The Sorcerers’ Apprentices: Can Georgy Shchedrovitsky be responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

June 26, 2022

Ilya Kukulin

Independent researcher

Ilya Kukulin looks at the teachings of Soviet thinker Georgy Shchedrovitsky and explains their post-Soviet transformation into a belief that, in the organization of a community, values are an instrumental and secondary matter.
Philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky. Source: Wiki Commons
Recently, several articles appeared at once in the Russian-language internet media showing in some way how the current political elites – who have unleashed an aggressive war against Ukraine and indirectly against the West as a whole – were influenced by the methodologists (metodologi), an intellectual and social movement that formed over several decades starting in the 1960s in Moscow, centered on the charismatic philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky (1929-94). In particular, we are referring to Andrey Pertsev’s Meduza article, published on June 9, and an article by historian Ilya Venyavkin published the next day on Kholod. When these pieces came out, director and playwright Mikhail Kaluzhsky recalled on his Facebook that a week before the start of the war, on February 16, an investigation by Mikhail Maglov with the collaboration of Roman Badanin and others had been published on Proekt, where the topic was basically the same.

The main idea of these articles is that many actors around President Putin, including Sergey Kiriyenko, have been influenced by the methodologists and that it was the methodologists who came up with the “Russian world” doctrine, which, in a highly revised form, became one of the justifications for the invasion. Venyavkin and Pertsev call attention to the fact that the political strategist Timofey Sergeytsev, the author of a manifesto published on RIA Novosti that actually proposes subjecting Ukrainians to mass violence and subsequent mass brainwashing, was actually a student of Shchedrovitsky. Commentators have already noted that Sergeytsev’s article could contain an incitement to genocide, and I agree with this assessment.

Vicious thinkers or respected philosophers?

Many readers – this can even be judged by the Russian segment of Facebook, which, due to its being banned in Russia, mostly opposition-minded intellectuals have been using lately – first learned from these articles about the existence of Shchedrovitsky and the methodologists and were sincerely surprised that such a powerful “sect” had existed in Russia (the word “sect” in relation to the Shchedrovitsky movement has been used for a long time). The effect of the Pertsev and Venyavkin articles looks something like that of exposé books such as The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (1960) – which linked the Nazi regime with secret occultist circles – but with one very significant difference: the terrible war that was already in the distant past for Pauwels and Bergier is still going on today, and the actors belonging to the “secret sect” are rather alive and kicking – if we recall, for example, Sergeytsev.

Not everyone was surprised. Some, however, were offended. In the tight circles of philosophers, psychologists and other scientists in the humanities, Shchedrovitsky and his associates – among others the pedagogical theorist and philosopher Pyotr Shchedrovitsky (the son of Georgy) and art historian Oleg Genisaretsky – have been well known for many years now. As a result, both on social media and in the press, texts appeared defending the reputation of Georgy Shchedrovitsky and his movement, insisting that they could be held responsible neither for the military aggression unleashed by the Russian leadership, nor the aggressive and primitive rhetoric of the ruling elite. They also noted that “canceling” the methodologists would be a major blow to the history of Russian philosophy. The day after Venyavkin's article, Novaya Gazeta Europe published a justification of Georgy Shchedrovitsky by political publicist and philosopher Alexander Morozov, titled “Press Cake of Putinism.” In turn, Belarusian intellectuals (or just those who follow the news from Belarus) recalled that another G. Shchedrovitsky associate, philosopher Vladimir Matskevich, had long been imprisoned by the Lukashenko regime on trumped-up political charges. Besides Matskevich, Russian culturologist Anatoly Golubovsky pointed out that sociologist Sergei Zuev, the former rector of the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (so called “Shaninka”) who had been part of the methodological movement, is also in prison today.

