Other relevant keywords: Existentialism, Narod (people), Tragedy, Zen
Grigory Pomerants (1918–2013)
Of all late-Soviet and post-Soviet Russian thinkers, Grigory Solomonovich Pomerants was the most persistently engaged in social debates about the value of personality and about the threats posed by totalitarian and post-totalitarian society. Pomerants was a philosopher and Orientalist by education. He graduated from the literature department of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History (IFLI) in 1940. In 1941-45, during the Soviet-German War, he served in the army. Arrested in 1949 on a political charge, he spent four years in labor camps. Upon his return to Moscow, he served as a librarian at the Fundamental Library of Social Sciences. In the 1960s, Pomerants began to publish articles about culture and religion, and at the same time became a very active samizdat and tamizdat author, which prevented him from holding an academic position; in particular, he was denied the opportunity to defend his dissertation on Zen Buddhism because of his involvement in the human rights movement. He remained a freelance writer and commentator, and he was among the first to speak publicly on the dangers of reemergent nationalism and conservatism as early as the late 1960s.
Pluralism and Irony
Pomerants’ writings belong to the genre of philosophical publitsistika— sociocultural essays and commentary that were the characteristic mode of discourse in the Russian intellectual tradition, beginning with Petr Chaadaev, Vissarion Belinsky, and Aleksandr Herzen. His philosophical views resist systematization, because at their core is a notion of the personal character of truth; hence, his writings make no claim to universal validity, tending rather to constitute free meditations replete with autobiographical reminiscences and painful confessions. Irony is also important for Pomerants, since it liberates thought from false generalization and fanaticism. “Irony helps me to understand: everything that is said cannot be the perfect truth; everything that exists cannot be a perfect lie” (Sny zemli 345). Via irony, the thinker clears the way for a multiplicity of ideas, each of which must abandon its claim to absolute truth. Pluralism and personalism, then, are two sides of the same coin, since a “truth” that is contingent upon personality gives each individual an equal stake in Truth. To a degree, this position can be viewed in parallel with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogic truth, although Pomerants is interested more in the ethical and political implications of pluralism. For him, intolerance is the main cause of evil in the world: “The devil begins with the foam on the lips of the angel who joins the struggle for good, truth, justice, and so on, until, step by step, he comes to the fire of Gehenna and Kolyma” (281). “The merciless struggle against evil fosters cruelty and feeds on this new evil” (285). Thus, evil is usually present in the guise of good intentions, founded on a feverish faith in some absolute or universal truth.
In a talk Pomerants gave on communism and religion at Moscow’s Institute of the Countries of Asia and Africa in 1968, he defines religion as “the system of communication of socially important mystical experience,” and argues that religion is at least as necessary a condition for human existence as is the state (Politicheskii dnevnik 533). The state acts by external force, while religion enlightens the human soul; they are thus complementary in maintaining balance in the social structure. “[T]he active immorality of the State is supplemented with the passive morality of religion” (537). Pomerants is sharply critical of institutionalized, “degenerated” religion, which merges with the state and loses its rebellious spiritual mission or even claims to become a state of its own, a theocracy. In his view, the worldwide crisis of religion, especially under communist regimes during most of his lifetime, has been for the good—because persecution and the threat of extermination reinforced religion’s original spirit of opposition to the state and preoccupation with the inner self-determination of the human personality. This opposition to all forms of authoritarianism, especially such as acquire the status of spiritual dogma, is typical for Pomerants.
Despite the centrality of religion to Pomerants’ work, his religiosity is nondenominational, and his thinking cannot be characterized as a “religious philosophy.” Unlike the thinkers usually categorized thus, Pomerants is not affiliated with a specific religious tradition or dogma, and, moreover, his philosophy leads to religion only in the final analysis, instead of taking it as a starting point.
