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Russian Literature and Philosophy: Religion, Nationalism, and Dissidence

Conference Themes

Religion, Nationalism, and Literature

Dissidence and Totalitarianism: Ukrainian and Russian Voices

The Afterlife of Russian Literature in Modern Philosophy

Literature in Russia has always been a serious affair. In the nineteenth century, when some other European countries had highly developed autonomous spheres for political, philosophical, and spiritual discourse, Russian society relied on the novel as its primary space for inquiry into “accursed questions” (prokliatye voprosi). Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the dissident nineteenth-century author and activist who died in exile, famously declared “Russia has only art.” His own novel, What Is To Be Done (1863), on the surface a story of love triangles and seamstresses, was a thinly veiled template for revolution. A worn, well-read copy of What Is To be Done was one of Lenin’s treasured possessions.

In this conference we return to the unique nexus of aesthetics, politics, and religion characteristic of Russian literature that resulted in a nineteenth-century novel sitting on Lenin’s desk in the midst of twentieth-century revolution (as attested by visitors). The impassioned debates about ethics, human rights, freedom, and national identity that dominated Russian literary life in the 1860s and 1870s remain relevant today, in our time of twenty-first-century upheavals. Artists such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy experienced first-hand the abuses of autocratic power, upsurges of nationalism, and changing attitudes towards religion that would eventually lead to the conflagrations of the twentieth century. Under these conditions their writings, otherwise so different (Dostoevsky’s late militant nationalism and Tolstoy’s universalist pacificism, for example), articulated a kind of instinctual defense of humanism—the intrinsic value of human life and personality, and freedom of conscience—against the threats posed by distinctively modern forces.

The spirit of dissidence evinced in their writings—the artist’s conviction that he holds the right and even duty to defend human dignity against power and violence—may be the most lasting and far-reaching legacy of Russia’s age of Realism. In this conference we will explore how the dissident, subversive spirit born under Russian autocracy inspired twentieth-century artists and thinkers confronting totalitarianism and world war. Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher raised on Russian literature, cites The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Life and Fate (written 1959, published 1980) as two of his greatest influences. By citing Dostoevsky’s late masterpiece, written alongside the calls for holy war he was publishing in his Diary of a Writer, and the work of Vassily Grossman, a Russian-educated Ukrainian Jew, as his inspiration, Levinas gestures towards the enigmatic gift and challenge of Russian culture presents to the world: the ground of thinking against catastrophe, defending the human against war and totalitarianism; and simultaneously a prophesy or warning of the dangers of nationalism and religion when they are put in the service of violence and conquest.

A witness to the end of one stage of European civilization, Grossman imbued his novel with restlessness and hope. Conference presenters will explore the living traces of Russian literature’s legacy of dissidence and insight in the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, Vladimir Jankélévitch, Svetlana Alexijevich, Varlam Chalámov, whose writings attests to the lasting power of Russian literature’s unique relationship to modernity.


Organizing Committee

Bruno Gomide (USP), Priscila Nascimento Marques (UFRJ), Svetlana Ruseishvili (UFSC), Susan McReynolds (Northwestern University), Ana Matoso (Uni. Católica Portuguesa), Alex Villas Boas (Uni. Católica Portuguesa), Jimmy Sudário Cabral (UFJF), Danilo Mendes (UFJF), Ernani Neto (UFJF).



Núcleo de Estudos da Religião em Dostoiévski e Tolstói