Yulia Sineokaya: “We are Engaged in a Critical Analysis of the Catastrophe”

Philosopher Yulia Sineokaya, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, left the country after the outbreak of the war against Ukraine. She has gathered dozens of colleagues to reflect on the profound meaning of this war, the ideology of the Russian regime that tries to develop its own worldview, and the deep societal changes. In this interview, she talks about the state of science in Russia, odious figures like Alexander Zinoviev and Alexander Dugin, and the role of philosophy in today’s world.

Under what circumstances did you move to Paris?

I arrived in Paris on February 11, 2022, after taking leave from the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In fact, I came for good. My arrival was related to my husband’s illness, who passed away on March 7. After the funeral, I went back to Moscow twice briefly. Since October 2022, I have not returned. For a while, I was on unpaid leave at the Institute of Philosophy, continuing to work remotely as Deputy Director and Head of the History of Western Philosophy section. In June 2023, I was dismissed. My decision not to return to Russia was motivated by my rejection of the war initiated by the Kremlin against Ukraine.

Did many of your colleagues follow suit?

No, not really. But in terms of quality and professionalism, there are hardly any mediocre researchers among those who left. Most of them are young, brilliantly trained, and talented researchers. Among my professional acquaintances, around 30 people left during the first year of the war, mostly from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. After some time, a third of those who left returned. This decision was painful for many. It was not motivated by a desire to support Putin’s foreign and domestic policies. The main reason for returning was the desire to remain in their profession, in their familiar environment, with the same stable salary. For many colleagues, another good reason to return was “loyalty to the place” and family circumstances. Many could not accept the changes associated with settling in a new place. Once in exile, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a living as an academic.

What are you doing in Paris? What projects are you developing?

Since October 2022, I have started gathering like-minded colleagues, both those who left the country after the outbreak of the war and those who went into internal exile while remaining in Russia. I also reconnected with those who had left Russia years ago. My goal was to unite and preserve our academic community, which was dispersed around the world. It was important to develop joint projects, continue exchanging ideas and information, and analyze together the catastrophic events we were experiencing. Solidarity is very important in dark times; it is crucial to support one another. Over time, we were joined by colleagues from other countries, including Ukraine, Belarus, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States.

Our association, the Independent Institute of Philosophy, was registered in Paris in May 2023. The association now has 114 members, and 18 colleagues are part of the Advisory Board. Besides philosophers, the association includes political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, philologists, historians, and psychologists. Until 2022, most of the colleagues held academic positions in leading universities and research institutes in Russia (Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, European University at Saint Petersburg, Saint Petersburg State University, Herzen University, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Higher School of Economics, Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Tyumen State University, etc.). We also cooperate with Ukrainian colleagues who work or have worked at the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

The Institute conducts critical research in philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and organizes joint research projects with colleagues worldwide. We seek to answer the following questions: What is the historical and socio-political logic of the events unfolding before our eyes? What role do national philosophical schools and traditions play in the contemporary world? What contribution can the academic community make to resolve the current crisis?

We do not have a political agenda, nor do we engage in political activism. Each member of the Institute decides whether to create their profile on our website, weighing the risks. Many prefer not to make their affiliation with the Institute public for fear of reprisals. But colleagues who publish information about their research mention their names, and our projects are not anonymous.

The Institute has several collective research projects. For example, the “Comparative Bioethics Observatory” brings together specialists in bioethics, anthropology, and medical humanities to analyze the ethical and legal norms of Russian and Belarusian healthcare, biotechnology, and nature management. The Dictionary of the Political Language of Putin’s Russia project aims to study the origin, development, and practical use of key concepts in modern Russian political discourse (Russian world, collective West, nation’s DNA, pentabasis, conservatism, liberalism, civilization-state, just war, etc.). The focus is on the interdisciplinary approach to studying these concepts, their place in Russian political rhetoric, their use in national and international perspectives, and their influence on anti-democratic (mainly far-right) movements in Europe and the United States.

