The Legacy of Russian Humanities, from the Perspective of a Professor of Jewish Studies

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A lecture by Arkady Kovelman
(Director of Jewish Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University)


Swift Hall, Room 200



Co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Workshop


Paradoxically, the time of Leonid Brezhnev, labeled as the Stagnation period, witnessed the immense popu­larity of humanities in the Soviet Union where an intellectual interpretation of culture played a role of counterculture. Instead of commenting on the texts in “scientific” way scholars “expounded” on them, using doublespeak connecting the past to the present. They cre­ated “literature about literature” with a very high esthetic value. They raised the status of “historian of culture” nearly to the status of a prophet (Yuri Lotman and Sergey Averintzev were the best examples). The so called “philology” (which united literary criticism with history and philosophy) mutated to secular religion. The flourish of “philology” was to great extent parallel to “Derridian” adventure at the American universities. That secular religion evapo­rated as soon as the collapse of the Soviet empire gave way to real life for Russian capitalism and to temporary death for Rus­sian intelligentsia.


Those who started the new Jewish centers and departments in the Post-Soviet Russian universities were Classicists and Hebraists without traditional Jewish Learning. They combined their newly acquired qualification with the legacy of Russian Humanities. That legacy included not just perverted “Marxism” but a synthesis of neo-Kantianism and neo-Hegelianism. The great German philosopher and historian of culture Ernst Cassirer was the pro-genitor of that synthesis. Not only Mikhail Bakhtin but other prominent creators of “intellectual history” (especially Olga Freidenberg) derived from the Hegelian branch of the Marburg School represented by Ernst Cassirer. In the West, Bakhtin and Lotman have been enthusiastically received. However, they are generally looked at through the lenses of semiotics or neo-rhetoric. What is mostly left aside is an understanding of a sui generis logic of culture. The privilege of Russian Jewish studies is to understand the development of Jewish Civilization in Hegelian and Neo-Kantian way. The case study would be the comparison of my book (Between Alexandria and Jerusalem, Boston and Leiden, 2005) with Daniel Boyarin’s book (Socrates and Fat Rabbis, Chicago, 2009). First me, and later on Boyarin suggested that the Talmud is a serio-comic literature (spoudogeloion). The very notion of serio-comic literature belongs to Bakhtin. Yet my use of this notion completely differs from Boyarin’s one.