Is Alexander Zinoviev the new official philosopher of Russia?
November 9, 2022
  • Mikhail Suslov
    Associate professor, University of Copenhagen 
Mikhail Suslov discusses why Alexander Zinoviev, quoted by Putin at the last Valdai meeting, is best suited for the role of “official” philosopher of today's Russia.
Zinoviev's admirers wanted to build a multimedia center to be called Zinoteka on the campus of Moscow State University; however, the project was put down by the city and university administrators. Source: Wiki Commons
President Putin’s decree on celebrating the centenary of Alexander Zinoviev (1922-2006), signed on October 1, 2021, passed unnoticed. However, his mention of Zinoviev in his Valdai speech on October 27, 2022, raised eyebrows in the expert community: is Zinoviev President Putin’s new favorite philosopher, having removed Ivan Ilyin from this supposed pedestal?

Veterans of Russia studies and some Soviet-era intellectuals remember Zinoviev’s finest moment, when he published an idiosyncratic social satire novel called The Yawning Heights (1976), was expelled from the country in 1978 and received the Prix de Tocqueville for political literature in 1982. The rest of his life in emigration passed in relative obscurity. When he returned to Russia in 1999 and joined the ranks of the left-wing revanchists and nationalists from the Russian Communist Party and Sergei Baburin’s Russian All-People’s Union, this did not create much furor.

Zinoviev comes to the fore

Things began to change many years after his death in 2006: after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas in 2014, initiatives to commemorate and propagate his ideas were supported by RIA Novosti and the international news agency Rossiia Segodnia (with Dmitri Kiselev CEO and Margarita Simonyan editor in chief, both doyens of Kremlin propaganda). They launched the Zinoviev Club, which hosted such prominent theorists of Putinism like TV anchor Dmitri Kulikov, Director of the Institute of the Eurasian Economic Union Vladimir Lepekhin and spin-doctor Timofei Sergeitsev. The latter caught the public’s attention in April this year with his radical proposal to de-Ukrainize Ukraine, which verged on a call for the genocidal destruction of the country’s culture.

Today, a whole infrastructure exists to spread Zinoviev’s ideas, including the abovementioned Club, as well as the Zinoviev Center, Zinoviev Foundation, Zinoviev Biographical Institute, Zinoviev Academy, information portal Zinoviev.info and half a dozen other institutions. They produce a glossy portrait of the thinker, who is routinely called a “genius” and “rejected Prometeus,” being elevated to the position of the ultimate philosopher of “Russian civilization.”

On the occasion of Zinoviev’s centenary, his admirers proposed building a multimedia center to be called Zinoteka on the campus of Moscow State University that would sit on 147 hectares. According to the plan, the central architectural detail of the Zinoteka would be a styled letter “Z” – intentionally designed to remind of the unofficial symbol of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, as a sign “of purification of the world from Nazism in the 21st century, and Russia’s genuine decolonization.”

Much to the chagrin of Zinovievites, the project was put down by the city and university administrators, though celebrations were nevertheless staged at the highest levels, including a Philosophy Congress, an exhibition in the Duma and public hearings in the Civic Chamber (featuring a welcoming speech by the Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova).

Zinoviev is indeed a more suitable philosophical icon in the pantheon of Putinism than Ivan Ilyin, who earned undeserved fame among foreign observers as President Putin’s “favorite philosopher.”
"Unlike Ilyin, who was tainted by his infatuation with fascism and unconcealed rejection of all things Soviet as a vehement aristocrat, Zinoviev’s biography makes him an ideal citizen of the wished-for 'Russian civilization'."
Zinoviev was born in a peasant family and went on to study at Moscow State University. There, he planned an assassination of Stalin, was apprehended by the NKVD, but escaped and resurfaced as a volunteer and a military pilot when the war started. This part of his biography has become heavily mythologized and guarded by his widow OIga Zinovieva. Recently, she filed a complaint with the Investigative Committee of Russia, asking to put on trial the authors of a book that doubted Zinoviev’s heroic accomplishments during the war.