Thus, in the context of the Meduza and Kholod articles,
"Two questions are being discussed on social media: 'What do the methodologists have to do with it?' and 'Why are all these critics going after them?'"
The second question is much easier to answer. The terrible consequences of the war, combined with the effectiveness of Russian propaganda inside the country (judging by Putin’s approval ratings, though sociologists say that the numbers in Russia shouldn’t be trusted given the boost from propaganda and fear of political repression), have logically led journalists and political scientists to search for the intellectual roots of Putinism, or, if you like, the aggressive imperialism of the current Russian elite. In addition, the restrictions and sanctions encountered by Russians both who have and haven’t emigrated have triggered an understandable desire to find those “responsible for everything.” In this sense, the methodologists are a very convenient scapegoat, and not only because of Sergeytsev’s pogrom calls. It was a closed, esoteric movement that harbored large-scale political plans in the 1980s and infiltrated the top-level elite; even if the methodologists' activities had had no political impact (they did), the movement would probably have aroused the interest of investigative journalists and conspiracy theorists anyway.

The first question – “What do the methodologists have to do with it?” – is much more difficult. In other words, are Shchedrovitsky and others indirectly guilty of the militaristic, hateful (quasi-) ideology of Putinism, or were their views and methods simply used by those who would have become aggressors anyway? In this article I will try to sketch an answer.

Were Shchedrovitsky’ ideas inspired by American philosopher James Burnham?

Before proceeding to the main part of my reasoning, I must say that I’m not a stranger to these questions. It seems that I was the first to write that the methodologists movement had a direct impact on post-Soviet “political technology” (political manipulative PR), for which the methodologists Mark Rats and Matvey Khromchenko criticized me (my response is here).

At that time, I wrote: “... if we systematically examine the various concepts created by Shchedrovitsky in relation to aesthetics, linguistics and other areas of human life, it turns out that Shchedrovitsky understood any intellectual activity that interested him as a kind of intellectual projecting and social engineering and as potentially encompassing a growing number of phenomena. The practice of problem-solving adopted in Shchedrovitsky's seminar and later used in organizational-activity games shows that Shchedrovitsky understood such social engineering as a collective practice – more precisely, carried out by a small group of specially trained people. This <...> gave me reason to conclude <...> that
"According to Shchedrovitsky, a group of specially trained and organized intellectuals could develop and carry out, in line with developed algorithms, any large-scale transformation of the social environment."
Today one can build on what was written then, back in the late 2000s. However, one more preliminary remark is necessary. Many authors who wrote about the methodologists on social media after the June 9-10 publications called Shchedrovitsky's followers charlatans. I consider this assessment incorrect. The process of disseminating, vulgarizing and instrumentalizing the concepts of Shchedrovitsky, his associates and opponents by the Russian political elite is an important episode of intellectual history. It’s attributable precisely to the spread and transformation of specific ideas and not just secret levers of political influence. Therefore, it is the ideas that should be the subject of analysis in the first place.

I would like to start with a quotation from a Shchedrovitsky public speech in 1989 published in the Meduza article by Pertsev.
“I’ll tell you how it is, though I know they’ll stone me later for it: I just don’t see the difference between totalitarianism and non-totalitarianism. You know? I don’t see one. And I think: totalitarian organization is the only future organization of any human society. It's just that Germany and the USSR got out in front a little, by an inch. But it awaits everyone, including the proud English. There’s no other way, dear colleagues – this is what’s necessary for the development of human society, damn it!”
(Simultaneously with the publication in Meduza, a fragment of a tape recording of the Shchedrovitsky speech in the studio theater Na Doskakh, under the direction of the later infamous Sergei Kurginyan, was posted on YouTube). In my view, the remark can’t be reduced to situational antics, but rather represents a slip. (My opponents and members of the methodological movement Mark Rats and Matvey Khromchenko accused me in 2008 of taking out of context Shchedrovitsky’s statements, which usually, in their view, were situational in nature).

Shchedrovitsky is expressing the idea behind his concept of all-encompassing intellectual projecting, developed during the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, it is necessary to understand from what position anyone could say such things in the USSR in the perestroika year of 1989 and what is behind that position – ideology or something else.