I was seeking myself for so long that it became the habit of my entire life. Perhaps for this reason, I am not drawn to any single denomination. I am grateful to the keepers of the sacred fire, but am more fascinated with the people who are able to ignite this fire anew; people who begin from zero…. You’re welcome to choose the faith of your fathers—or any other faith—but one that you have chosen, not that someone else chose for you. This is my utopia, my project to find the way out of the present impersonal world. (Sny zemli 180)
Among world religions, Pomerants most often cites Christianity, Buddhism (especially Zen Buddhism), and Taoism, primarily because he sees these as the least authoritarian and most paradoxical. He was among the first to introduce the profundity of Eastern wisdom to the Soviet intelligentsia, which had traditionally been oriented toward the West. Following Hakuin Ekaku, a major representative of Japanese Zen, Pomerants repeats the three requirements for salvation: great faith, great persistence, and great doubt, stressing the last, since it is only by doubt that one can move beyond the signs of God to God himself.
This is the lesson of the East that Pomerants sought to introduce to traditional believers and nonbelievers alike, insofar as they adhered to some systems of signs: in order to experience the signified, one must have doubts about the meaning of the sign. The word “God” may have no meaning in itself, like all other words used to express supreme values, such as “love” or “wisdom.” When one compares one’s beloved to “a star” or the “sun,” one is not expressing the wish that this significant other should transform into a celestial body. By the same token, “God” does not signify a supernatural entity, it is a word of love addressed to life, to its infinite value (“Bog i Nichto” 188–89).
Because of his anti-fanaticism, Pomerants felt an affinity with the Eastern traditions, which tend to be less inclined to change the world from some dogmatic platform, preferring to discover modes of genuine existence within the world. For example, in comparing the Bible prophet with the Buddhist bodhisattva, Pomerants emphasizes the relative ethical risks of either position.
The bodhisattva leaves the epoch as it is, and shows that in any epoch, one can live in the most profound silence and light. The prophet tries to introduce a particle of eternal truth into the life of society. Hence, he collides with evil and flares up with holy fury; he is turned away and often subjected to stoning, but sometimes he achieves victory and lays the foundation of a new kingdom. The bodhisattva never becomes furious and doesn’t found any kingdoms. His kingdom is not of this world. (Sny zemli 43)
Thus, the Bible prophet, in promoting change, runs the risk of falling into a new absolutism, whereas the bodhisattva, with no dogma to impart, avoids the ethical pitfalls of authoritarianism.
Pomerants’ position may be identified as religious personalism, which eschews any church affiliation. No religious tradition may be favored over another, because faith is born out of nothing and excludes any stable historical foundation. “God is revealed fully only in personality; and personality is revealed fully only in God…. The personality that is strongly developed … like a good swimmer, seeks the deepest place, where there is nothing under one’s legs. It is there, above the abyss of nothingness, that it is easiest for her to swim” (84).
Another tendency of Pomerants’ personalist religiosity is ecumenism. Pluralism of faiths presupposes their interaction and convergence. Between the Hinduism of Rabindranath Tagore, the Judaism of Martin Buber, and the Catholicism of Heinrich Böll there is far more in common than between two versions of medieval Catholicism, those of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Dominic of Caleruega and the orders they founded. The former kinds of religiosity are open and transparent, the latter intolerant and self-enclosed. For Pomerants, what is important is not what people believe in but how they believe; whether their faith promotes understanding or serves as an instrument of power.
