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The Trouble with “Truth”

Russian Academia in the Age of (in)Certitude


by Ekaterina Pravilova , 5 November 2015

Translated with the support of the Institut français
Published in association with Public Books
français

In Russia, the government’s propaganda machine is not limited to
the political sphere. In rewriting the country’s history, it is promoting "the decay of rationality and the de-installation of a scientific worldview". Historian Ekaterina Pravilova addresses the effects of this crisis of knowledge for Russia’s intelligentsia and academic community.

This essay is part of a virtual roundtable published in partnership with Public Books on « Contemporary Russia »

Orwellian analogies have once again become ubiquitous when discussing contemporary Russia. Between the state-inflicted paranoia over the “total war against Russia” and the gradual dismantling of civil society at home, not to mention a rabid nationalism fomented by the government’s TV and internet propaganda machine, the absurdity of recent political events supports the impression that we, the citizens of Russia, live in a dystopia nightmare. But this drift into a bleak future has a metaphorical counterpart: a reversion to the archaic past, to a world before modernity and Enlightenment. With the proliferation of pseudoscience in popular media and the dissemination of mythicized history by the government, many scientists and scholars have begun to diagnose “the decay of rationality and the de-installation of a scientific worldview.” [1] For some, the current crisis of knowledge amounts to a true catastrophe: Russia crawls back to the Dark Ages.

In response, champions of reason within Russia have created clubs and public societies to promote the values of rationality and inculcate sensible skepticism. At the same time, academic communities have sought government support in the battle against superstition and falsification. In their defense of Enlightenment values, however, they have risked a Faustian bargain whose consequences for Russia’s future are immense. Caught between a popular taste for superstitious pseudo-science and a government that increasingly relies on misinformation to bolster its authority, it seems that today’s intelligentsia must either persuade Russians through evidence and reason, or join the government in proclaiming the singular truths of nature as of history.

The present crisis of reason began in the late 1980s. The sudden collapse of Soviet censorship and the elimination of the state publishing monopoly burst the dam of silence and discretion. Russian society learned new facts about the Revolution of 1917, the crimes of Stalinism, and even the private lives of Soviet leaders. At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church attracted former communists and atheists alike. Citizens were allowed to profess any cult, religious or political, and hundreds of missionaries from all over the world streamed to Russia to proselytize and convert. The freedoms of speech and confession seemed to be complete. Even if the state wanted, it simply had no power to restrict or control the tide of new ideas, knowledge, and information.

This tide was not crystal clear, however: the publication of documents from previously sealed Party archives, for example, was drowned in a sea of non-academic works that promised to reveal the hidden “truth” about past and present. It was hard to withstand such temptation: “truth” had been concealed for so many years, and scientists and scholars were thought to be complicit in hiding it. Therefore one had to look for truth in other, unconventional places. Former secret intelligence officer and emigrant Victor Suvorov, for example, revealed the “true” story of WWII, claiming that Stalin had planned to attack Germany first, but Hitler forestalled him. The pseudo-scientific works of Lev Gumilev, the son of Russia’s greatest poets Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev, likewise attracted wide attention, mostly by virtue of having been suppressed in the Soviet Union. Gumilev’s tragic life story, including several years in the Gulag, added weight and authority to his very dubious biological theory of the emergence of ethnicities.

Some scholars tried to carefully criticize this bizarre and hopelessly inaccurate theory, but the flood of specious publications only increased. A distinguished mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, a professor and member of the Academy of Sciences whose geometry is still highly respected, beat sales records with the publication of his “New Chronology,” which claimed that everything we know about history before the 18th century is a lie: there was no antiquity, no Middle Ages, and the history of these periods was the result of a great falsification plot. But next to the mass popularization of parapsychological experiments broadcast on central TV, the proliferation of “alternative” medicine, and the study of UFOs, even Fomenko’s ideas might have seemed quite innocent.

Amidst the ruins of the Soviet economy and science, abundant centers of everything “non-traditional” and esoteric flourished. Projects to produce energy from nowhere received generous state funding; books that revealed the ‘secret stories’ of the Russian state were published in 100,000 copy print-runs. Freedom, it seemed, exploded all standards of reasonableness and probability. The crisis of Russian science, which had led to the massive emigration of scientists and scholars unable to work and unwilling to live in misery, further contributed to the erosion of rationality at a national scale.

