When you arrived at the Institute, you probably had a concrete idea or plan of what you would like to achieve during your stay. Were you able to pursue these plans? Did there emerge new, unforeseen directions?
When I arrived in Budapest, my plan was to finish a couple of articles and to start working on one of the crucial chapters from my book-in-progress, Tolstoy’s Enlightenment: Religion, Philosophy, and Art, 1852-1910. This chapter focuses on Tolstoy’s Spinoza-inspired critique of dogmatic Orthodox theology. By the time I came to the IAS, I had already done substantial research towards this chapter. However, my conversations with the fellows who specialize in the history of Christianity (Scott Kenworthy, Mariana Bodnaruk, Peter Martens) inspired me to do more reading on the history of Orthodoxy, on the relations between Church and State in Imperial Russia, and on Russian sectarianism. These new materials greatly enriched my chapter, which I finished in April.
More generally speaking, who or what influenced your work and research path the most?
I was formed as a scholar by the Comparative Literature department at Yale, a unique program created by the Czech philologist René Wellek with the help of Erich Auerbach, who was the most reputable German-born Romance philologist of his generation, and several other European refugees who came to the US during World War II, including philosopher Ernst Cassirer. My teachers at Yale, including my doctoral advisers Michael Holquist and Peter Brooks, were either direct students or self-conscious legatees of these scholars, and they always encouraged interdisciplinary work that spanned the divides between literary criticism, intellectual history, and philosophy. When I started to work on my dissertation on the nineteenth-century British, French and Russian novels of education, I also discovered and became influenced by the work of such contemporary scholars as Franco Moretti and Thomas Pavel. Later, while teaching at the University of Chicago, I had the good fortune to meet and work closely with Thomas Pavel, whose boundless erudition and intellectual generosity greatly stimulated my work on my first book, For Humanity’s Sake: The Bildungsroman in Russian Culture. At Chicago, I also interacted with colleagues from the Committee on Social Thought and Philosophy. I was particularly fortunate to meet Michael Forster, who was then working on his groundbreaking book Herder’s Philosophy. Michael’s work helped me deepen my understanding of Herder’s role as the key theorist of the German conception of Bildung, which had a formative influence on many nineteenth-century Russian thinkers and writers, including both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
There were also biographical reasons for my interest in the Romantic topic of “individuality.” In the Soviet Union, where I was born and spent most of my childhood, the notion of individualism had pejorative connotations. The educational system tried to inculcate in young people a sense of collectivism and social conformism. Once glasnost’ was announced, however, many people rebelled against the Soviet ideological strictures either by embracing the libertarian ideology or by turning to religion. I was never tempted to follow these paths. As a teenager, I discovered the works of Mikhail Bakhtin and Lydia Ginzburg -- the thinkers who bravely resisted Soviet dogmatism and produced cutting-edge scholarship even behind the iron curtain. In their works, I found philosophically sophisticated and existentially poignant critiques of “bourgeois” individualism that awakened my critical consciousness and inspired my own quest for authentic self-expression and social responsibility.
To which debates or schools of thought do you see your research contributing?
Over the years, I have published in journals and books and cooperated with colleagues from several fields, including Russian and comparative literature, philosophy (in particular, hermeneutics and philosophy of culture), and history. My current project situates Tolstoy within the context of European intellectual history and argues that Tolstoy’s fiction was inseparable from his philosophical and religious quests. Like J.W. Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in Germany, S.T. Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle in Britain, or Benjamin Constant and Victor Hugo in France, Tolstoy had an ambitious vision of cultural and social progress in which art and artists played a crucial part. A tireless student and experimenter, Tolstoy deliberately fused different literary and philosophical genres producing works that often perplexed contemporary critics but were much appreciated by his modernist and even postmodernist heirs. I hope that my work contributes not only to the narrow area of Tolstoy studies and to literary history but also to intellectual history and even to the history of philosophy, especially to the current debate on popular philosophy. In particular, I hope that my book contributes to the ongoing debates on various competing Enlightenment traditions and their respective legacies.
How do you see your field of research today? How is it evolving?
Interdisciplinary research on philosophy and literature has a long and distinguished tradition in Germany, where it dates back to the work of early Romantics (especially Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel). Another important European tradition that saw literature and philosophy as mutually illuminating discourses is French existentialism. Both of these schools of thought are receiving a lot of attention today, and both of them are relevant for my work. In the Anglophone world, one of the most influential thinkers whose work bridges the gap between philosophy and literature and who has been another major inspiration for me is Martha Nussbaum. I think that today both philosophers and literary humanists are facing similar challenges caused by the rise of AI and various posthumanist ideologies. Therefore, a closer cooperation between these fields in the future seems inevitable.
Speaking specifically about Tolstoy scholarship, the current trend is to look at him from a more global perspective as a moralist and social-religious reformer who was equally opposed to the organic nationalism of the Slavophiles and other belated Romantics and to the imperialist trajectories of contemporary Western powers. Starting with his critique of the dogmatic Orthodox theology in the 1880s, late Tolstoy produced a series of writings that offered an alternative vision of enlightened modernity – a vision that was suppressed by the Bolsheviks when they seized power in 1917. Only in the last couple of decades, Tolstoy’s sociopolitical ideas and their place in his oeuvre have become the subject of systematic studies by Russian and Western scholars. I think this trend will continue.
Since the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Russian studies in the West have been undergoing a crisis. There is a lot of pressure to reevaluate the canonical figures and to “decolonize” the literature of the former Russian Empire by shifting scholarly attention from the center to the peripheries. Such a reevaluation should not be done in haste.
Among Russian classics, Tolstoy, in particular, is a very complex and multifarious author whose Weltanschauung evolved over the course of his career. And while some contemporary readers may be troubled by the glorification of the Russian national character in works like the Sebastopol Sketches and War and Peace, one can hardly find a more powerful indictment of Russian imperialism and colonialism than Hadji Murat. But ultimately, I think that Tolstoy is a figure who transcends his immediate historical background, one whose works and ideas will be relevant long after Russia ceases to exist in its present political shape.
How is life after IAS CEU Budapest (if we may ask)?
My stay in Budapest, a beautiful and culturally vibrant city, and especially the numerous discussions I had there with other fellows gave me a new boost of energy and inspiration to continue my work on Tolstoy’s Enlightenment. Since my return to Bonn, I have been working on a new chapter focused on Tolstoy’s expressive theory of art as presented in What is Art. I hope to complete this chapter over the summer and finish the full draft of my manuscript by the end of next academic year.
If there were one book or film, you could recommend to the reader, what would be that and why?
Although there are many wonderful literary works that I regularly reread and teach, it would be logical for me to recommend a work by Tolstoy. If one were to choose a single work, one can not go wrong with choosing Anna Karenina - a book that presents not merely an encyclopedia of nineteenth-century Russian life but an encyclopedia of human experience tout court. Passion and motherly love, ambition and perpetual dissatisfaction with oneself, egoism and a quest for moral perfection, the joy of existence and the mystery of death – by recognizing something of ourselves in all of Tolstoy’s characters and co-experiencing their moral and spiritual struggles, we grow more self-aware and, hopefully, a tad more humane.