Whatever the case, after the war Zinoviev finished his education and started a career in academia, with his circle of contacts including such leading Soviet philosophers as Evald Ilyenkov, Georgy Shchedrovitsky and Merab Mamardashvili. His own professional works on formal logic received some publicity outside of the Soviet Union – both positive and negative reviews – but neither his philosophical studies, nor his anti-Soviet satire is the reason of his popularity in President Putin’s Russia. What resonates profoundly with the ideology of Putinism is Zinoviev’s social theory, consistent anti-Westernism and theory of war.

Zinoviev’s teachings

The foundation of his thought is Marxist social determinism driven to its extreme: he coined the term “human hill” (cheloveinik) by analogy with an anthill (muraveinik), which consists of “brain,” body and different organs. As organisms, human hills have different individual characteristics, as well as their natural life trajectory, consisting of birth, growth, acme and subsequent decline. By the mid-20th century, human hills evolved into two alternative “super human hills:” Western and Communist.

It is important to emphasize that the latter in Zinoviev’s understanding was an organic development of Russia proper. Under Stalin, the Russian/communist “super human hill” recorded miracle-like achievements, such as industrializing the economy, raising the cultural level of the Soviet peoples and gaining a resounding victory in the world war. That victory eliminated the only rival of the Anglo-Saxons in the Western world, inadvertently paving the road for US hegemony.

The idea of an organic symbiosis between Russia and the communist system begot Zinoviev’s trademark and oft-quoted phrase: “they aimed at communism but hit Russia.” In reality, after Perestroika Zinoviev came to a different conclusion: “they” (meaning the “West”) both aimed and hit Russia, whereas communism was just an accidental target.

Zinoviev explained the reasons for this inveterate animosity with the term “zapadnizm” (Westernism): a global Western society that cannot exist otherwise but by means of imperialism and expansion, conquering and colonizing other peoples. He underlines that in order to survive, the Western super-civilization needs the resources of the whole planet. This is exactly the phrase that was quoted by Putin in his Valdai speech on October 27.
"Indeed, Zinoviev’s leftish criticism of the West fits in with the regime’s recent and consistent attempts to hijack the anti-colonial agenda, as demonstrated by President Putin’s speech on September 30."
Arguing that the “organic feature” of Westernism is its colonial aggression, Zinoviev further insisted that the West cannot co-exist with any other type of “human hill” – least of all with Russia, which represents a different, collectivistic type of society and anthropology.

Zinoviev built on this basis an argument that after 1945 the Third World War had started. It passed through a “cold” phase of information and ideology warfare before entering into a “warm” period following the collapse of the Soviet Union (which came about as a result of a “diversion”). In the “warm” period, the West was attacking Russian culture and identity to prepare the Russian population for the role of a colonized nation.

The unfolding panorama of the “warm Third World War” includes a possible “hot” stage, when or if Russia dares to challenge the Western hegemony. Zinoviev saw President Putin’s rise to power as an accidental act of the guerilla war against Westernization; he didn’t expect much from it, but viewed it unequivocally in a positive light and hoped that Putin would be capable of leading the forces of radical anti-globalization.

Russia’s new political mainstream?

Zinoviev’s theory of war got a second wind when after February 2022, the Zinoviev Club launched a series of sessions with the umbrella title “Why Russia Is Right. The New Frontline Philosophy.” In the words of Anatoly Chernyaev, the meaning of the war with Ukraine lies in Russia’s daring attempt to get rid of “discursive submission to the West.” Chernyaev, an unremarkable connoisseur of Russian religious thought, recently emerged from obscurity, when, under protection from the “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, he was appointed director of Russia’s flagship academic center, the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Science. “Philosophizing with an AK-47” is how another expert of the Zinoviev Club called the war in Ukraine.

The successful attempt to harness Zinoviev to the chariot of Putinism is characteristic of the flow of ideas inside the Russian political mainstream. In the 1990s and 2000s, Zinoviev was part of the radical “red-brown” milieu, which entertained a positive view of Stalin and various conspiracy theories, such as belief in the Dulles’ plan and Perestroika as a special operation of the CIA. Today, his ideas have seeped deep inside the Kremlin walls, demonstrating the frantic attempts to elaborate a new, catch-all “frontline ideology.”
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