My Post-Graduate Courses, or How I failed to become a Ph.D.


My struggle for post-graduate courses was long and painful. I failed to make it at the university proper, so I had to try my luck at other higher education institutions. Then an opportunity arose at the Moscow Institute of Finance’s Chair of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy. Nearly everything was going smoothly there, but as the only stumbling block came my not being a party member (the peripheral institutions strived to outbid each other in their loyalty to the country’s leadership, which implied a 100% party membership at their “ideological” units). I activated all my connections. Such influential Soviet philosopher as Grigori Vodolazov put in a word for me. But all was in vain.

At last, an audience was arranged for me with the institute’s rector Vladimir Shcherbakov. He was one of the pillars of the Soviet nomenclatura and a friend of the country’s chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov. Surely, I did not expect from this audience anything good, so I came to it feeling the tranquility of the doomed. Instructing me in the reception area was the most charming Alla Gryaznova (then she was the head of studies, now she is the president of the University of Finance at the Russian government). She explained to me how to speak to Shcherbakov, that is, politely, but distinctly and with confidence. Somewhat encouraged by her compassion, I entered the rector’s room.

Actually, I did not happen to say anything. The rector’s room was spacious, but dark. From the table standing in the distance, there rose a stooped elderly man of short stature. One could gather from his appearance that he did not get used to objections and even did not need to listen to anyone. He came up to me and, without looking at me, offered me his hand and said: “I admit you.”

So, I was a post-graduate student now. Outwardly, It manifested itself in the fact that I could use a teachers’ cloak-room, by which I would every time bewilder its attendants, who seemed to reproach me for my youth. Essentially, however, I had to address the chair’s upcoming meeting with my thesis proposal. At that moment, I became keen on existentialism. First of all, I wanted to get a deeper insight into the teaching of this trend’s founder, Martin Heidegger. Hence, to some extent, writing a thesis represented for me, as academician Artsimovich put it, “a way of satisfying personal curiosity at the government’s expense.” Helping to relate my personal interest to the “topical issues of ideological struggle at the present stage” was my scientific advisor, head of the Сhair of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, Yervand Arutyunovich Simonyan.

This “fighter of the ideological front” was reputed as an expert in the study of the unity of theory and practice in Marxist philosophy. He was an artful courtier at that, which, however, did not overshadow his superb human qualities. Despite his considerable age (he had turned 75 by then), he was always smart and sharp-dressed. He was an excellent orator and could present boring, mandatory subjects from an unexpected perspective, so student would listen to him open-mouthed. “Treat me like I’m your grandpa”, – he said to me, when we met. However, he would invariably address me by first name and patronymic, and by the respectful pronoun “vy.” He had been a fighter pilot during the war and rammed enemy planes, but he never told me about his feats of arms. At heart, he was decidedly a civilian. Should I respond to his call with the military “I’m” he would always correct me, saying: “Alexei Yefimovich, we’ve got no caserne here.”

On Yervand Arutyunovich’s advice, my thesis theme was formulated as “Martin Heidegger’s ”atheistic” existentialism in the service of religion.” Such a wording was meant to protect us safely against any attacks from the “right.” The more was I surprised, when at the chair meeting, it was all of a sudden attacked from the “left.” Appearing as my opponent was one of the chair’s professors, Igor Verkhovsky. He asked: “Alexei Yefimovich doesn’t it seem to you that the title you are suggesting sounds somewhat Chekist – “in the service” and all that? Yervand Arutyunovich gesticulated annoyedly at him: “Igor, that’s the way it should be, you know.”  Prof. Verkhovsky blushed and smiled with satisfaction. I was followed by another candidate, who closed his address with an unusual appeal: “I ask you to treat my work with maximum strictness.” Here, Prof. Verkhovsky was not at a loss again: “Do you mean “shoot”? All those present burst out laughing. “Mavericks have infiltrated this place, too,” – I thought to myself. Also later on, Igor would often amuse us with his freedom-loving jokes, thereby easing the tense ideological atmosphere that prevailed at the chair.

Certainly, my thesis theme was approved, and I unreservedly got down to grasping the mysteries of the Heideggerian teaching. To read it in the original, I had to refresh my German. However, I drew the bulk of the information from English-language sources. Heidegger’s teaching was gradually opening up before me in all its scale and originality. Now, I could already tell the difference between the early- and late-period Heidegger.  Proceeding from the Marxist method of criticism, all philosophy divides into “materialism” and “idealism,” and the latter is a refined form of religion (that is, a “false world view,” used by the exploiting social classes to retain their political domination). However, the more I read Heidegger and other existentialist philosophers, the more became I convinced that philosophical existentialism represented not idealism, but a distinctively original trend in philosophy. For “Existence” is not “Idea,” neither is it “Matter,” but a different Arche, Which cannot be laid on the Procrustean bed of Marxist philosophy. One should not think that issues tormenting Man in His youth, will solve themselves in His “adult” life. Of course, those issues become deadened “in the forgetfulness of the day,” but, effectively, they are left unsolved and only sometimes become acute again “in the face of death.”