In this passage, Shchedrovitsky seems very close to the concept that half a century earlier was expressed by the American sociologist and political philosopher James Burnham (1905-87) in The Managerial Revolution (first published in 1941). Shchedrovitsky could read it both in English and in the Russian translation printed by the émigré publishing house Posev in 1954 (with the inaccurate title The Revolution of Directors). However, what matters here is not the influence of one philosopher on another, but rather their similar ways of thinking. Burnham was a student and follower of Leon Trotsky in his youth before gravitating toward right-wing conservatism, with the ideological transformation taking place during the 1940s, when Burnham published his most known books. In The Managerial Revolution, he argues that in the modern world the management function is being separate from the ownership function, a fact that supposedly has revolutionary implications: the most developed countries are moving, in his view, toward a non-ideological centralized society led by managers instead of elected politicians, therefore the difference between totalitarian and non-totalitarian regimes is becoming less and less visible. The future “society of managers” will be neither capitalist nor socialist, but its economy and government will turn into planned, controlled processes.
American philosopher and political theorist James Burnham. Source: Wiki Commons
What George Orwell thought about James Burnham

“Although he reiterates that he is merely setting forth the facts and not stating his own preferences, it is clear that Burnham is fascinated by the spectacle of power...” wrote George Orwell, Burnham’s most insightful critic, in 1946. “Where Burnham differs from most other thinkers is in trying to plot the course of the ‘managerial revolution’ accurately on a world scale, and in assuming that the drift toward totalitarianism is irresistible and must not be fought against, though it may be guided. According to Burnham, writing in 1940, ‘managerialism’ has reached its fullest development in the USSR, but is almost equally well developed in Germany, and has made its appearance in the US.”
“In this essay – which seems to me even more important for contemporary Russia than his novel 1984 – Orwell offers a psychological explanation for the 'utopia of managerialism'."
He thinks its basis is the intellectual’s admiration of power and his hope of gaining power, and undemocratic power at that: “although the English Russophile intelligentsia would repudiate him, [Burnham] is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip.”

I’m quoting Orwell to such an extent because these quotes make clearer the points of intersection between Shchedrovitsky and Burnham and, in addition, explain the temptation of the “managerial utopia.” I believe that this temptation had a significant effect on some of Shchedrovitsky's students, though not all.

In my view, the reason for the commonality between the concepts of Burnham and Shchedrovitsky is not a common ideology, but a similar governmentality. This term was coined by the French historian and cultural theorist Michel Foucault, who used the concept of “mentality” introduced by Annales school historians to create the neologism. Governmentality is the set of conscious and unconscious ideas about what it means to manage people that are common across society as a whole or among certain social groups, in particular political elites. Groups that have different ideologies may share similar models of governmentality, while conversely groups in the same part of the political spectrum may proceed from different models of governmentality – liberal or authoritarian. “Managerial governmentality” is the idea that society can and even should be governed by a special caste of specialists who know how to solve social and political problems. Such government can be combined with different ideological “facades.”

"Practically everything can be organized"

The politicians that came to power in Russia in the 1990s were very diverse in their views, but among them there were consistent supporters of liberal values. Nevertheless, “managerial governmentality” was quite common among politicians of various persuasions. The stunning success of right Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the 1993 elections seems to have cemented the notion among the political elite of the new state that free elections in Russia, due to the supposed immaturity of society, could only bring populists to power – the upshot being that the political activity of not so educated and not so well-off people should definitely be corrected with “political technology” (political PR manipulation) operations. In fact, the presidential election of 1996 turned into the triumph of “political technologists.” In this situation, the ideal advisors to post-Soviet politicians were not philosophers of Shchedrovitsky's circle, but his practicing students who firmly were and still are convinced that practically everything can be organized. Such was the intellectual-political environment in post-Soviet Russia, but not in Belarus, for example, where Shchedrovitsky's follower Matskevich developed educational reforms for several decades and was involved in the intellectual sphere of the opposition, using the organizational ideas of the methodologists. Now, as already mentioned, he has been thrown in prison for precisely this.

In the press and the humanities literature of the 1990s-2000s, a cliché emerged: “after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an ideological vacuum arose.” This, of course, isn’t true. Recall Andrei Amalrik's 1969 article “Ideology in Soviet Society,” in which this dissident historian analyzes in detail the different types of “shadow” ideological movements in the Russian-speaking society of Soviet Russia; apparently, “shadow” ideologies were of comparable complexity in the other societies across the Soviet Union – Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian and so on. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all these ideologies entered the public space and began to actively mutate.
“The retrospective feeling of a 'vacuum' seems attributable to an acute crisis of faith among the emerging political and economic elites with regard to the possibility of politics based on values."
In this context, political writers fetishizing the idea of power as such emerged unexpectedly successful; they were ready to reduce any relations between people to those of domination and subordination as ultimate and even having mystical meaning (recall Orwell: “fascinated by the spectacle of power”), while the issue of quality of power is reduced to a question of organization.

