May I Still Love Russia?

The short answer is “yes,” as long as I also add that I must fear her as well. So let me here count some of the ways and whys for that continuing love and fear.

My purpose in writing now about Russia is to help myself and possibly others remember the messy humanity of Russia and Russians at a time when our media wants us to see “them” only as demonized or demonic.

In service to this purpose, allow me a bit of a ramble that begins with my early education and ends with Pope Francis’ distinction between “a people” and “a nation.” Yet the constant background for these ramblings is Putin and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Feel free to delete or skip around. And, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in response to my writing and, even more generally, your thoughts about this war.


I read both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky during high school and this awakened in me a fairly deep emotional response to many things about Mother Russia. Their books had been urged upon me by a very wise teacher. I see now that there was so much, especially in War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, that I did not understand even as my interests were aroused my affections stirred.

Many events since then — travels and teaching and much more reading — have both increased my understanding of and my love for Russian culture, as well as my deep wariness of Tsars and Commissars and sacred myths about Russian nationalism.

I was dusting some shelves the other day and came across a basket made of thick twisted vine branches. I had bought it from the old peasant with unbelievably gnarled hands who sat on the sidewalk someplace in Moscow in 1993. I am soon to record other such incidents and accidents which still contribute to my admiration to so many things Russian. And my continuing fears.

I do, then, continue to love Russia, even as I pray for the end of Putin’s tyranny. Even as I pray for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, though it will mean serious defeat for many Ukrainians and a subsequent white-washing of Russian war crimes. And probably a renewed cold war.

***

Here are some of the incidents and accidents leading to both the love and the fear — in no particular order.

My son did a “senior year abroad” high school exchange year in Moscow in 1993/4. It was a very tough year for him and for Moscow. He witnessed the circle of tanks surrounding Russia’s White House (Parliament) where soldiers loyal to the old communism had attempted a coup and where they were then surrounded (and eventually ousted) by the army of the new regime. He made close friends with other study-abroad students who formed a sort of survivors’ group to deal not only with the harsh Moscow winter, but also with the breakdown of the schools where they were supposed to be students, and with the more general socio-economic breakdowns evident in long lines, widespread alcoholism, much petty theft, and the emergence of the mafias as the new form of party membership. We visited him there in warmer times at the end of his exchange year (more below), yet the best hotel he could find for us was mafia-run.

St. Petersburg (and its environs) is, I seem to remember, the primary setting for much of Tolstoy’s great fiction and even more for Dostoevsky’s intricate criminal, political, psychiatric, and religious novels. When we visited our son at the end of his year, we travelled with him to St. Petersburg where he and his friends were going to party through the night during the city’s “White Nights Festival.” Even though we stayed in a somewhat rundown and noisy student hostel, I have fond memories of standing before the large bust of Dostoevsky enshrined over his gravesite, and later visiting the small home/office where he wrote most of his later novels. I’ve since not only studied Dostoevsky’s great novels in new translations, but read some major studies of his life and fiction – including one Russian language (with subtitles) film version of his life available on Netflix which I highly recommend – titled simply, if I remember, Dostoevsky.

The second time my wife and I visited St. Petersberg, some 20 years later, we were living high on the hog as part of a prize won at some fundraiser. We stayed at one of the best hotels in downtown, on one of the city’s many elegant squares. We admired Catherine’s great Hermitage museums, and sipped vodka at a small canal-side venue appropriately named “The Idiot” (after Dostoevsky’s novel). We were blessed to celebrate our Western Easter at an Orthodox “Palm Sunday” service in a restored cathedrals (previously used as a museum of atheism!). We were surprised to see so many young professional people coming to church, lighting candles before different icons, attending to the beautiful acapella polyphony which accompanied the richly clothed priests and deacons who paraded, swinging bowls of smoking incense, around iconostasis and altar. Surprised because during our first trip to Russia the only faithful in the few dark but open churches were the old babushkas. Surprised too that on this Palm Sunday it was those babushkas who sat at the Cathedral entrances selling not palm but pussy willow branches – the earliest sign of spring that far north.

Yet whenever I think of St. Petersburg, I cannot but remember that Peter the Great who built his great city to connect Russia and Europe. He was a man of great and passionate vision who did not hesitate to use the labor and the lives of so many tens-of-thousands of slaves and peasants to raise his much-canalled city from the site’s original (and in summer malarial) swamplands. Of course, he was but one of many Tsars (a predecessor even named Ivan the Terrible) who oppressed and murdered to achieve or restore their imperial power. Which eventually led to the great Russian Revolution’s long trail of bloodshed ended only by the terrible new Tsars: first Lenin, then especially Stalin, then a series of successors, and now Putin.

For some reason I have long been enchanted by Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto, especially with its dramatic opening section. I also love what little I know of Tchaikovsky’s other creations – concertos, ballets, symphonies. In Moscow we went to a ballet in one hall that was part of the vast Kremlin complex. It may have been Tshaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Yet the Swan Lake performance could have been later in St. Petersburg where we attended both a classical Russian orchestra concert and a ballet at the famed Mariinsky Ballet. I seem also to remember attending choral performances of Orthodox chant and polyphony at several Cathedrals, in addition to the liturgical “performance” at that Palm Sunday mass. And then an evening of folk music and dance at a museum in St. Petersburg.