Those who stayed, meanwhile, tried to resist. Historians debunked every new myth that gathered public attention, and classified the whole genre of parahistorical literature as “folk-history” (a slightly pejorative term borrowed from English), which they defined, among other features, by the aggressive struggle to expose “falsification” and reveal “truth.” In 1999 the Moscow State University hosted a conference dedicated to the phenomenon of Fomenko’s New Chronology and “folk-history,” as well as strategies to combat its growing influence. A year earlier, the Academy of Sciences set up a “Commission for the struggle against pseudoscience and the falsification of scientific research.” For several years, this Commission’s main preoccupation was a campaign against the imposter-scientist Viktor Petrik, the ostensible inventor of a nano-technology for water filtration that sought state funding in the amount of $500 billion. The governing party “United Russia” and the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, backed up Petrik’s enterprise, even though scientists showed that the project was based on an array of improbable assumptions and errors. Ultimately the scientists won the battle, and Petrik—whom his supporters from the government compared to Nicolaus Copernicus and Giordano Bruno—had to retreat.

The Commission’s attack on pseudoscience joined a similar campaign against superstition and religion. Almost routinely, scientists spoke against the broadcasting of the popular “competition of psychics,” inviting a representative from the Russian Association of Illusionists to expose the tricks of parapsychological experiments. Some protested against the publication of horoscopes in major newspapers, as well as against attempts to introduce “non-traditional” methods of criminal investigation. Just as worrisome was the Russian Orthodox Church, whose spectacular rise to power soon led to attempts to introduce Orthodox Christian theology into public school curricula. Scientists sounded the alarm, arguing that the values of Darwinism were in peril [2] as the church attempted to propagate creationism. “Public consciousness is slowly succumbing to a dark Middle Ages,” the physicist Evgenii Aleksandrov, head of the anti-pseudo-science commission, explained. “It happens because of the negation of rational science, the advancement of religion, and the real bacchanalia of all kinds of obscurantism on television.”

Aleksandrov noted, however, that the Commission does not deal with the humanities, where “the criteria of truth are always blurred.” [3] It was the blurry space of humanistic inquiry that the Russian government began to exert more influence. In 2009 the government created “The Commission for the struggle against the falsification of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests.” Where the pseudo-science commission published semi-annual bulletins, the activities of the falsification commission were shrouded in silence and secrecy. The Russian intelligentsia rightly perceived it as an advancement of censorship, particularly after the commission targeted certain foreign actors—individual historians and foreign organizations alike—for allegedly trying to blacken the image of Russia and its geopolitical role. While popular science had succumbed to the unreason of superstition, humanistic enquiry threatened to become a tool of government propaganda.

In 2012 the government dismissed the commission without explanation, and the emphasis in the struggle against “falsification” shifted to education on the home front. In 2013 Vladimir Putin spoke in favor of a uniform school textbook that would replace the cacophony of regional and national histories and present a “well-balanced” version of Russia’s past. The Russian academic community was divided over the issue of the history textbook: some historians protested against such uniformity, while others agreed that the textbook would help re-introduce standards of historical knowledge and suppress pseudo-scientific history. The Russian government may appear an awkward partner, but many scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences and research universities prefer to tolerate such an alliance, seeing it as a chance to restore the expert authority of academic institutions.

The signs of the erosion of the expert authority of scholars and scientists are abundant, particularly in the government’s attempts to create a new canon of Russian history. Not only has the history of WWII been subjected to revision: the government even aimed to reimagine the history of medieval Rus’ (partly in order to disassociate it from Ukrainian Kiev and lay the foundation for a historical claim to Crimea). The recent exhibit “The Ryurikids,” blessed by Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, has tried to popularize this new Russian history. Professional historians routinely laugh at the absurdity of the errors, but they also wonder how and why they have lost the upper hand in the public representation of history. [4]

