Monday, August 8, 1992

Location - FNCA 1992

Thanks to the generosity of the Swedenborg Foundation, I attended last month a conference at Dartmouth

College on the Revival of Russian Spirituality and its Relationship to the Development of Democratic

Institutions. This was the second of a proposed series of conferences, the first having been held in

Moscow and St. Petersburg last winter, with Don Rose representing the Foundation.

Our interest stems from the realization that there has been significant interest in Swedenborg in

Russia in times past. The seminal Russian theologian, who flourished just before the turn of the last

century, was Vladimir Solovyev, and it was he who wrote the article on Swedenborg for a standard

encyclopedia. Some of the writings were published in Russian translation, but this may have been a

less significant source than the translations into French, since in the nineteenth century, educated

Russians were enchanted by all things French.

My particular agenda for attending was primarily to listen and learn. In preparation, I read most of a

couple of histories of Russian philosophy. Up to the time of the Revolution, Russian philosophy was

essentially theology. As is well known, however, Marx regarded religion as a tool by which the upper

classes persuaded the working classes to accept their deprived lot in this life, so the Revolution

marked a virtual rejection of the immediate philosophical past.

There were several Russians present, as well as Americans with considerable expertise in Russian

language and thought, one young man from England who has just had published a book on Solovyev, and

Anders Hallengren from Sweden, who has done a very useful monograph on the Swedenborg-Emerson-Whitman

connection. It will appear in English translation very shortly, incidentally, published by the Nordic

Studies Department of the University of Minnesota.

I'd like to have a look at prospects for the publication of Swedenborg in Russia, but I need first of

all to give you some samples of what was said on the general theme, so that our own interests will be

in some context.

The first plenary session was a talk by Robert Daniels, "In Search of a Usable Tradition." His main

point was that Russian philosophy and theology have for centuries been wrestling with three

dilemmas--to be traditionalist or modernist, to give primacy to faith or to reason, and to be

distinctively Russian or to incorporate Western ideas. He noted that when Russians have adopted

Western ideas, they have tended to do so with far more intensity and single-mindedness than the

Westerners who originated them. Part of the problem lies in a persistent sense of inferiority, which

is fertile ground for extremism. At present, the utter rejection of the communist era, coupled with

the previous utter rejection of the tsarist regimes, leaves the nation with a feeling that it has no

usable past to draw on. Daniels was urging that this is not actually the case, and that any viable

world-view must emerge from Russia's own experience.

A particular dilemma at this point arises from a longing for American culture on the one hand and on

the other a fear of the lax ethical and moral standards that seem to accompany American prosperity.

Daniels implied that this is a particularly difficult dilemma, since a certain amount of Western

pragmatism is virtually a necessity as a counter to Russian idealistic absolutism. One of the

respondents (Yuri Karyakin) pointed out the paradox that the Slavophile Solzhenitsyn was living in

America, while the "Westernizer" Sakharov lived in Russia, and in fact moved east from Moscow. He went

on suggest that at that level, the disagreement was like a musical counterpoint, with an implicit

harmony. However, at lower intellectual levels, the two tendencies became more militant, with each

working actively to destroy the other.

The second plenary session was a talk by George Kline on "The Potential Contribution of [Classical]

Russian Philosophy to the Building of a Humane Society." He began by observing that too little

attention has been paid to a recurrent feature of Russian thought, namely its obsessive preoccupation

with a world-historical future, for the sake of which the present is sacrificed. The dream of the

perfect socialist/communist society sometime in the next millennium has provided the pretext for the

inhuman treatment of contemporary individuals. He gave some striking instances of writers who looked

forward to the utopian year 3000, a poet who wrote to "comrades of the thirtieth century" as though

they were present, and of one writer who thought a three-hundred year plan was too shortsighted, and

proposed a seven-thousand year plan.

Kline spent considerable time documenting the fact that a nineteenth-century philosopher name Herzen

(sp?) had argued against this tendency in Russian thought, speaking of the "Moloch of historical

progress" to which the present was being sacrificed, and insisting that only the present was real.

This left him with time to make only the briefest of mentions of two other points, Herzen's arguments

against national chauvinism, and Solovyev's warnings about ecocide in the form of extensive


On the second day, the morning talk was by James Scanlan, whom I had met at a picnic the evening

before; and while I found him an open and accessible individual, I was a little puzzled by his

approach. His main point was that ". . . despite its current relative disfavor in Russian

philosophical life, the secular tradition in Russian philosophy has a great deal of relevance for

reform--in some respects greater relevance than the religious tradition." This may well be the case,

but it would still seem more appropriate to focus on the role of spiritual renewal at a conference

devoted to that theme, even if one believes it is not the most promising line to take.

