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The Paradoxes of Russian Cultural Development (2)

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Charlie W. Grease
Charlie W. Grease
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By Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Striking and revealing in the same 16th century was the tragic fate of Maxim Grek – he came to Russia, by official invitation, for creative criticism of Russian culture. In Moscow, on the part of the clergy, he met with an almost natural resistance and enmity, and practically his entire life there passed in spiritual shackles.[9] History has also noted the passivity of a huge part of the population in the critical years of the Troubled Time, the literal “self-removal” of this part of the “people” from responsibility for the national destiny.

“The people are speechless” – this concluding remark in Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov” refers not only to the fact that the people of those years were unable to break their silence, but also to the reluctance to break it.[10] The fate of Russia and its culture has almost always been decided at the top, by a bunch of people – convinced leaders and activists, whose efforts have often met not so much with enmity as with the indifference of the underprivileged class. In which the sympathies of the masses have often turned out to be on the side not of the creators and the reformers, but of the deniers, the skeptics and a kind of historical and cultural minimalists. For example, the leaders of the schism of the 17th century, led by Archpope Avakum, were not dark or ignorant people – they belonged to the color of Moscow society, to the bearers of its self-awareness. Their resistance, however, was not directed at the excesses of the Nikon reform. they rejected this very reform. “What is laid next to us remains the same forever” – this phrase was not an expression of traditionalism and conservatism, but a denial of history itself – of historical action.[11]

Thus, religious maximalism often turns into historical and cultural minimalism. And we must admit that the bearer of Russian culture – the church – in the pre-Petrovian society was also the main factor for cultural minimalism, but it did not disappear even after the Petrine revolution, which almost forcibly imposed on Russia the cultural tradition and cultural habits of Western Europe . Through the inhuman efforts of Peter the Great, a cultural layer was actually created in Russia, which – in a very short time – created a great and brilliant culture. However, starting with Pushkin, anyone who has thought about the fate of this culture cannot help but recognize the very paradox of its existence – somehow despite this environment, this society and the country for which it was created.

At the same time, a kind of cultural minimalism in Russia infected not only the state power, but also the society itself – gradually opposing this power more and more. Pushkin already noticed: “In other countries, writers write either for the crowd or for a very narrow circle. In our country the latter is impossible – here you have to write about yourself”.[12]

It is also characteristic that in the long and passionate reflections and disputes over their country, over the meaning in history and the goals of its existence – disputes which marked the entire intellectual life of Russia – somehow almost no one identified Russia with the already created, existing Russian culture. Chaadaev, who started this dispute in the 19th century, for example, called Russia a “white sheet of paper” on which nothing was written,[13] but he wrote his “Philosophical Letters” when most of Pushkin’s works had already been created, on Baratinsky and Zhukovsky, and before them – Derzhavin. Somehow, however, Chaadaev did not notice this, and for him Russia remained only something expected, something future – “possible” in the future.

Khomyakov and the Slavophiles saw the essence of Russia either in its past or in the uncultured people. And even Dostoevsky, in his famous “Pushkin speech”, saying that Pushkin is “our everything”,[14] praised him not so much for his feat of creating culture as for some mysterious gift of “universal responsiveness”[15] and presents him chiefly as a prophet of some future messianic era to be ushered in by Russia.

And with what else, if not a strange indifference to culture, as such – to its traditions, to its quality – can one explain the fact that after Pushkin, after Lermontov and Tyutchev, a whole generation could admire poetry of Nadson? [16] The same Pushkin who, reflecting on the indifference of the Russian public to the dramatic art, very successfully wrote: “A significant part of our society is too busy with the fate of Europe and the fatherland. … It is too profound, too important, … for it to take any part in the dignity of the dramatic art, in the same Russian one…”.[17] He could have written: “art in general”.