Perhaps they also notice, but do not discuss openly, that the rhetoric of the government’s history campaign strikingly resembles the vocabulary of “folk-history,” with its persistent desire to reveal some “truth” that has been concealed or perverted. As the prominent Russian historian Igor Danilevskii has noted, “folk-history” is inherently archaic in its urge to narrate events “as they actually happened” (referring to Leopold Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen”). The government, in its attempts to unmask falsifiers and reveal true facts, has aligned itself with this marginalized current, asserting the singularity of historical “truth” when historians prefer to speak only about veracity and evidence. With The Ryurikids and other historical chimera, the government imposes certainty in the interpretation of historical periods where, as historians insist, “there are only grades of hypothesis, from the almost certain to the plausible to the just conceivable.” [5]

As recently as June 2015, historians who have been battling on two fronts—against the political abuse of history by the state, and against its mythologization by “folk historians”—united to form the Free Historical Society with yet another (third!), now independent, Commission against the falsification of history. Russia’s leading intellectuals declared the society’s mission to promote the “multiplicity of histories”—a goal that one can only applaud. However, their first steps have been alarming: the society plans to begin its activity with a survey on the “degree of Russian society’s contamination by historical falsification, the level of its exposure [to such ideas] and resistibility to politicization of history” [6] (note the paternalistic rhetoric of contamination and disease). The society has also announced the preparation of an analytical report “What kind of history does the future Russia need?” Apparently, the title of the report evoked unease, because a disclaimer followed immediately: “This title notwithstanding, we are not going to manipulate history,” one of the society’s members clarified, adding, “The title is deliberately provocative, in order to attract attention.” [7]

The government’s campaign against falsification in history may thus appear as the distorted mirror image of the noble battle for reason against pseudo-science and the politicization of history. Russian intellectuals may not sympathize with the government’s attempts to reveal the “truth,” favoring the efforts of scientists and scholars to resist falsification. However, while ideologically opposed, the two campaigns overlap at several points. The champions of reason and the champions of the state ultimately labor to a similar end: the institutionalized authority to define the nature of reality.

At stake in Russia’s crisis of reason is nothing less than the power to mandate “truth.” To re-inculcate the values of Enlightenment reason, knowledge risks becoming an adjunct of state power. The battle for reason is, indeed, the battle for authority, for seats close to the government now taken by clerics, patriotic organizations, or, occasionally, someone like the notorious Petrik.

At the same time, it is a battle for people’s minds, respect, and attention—one that may come with profound costs. Although scholars’ desire to regain authority is understandable, the resultant trajectory, in the long run, appears quite dubious. Russian scholars well versed in Michel Foucault’s writings need no reminder about the many forms a disciplinary regime can take, autocratic as well as liberal. But if certain kinds of knowledge fail to win on the free market, scholars and scientists seem to believe that the value of reason must be restored by all available means—even through regulation and control over media and education. Should we care if, to avoid the slump into obscurantism, scientists take on the task of censorship? Out of this double bind there is no easy path: as long as the state privileges deception and social trust stagnates, truth will live on as illusion.

To quote this article :

Ekaterina Pravilova, « The Trouble with “Truth”. Russian Academia in the Age of (in)Certitude », Books and Ideas , 5 November 2015. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/The-Trouble-with-Truth.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

by Ekaterina Pravilova , 5 November 2015

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Footnotes

[1Aleksand Sergeev, Borba s lzhenaukoi: chasto zadavaemye voprosy. http://klnran.ru/2015/01/faq (webpage of the Commission for the struggle against pseudoscience and the falsification of scientific research). The word “scientific” in Russian, as in German, refers both to exact sciences and the humanities, indicating a way of thinking, rather than a specific area of activity.

[2See the Commission’s bulletin “V zashchitu nauki” (In defense of science) n.1,2 (2006, 2007). http://klnran.ru/bulletin/

[3Evgenii Aleksandrov, “Po chasti organizovannoi psevdonauki my operedili ves’ mir”, http://www.gazeta.ru/science/2014/07/17_a_6114589.shtml

[4The “public” in this rhetoric is often identified with non-professional audience - the gullible TV-viewers who easily fall the victims to state propaganda.

[5Simon Franklin, Jonathan Shepard, The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200, Routeledge, 1996, p.XXI.

[7Ibid.



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