants viewed the art of the ‘Wanderers’ as ‘exclusive and synonymous with the ruling class’.2

Solovyov, too, became a zealous materialist. As a sign of his conversion, he threw an icon out of the window in the presence of several friends. Influenced by his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer, however, he was soon plagued by doubts, prompting him to take an unexpected step: he entered the clerical seminary for Orthodox priests in the city of Sergiyev Posad. In 1874, he completed his thesis entitled The Crisis of Western Philosophy: Against the Positivists. His public defence of the dissertation was a scandal; the academic world was speechless. Not so one member of the audience, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was to become Solovyov’s friend.

At that time, Dostoevsky was alone in taking a stand against both Cernyshevsky’s aesthetic of the edible apple, which he considered extremely stupid, and the ‘Wanderers’ approach to peasants, which he saw as inexcusably presumptuous. In the pages of his magazine Vremya (Time), Dostoevsky appealed for an independent Russian culture which maintained a dialogue with Western thinking while also drawing on the country’s own traditions. ‘Just because one has such an idea in some literary salon, one cannot claim that all these efforts of the Russian intellect as a whole are useless, stupid and illegitimate!’3 In Solovyov, who dared to call the superiority of Western culture into question, Dostoevsky saw an ally.

In his dissertation, Solovyov accused Western knowledge of failing on three points. Firstly, in its epistemology: Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) had placed too much emphasis on reason, thus ignoring the subconscious, which for Solovyov included the imagination, religious faith, creativity and dreams (an insight he arrived at more than three decades before Sigmund Freud). Secondly, in its metaphysics: the assumption that only religious faith can validate it. Thirdly, in ethics: the assumption that cultural, ethnic and religious formations not included in (or refusing to be part of) so-called progress are branded as ‘primitive’ and thus assumed to be of inferior value, which Solovyov believed to go against every principle of ethics.

The time had come to develop new paths to a different system of knowledge uniting ‘the more recent Western philosophy in its logical perfection’ with the ‘form of faith and of spiritual contemplation via the great theological doctrines of the East’: ‘Philosophy extends its hand to religion,’ Solovyov announced. But then the shocked advocates of Western knowledge recovered their voices, and when Solovyov held his inaugural lecture at the University of St Petersburg in 1881, there was a confrontation and he was obliged to give up his professorship – he was considered mentally ill. Isolated, he continued to work on his design for a new knowledge, which he hoped would be a ‘synthesis of theology, rational philosophy and positivist science’. He presented the results in The Spiritual Basis of Life (1884).

Solovyov died in 1900, by which time a new generation that was no longer prepared to deny its cultural origins was making itself heard. One typical representative of this generation was Kazimir Malevich. During a visit to Kiev as a youth who had only ever encountered icons, he saw a realist painting for the first time and understood that there was ‘a difference between the art of Kiev and the art of the village’. For Malevich, the former was ‘by people of higher classes, aristocrats, courtiers, intellectuals and people with revolutionary ideas’, while the latter was the art of the peasants. And there was no doubt in his mind: ‘I stayed on the side of rural art and began to paint in a primitive spirit. At the beginning, I imitated icon painting.’4 Throughout his life, Malevich continued to paint Russian peasants.

Kazimir Malevich, Taking in the Rye, 1912. Courtesy: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and Bridgeman Art Library

The mouthpiece of that generation was Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), the magazine founded in 1899 by Sergei Diaghilev, future impresario of the Ballets Russes. In its pages, theorist and writer Andrei Bely discussed Solovyov. The philosopher’s concept of the spiritual soon became so popular among the younger generation that their adversaries mocked them as the ‘generation of the spiritual’. The spiritual became a catchphrase; without Solovyov’s pioneering ideas, the radical changes that took place in Russia after 1900 would not have been thinkable. No wonder Bely called Solovyov and Dostoyevsky ‘the prophets of the Russian revolution’.

Bely himself travelled the country with the poet Alexander Blok – as did the young composer Igor Stravinsky, the poet Velimir Chlebnikov and the painters Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov – searching for traditions on which to base works of their own. Before 1900, Wassily Kandinsky, who studied law under Sergei Bulgakov, one of Solovyov’s early supporters, spent several months in the countryside, and the articles he published before leaving Russia advocated the preservation of peasant culture. In his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in Munich in 1912, he referred again to the watchword of his generation. Even the ‘Zaum’ movement founded in 1909, a hotbed of abstract poetry and painting, whose members included Malevich and Chlebnikov, can be traced back to Solovyov and his critique of Western reason. The word ‘zaum’ combines za (beyond) with um (the mind) – i.e. trans-rational – and the group aimed to expand the artistic process to include elements of the unconscious, thus breaking the bonds of reason.

Confronted with these activities, Lenin was not pleased: in the first issue of the official party newspaper Iskra (Spark) in 1900, he called on Marxist ideologue-in-chief Georgi Plekhanov to refute Solovyov’s philosophy. In 1915, the first issue of Maxim Gorky’s magazine Letopis (Chronicle) appeared; Gorky, as a Marxist with a belief in progress, also saw the younger generation’s engagement with icons as evidence of a dangerous mysticism.

In his introductory text, the writer resolutely opposed all further searching for an autonomous cultural identity: ‘The East will destroy Russia, only the West can save her!’5 For Gorky, ‘the creator of the black square’ (he could not bring himself to say Malevich’s name) is a reactionary, whom he contrasted with Ilya Repin, the most expensive portrait painter of the tsarist era, to whom Gorky devoted the whole of the second issue of the magazine and who was later declared the founder of Socialist Realism.

After the October Revolution, Lenin – who carried a photograph of Cernyshevsky, the theorist of the edible apple, with him at all times – had Solovyov’s books removed from all libraries and bookshops. Only in the library of the Russian University that was founded in Prague after the October Revolution did Solovyov’s writings survive almost completely intact. Following the incorporation of this library into Charles University after the Communist takeover, they also survived unharmed in a ‘poison cabinet’. Today, they are freely available. And yet Solovyov was so thoroughly driven out of historical awareness that neither his name nor the nature of the movement he inspired are widely known today.

The dissolution of the movements influenced by Solovyov by the events of the October Revolution was inevitable; yet it remains a great paradox that they were arguably the first emancipatory bids to defy the cultural hegemonic claims made by Western Modernism.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 Quoted in Jacques Catteau, Dostoyevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, Cambridge University Press 1989, p. 203
2 Naum Gabo, Of Divers Arts, New York 1962, p. 147
3 Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, ‘G.–bov i vopros ob iskusstve’ (Mr. –bov and the Question of Art), in: Polnoe Sobrani Sochinenii F. M. Dostoevskogo, St Petersburg 1883, Vol. 10, p. 70. These kinds of passages were not included in any of the ‘Collected Writings’ volumes issued after the October Revolution.
4 Kazimir Malevich, ‘Glavy iz avtobiografii chudoznika’, in: K Istorii Russkogo Avangarda (The Russian Avant-Garde), Stockholm 1976, p. 108
5 Quoted in Geir Kjetsaa, Maxim Gorkij, Hildesheim 1996, p. 231

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.