Sergei Mareev: champion of Ilyenkov and thinker in his own right

Sergei Mareev

I first met Sergei Nikolaivich Mareev, who has died at the age of 78, on a trip to Moscow in the aftermath of Yeltsin’s dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.  It was the period of “shock therapy” during which Russia’s GDP fell by 50%. The economy was in chaos and people’s lives were being turned upside down. Demonstrators were being killed by the paramilitary riot police OMON outside the state television centre at Ostankino.

It was in these extreme conditions that two UK Marxists travelled to Moscow, thanks to the unstinting support of a socialist opponent of Stalinism, the political economist Anatoly Pavlovich Butenko. Through Butenko’s network of friends and colleagues we were introduced to Alexander Frolov, a political journalist, follower of Mikhail Lifshitz and Ilyenkov enthusiast. It was at Frolov’s home near Sokol station that on 20 June Paul Feldman and I first met Sergei Mareev.

Over a decade later I renewed my acquaintance, this time at the Spinoza in Soviet Thought symposium organised by the distinguished Ilyenkov scholar Vesa Oittinen in Helsinki.

Sergei Nikolaivich Mareev was born in Moscow on 2 May 1941. Less than two months later Hitler’s forces invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Some 4.5 million troops and 3,500 tanks advanced 200 miles into the Soviet border and killed over 600,000 Red Army soldiers.

He was 12 years old when Stalin died. He experienced at first hand the years of the famous Khrushchev thaw (оттепель) when the crimes of Stalinism were exposed and hopes for a democratic, truly Soviet future flourished.

Severomorsk in Murmansk is the main administrative base of the
Russian Northern Fleet

He grew up with his grandparents in a village near Moscow. His mother had to work and in the wartime there was more food to be found in the countryside than in the capital. It was the aftermath of a war which took a huge toll on the lives of Soviet citizens. After leaving school in Moscow, Sergei worked in a factory, going on to do his military service as a sailor on a ship of the Northern Fleet. His time in the armed forces was a formative experience.

After completing his military service, Sergei studied at the Faculty of Philosophy in Moscow State University (MGU) graduating in 1969. Sergei wrote his final paper at the Department of Logic under the leadership of Evgeny Vaishvillo. But the attitude to Ilyenkov there was negative. And it made Sergei’s position in this team difficult. Ilyenkov and his friend Valentin Korovikov had been expelled from the Faculty of Philosophy in 1955 for their “too Hegelian” version of Marxism.

Interest in the dialectical method led Sergei to Ilyenkov’s groundbreaking Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital, which was first published in 1960.  Looking back, he compared his feelings to Nietzsche’s reaction to Schopenhauer: “This book seemed somehow as if it was extracted from my soul”.

Evald Ilyenkov with Sergei Mareev

It was on Ilyenkov’s recommendation that in 1972 he began work at the USSR Institute of the Philosophy of Sciences in the field of epistemology under the auspices of Vladislav Lektorsky.  Sergei went on to champion the work of Ilyenkov, as well as Lev Vygotsky. As Andrey Maidansky has noted, he was “the first Russian philosopher to identify the line of intellectual continuity between Lukács, Vygotsky and Ilyenkov”. After Ilyenkov died tragically in 1979, Sergei, G Lobastov and other followers began to hold the annual Ilyenkov Readings, which continue to this day.

In 1981 he met fellow philosophy scholar Elena Dranitskaya at the Fourth All-Union School of Young Scientists held in Dombai, in the Caucasus mountains. She was a post-graduate student at Rostov-on-Don university in south east Russia. They were to marry in 1985.

He defended his doctoral thesis on The Dialectics of the Historical and the Logical and Concrete Historicism in Marx in Rostov-on-Don in 1986. Whereas in Moscow, attitudes to Ilyenkov and his supporters remained sceptical, in Rostov the philosophy faculty was most sympathetic, as A.V. Potyomkin, Alexei Shchitov and Ilyenkov’s follower Alexey Novokhatko worked there.

In June 1992 at Frolov’s flat, Sergei presented us with a photocopy of his moving profile of Ilyenkov and his conflict with the authorities which had appeared in the Journal of Moscow State University in 1990. We commissioned a translation for our magazine Socialist FutureA Philosopher Under Suspicion was possibly the first article about Ilyenkov to appear on the Internet.

In 1994 he published Meeting E. Ilyenkov, the Philosopher, his first book about his teacher. In 2015 his essay on Abstract and Concrete Understanding of Activity: Activity and Labour in Soviet Philosophy appeared in English in The Practical Essence of Man. Sergei’s  Ilyenkov: Dedicate one’s life to philosophy appeared in 2015. Others followed, though sadly so far none have been translated into English.

Thanks to Sergei Mareev’s dedicated work as well that of other Ilyenkov scholars it’s now possible to speak of an “Ilyenkov school”. Mareev’s philosophical views as a follower of Ilyenkov merit further study.

On behalf of the IFI I wish to pay tribute to a thinker, teacher and writer, who helped rescue Ilyenkov from the blank spots of history and continued to develop materialist dialectics for half a century.

Sergei Nikolaivich Mareev, born 2 May 1941 died 12 September 2019.

Corinna Lotz
31 October 2019

Sincere thanks to Elena Mareeva and Kyrill Potapov for vital information and help with this tribute.

See also this article by Andrey Maidansky, kindly translated by Alla Potapova, which provides a full account of his contribution to Marxist, Soviet and Russian philosophy.

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