The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Grigory Pomeranz and the Courage of Nonconformity

One hundred years after the birth of Grigory Pomeranz (1918-2013), Russian philosopher and cultural theorist, we recall his long life and influential work. He was a Soviet dissident and the author of numerous articles and books, which, mostly circulated in samizdat, made a powerful impact on the liberal intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s.

Pomeranz was born on March 13, 1918 in a Jewish family in Vilnius, a Russian city occupied at the time by the Germans and now the capital of independent Lithuania.  At the age of seven he moved with his family to Moscow, where he received a degree in Russian philology. His thesis on Dostoyevsky was condemned as "anti-Marxist," and he was not allowed to continue post-graduate studies, so he went to teach at the Tula Pedagogical Institute in 1940.

At the break of World War Two, Pomeranz volunteered to the military, and was sent to the front as infantryman. He was wounded in the leg, but returned to the battle and remained in uniform until the end of the war. Pomeranz was awarded the Order of the Red Star for bravery.

In 1946, he was expelled from the Communist Party for "anti-Party statements" and three years later arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. He wasn't released until Stalin's death and the Khrushchev Thaw. He worked as a village school teacher from 1953 to 1956, and then as a bibliographer at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In 1959, Pomeranz began with his dissident activities. He led semi-secret seminars on philosophical, historical, political and economic issues. In December 1965, Pomeranz gave a lecture at the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow denouncing Stalinism, and his words became a sensation. In 1968, he signed a petitions in support of the participants of the Red Square demonstration. He published his works in samizdat and western émigré magazines. In 1985, KGB agents confiscated his literary archive.

Andrei Sakharov, one of the most celebrated Soviet dissidents, heard Pomeranz speak for the first time in 1970, and "was astounded by his erudition, his broad perspective, his sardonic humor, and his academic approach... Pomerantz is a man of rare independence, integrity and intensity who has not let material poverty cramp his rich, if underrated, contribution to our intellectual life." Pomeranz was among the first Russian disciples of cultural and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

Pomeranz died five years ago at the age of 95 in Moscow. One of his most quoted statements reflects his views on the nature of social debate: "The devil is born from an angel spitting in rage… People and systems crumble to dust, but the spirit of hate, bred by the champions of good, is immortal and thus evil on Earth knows no end. In the debates of the 1970s I stubbornly went against all my instincts and impulses to spit in rage, and in this struggle, I found another truth – the manner of the debate is more important that the object of the debate. Objects come and go, while manners form the building blocks of civilizations."

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