Narod and Intelligentsia: His Debate with Solzhenitsyn
In the ideological arena, Pomerants finds similar risks, most expressly in the “prophetic” person of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Despite admiring him as the author of The Gulag Archipelago, as an unmasker of the insidious nature of communism, Pomerants recognizes the implicit danger in Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent program of political reform. In offering a different—but equally absolutist—foundation for social change based on the priority of national interests, Solzhenitsyn threatens to usher in a mere changing of the guard—a revitalized authoritarian state, fueled by genuine inspiration and moralistic enthusiasm, but authoritarian nonetheless. In identifying the evils of the totalitarian state, Solzhenitsyn fails to understand the risk implicit in substituting one foundational truth for another, a risk intensified by the enthusiasm for political change in Russia, which might easily drift into a new totalitarianism based on nationalist ideals. What Pomerants finds most threatening in Solzhenitsyn’s polemic is the absolute seriousness and lack of irony, which remind him of the traditions of the Bolshevik ideocracy and prerevolutionary Russian autocracy, which considered any doubt, joke, or criticism to be inherently subversive. For Pomerants, “irony is a companion of democracy,” since it prevents the crystallization of absolute truths (Sny zemli 345).
Pomerants’ debate with Solzhenitsyn was initiated in the early 1970s with the latter’s critique of the former’s daring views on the role of the intelligentsia in Russia. Most notably, Solzhenitsyn took issue with Pomerants’ essay “The Person from Nowhere” (“Chelovek niotkuda,” 1967-69), which explicates his views on the relationship between the intelligentsia and “the people.” The Russian word for this latter concept, narod, can be translated as “folk,” “people,” or “nation,” but in Russia it has a special meaning: the vast majority of the simple, working people who comprise an organic whole, one with its own will, spirit, and fate. Pomerants criticizes both the official notion of “the toiling masses” as the moving force of historical progress, and also the romantic and neo-Slavophile view of the people as the repository of spiritual purity and authenticity. The concept is threadbare even from a strictly economic standpoint: the peasantry—the canonical understanding of narod, the “truth and strength of the land”—has ceased to be a productive force. “Nations where peasantry prevails are starving, while in the nations where peasantry disappears, hunger disappears as well” (Neopublikovannoe 128).
For Pomerants, the very term narod has ceased to refer to any actual community, since both the working classes and the peasantry have succumbed to a process of physical and spiritual degradation. It is not only the Soviet regime that has sapped the people of their creative vitality, but also the inevitable course of history, which has undermined the integrity of nations by dissolving the aesthetic values of folklore and the moral values of collectivism. To the extent these archaic values still survive, they serve mainly to enforce authoritarianism and suppress the freedom of individuals. The narod, therefore, in its passive indifference, should be held accountable for the silent acceptance of the terror and repression engendered by the communist regime.
Pomerants holds that the highest values, such as the contemplation of the universe, the creation of art, or spiritual love, are not produced by the narod and are beyond its understanding. Pomerants thus turns instead to the intelligentsia (the people “from nowhere”), whose moral and religious autonomy make society’s progression toward freedom possible. In the Soviet period, the term intelligentsia officially referred to “persons of mental labor,” which encompassed the bureaucratic elite, teachers, doctors, and educated members of all professions. For Pomerants, by contrast, the intelligentsia is “a very narrow circle of men and women capable of independently discovering the sacred values of culture” (148). The intelligentsia always comprises the minority of a nation; accordingly, in Pomerants’ view, “everything great has always originated with a minority, and even more, with one lone person… It is on this lone person that I rely” (168). He compares the intelligentsia with the Jewish diaspora, “the people of air,” who lost touch with their native soil (168). Anguish, fear, loneliness, confusion, anxiety—all these categories of existential philosophy come from the psychology of the ghetto, as expressed by Franz Kafka. For Pomerants, this situation of diaspora, including both ghetto and the perspective of assimilation, is characteristic not only of Jews but all thinking humanity.
Assimilation means that an intelligent person potentially finds him- or herself participating simultaneously in many religious and national traditions. “To unite through loneliness,” to spread solidarity among those who are solitary—this is what Pomerants identifies as his personal duty (167). One can view him as a prophet not of the narod (like Solzhenitsyn), but of the intelligentsia, like Camus, who claimed to speak on behalf of “millions of solitary individuals” (Qtd. Sargent 110). But while the relationship of Camusian existentialism to pessimism remains an open question, we can at least say that Pomerants’ existentialism is an optimistic one, hinging as it does not on absurdity but faith. The intelligentsia is called to give meaning to life while keeping life free from any obligatory and uniform meaning.
