Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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Introduction of Orthodoxy into people’s spiritual lives did not destroy paganism completely, nor did it undermine their pre-Christian worldview. The former can still be felt among people, for instance, in their belief in small house spirits that help them (domovoys) and the Evil spirit (nezhit’), in fortune-telling, in holidays that had folk pagan origins (like Maslenitsa, Kupala Night). In general, Orthodoxy did not crash (and, apparently, did not mean to) the festive, merry spirit of Russian pagan and folklore model of worldview – the spirit of folk festivals, fun games, and carnival laughter. On the contrary, this merry and festive spirit changed the Byzantine Orthodox tradition itself. Partly this pre-Christian worldview model propmpted the establishment of the peculiarities of Russian Orthodoxy:

  • the cheerful, optimistic, and even life-affirming character of Russian religious consciousness.
  • It can be found in light and merry tints of icons, frescoes, miniatures in handwritten church books, and in sublime and at the same time cozy picturesqueness of ancient Russian temples, and in a special emphasis on the merriness that Jesus Christ’s feat and resurrection have brought to people, and in emphasizing the prayer gratitude and joy of unity with God rather than mournful penance.

  • keen eagerness to do good, not only to purify and enlighten your soul, but also to be merciful and work hard. Hence the special attitude towards serving the country and the world in general. The inner doing itself in Russian Orthodox worldview is meant not only to purify the soul and thus attain the God’s grace, but also to help other people morally. As Saint Seraphim of Sarov puts it: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved”. Providing spiritual guidance for laypeople has become one of the most important traditions of Russian starets (spiritual fathers). And not only that: venerable Sergey Radonezhsky with his great authority, seeking to unite Russian counts (knyazes), wrote them letters and visited them from his monastery in the woods, closed churches in cities (e.g. in Nizhny Novgorod), if his exhortations were fruitless; and even sent two monks – Perseverance and Oslyabya – to fight alongside Dmitri Donskoi against Mamai invasion as a token of his blessing. And as if keeping up with this tradition, during the Great Patriotic War the Orthodox Church granted monks its blessing to serve in the army and they fought for the country like regular soldiers.

Russian Orthodoxy is, of course, a form of Christianity. This form of Christianity is traditionally perceived in Russia as a) inheriting Byzantine Orthodoxy; b) preserving the true spirit of Christian Church in its dogmas and beliefs. The latter idea proceeds partly from the fact that Orthodoxy “is in line with the Church existing in the first centuries of Chistianity in matters of faith”, and with Apostolic Church (whereas in Catholic and even more so in Protestant doctrines some new ideas were introduced). Without getting into specifics of Orthodox religious doctrine we will highlight significant features of Orthodoxy and the existence of Orthodox Church:

  • Orthodoxy was propagated peacefully, mostly among Slavs: the history of Orthodoxy is nothing like the one of crusades, inspired by the Vatican;
  • Orthodox Church aspired to regulate the state’s spiritual life only; it did not wage a political struggle with monarchs and official authorities on the whole;
  • In Orthodoxy only God himself is deemed to be “sin-free”;
  • Orthodoxy encourages us to strive for divine grace through a prayerful dialogue with God. The synergistic character of Orthodoxy – the idea of turning to God and the opportunity of receiving a gracious response – is one of the reasons for the special “soulfulness” and moral pathos of Russian literature.

The idea of righteousness as an innate God’s law which through the still small voice of conscience encourages us to choose the Good, is a truly Russian idea. It is to this deep moral searching that D.S. Likhachev attributed the fact that “the subject matter in Russian literature is clearly above the form”.  Righteousness in Russian literature is the “nude veritas (blunt truth)”, the intuition of the Good in a human being and in the world, aspiration to get closer to God, which “goes hand in hand with coming back to life every time”.[1]

[1] Likhachev D.S. Old and New Myths about Russia. Likhachev D.S Razdum’ya o Rossii [Reflections on Russia]. St. Petersburg, Logos, 1999. 672 p. Pp. 51–64, p. 61. (in Russian)

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