Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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Thus, for modern Russian people’s self-identification questions concerning faith, Russian history, and Russia’s place in the European civilization become especially acute. A contemporary Russian man has to make up their mind concerning their attitude to the state and the statesmen, and to traditions, since they are the heirs of both national culture and the culture of Europeanized intelligentsia and nobility. Reflections on Russia’s “middle” way, connecting the East with the West and on its special mission also come from the difficulty in self-identification.

This difficulty in definitive self-identification is partly due to the long-standing split between people and nobility, intelligentsia. At the same time, it implies openness to another opinion, another person. Being a distinctive feature of Russian people’s self-awareness, it entails susceptibility to influence, credulity, naivety, but at the same time openness in a dialogue with “others”.

The values, glorified in Russian folklore, serve as important pillars not only for the past but also for the modern Russian mindset. Folklore, even though it is curtailed and adapted for children, is grasped by children from their early childhood as a kind of a mode of worldview, where the key element is not the conquest of the world but interaction with it and preserving the old – divine – order. The initial, nature order is perceived as sacral (hence the “holy Russian land”);[1] the world of events, in which a person is involved is understood to be mentoring and testing them.

The second important value which folklore advocates is connected with the necessity to be sensitive to the initial order, to know and understand its laws: it is the value of inner work, contemplation and reflection on the world around us. With these two key values of folklore model of worldview (and not only with Orthodoxy) are connected such social archetypes as deep spiritual (reflective) work, humbleness in the face of fate, tenderness, openness, and faith in the world.

The value of preserving the divine order implies the significance of tradition for the Russian world. This can be seen in some of Russian sayings (“The land, where they start breaking the rules, will not exist for long”; “What has become a custom is no longer funny”); official and unofficial committal to one religion – Orthodoxy, as well as adherence to patristic legendary in the Orthodoxy itself. Without doubt, this system of values originates from the ancient belief about the importance of tribal, familial links, which can be found in the mythologem “dynasty”.

Adoption of Orthodoxy played an important part not only in history, but also in the formation of culture. It is the orthodoxy that defines this special worldviewsearching for the truth and kindness, searching for the meaning of personal existence, the life of the soul – which are the basis of the values system in Russian literature.[2] The introduction of Orthodoxy in Kievan Rus’ meant not only power centralisation but also new spiritual guides, developed writing, literary language, different from spoken one (although having affinities for many reasons), new family relations, the personal in spiritual life. Adoption of Orthodox Christianity in Rus’, besides historico-political reasons was due to the fact that Orthodox ideas of inner doing, and thus reaching spiritual and carnal deification, and the inclusion of natural and material worlds into the Eternity through Christ did not contradict Russian pre-Christian worldview model but rather continued, deepened, and developed it.

Through Orthodoxy Rus’ did not only get access to Byzantine civilization but to the whole Orthodox Christian world, to this broad and mainly Eastern Slavic Orthodox culture. From the 11th to the 17th centuries Russian culture developed in the same space as those of Slavic peoples. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Serbians, and Romanians had “a common literature, writing, and the same literary (church Slavonic) language”; and a single “basic source of church and literary artefacts”.[3]

Meanwhile, having adopted Byzantine Orthodoxy and Bulgarian writing, Kievan Rus’ quickly (by the standards of culture development) adopted new socio-cultural facts and new ideologemes, and now turned from “receiving” culture into the “giving” one: “Now we can talk about huge “export” of artefacts and manuscripts created in Kievan Rus’ and Muscovy.[4] The Cyrillic alphabet that came to Russia through the translations of the Scripture and worship books from Moravia, was soon adapted to Russian sounds. Canons of chronicle writing, homiletics (the art of preaching), church architecture, icon painting, fresco painting, and church chants, specifically adapted to Russian culture, emerged.

[1] Toporov V.N. Svyatost’ i svyatye v russkoi dukhovnoi kul’ture: v 2 t [Holiness and Saints in Russian Spiritual Culture: in 2 volumes]. Moscow, Gnozis Publ., Languages of Russian culture, 1995, vol. 1, p. 8.

[2] Lukov Vl. A. Russkaya literatura: genezis dialoga s evropeiskoi kul’turoi [Russian Literature: Genesis of the Dialogue with European Culture]. Moscow, Moscow University for the Humanities Publ., 2006. 100 p.

[3] Likhachev D. S. Poetics of the Ancient Russian Literature. Likhachev D. S. Izbrannye raboty [Selected works]. Leningrad, Khud. Literatura Publ., 1987, vol. 1, pp. 261–654, p. 263.

[4] Ibid. P. 265.

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