Pomerants was well aware that the victory of the intelligentsia and the destruction of traditional society creates the possibility both for a new, expanded freedom—and for new, horrific oppression. “Intellectual freedom is similar to atomic energy. It can serve good and evil, can save the world and destroy it” (Neopublikovannoe 151). The intelligentsia may be blamed for the elaboration of monstrous ideologies that brought not peace but the sword to suffering humanity. However, Pomerants defends the freedom of thinking, even if it ultimately commits suicide and generates totalitarian censorship. “My chosen people are bad. I know this. But, like Jehovah, I have no choice: the others are even worse” (151).
Ironically, Pomerants’ praise of the intelligentsia proved provocative for the intelligentsia itself, since he challenged its conventional self-conception as the debtor and handmaiden of the people. Solzhenitsyn was among those most provoked and irritated, since Pomerants had anticipated many of his sublime ideas about the soil and people—even before Solzhenitsyn himself had the chance to express them publicly. From the very beginning of Solzhenitsyn’s journalistic endeavors, he identified Pomerants and those of a like ideological cast as his main antagonists. Solzhenitsyn categorizes liberals and pluralists as obrazovanshchina—his coinage to designate Soviet society’s conformist, superficially educated elite (from obrazovanie—education). Solzhenitsyn demotes them to the status of self-important philistines and pharisees who deny their debt to the people and, in the final analysis, end up supporting a regime that educated them for its own benefit. Whereas Solzhenitsyn is eager to place blame with the regime (and by extension the intelligentsia), Pomerants is less inclined to apportion praise or blame.
Solzhenitsyn has a firm grasp of which heroes were right and which were wrong. He enthrones the right and dethrones the wrong, while in my view all heroes are somewhat wrong. I recognize that both reds and whites, grandfather-revolutionaries and grandson-dissidents, are heroes, but in my judgements about them, irony is integrated and I attempt to go beyond their heroic goals and characters. (Sny zemli 345)
Pomerants continues on this ethically conciliatory note: “One should dream not of some tribunal that will render the surviving executioners their due, an eye for an eye, but of one’s own ability to forgive at least one executioner. Because the end of executions comes about not through execution, but through forgiveness” (351).
Thus Pomerants’ response to Solzhenitsyn is based also on religious views, though principally different from those of the latter. For Solzhenitsyn, faith means a loyalty to exclusive and absolute values, so its political equivalent is enlightened authoritarianism. For Pomerants, faith should be grounded in a humility that rejects all claims of absolute truth; pluralism, then, justifies secular democracy, but also each person’s God-given freedom, which forbids the restriction of the freedom of others. This is perhaps the most common personalistic feature of liberalism and pluralism in the Russia of the 1970s and 1980s: not an old-fashioned positivism that opposes religion, but rather an extension of the religious values of tolerance and nonviolence.
One illustrative example of Pomerants’ disagreement with Solzhenitsyn concerns the latter’s celebrated motto: “To live without lies” (zhit´ ne po lzhi). Intended to decry the hypocrisy on which the regime had depended for decades, this was perhaps the single most influential moral imperative of the late Soviet period. Solzhenitsyn made allowances for timorous rank-and-file Soviet citizens, summoning them not to express the full truth out loud, but only to abstain from direct falsehood. However, even this imperative finds a convincing opponent in Pomerants. In reality, the refusal to lie would mean that a teacher of literature must resign from her classes, because she was obliged to teach the “masterpieces” of socialist realism. A gifted student would have to leave the university and never become a physicist or mathematician, because doing so meant having to pass exams in Marxism-Leninism. With professional prospects ruined, such a person would moreover have to depend materially on his or her parents, or, in order to survive, to emigrate, leave family behind, betray one’s friends. Yes, it is immoral to lie, but is it not equally immoral to live at others’ expense or bury one’s talent? “The most poignant moral difficulties arise when commandments collide with each other. For example, not to lie—and not to live at someone else’s expense; not to lie—and not to abandon one’s friends, one’s mother tongue” (287). Thus for Pomerants, even the simplest truth reveals its ambiguity as soon as one discovers the plurality of truths.