The In/Visible Ink project aims to give a voice to threatened researchers (in Russia or abroad) by providing them with access to an anonymous, certified, and secure publishing platform.

Our Institute organizes a series of monthly seminars, Philosophical Tools in Analyzing Contemporary Challenges, at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, which has welcomed us and allowed us to hold in-person meetings. Additionally, we organize a series of weekly online seminars open to all. They are dedicated to Plato, Leibniz, Thomas Mann, W.G. Sebald, normative ethics, the history of Soviet literature during the Stalin era, megascience, the concept of the common good, etc. Our research and events are conducted in Russian, French, and English. Video recordings of all seminars are available on our YouTube channel.

The Institute’s projects and seminars aim to analyze various contemporary interdisciplinary issues. These activities respond to growing criticism that contemporary philosophy is incapable of cooperating with social sciences, primarily dealing with abstract problems disconnected from real life. Many of our topics are related to Russia, as events since February 2022 have impacted the international political and intellectual landscape.

In March this year, we launched the Institute’s blog, Espace de lecture, which publishes documents in Russian and English. The publications cover both theoretical questions and practical current topics. The editorial team cooperates with external authors who are not Institute members. We will soon launch a podcast in English and French titled “Russian Studies Without Russia.”

Our Institute strives to strengthen its media presence, especially on Telegram and X. The Institute’s partners include the Europe-Eurasia Scientific Research Center (INALCO CREE), Northwestern University (USA), the Russian-American Science Association (RASA), Science at Risk, the Russian Library I.S. Turgenev, and the journal Studies in East European Thought.

A seminar organized by Yulia Sineokaya at the Sorbonne in May 2024 // Courtesy photo

Are your colleagues who remained in Russia able to fend off attacks from a pack of “patriots”?

Attacks on the philosophical community in Russia have continued since December 2021, following the failure of the far-right holding Tsargrad to appoint their man as director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences to replace philosophy with an aggressive, anti-democratic, anti-Western, and warlike ideology. At the time, the staff of the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences was able to defend themselves thanks to the support of the Russian and international philosophical community. Today, the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences adopts a conformist position and supports the state, allowing it to exist in the Russian public space and pay salaries to its staff. Other Russian philosophical institutions exist in the same state of non-freedom. After the “Zinoviev Tribunal” in January 2024, attacks on the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences have essentially ceased. Now, the main forces of the “patriots’ pack” focus on attacking our Independent Institute of Philosophy and legitimizing the Ivan Ilyin School of Philosophy founded by Alexander Dugin at the Russian State University for the Humanities and other structures designed to develop a new ideology and foundations of imperial de-modernization.

As for university faculty members, they mostly remain silent about the war and repression, focusing their efforts on commemorating the past.

Among your detractors is Alexander Dugin. He is often called a philosopher. Can his worldview be considered philosophy?

In recent years, Dugin has become a kind of sinister symbol of the catastrophe unfolding in the post-Soviet space. I am not a specialist in his work; in fact, there are hardly any specialists in Russia, except for a few texts by Yuri Puschchaev, Rustem Vakhitov, and Alexei Appolonov dedicated to him. Mostly, his ideological associates talk about him. His texts and ideas are not subjected to scientific analysis in Russia. What is widely discussed is his provocative journalism, which most often evokes laughter, fear, and disgust. Outside Russia, he is perceived as Putin’s “brain,” though I am not sure Dugin has direct influence on the Kremlin. Outside Russia, Dugin is known as a spokesman for traditionalism. In the latest monograph by British Arabist and traditionalism specialist Mark Sedgwick, titled Traditionalism: The Radical Project for Restoring Sacred Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), Dugin is an important figure. Sedgwick places his views in the general context of the traditionalist movement, calling him the “most well-known politically active traditionalist” and (at the same time) the “most influential post-traditionalist.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dugin was interesting as a conservative intellectual, before his fascination with National Bolshevism. His book Hyperborean Theory (1993), which presents the views of Hermann Wirth, the first director of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe academy, is a valuable work, in fact, the only one on the subject (in Russian). When he entered politics, he reached his peak as an ideologue of the National Bolsheviks. All his subsequent masks — Eurasianist, Old Believer, monarchist, etc. — are less convincing. Dugin’s writings on geopolitics, Heidegger, etc., testify to the cultural, social, and state crisis of our time. I recently dedicated an article to him (co-authored with Konstantin Zaitsev).