He did raise a specific issue of pervasive significance, namely that the secular philosophers seem to

believe that a social system can be devised which will result in a just society, while the religious

philosophers tend to maintain that individual attitudes must change--we must learn to love the

neighbor. If this is the case, then one would expect the secular philosophers to have more to say

directly about social reform, but could well argue that what they have to say will not be as effective

as they hope.

I might leap from here to the closing major address on prospects for democracy in Russia, which was

given by a former ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock. After describing himself as "a carpenter talking

to a bunch of architects," he spent a little time offering rough definitions of "democracy" and

"Russia," both of which are more elusive than they might at first appear.

He then took a generally optimistic view of the possibility of the development of effective democratic

institutions, acknowledging that there were real difficulties, that it might not happen, and that it

would not happen as a copy of any particular Western democracy. His thesis was that there was more in

Russian tradition to undergird democracy than is usually recognized. While the democratic structures

of the Stalin constitution were on paper only, the fact that they existed at all testifies to a

recognition of their validity--"Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue" (LaRochefoucauld).

He noted that given the opportunity, the Russians did get out and vote, and that candidates seemed to

learn very quickly how to campaign effectively. A quite careful poll showed a very high regard for

fundamental freedoms, and the popular resistance to the August coup was courageous and impressive.

The greatest problems he sees lie in three areas. First, the economic situation is grim, and past

habits lie heavy. Second, nationalistic passions are exploding after having suffered decades of

repression, and constantly threaten further fragmentation. Third, there is no outstanding intellectual

leader to present an appealing democratic vision--Sakharov was such an individual, but has no evident


The church's role has been ambivalent. It has a history of collaboration with the communist state, and

has been distinctly defensive of its own turf. On the other hand, it has been the most effective

agency for the delivery of pastoral services and relief efforts. The jury is still out. While other

nations may be able to help to some extent, the final decisions are up to the Russians.

The panel of Russians raised questions about Matlock's optmism. Sergei Chizhkov noted that the

encouraging results of the poll as regarded political freedoms were counterbalanced by discouraging

results on matters of economic policy. Vyacheslav Styopin (= Stepin) noted that there was little

precedent for the actual prosecution of human rights violations, and that there was a deep-seated fear

of exposing oneself to governmental machinery. He also raised questions about the human rights of

Russians living in former satellite countries. Vladimir Maliavin noted that previous experience leads

to a subliminal expectation that reforms will be on paper only. In his view, the most hopeful

tradition to draw on would be an age-old one of decision by substantial unanimity. Alexei Kara-Murza

expressed gratitude for Matlock's appreciation of the Russian people, He noted that in the past, the

"indecent" people always managed to be first in line to take advantage of changes, and hoped that this

pattern would be broken now.

So far, I have paid most attention to the views of American speakers. This is not because I see them

as having a better understanding, but because they were the ones who tended to offer overviews. What

the Russians had to say was generally more in detail, and fitted into the broad outlines I have just

sketched. For example, Konstantin Ivanov made some revealing comments about the Russian Orthodox

Church. The basic picture he gave was that it reached a high point in popular esteem about eighteen

months ago, and could at that point have exerted real leadership. Presumably out of fear for its own

survival, though, it hedged its bets and would not take a stand (against the coup, e.g., until it was

fairly clear that the coup would not succeed). He sees the church as deeply separated from popular

concerns, and as having lost a large measure of its credibility by reason of its temporizing.

After lunch on the second day, there were two group sessions. I attended one on the "Open

Christianity" group. This group originated in the coming together of a number of relatively young

people who found faith in the early seventies, quite independently of each other. They see Christian

life as developmental and the Orthodox church as static, and try especially to build bridges to

non-believers. They have about two hundered members in St. Petersburg, and have just been given a

dilapidated but very well-located building. They have now founded a school which will have an

enrolment of about 100 this fall, and have a five year college curriculum designed and a faculty

chosen; so this fall the "University of Open Christianity" will be inaugurated. They also maintain a

"House of Human Rights" and a "Workshop of Christian Art." They have managed to achieve some voice in

the city government, and hope to serve as a model for other local movements. With their new property,

they will furnish a chapel, and could call a priest if they can negotiate with the Metropolitan to

have full control over his hiring and firing.