There is a wonderful scene in the BBC’s 1972 version of War and Peace (still the best) where young Natasha performs such a traditional peasant dance. Which brings back memories of our first visit to St. Petersberg during the White Nights Festival where song and dance continue to express the exuberant festivity of Russian culture.

In addition to the literary greats, I’ve also enjoyed other serious writings by and about Russia. One is a fictional sketch, epoch by epoch, of the span of Russian history named Russka (2005) by the British novelist Edward Rutherfurd. Then there’s Lenin’s Tomb (1993) by David Remnick, with its detailed account of the decline and fall of the Soviet Empire. And I have also dipped into books about the Russian Revolution as well as biographies of Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev, and even Yeltsin. And the immensely important writings of Nobel Prize winner, novelist and historian and exiled mystic, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – most remembered for his multi-volume exposé of The Gulag Archipelago.

Solzhenitsyn’s account reminds me again of Dostoevsky – who had himself suffered and written about his years in a former era’s gulag. Dostoevsky remains for me one of the few great Christian thinkers of our epoch. Which then raises the crucial question of whether his literary achievements, and those of others like Solzhenitsyn, might still nourish (“from under the rubble” as Solzhenitsyn once put it) the re-emergence of a great Orthodox Russian culture now living fruitfully together with Russian Muslims and Jews and Western Christians. (Of course, I ask the same question about so-called American Christian culture, especially in view of the increasingly violent emergence of an intolerant Christian nationalism.)

Russia has been living with Christianity, with brutal tyranny and occasional enlightened leadership, with economic and social unrest, with mystics and artists – living through all this far longer than we in these United States. There is in that history both much beauty and much misery. Only God might weigh the balance. I study the misery in some (probably vain) hope of avoiding it in the future, in Russia but even more here at home. Yet I choose above all to love the beauty and aspiration. To love the literary and musical greats. To draw, as Dorothy Day regularly did, from the fonts of their suffering and wisdom and joy.

In Basel Switzerland, while pursuing my doctoral research, I was gifted by the presence of a Czech theologian, Jan Milíč Lochman. (He had a position in Basel because he had been exiled from his homeland by the Soviet takeover. in 1968.) He hosted an occasional English-language seminar at one of the local taverns on Christian/Marxist dialogue. I read and still have several of his books (in English translation) on that topic — a hot topic. Something Pope Francis has been trying to continue in his outreach to Russia before and since the start of the present war on Ukraine.

***

Just as a final reminder, I repeat my purpose in rehearsing these many memories in this writing. It is far better to light one candle than curse the darkness. In this case, better to seek a fuller and thus more human image of Russia and its people than to be lost in the demonic and demonizing images produced by the present fog of war.

***

I end, as promised, with Pope Francis crucial distinction (in the third part of his great 2020 book Let Us Dream) between a nation-state and a people. Francis is convinced that we cannot respond to our many very real crises if we do not recover (throughout the nations and states of the world) a sense of being a people — with shared roots across many differences, and a shared sense of being God’s people or, much better said, a people who know at some level that they have been “chosen” by God. (The Hebrew-Jewish people are for Francis the model for such a covenantal sense of being a people, but a model that he finds replicated in its own way at the origin of every people.)

Key for Francis is that we – Russians and Germans, Americans North and South – we have all been such “peoples” in our origins and still are in many ways. We have also experienced episodes when that sense of being a people has been reduced to tyrannical nationalism. Yet Francis is especially concerned that today the sense of being a people (locally and globally) has been threatened and weakened by the global economic forces which increasingly structure daily life. Thus he challenges all of us to find ways, locally and nationally and internationally, of recovering and developing the sense of being a people and thence of being part of a global community of peoples.

What we see today in Russia is a terrible abuse of this notion of Russia as a sacred and bonded people. But analogous reductions of are happening with many other forms of “nationalism” or “populism” across the globe and in our country.

It is my hope that the fundamentals of Dostoevsky’s vision for Russia — and yes, I know, he was a terrible antisemite and that aspects of his nationalism have laid the ground for Putin’s — will again emerge in redemptive (and non-semitic and non-nationalistic) ways. That a traditional and very Christian Russian populism will emerge once again “from under the rubble” as the most recent form of Russian tyranny begins its brutalizing and long demise.

I end with the reminder that “we” are not that different – whomever the reader’s “we” happens to be. Our various versions of being a special people – whatever it’s progressive or conservative forms – will inevitably have to be purified by suffering before they recover some of the original sense of being a people.

One thought on “May I Still Love Russia?

  1. John, Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences in Russia and your thoughts about the country and people. I am glad you also shared Pope Frances distinction between a “people” and a “nation”. Your comments and experiences help to emphasize the commonality of people of all nations. It helps to recognize that people of other nations especially nations that engage in conflict are very much like ourselves and probably wish for peace even more than we do.

    Like

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