Dugin’s speech at the opening of the Ilyin School at the Russian State Humanitarian University // Konstantin Malofeev’s Telegram channel

A small excursion into the past. In the USSR, there was a wonderful philosopher, Merab Mamardashvili. His lectures on Proust are a true hymn to inner freedom. Did he succeed in creating his own school?

Mamardashvili, the “Georgian Socrates,” as his colleagues called him, was the brightest figure, the symbol of the philosophical generation of the 1960s. He was known and loved in the intellectual communities of Moscow, Tbilisi, Prague, Paris… But it is difficult to speak of a school in the classic sense of the term, although, of course, Mamardashvili had considerable influence on his young disciples, especially Valery Podoroga, Mikhail Ryklin, and Andrei Paramonov.

But this year, for example, I met an Italian researcher, Elisa Pontini, who never met him but studied his legacy for 25 years, learned Russian to do so, and authored a thesis titled “Topology of Difference: Trace, Repetition, and Responsibility in Merab Mamardashvili’s Philosophy” at Radboud University, Netherlands, in April 2024. I had an interesting conversation with her about what Mamardashvili’s legacy can bring us today. According to Elisa Pontini, Mamardashvili gave us the conceptual tools we need to live with dignity in a complex political reality, and left us a guide to resistance in a situation where freedom of thought is threatened. Mamardashvili’s credo, “I can be silenced, but I cannot be prevented from thinking what I think,” may seem like a form of passive resistance, but it is actually the only solid pillar that allows us not to succumb to despair and resignation. The realization that thought cannot be stifled allows us to reflect on what is happening, deconstruct what is presented as truth, and retain the ability to formulate independent thought. Mamardashvili called for the creation of civil society institutions that act as mechanisms creating a space in which people achieve their potential as citizens.

Which other Soviet and post-Soviet philosophers do you consider to be true scientists?

In 2020 and 2022, Academician Andrei Smirnov and I published two volumes titled Philosophy in Plural, dedicated to Soviet and post-Soviet philosophers who made significant contributions to the philosophical tradition. The third volume was almost ready in 2022, but I don’t think it will be published. Books by “foreign agents” are now banned in the Russian Federation.

Each philosophical generation had its true scholars. The brilliant and talented generation of the 1920s unfortunately perished in Stalin’s camps. The philosophical generation of the 1930s and 1940s failed to establish themselves professionally because of the war; many died at the front and in camps. Russian philosophy of the Soviet and post-Soviet period is represented mainly by six philosophical generations: the late Stalinist generation (1950s), the thaw (1960s), stagnation (1970-1980 generation), glasnost (1990s), market reforms (2000s generation), and the protest generation (those who are now over 30).

We can formulate it differently: the generation of dogmatic and non-dogmatic Marxist-Leninist philosophy; the generation of reformed Marxism, Hegel, and Sartre; the generation of Kant and Derrida; the generation of Nietzsche, Foucault, Berdyaev, and Solovyov; the generation of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Ivan Ilyin; the generation of Deleuze, Dennett, Meillassoux, and Harman. Or we can say it this way: The generation that spoke in dogmas, the generation that spoke a “language of birds,” the silent generation, the generation that translated into Russian, the generation that interpreted, the generation that opened up to the world. In each generation, there are noteworthy names.

I will mention a few names close to me who have already left us: Boris Gessen, Sabina Spielrein, Evald Ilyenkov, Georgy Knabe, Vladimir Bibikhin, Nelly Motroshilova, Piama Gaidenko, Valery Podoroga…

Poster in Moscow as part of the student campaign against the Ivan Ilyin School // Telegram channel Ostorojno novosti

Alexander Zinoviev, who became an ultra-reactionary, is also listed as a philosopher. How do you judge his work, those books that made him known in the West at the time, such as The Yawning Heights?

