Reading Russian Philosophy in the Age of Putin

Visual Thought & The Reception of Tolstoy

This event is part of the series “Reading Russian Philosophy in the Age of Putin,” which started in January 2023. The first two speakers, Ivan Foletti and Mischa Gabowitsch, addressed the topic through the perspective of “visual thought". In the ensuing lecture, Tatyana Gershkovich presented her findings regarding the question of what Tolstoy meant during the Russian revolution and today. Her talk considers the uses and misuses of Tolstoy.


04:00 - 05:30 PM

Reading Russian Philosophy in the Age of Putin: Visual Thought
Joint Lecture with Ivan Foletti and Mischa Gabowitsch

From Myth to Fake: Byzantium and Art in Russia from Nicholas I to Putin

Russian imperialism has been a much-discussed notion in the last twelve months, but one that is also part of the cultural history of the states that have been in the territory of present-day Russia for centuries. The purpose of this talk was to demonstrate how imperialist ambitions have been systematically promoted over the last two centuries through the imaginary medieval and Byzantine past. Primarily, elements of material and visual culture will be presented, as well as texts that demonstrate how from Nicholas I to Alexander III and from Stalin to Putin, the country’s elites have instrumentalized its past to build futures increasingly distant from reality. 

Ivan Foletti is a professor of art history and Head of the Centre for Early Medieval Studies at the University of Brno.

Icons of Immortality, Pictures of Patriotism: Images of War Memorials in 450 Soviet and Post-Soviet Textbooks

Unsurprisingly, textbook analysis has traditionally meant an analysis of texts. Yet, visual elements are no less important, especially for constructing an affective relationship with history and its traces in the present. Mischa Gabowitsch’s talk was based on a bibliographical data set of over 2,600 history textbooks from the post-1945 Soviet Union and eleven out of its fifteen successor states. Among these, it analyzed the illustrations used in 450 books that cover the period of the Second World War. Arguing against a reduction of history-related visuals to a “narrative,” it seeked to contribute to analyzing the visual grammar of history textbooks. In doing so, it looked specifically at how such textbooks depict war memorials. Decontextualized presentations of memorials located outside the former Soviet Union turn them into timeless icons experienced via familiarity-as-recognition; memorials shown with surrounding landscapes or on maps turn them into intimately known markers of a Sovietized local identity.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mode of visual presentation of war memorials in textbooks has greatly diverged between successor states. Whereas Soviet memorials are no longer shown at all in textbooks in, e.g., Estonia, in Russia, pictures of a number of iconic monuments have been turned into the central visuals embodying twentieth-century world history, turning the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany into a pivotal event of almost transcendental significance.

Mischa Gabowitsch is a historian and sociologist currently working on an FWF-funded research project and is a Fellow at the IWM.

06:00 - 07:15 PM

What Tolstoy Meant During the Russian Revolution and Today
Lecture by Tatyana Gershkovich

The Russo-Ukrainian War has compelled a reckoning with the legacy of Russian Imperialism. In navigating these debates, there are lessons to be learned from a similar reckoning a hundred years ago, after the Revolution of 1917. This lecture focused specifically on the dispute between the Soviets and the Russophone emigres in Europe over the legacy of Leo Tolstoy. How did readers in Russia and abroad read, reevaluate, and lay claim to Tolstoy? Where did they succeed in bending Tolstoy’s texts to their ideological purposes, and where did they fail? By examining this history, we address a question that once again has come urgently to the fore: Are authors responsible for the afterlife of their works?

Tatyana Gershkovich is William S. Dietrich Associate Professor of Russian Studies at the Carnegie Mellon University.

The afternoon was moderated by Clemena Antonova, Research Director at the IWM - The World in Pieces.

A recording of the event is available below.