We repeat: far from being uneducated or uncultured, these phenomena resulted from a strange maximalism of hopes and expectations, which prevented these hopes from connecting with the existing cultural work and supporting it in all possible ways. Of course, however, this cultural maximalism reached its peculiar and highest limit and expression after the final formation of the Russian intelligentsia – in the peculiar revolutionary “orders”, with the parallel formation of the opposing “security forces”. Both here and there authentic culture seems to have been simply thrown out of the hierarchy of values. M. Gorky’s “Petrel” was opposed in intellectual circles by the poetry of K. R. – Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, studied in the cadet corps.[18] Benefit, enlightenment and liberation, on the one hand, together with the glory of the fatherland – on the other, equally excluded culture – as a constituent part and as the basis of both enlightenment and glory.

All this suggests conclusions important for the understanding of contemporary disputes and contemporary searches. In fact, in Russian cultural self-consciousness, the concepts of Russia and Russian culture never receive a generally accepted, indisputable and non-revaluable content. A synthesis was not achieved, and therefore, on the one hand, the eternal dispute about these concepts continued, and, on the other hand, attention is drawn by the passion of this dispute, characteristic of it at all its stages, by its polarity and extremity. For some of the concepts of Russia and Russian culture, Herzen, Belinsky and Chaadaev fall out, for others – to the same extent – Khomyakov, Solovyov and Leontiev. The Slavophiles – in their newer and newer incarnations, thunder the Westerners; the Westerners, are still unable to hear and understand the Slavophiles. And this is because “maximalism” has not yet been taken away from Russian self-consciousness, because as a dogma it still perceives the primacy of “politics” over culture and turns out to be essentially incapable of culture – that is, in the aggregate of pursuits and achievements, in the spiritual world created by each nation, unable to see the only possible criterion and also the only possible content of “politics”.

All this could not be talked about if Russian culture did not exist as a long-established, real world. However, it exists, and it is it that represents both the core and the best – the indestructible essence of Russia. Therefore, we will not be able to move it forward without essentially overcoming both our cultural maximalism and our cultural minimalism.

Source: Schmemann, A. “Paradoxes of Russian cultural development” – In: Yearbook of the House of Russian Foreign Countries named after Alexandra Solzhenitsyn, M.: “Русский Пут” 2012, pp. 247-260 (in Russian).


[9] St. Reverend Maxim the Greek (in the world – Michael Trivolis [Μιχαήλ Τριβώλης]; c. 1470 – 1556) was a publicist, writer and translator. He lived on Mount Athos for about ten years, from where in 1518, at the invitation of Grand Duke Vasily III Ivanovich, he arrived in Moscow to translate spiritual books. He took an active part in the disputes between the Josephians and the non-claimants, taking the side of Nil Sorski and his old men. He gathers around himself a circle in which, in addition to ecclesiastical-theoretical issues, issues related to the Grand Duke’s foreign and domestic policy are discussed. Axet, by conviction, like the other non-claimants, declared himself against the monastery’s land ownership and the enrichment of the Church. At the council of 1525, he was accused of heresy, excommunicated and sentenced to exile in the Joseph-Volokolam Monastery. After a second condemnation of the Council of 1531, he was exiled to the Tver Assumption Monastery “Otroch”. In 1551, he was sent to rest in the Trinity-Sergius Monastery. Glorified in the person of reverends by the Local Council in 1988.

[10] For the concluding note of A.S. Pushkin’s tragedy “Boris Godunov” (1831), see: Zenger, T. “Nikolai I – editor of Pushkina” – In: Literatournoe harsedi, pt. 16-18, M. 1934, pp. 513-536; Blagoi, D. Sociology of Pushkin’s work: Etudes, M. 1931; Lavretskaya, V. Works A.S. Pushkin on the theme of Russian history, M. 1962; Alekseev, M. “Remarka Pushkina Narod bezmolvstvuet” – In: Russkaya literatura, 2, 1967, pp. 36-58, etc.