One of these writers, Alexander Dugin, is very well-known, so there is no need to dwell on him. Another, Evgeni Shiffers (1934-97), is much less known. He was a religious thinker and underground writer, as well as a theater and film director and, in the post-Soviet times, a public figure. The degree of influence that Shiffers’ ideas had on post-Soviet political managers seems to have rather puzzled the journalists from the Proektteam who investigated Putin's Sirius project, aimed at educating the “right” youth (in the abovementioned article on methodologists). They described Shiffers as “a little-known Soviet director who in his youth participated in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and at the end of his life wrote religious literature.” Technically, these statements are correct, but they miss the main thing – what Shiffers taught in the 1970-1990s. In addition, missed were the facts that Shiffers was “widely known in narrow circles,” that he was close to the dissident movement and that he worked as a director at the Taganka Theater, where he was provided a special room for meditation. Shiffers also deserves attention for the fact that Doctor of Psychology Yuri Gromyko, a practicing political technologist and the ideologist behind the Sirius project, was a student simultaneously of both Shchedrovitsky and Shiffers, who belonged to the one circle of the Moscow philosophers.
Pro-war meeting in Russia, 2022. Source: Facebook
Evgeni Shiffers and his ideas

The aesthetic, philosophical and religious concepts of Shiffers deserve separate study (such works already exist). In the 1970-80s, he strangely blended New Age, religiously motivated psychotechnics (the use of psychology to solve practical problems), antisemitic conspiracy theories, mystical monarchism and avant-garde theater aesthetics resembling the ideas of Jerzy Grotowski.

In his writings, Shiffers describes the murder of the royal family as a catastrophe on a cosmic scale, and Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna as superhuman beings whose life and death had mystical significance for both Christians and Buddhists. “Shiffers proposed making Feodorovsky Sovereign Cathedral near Tsarskoye Selo, the main patrons of which were Nicholas II and his wife, the burial place [of the royal family]. According to Shiffers, the location should have become the cathedral of the army and military-industrial complex.” There is already a Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, and I don’t exclude the possibility that the project was designed by people who knew about Shiffers’ ideas. Shiffers also attaches a mystical significance to the Russian state, considering it the lone weapon in the struggle against a global Zionist conspiracy. He wrote: “...Only from a thoroughly ideocratic position can one accept the ‘partocracy’ in Russia and the fact of the accomplished [Bolshevik] revolution as the suppression of European illusions and the proclamation of the mission of Shambhala at the very moment when the Zionist ‘state’ of the Synagogue appeared on earth.” (Apparently, Shiffers subscribed to the Russian version of the concept of katechon, developed by Orthodox fundamentalists in the early 20th century. According to it, the Russian emperor is the only force that keeps the world from the coming of the Antichrist. (See in detail).

In 1994, Shiffers’ former student Yuri Gromyko published an article “Why did methodology and the methodologists lose out during perestroika?” in which he wrote: “...the methodological seminar, circle, movement failed to become the group managing, coordinating the perestroika process, the socio-historical process of recent years passed by them, through them, and they are still reflecting and realizing what is going on in this situation and what happened to them.” (Journal “Russia-2010.” 1994. No. 1—2).

Philosopher Victoria Faibyshenko analyzes this passage:
“It’s really interesting that the idea of including the methodological movement in a big history appears right along with the question of managing that history.

The very posing of the question indicates that methodology is seen as the realization of an empty form [left after] the Soviet project – to guide history from within history… The state here [in Gromyko's discussion about the power of the methodologists] becomes something like an operator of a never-ending task, the only medium not just between the private and the public, but between the finite and the infinite.”
A decade after the above-mentioned article was published, in 2004 Gromyko founded the Evgeni Shiffers Institute for Advanced Studies and Human Resource Management. The institute fulfilled orders from the Presidential Administration, coming out with educational projects that Putin later publicly supported, including the Kruzhok Movement, the Proyektoriya forum, Elevator to the Future, the Great Change competition and others, according to the Proekt article. In an old essay “Time is Slavophiling” (The title of the article refers to a book by Vladimir Franzevich Ern, 1882-1917, a radical right-wing religious philosopher of the early 20th century), Shiffers justifies the need to create a “mandala of the universe” – a special space where you can fall into a mystical state. It is supposed to become “the school of the 21st century, where we will learn to remember ourselves.” (Quoted according to: E.L. Shiffers, Religiozno-philosofskie sochineniia (Moscow: Russkii Institut, 2005, p. 61).