In the meantime, our Hegelian study circle worked in full swing (see my essay about the University). We would gather approximately twice a week at the home of one of the circle participants or at someone of our acquaintances’. Each time, some of us would give a talk on a theme related to the problems under study, after which a discussion would arise. Sometimes, snacks and drinks would be served, and even home concerts would be staged. In particular, the unforgettable Alla Binder would recite her poems and sing her songs to the guitar. Nevertheless, the understanding of the Hegelian dialectics did not come easy to us, and every time, we would slip into some of its one-sided interpretations. Even I, having received the core education, could not lead the way for my brethren, who were amateurs in philosophy. I, too, had long felt shaky in the Hegelian dialectics, until I rethought it under the aspect of a Developing God.

I was a promising young specialist, nearly a candidate of sciences. I enjoyed respect from my colleagues and acquaintances. Sometimes, it even seemed to me that I served as a certain Model for them. Still, in their view, I was an underachieving Model, so my well-wishers would always tend to “retouch” me. From time to time, I could hear “You need to be dressed,” or “You need to shave off your moustache.” Or, a comprehensive triune task would be set to me at once: “marry, join the party, and defend a thesis.” That was some impersonal, socially necessary Model, Which failed to take account of the most important thing, that is, my selfhood. Nevertheless, I honestly tried to fulfill all the wishes. I would shave off my moustache. I tried to marry, and here I had certain possibilities (which, however, never turned into “necessity”). As for a thesis, I was writing it, as it is. I even tried to join the party and burdened myself with various kinds of social work (I represented the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments, was responsible for working with foreign students, etc.). But when I came to the institute’s party committee, they said that joining the party was carried out by quotas, and the quota for the institute was already full. “You better go to some factory and work there for a while, because the quotas there are bigger,” – they suggested. Of course, I did not go to a factory – such a solution seemed to me a bit too exotic. Generally speaking, this entire quota system seemed to me unfair and humiliating (on the other hand, those were not shooting quotas, after all, but merely party joining ones).

Eventually, I was entrusted to teach. I delivered lectured, conducted seminars, and graded examinations. At the exams, the most hopeless students would often be abandoned to me, so that I would pull them up to the mark “three” or even “four.” In such cases, I would employ the method of Socrates, the renowned mayeutica, helping the student to “give birth” to the knowledge already contained in him. And every time, I would read joyous amazement in his eyes: “Did I really know all that?”

Yet, my success did not come easy to me. Before too long, I developed a neurological disorder, which the doctors would specify as “nervous exhaustion,” and which seriously hindered my work as a teacher. I had earlier heard that lecturing, by its energy consumption, would be compared to the hammerer’s work, but I had been inclined to believe it to be just a “figure of speech.” Now, I came to know it as a blunt fact. After delivering only one lecture I felt absolutely prostrated, whereas I had sometimes to deliver another couple of lectures in a row. Generally speaking, I began to think about the teaching job’s unsuitability for me (that is, my unsuitability for it, to put it more correctly).

At about that time, differences arose between me and my scientific advisor. “You’re a good interpreter of Heidegger, – said he to me, – but, at least, one chapter in your thesis has to be devoted to Marx.” I, however, despite my great respect for Marx, could never make heads or tails of what Marx had to do with Heidegger. I felt that communist ideology had fulfilled its historical mission, and something different was nearing to take its place, which existentialist philosophers actually heralded (and of which I could hardly communicate in my thesis). On the other hand, it was better to hear this criticism coming out of my scientific advisor’s mouth, than from some investigator on Lubyanka. In the end, my thesis was never defended, and, thereby, the continuation of my (official) scientific career was given up for lost.

An English translator vacancy soon cropped up at one of the research institutes affiliated with the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences. In short order, I refreshed my knowledge of English (earlier, during my university studies, I had attended a researcher-translator course). So, my career turned at once “20 compass points sideways.” From a college professor and nearly candidate of philosophical sciences, I transformed into a humble worker at the Institute of Medical Genetics’ international relations department with the monthly wage of 110 rubles. And that seemed to be forever…


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