Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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freedom – first of all, the freedom of artistic expression, the inner freedom of cognition and self-cognition, but also outer freedom from strict regulations.[1]

Historian D.S. Likhachev, while commenting on the fight for civil liberty in Russia, pointed out a false conviction that there was no experience of parliamentarism in Russia, and that Russian people were always forced into submission. He listed the facts that proved the opposite:

– on the tradition of having advisory bodies: “In the pre-Mongol period a Russian prince would start his day with meetings with his retinue and boyars. Regular consultations with the representatives of the city government, the church and common folk laid the foundation for the assemblies of land (Zemsky sobor)”;[2]

– on the uprisings against the political regime: there were “numerous rebellions in the country: “Razin, Bulavin, Pugachev; <…> there were thousands of Old Believers who left for the North and the East, for the South and the West”, but did not yield to the government; the intelligentsia was in continuous opposition with the authorities, the Decemberists <…> stood against the interests of their own social class for the sake of bringing freedom to their country and its people”.[3]

Many facts – both from the past and the present – testify that the inner freedom of a person is regarded as a value in Russian culture. To name but a few:

– in Russian epic poems heroes choose freely to fight the evil and to serve their prince and homeland: Dobrynya, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich serve Vladimir not as his vassals; he represents their homeland which they wish to serve and they always come to him of their own free will.[4]

– M. Gorky and S. Yesenin praised the special way Russians felt about pilgrimage, travelling across lands in the search of the truth about the universe:

Пойду в скуфье смиренным иноком
Иль белобрысым босяком
Туда, где льётся по равнинам
Берёзовое молоко.

Хочу концы земли измерить,
Доверясь призрачной звезде,
И в счастье ближнего поверить
В звенящей рожью борозде. <…>[5]

[The literal translation goes as follows: “I shall put on a skufia and go as an apprentice/ or a tow-haired vagabond to a land, / where the valleys are full with birch tree milk. // I wish to reach the limits of the world, / trusting a flickering star to show the way; / and I wish to find joy in my neighbour’s joy as I look at furrows with sprouting rye”.]

Russian philosophers pointed out that the inner freedom of a person was the most important value in Russian culture. At the beginning of the 20th century N.O. Lossky wrote about “freedom of spirit” and “love for freedom” found in Russian people. “Freedom appears to be in the nature of a Russian,” as philosopher I.A. Ilyin put this idea in one of his later works. “This inner freedom,” Ilyin explained, “is felt everywhere: in the slow-moving and melodic flow of the Russian speech, in the gait of Russians <…>. The Russian world lived and grew in vast expanses and gravitated towards the lack of boundaries in space”.[6]

As we can see, all values that are important for the European civilisation are also present in Russian culture, but with a specific emphasis. Person as a value includes the concept of its inner individuality on the one hand, and the necessity for it to be connected to the world on the other hand. In the openness to “another” the most important aspects are the readiness and willingness to understand others and to adopt new knowledge and views. As far as the value of freedom is concerned, the emphasis is put on the inner, artistic freedom, the freedom of choice, on the internal or external opposition to strict regulation.

[1] Likhachev D.S. Tri osnovy evropeiskoi kultury i russkii istoricheskii opyt [Three Foundations of European Culture and the Russian Historical Experience] // Likhachev D.S. Russkaia kultura [Russian Culture] M.: Iskusstvo, 2000. 440 p. P. 45–49.

[2] Likhachev D.S. Mify o Rossii starie i novie [Old and New Myths about Russia]. // Likhachev D.S. Razdumia o Rossii [Meditations about Russia]. Saint Petersburg.: Logos, 1999. 672 p. P. 51.

[3] Likhachev D.S. Razmyshlenia o russkoi istorii [Reflections about Russian History] // Likhachev D.S. Russkaia kultura [Russian Culture]. M.: Iskusstvo, 2000. 440 p.  P. 69.

[4] Propp V.Y. Russki geroicheski epos [Russian Epic Song]. M.: Labirint, 1999. 640 p. P. 65.

[5] Yesenin S. «Poidu v skufie smirennym inokom…» // Yesenin S.A. Collected works: in 7 vol. M.: Nauka; Golos, 1995—2002. Vol. 1. Poems. 1995. P. 40—41.

[6] Ilyin I.A. O russkoi idee [On the Russian Idea]. Electronic source: http://imwerden.de/pdf/iljin_o_russkoj_idee.pdf

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