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Analysis & Opinion
27.03.08 An Extraordinary Will That Was Never Broken
By Dmitry Babich

Georgy Gachev, the 78-year-old philosopher whose death Russia’s intellectual community mourns this week, did not participate in discussions regarding the oppressive nature of the Soviet regime, despite not fitting into Soviet society. “I have always lived beyond the Soviet state,” he used to say, echoing Abram Terz’s famous confession of having “only stylistic disagreements” with Soviet power.

The son of a musicologist who perished in Joseph Stalin’s concentration camps, the “saboteur” scientist who never bothered fulfilling the Party’s given minimum of monthly writings about “socialist realism,” Gachev always wrote what he wanted, choosing the subjects at his own free will. His work resulted in 39 books in Russian and Bulgarian published between 1964 and 2007, including the encyclopedic series “National Visions of the World” that summarize the peculiarities of what might be called the Weltanschauung (world vision) of various nations, from the Kyrgyz to the Americans. These works put Gachev in line with the great Russian philologists of the late Soviet period such as Dmitry Likhachyov and Sergei Averintsev, whose recent death in 2005 also signaled the end of an epoch in Russia’s freethinking tradition.

In fact, the title of a “freethinker” fits Gachev best. Officially, most of his professional life was spent in the position of a “junior research fellow,” first in the Gorky Institute of World Literature (1964-1972) and later in the Institute of History of Science and Technology (1972-1985). Unofficially, he wrote about Newton, Bunyan, Dickens, and just about everyone and everything else as he saw fit, paying little attention to borders separating theology from philosophy and semiotics from ethnography.

Born in 1929, Gachev nearly escaped the war that decimated the lives of his older school classmates. The majority of boys born in Russia between 1923 and 1927 died or were crippled in 1941-1945 while fighting the Nazis. In his writings, Gachev felt the absence of these people very strongly, to the point of supporting the conservative Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov’s idea of making the resurrection of the dead fathers the ultimate goal of humanity. However, Gachev’s nostalgia for “real men” should not be reduced to the presently fashionable complaints about lack of manpower, the dearth of financially solvable fianc?s, or the extinction of machos in Russia. Gachev’s ideal man was a free, creative person, accepting not only the “horizontal” responsibility before his family and friends, but also the “vertical” one before God, ancestors, science and arts. Being free and speaking the truth is a part of this vertical responsibility.

“God can’t make a man free without the latter’s effort,” Gachev wrote back in 1970, when any kind of religious thinking was still forbidden in the world of Soviet publications. “A man is endowed with the freedom of giving everything a supernatural form. In fact, a man is endowing himself with that freedom, because it is never readymade. A man can only produce it out of himself in the same way a spider spins his cobweb out of itself.” In this collision of a free spirit with the material world, the Russian philosopher saw a modern version of the old antagonism between the “kingdom of freedom” and the “kingdom of necessity” first presented in Emmanuel Kant’s writings. In Gachev’s opinion, a free man, as “the only source and heart of everything supernatural,” was posed to win this fight. In fact, in all his work Gachev praised this victory as “the victory of ethics over physics” to the whole world.

If such a victory is still too early to announce for a general modern man, Gachev had certainly achieved it – in his lifetime and on his turf.

The right to speak the truth sometimes had to be acquired the hard way. Before becoming a scholar, Gachev tried the professions of a schoolteacher, a sailor and a locksmith in 1952-1962. This “descent into the people” allowed him later to speak about the often poeticized “simple folk” in realistic terms, clearly showing the strong and weak traits of Russian national character. He had two families and is survived by three children – no small price to pay for the right to voice one’s opinion on family and women.

Not only was Gachev a fortunate survivor of the war and Stalin’s repressions, he was also luckier than the majority of his peers and younger contemporaries, both inside and outside Russia, because he escaped becoming a cog in the machine of modern society. In fact, the critical pathos of most of Gachev’s works is directed not as much against the Soviet regime per se as against the “society of spectacle,” of which both the Soviet Union and its Western adversaries formed a part.

A lack of spiritual effort, senseless gazing at the “stars” of the screen which hampers one’s vision of real stars made Gachev not sad, but indignant. The victory of a visual mass culture over the traditional writing one was seen by Gachev as nothing less than the devil’s onslaught on the Platonic world of his beloved Hellenic, English Protestant or German idealist thinkers. The passion with which he defended the intellectual values of the Western world from this very world’s modern mass culture may stun a modern liberal, but it should not be mistaken for a conservative “retreat from freedom.” On the contrary, it was a defense of freedom spurned by the desire to protect it from shameless visual manipulation. Unlike the ayatollahs of this century, Gachev did not divide images on “godly” and “ungodly,” did not shy away from talking about sex and erotic matters--he simply protested lies and manipulation, often brought about by sequences of video images or simplistic texts. His respect for the human spirit was so high as to allow for the so called tolerance for this spirit’s corruption – and not only by television. In his recently published diaries, Gachev noted that senseless, un-systemic reading without the reader’s independent analysis can be even more harmful than the addictions of video generations.

Gachev saw little value in the “mobility” of today’s man, who can be extremely agile in changing fashions and hobbies, as well as his own location on the world map, but who also remains dangerously immobile and lazy spiritually. “I see the immobility of the age of movement, a man’s resignation to sleep and passivity,” Gachev wrote in his diaries. “In the same way an Oriental wise man (muni) sees the unreality of a ‘real’ being.”

Gachev himself remained remarkably immune to the “mobility” of Soviet and post-Soviet minds, writing about Polish and Estonian culture right at the moment of sharp deterioration of Russia’s relations with these countries (Russia’s Neighbors: Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Moscow, 2003). He remembered Leo Tolstoy at the time when the latter’s unrelenting self-analyzing seemed to be completely out of tune with the day’s pragmatism and “forgiving” attitude to just about everything, save aging and the pursuit of idealistic goals (Tolstoy: a Meeting After a Century, Moscow, 1999).

“The mere mentioning of Gachev’s name is enough to understand that the so called period of stagnation of the 1970s and early 1980s was in reality a period of intense spiritual work in Russia,” said Sergei Bocharov, Gachev’s former friend and colleague at the Institute of World Literature.

Gachev would not want higher appraisal for his work.
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