Transformation of methodology in post-Soviet Russia

I shall now return to the main idea of this text. In the 1990s, the ideas of “managerial governmentality” merged in the minds of some young politicians and intellectuals servicing the government – primarily political technologists – with the fetishization of power (note that the reduction of all relations in the world to those of power leads to conspiracy theories).
“Such 'administrative fetishism' requires technological prescriptions to organize control over humans according to clear and calculated guidelines. Vulgarized methodology was one such available concept, but not the only one."
Defenders of Shchedrovitsky on social media ironically point out that Kiriyenko could have been just as passionate about the ideas of the methodologists as those of scientologists. However, his old – probably long-past – interest in scientology, in my view, is an important fact that leads us to an understanding of the specifics of the “transformation” of methodology in post-Soviet Russia: in the 1990s, young ambitious politicians like Kiriyenko – meaning those who were drawn not by the values, but only the managerial side of politics – were interested in everything that could help to easily and “technologically” describe human thinking and the management of people. In this sense, scientology and vulgarized methodology (as done by people who took “courses in game technology” based on Shchedrovitsky's concept rather than by the philosopher himself) indeed became completely equivalent.

One of the factors that led to the current catastrophe in Russia, to this shameful war of aggression, was the combination of such “pan-technologism” with the Russian version of the stab-in-the-back myth. The original myth was spread by the German right starting from the last years of World War I and then especially in the 1920s by generals, officers, soldiers and conservative nationalist politicians. In fact, it became one of the psychological foundations of Nazism. The myth has it that Germany was defeated in World War I solely because of treachery on the home front. Jews, social democrats and perhaps even women (Heinemann U. Die Last der Vergangenheit. Zur politischen Bedeutung von Kriegsschuld- und Dolchstoßdiskussion. In: Die Weimarer Republik 1918-1933. Politik, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft. Hg. von K.-D. Bracher, M. Funke, H.-A. Jacobsen. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1998; Winkler G.A. Weimar 1918-1933: Die Geschichte der ersten deutschen Demokratie. C.H. Beck, 1993.) were fingered as the agents of this betrayal, with the myth serving to deny legitimacy to the Weimar Republic. In post-Soviet Russia, a similar myth about betrayal, which, as is claimed, could have been the only cause of the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War, apparently has emerged among part of the post-Soviet security forces – the special services in particular – and some former special services officials who are now part of the political and business elite. Such a myth denies all legitimacy to the post-Soviet order. The desire to get back at the West has led the believers in this myth down the road of conspiracy theories and political technology, which promises to transform large communities of people and give them a new purpose in life.

Georgy Shchedrovitsky can’t be directly blamed for this monstrous transformation. That said, the programmatic anti-humanism, equally programmatic elitism (and thus anti-egalitarianism) and “managerial governmentality” of his teachings gave reason to the “power fetishists” to believe that in the organization of a community (and politics is always action in a community, civitas), values are an instrumental and secondary matter. (In his second book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943), James Burnham proclaimed as his predecessors such authors as Vilfredo Pareto and several others who had taught that the elite always deceive the “broad masses” and that any appeal to values in politics on the part of the elites is always hypocrisy and manipulation). It’s seemingly possible to mark a single intellectual tradition – less in terms of direct influence and more in terms of a similar type of sociological imagination – from Pareto to Georgy Shchedrovitsky). Whenever such a reduction takes place, archaic and primitive values come to the fore (at least for people who are not inclined to reflection), primarily polarization into “us” and everyone else.

In the next historical cycle, when Russia will again have to be raised from the ruins and built anew with people speaking “never again,” the need to establish, discuss and analyze the connection between values and politics, as well as values and government, should be something talked about as early as at middle, if not primary school. So that what is happening today will never happen again.

See Postscript.
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