I am neither a great connoisseur nor admirer of Alexander Zinoviev’s work, but I think he does not deserve as sinister a monument as the Zinoviev Club (created through the efforts of his widow Olga Zinovieva). Zinoviev was a man of multiple talents, with a sharp mind, precise formulations, a brilliant sense of humor, bold and cynical: a sociologist, writer, logician, methodologist, artist.

He worked for over 20 years as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the USSR Academy of Sciences and was stripped of all his scientific degrees, titles, state awards, and citizenship for the publication in 1976 in Switzerland of his novel The Yawning Heights, which was a satire on Soviet reality. He spent 21 years in exile in Munich. In the 1990s, Zinoviev had his citizenship restored, he returned to his country, and spent the last years of his life in Moscow, actively engaging in journalistic activities. He did not accept Gorbachev’s perestroika and the liberalization of Russia.

His books are an unflattering monument to the Soviet era. I appreciate his texts for their sharp critique of mid-20th-Century Soviet and European daily life, real communism, and “Westernism.” As for his attacks on his colleagues and the West, which sheltered and supported him and his family during the years of emigration, as well as his late sympathies for Putin, they are an integral part of his complex personality. I do not see anyone like Zinoviev in the current wave of emigration.

Zinoviev’s posthumously published book, The Factor of Understanding (2006), is the quintessence of his worldview. The main connoisseur of Zinoviev’s work and his close friend, Academician Abdusalam Guseynov, published a comprehensive analysis of Zinoviev’s legacy last year, My Zinoviev (2023).

In France, in the 1970s, a new type of philosopher emerged: a person who, thanks to their philosophical culture, conceptualizes life, politics, and contemporary wars. Such was André Glucksmann, and such remains Bernard-Henri Lévy. The new philosophers were the ones who first spoke about Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, asserting the similarity of practices of the two totalitarian regimes. 

What do you think about philosophers’ engagement?

I do not believe that a philosopher should be a political activist, but it is certain that a philosopher must have a clear value system and a judgment on what is happening around them, not remain silent, not hide behind others, not try to preserve themselves professionally by shutting out reality.

Many of my colleagues in Russia were offended by the interview I gave to the AOS magazine in November 2022, in which I said that free philosophical thought was no longer possible in Russia. I was told that superficial public statements are indeed censored, but that true philosophical research, deep immersion in academic philosophical work, is possible and demanded in today’s Russia. I would be happy if they were right. But I think this is not the case. Even “armchair philosophy” does not escape censorship. So far, Russia continues to publish quality books, but they were written before the war. I think they are the light of extinct stars.

In general, is contemplative philosophy possible today?

In my opinion, philosophy can only be contemplative, but contemplation is not in contradiction with the realism and practicality of philosophy: it conditions them. Are Montaigne’s Essays not contemplative? Emmanuel Kant was a Russian subject from 1758 to 1762, during the Seven Years’ War. After the capture of Königsberg by Russian troops, he taught fortification, pyrotechnics, and other practical disciplines to Russian officers, while reflecting on his concepts. But are Kant’s three Critiques, his ideas on Enlightenment and perpetual peace, not practical?

What should philosophy, rather than the history of philosophy, do today?

I am close to the formula of Russian philosopher Theodor Oizerman: “philosophy as the history of philosophy.”

I do not distinguish between the two subjects, the history of philosophy and philosophy itself. History is not necessarily about the past; time is unstoppable, today is also part of history. How it will appear to our descendants depends largely on us who are alive now. Our interpretation, our living testimony, and our evaluation, given here and now, shape today’s reality. My friends at the Independent Institute of Philosophy are engaged in a critical analysis of the catastrophe we are experiencing today, for ourselves and for colleagues who are forced into silence in Russia.

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

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