One very active member of this group is Vladimir Poresh. He described his own pilgrimage to Open

Christianity, which began with a basically hippie mindset (and he still looks the part--beard, jeans,

round steel-framed glasses, etc.) He discovered his incredible ignorance of Christianity (many

Russians do not know that the New Testament is part of the Bible), and his curiosity gradually led him

to conviction. Hieromonk Benjamin (a Russian Orthodox priest active with Open Christianity) noted that

there had been no Protestant Reformation in Russia, and that essentially lay bodies such as this might

serve a similar purpose without being divisive.

Poresh had spent some time--I do not know how much--in a gulag, and at this point his story

intersected that of another participant, Mikhail Kazachkov. Mikhail spent some twelve years in one

gulag or another, including, if my memory serves me correctly, twenty-two months in solitary

confinement. It was during this time when his physicist's mind decided that the rationale for the

existence of God was convincing, and he discussed his newfound faith with Poresh during his time in

solitary. If this sounds impossible, you need to know that Poresh was in the cell overhead, and that

they communicated by tapping on a water pipe. Mikhail describes his experience as one of the longest

continuous trains of thought in history, incidentally, and has some telling things to say about the

nature of evil on the basis of his encounters with the KGB. It was Mikhail Kazachkov who on another

occasion asked how a society which had produced such giants as Dosteovsky and Tolstoi could create

such a disastrous mess. The world has looked to these beacon intellects, he said, without realizing

that the foundations of the beacons might actually be a swamp.

On the next-to-last evening, Harvey Cox gave a talk which served to highlight one specific and, I

think, central dilemma. His specific topic was what the U.S. has to gain from all this. He described

American philosophy as in crisis--by its own admission, so caught up in specializations that is

irrelevant to life concerns. He told of his enchantment with Berdyaev when Richard Niebuhr assigned

him at Yale Divinity School, especially because Berdyaev faced squarely the mystery of being.

Now when he reads, the old magic is gone, largely because so much has changed. There is a mistrust of

sweeping systems, and an insistence that one state personally where one is coming from. This leads to

many different approaches, which are likely to be discordant--it is like listening to four modern

composers at once.

However, Cox feels that we are coming to a place where we will be compelled to look at common themes.

He applauded remarks by Sergei Kharujy to the effect that we whould look less for common ideas and

more for "the atmosphere of discourse"--specifically, for emotional intimacy and personal dialogue.

These attributes are keys to both Dostoevsky and Berdyaev. We need the kind of passion they represent,

to pull us out of our sterile preoccupation with technicalities.

Cox went on to describe American spirituality as basically centered in self-fulfilment, in what

Berdyaev called "transcendental egoism." He quoted the familiar hymn, "I come to the garden alone . .

. and he walks with me, and he talks with me." Sobornost (conciliarity, "togetherness") is the

opposite of this, and we need some experience of the reality to which the word refers. For the first

time, we are having to learn to live within limits, after a history of feeling that there were no

impassable frontiers and that there was no limit to our potentialities. Russia is experiencing the

reverse disorientation with the sudden opening of the ideological marketplace. We've had this for a

long time, and can realistically warn of the dangers of commercialization. Next come Jimmy Swaggart

and Shirley MacLaine.

So, said Cox, welcome to the world of Thoreau and Emerson, of MacDonalds and Madonna. We have a lot to

talk about.

The respondents basically thought Cox had been too hard on American culture, and two asked directly

how our country had become so prosperous if its ideology was so flawed. Their experience of the

brutality of collectivism has made them highly sensitive to the dangers of sobornost, there was a

general sense that they really wanted to see hope for Russia in America's success story.

In a way, this was the note on which we closed. The plenary wrap-up sessions involved some reactions

from panelists and solicitation of opinions and suggestions from the whole roster of attendees. The

Russian reactions were very warm--it was as though they had expected Americans to be more suspicious

and critical of them, and were genuinely moved by the degree to which they had been accepted, listened

to, and appreciated. The Americans tended to want to caution the Russians not to be uncritical of the

U. S. as a model.

Where might Swedenborg fit into all this? On the first day, I met a man named Vladimir Maliavin. As

soon as he discovered that I was a Swedenborgian, he made an urgent request for time to discuss

publication of Swedenborg in Russia. He was much in demand by the VIP's, being one himself, and we had

to keep postponing the discussion, finally opting for getting together for our Saturday lunch. As he

was about to sit down with us, one of the planners came over and insisted that he sit at the head

table, so we rearranged to talk after lunch. He, Erland Brock of the Swedenborg Scientific Association

and I did so outside the main hall, and even then, Vladimir had to resist some pressure to rejoin the

panel that was convening inside.