There is no way to eliminate the tragic split in the process of personal self-determination, to separate absolute truth from absolute falsity. No impeccable behavior or moral perfection is possible in this world, and this is the beginning of faith. For Pomerants, like for Yakov Druskin, “God and sin are indivisible. The abyss of God opens a view on the abyss of sin. From the abyss of sin, the yearning for God is born” (Otkrytost´ bezdne. Etiudy o Dostoevskom 124).
Critique of Dostoevsky
Pomerants’ philosophy may be defined as personalism in search of God. The two elements of this definition are inseparable, since personalism without God degenerates into complacent, egoistic self-will, while religion without personalism turns into conservative ritualism. Pomerants’ favorite writer and thinker is Dostoevsky, the founder of Russian religious existentialism. However, for Pomerants, even Dostoevsky tends to smother the existential component of faith, especially in his novel The Devils (Besy, 1871-1872) and in his journalism (The Diary of a Writer [Dnevnik pisatelia, 1873-1881]), professing the national rather than personal way to God. Dostoevsky’s pochvennichestvo, his native-soil ideology, was his metaphysical treason, an attempt to escape the loneliness of a human relationship with God. In particular, Pomerants blames Dostoevsky for his ardent hatred of liberals and for the same “dirty” methods of political denunciation that revolutionaries used: “It is sad to see a devil take possession of Dostoevsky himself, to see his hatred for ‘devils’ lead him to a kind of ‘devilish’ spasms, to the lampoon of Liamshin [a character of Jewish origin in The Devils], to the literary denunciation of Turgenev” (Otkrytost´ bezdne. Etiudy o Dostoevskom 104). Pomerants attempts to critique Dostoevsky with Dostoevsky’s own words, to oppose the religious existentialism of his novels to the religious conservatism of his articles. For Pomerants, “no amount of soil could fill the abyss of existence (or, in Dostoevsky’s terms, the abyss of God), the abyss a human being confronts, always face to face, without any external support” (99).
Pomerants calls upon the liberal intelligentsia to elaborate a religious outlook that might constitute a compelling alternative to the Dostoevskian, conservative ideal of “the God-bearing nation” (narod-bogonosets). He finds the truth of personalism in the very nature of Christianity. “The promise of eternal life is given to a personality, not to a nation…. Christianity does not deny nation, but situates it in the transient world, secondary to the personality, with its eternal soul” (“V poiskakh sviatyni,” 24). Following the path of Nikolai Berdiaev and Georgy Fedotov, two outstanding Russian religious-personalist philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, Pomerants formulates the goal of contemporary spiritual seeking as a synthesis of freedom and faith: “Russian liberalism must acquire a religious depth” (24).
Mikhail Epstein, May 2019
Pomerants, Grigory. “Bog i nichto.” Neopublikovannoe. Bol’shie i malye esse. Publitsistika. Posev, 1972, pp. 188-189.
—. Otkrytost´ bezdne. Etiudy o Dostoevskom. Liberty Publishing House, 1989.
—. Politicheskii dnevnik. The Alexander Herzen Foundation, 1975.
—. Sny zemli. Izd-vo “Poiski,” 1979.
—. “V poiskakh sviatyni.” Sintaksis (Paris), no. 27, 1990, pp. 19-24.
Sargent, Lyman Tower. “Camus: The Absurdity of Politics.” The Artist and Political Vision. Ed. Benjamin R. Barber and Michael J. Gargas McGrath. Transaction Books, 1983, pp. 87-116.