Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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The epoch of absolutism that began with Peter I was oriented towards the ideology and the policy of West European countries. Peter reinforced the personal power of the monarch, eliminated the Boyar Duma (an advisory assembly), replaced the Patriarchate with the Holy Synod and hardened the conditions of serfdom.

However, even after Peter I the serfdom did not match the horrifying image painted in Soviet Russia and in Western countries: there were no serfs in the northern part of Russia; the Old Believers who opposed the church reforms and left to live in the forests of the central part of Russia never knew serfdom; the “state serfs”, a social class of peasants, had to pay taxes to work on the land, but they also had individual freedom and were not slaves to a private owner.[1]

Peter the Great’s rule and ideology led to the “duality” of Russian world: the split between Europeanized nobility and later intelligentsia, comprising all walks of life, and people. The split was especially felt in people’s attitude towards the Tsar. The image of Father the Tsar being the Lord’s Anointed and a caring “father” for his people remained unchanged up to the early 20th century, when under the influence of far-reaching propaganda, ideas concerning the unjust socio-political order ruling the Russian empire and inadmissibility of tsarism began to spread among peasants and workers.[2] These ideas were especially popular among Russian intelligentsia and the majority of Russian nobility throughout the whole 19th

Faith in Father the Tsar went hand in hand with faith in God, with Orthodoxy. The attraction of ordinary Russian people to religiousness and Orthodox Church in contrast with atheism of intellectuals and educated social groups could be found in the early 20th century not only in Russian but also in foreign sources. “While the mass of people is intensely religious, the educated professional middle class and the intellectual middle class, as a whole, is completely, frankly, and carelessly atheistic”,[3] – wrote in 1911 British journalist and writer Maurice Baring.

Russian nobility’s penchant for European culture could be felt in the disdain for their mother-tongue in the late 19th – early 20th century that was brilliantly portrayed by L.N. Tolstoy at the beginning of the novel War and Peace. However, this inner Westernism of Russian intellectuals cannot be measured solely within this time frame. The confrontation between “slavophiles” and “westernizers” among Russian nobility in the 19th century is of great importance. We should as well mention the slogans, put forward by “slavophiles” in opposition not only and not so much to the “westernists’” ideas as to the general strangeness of the nobility’s ideology in relation to Russian culture. The Narodniks A.S. Khomyakov, K.S.Aksakov, I.V. Kireyevsky seem unwilling to put up with the fact that Russian nobility and intellectuals on the whole “betrayed the Russian spirit, lost the faith, and started to live not like the Russians but rather like the Europeans, so to say impersonally in terms of the national character”.[4] And behind slavophiles’ ideas lies their strive for the concord between the lives of highbrow social groups, detached from their national roots, and the people’s “spirit”, their traditions, and native culture.

Slavophiles, however, did not manage to overcome this socio-political detachment, which later developed into one of the reasons for the Russian Revolution in 1917. In the 19th century, up to the Revolution, this ideological detachment of Russian intellectuals from the mother soil could be felt in such point-blank forms of reasoning and existence,[5] as frank atheism, nihilism, obsession over “absolute ideas”: deism, Tolstoyism, anarchism, socialism, and communism. It could also be felt in absolute, irreconcilable standoff towards the sovereign and state structure. The whole Soviet period was, in a way, a battle between the traditions of Russian national culture and western ideas of internationality, progress, industrialization, changing the natural world according to the humans’ needs and desires. The absolutization of the progress ideas – ideas, closely intertwined with Protestantism and the strive of European civilization to confirm the human’s place in the world, bred such typical for the Soviet times words as “udarnik” (shock worker), “pyatiletka” (five-year plan), “Time, Forward!”; laid the foundation for natural landscapes experiments, some of which, luckily, were not executed (for instance, the grand project of “Siberian river reversal”.

[1] Ibid. P. 25–26.

[2] Ref.: Count N.D. Zhevakhov. Vospominaniya [Memoirs]. Moscow, Tsarskoye Selo Publ., 2014. 936 p. A demonstrative illustration of this point is an episode from count Grigorii Trubetskoy’s recollections about Patriarchate restoration in 1917: “I remember an ordinary peasant come up to the chair <…> He said: “We no longer have the Tsar; we lost the father that we loved. It’s impossible to love synod, which is why we, the peasants, ask for a Patriarch”. Ref.:  Count G. Trubetskoy. Krasnaya Rossiya i Svyataya Rus’ [Red Russia and Saint Rus’]. Paris: Ymca Press Publ., 1931. 100 p. P. 42.

[3] «While the mass of people is intensely religious, the educated professional middle class and the intellectual middle class, as a whole, is completely, frankly, and carelessly atheistic». Ref.: Baring M. The Russian People. London: Methuen and Co, LTd. 366 p. 1911. P. 350.

[4] Berdyaev N. Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov. Berdyaev N. Sobranie sochinenii [Collected works]. Paris, YMCA-Press Publ., 1997, vol. 5, p. 175. (in Russian)

[5] Cf.: In his article The Soul of Russia, in particular, N.A. Berdyaev says: “Herein is a mystery of the Russian spirit. This spirit tends to strive towards the final and ultimate, towards the absolute in everything; towards absolute freedom and absolute love. <…> More than once already it has been demonstrated, that Russian atheism is itself religious. <…> In Russia by virtue of its religious character, always striving towards the absolute and the end, the human principle <….> can only be <…> a revealing of the inner, and not the outer man, a revealing of Christ within”. Ref.: Berdyaev N. A. Dusha Rossii [The Soul of Russia]. Moscow, Sytin’s printer Publ., 1915.  42 p. P. 37, p. 41.

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