I mention this because I think it underscores both the legitimacy of his credentials and the sincerity

of his interest. He is a published author in his own right (his Chinese is "better than his English,"

which is excellent, with a 100,000 copy edition out of a book on Taoism), and the press he has worked

with would be interested in publishing Swedenborg and is very much in touch with the appropriate


He and Erland talked mainly about the technicalities, and my impression is that Maliavin is exactly

the person the Foundation is looking for. He read all the Swedenborg he could in his student days, and

is in personal touch with other readers. He has business experience and contacts, since he cannot earn

a living from scholarship alone, and can pilot us through the paper work. He is on the planning

committee for the next conference (outside Moscow next March) and obviously enjoys the respect and

esteem of of the conference leadership. In his view, it will take seed money to get publishing

started, but it should move quickly toward being self-supporting. He recommends that a separate

Russian legal entity be set up, perhaps as a kind of department connected to the publishing house I

mentioned, with as much control as we wish vested in Erland or some other representative of American

donors. He would recommend a first edition of 30,000, probably of Heaven and Hell (he knows of a

highly competent translator who would work from Swedenborg's Latin), which the publisher's marketing

division could move with some speed.

Penultimately, I would report that I found several strong suggestions of Swedenborgian thought in

Caryl Emerson's description of Soloviev's thought. I jotted these down in the hopes of a chance to

mention them to her, and met her in the corridor of our hotel. She responded with what seemed exactly

like lively and spontaneous interest, and I have some hope that she will follow up and perhaps be in

touch with us. She is Professor of Slavic languages at Princeton, and her paper was one of the most

clear and cogent presented.

In fact, every Russian I talked with showed immediate recognition of Swedenborg's name. For instance,

I followed up on a suggestion and talked to Sergei Khorujy about a man named Daniel Andreyev who died

in prison camp in the forties or fifties (?). Khorujy immediately exclaimed that Andreyev's outlook

was "just like Swedenborg's," and that we should certainly learn about him. As far as he knows,

though, none of Andreyev's writing has been translated into English. Maliavin is determined that there

be a Swedenborg session next March.

Apart from encouraging prospects for the publication of Swedenborg in Russian, there are several

specific lines of inquiry that might be productive. Perhaps the most obvious is the

Swedenborg-Solovyev connection. By looking at what Solovyev had to say about Swedenborg in his

encyclopedia article, it should be possible to get an impression of what he regarded as most

significant. This would relate directly to the topics I raised with Dr. Emerson in the hotel corridor.

A second area is more focused philosophically, specifically in the area of epistemology. One of the

people Don Rose had met in Moscow was a Robert Slesinsky, and I followed up by introducing myself to

him. His talk was on "Russian Philosophical Thought as a Search for Integral Knowledge."

Specifically, the notion of "integral knowledge" means not that we should fit all knowledge together,

but that what we do know, we should know with our whole being--not just with our rationality. Given

the basic premise of integral knowledge, it also follows that knowledge involves "conciliarity"

(sobornost)--that is, that we discover the truth in the context of loving relationships with each

other, and not in mental isolation. The Russians seem to regard this approach as contradictory to

Western rationalism, though in Slesinsky's judgment, their evaluations of that rationalism are not

very well-informed. Once I get back to SSR, I want to send Dr. Slesinsky a copy of the Arcana extracts

on "knowledges" from the end of Heaven and Hell 356. He has already expressed a determination to find

out more about Swedenborg, and had bought the Paulist Press volume for starters. I recommended Divine

Love and Wisdom as more germane to his interests.

In any case, a paper on Swedenborg's concept of "integral knowledge"--that is, on the primacy of

affect and the "outreach" of thought-- might well be germane.

The third topic that seems promising involves a comparison of tensions in Swedenborg's life with the

tensions acknowledged in Russian thought. The basic struggle between Cartesian empiricism and Lutheran

pietism may closely parallel the reason/faith tension. Swedenborg saw his own country as backward

relative to the Continent, perhaps in much the same way that educated Russians looked to the West.

And certainly the traditionalist-modernist dilemma is there in his emphatic Christianity yoked to an

insistence that the Christian church had come to its end.

It looks as though avenues are opening, and I hope we can explore them.

contact phil at for any problems or comments