[11] We are talking about the famous formula from the work “Life of Archpope Habakkuk, written by himself” (1672-1673): “God bless you: suffer for the gathering of the fingers, do not think too much! I, with you, am ready to die in Christ for this. Even if I am not very smart, even if I am an ignorant person, but I know that everything in the Church, which was handed down by the Holy Fathers, is holy and blameless. And I hold to death – as I accepted; I do not change the eternal boundaries laid down for us – what is laid down for us remains the same forever!” (See: Havvakum (protopop), Life of Protopope Havvakum – In: Life of Protopope Havvakum, written by him, and other writings by him, author’s commentary N.K. Gudziy and others; introductory article G.M. Prokhorova, Arkhangelsk 1990, with 62-63).

[12] Pushkin, A.S. “Kritikoyu uv nas bolsheyu chastiyu…” – In: Polnoe sobrany sochinenii, item 7, p. 515.

[13] We find a similar thought in P. Ya. Chaadaev’s article “Apology of a Madman” (1837): “… Will the country allow its entire past to be taken away from it and, so to speak, to impose on it the past of Europe? However, there was no such thing at all. At home, Peter the Great found only a white sheet of paper and, with his strong hand, wrote on it the words Europe and West; and since then we belong to Europe and to the West” (See: Chaadaev, P. Ya. “Apologia sumasshedshego” – In: Sochinenia, M. 1989, p. 143).

[14] Here prot. Al. Schmemann admits an inaccuracy. The words he quotes are from the article “Vzglyad na russkuyu literaturu so smerti Pushkina” [“A View of Russian Literature after the Death of Pushkin”] (1859) by the writer, literary and theater critic Apollon Alexandrovich Grigoriev (1822-1864), and namely: “The best that has been said about Pushkin in recent times seems to be in Druzhinin’s articles, but even Druzhinin saw Pushkin only as our aesthetic educator. And Pushkin is our everything: Pushkin is a representative of all our soul and our own – that which, even after all the clashes with foreign, with other worlds, will remain, soul and our own, ours” (See: Grigoryev, A. A. Works in two volumes, item II: Articles, letters, M. 1990, pp. 56-57).

[15] One of the central thoughts in F. M. Dostoevsky’s Pushkin Speech (1880) is: “…Name at least one of these great geniuses who possessed such a capacity for universal responsiveness as our Pushkin. And this ability – the most important ability of our nationality – he shares precisely with our people, and with this, above all, he is also a people’s poet” (See: Dostoevsky, F.M. ” – In: Polnoe sobrany sochinenii, item 26, pp. 130-131).

[16] Semyon Yakovlevich Nadson (1862-1887) – Russian poet of Jewish origin (Bel. trans.).

[17] Inaccurate quote from A.S. Pushkin’s article “Moi zamacheniya ob russkom teatre” [“My Remarks on the Russian Theater”] (1820). Cf.: “A considerable part of our parterre (i.e., the armchairs) is too much occupied with the fate of Europe and the fatherland, is too tired with its labors, is too deep in thought, too important, too attentive to the manifestations of the soul’s movements , that it participates in the dignity of (the same Russian) dramatic art” (See: Pushkin, A.S. Polnoe sobrany sochinenii, item 7, p. 8).

[18] K.R. is Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov (1858-1915) – member of the Russian Imperial House, adjutant general (1901), general of the infantry [i.e. f. of the infantry] (1907), inspector general of military educational institutions, president of the Imperial St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (from 1889), poet, translator and dramatist. As a continuation of classical traditions in poetry, he is the author of several poetry collections: Poems: 1879-1885 (1886), New Poems by K. R. (1900), Third Collection of Poems by K. R. (1900), Poems by K. R. .(1901). Many of his poems were written to music, the most famous among them being his romances set to music by P.I. Tchaikovsky “Rastoril ya okno…”, “Ya ovells tebia ne lyubila…”, “Vot minovala razluka…” and etc.

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