04/09/2022, 19.56
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Russian culture from the underground to hope

by Stefano Caprio

In an 1864 novel by Dostoevsky, a short imperial officer sits in the basement of his home, angry at the whole world and eager for revenge. In Tolstoy's War and Peace, unlike the war litany of the priest, Natasha “prayed to God to forgive them all, and her too”. These are the two faces that show how Russian culture, today a victim of propaganda and ideology, can help to truly understand what is happening in this war.

The war in Ukraine has come with many painful consequences like death, destruction and economic ruin. One of its casualties is culture.

Except for the distant echo of the “culture” of weapons and geopolitics from an era of empires and world wars, the world today is less and less welcoming to real culture, like arts and music, literature and poetry. Not only are they neglected in favour of discussions about diplomacy and energy transitions, but they are often accused of partisanship and public indecency. 

The crisis of culture in times of war has always been the result of the dispute between warring parties, who weaponise propaganda and ideology. For the first time, the vast realm of global information has been affected, so that even a hint or a wrong title are enough to unleash a worldwide campaign of condemnation or praise.

Against this background, one of humanity’s greatest legacy, Russian culture, is quickly withering away, with the main attack coming from within, from Putin's censors, a step back into Stalin’s realm when a typo in a publication was enough to sentence editorial staffs and writers.

After the October Revolution, and the civil war between Whites and Reds in 1918-1921, the Bolsheviks decided to rid the country in a single swoop of the culture of old Russia. A hundred years ago, in early April 1922, more than three hundred of the country's leading intellectuals were put on the famous “philosophers’ ships”, thinkers like Nikolai Berdyaev, Semyon Frank, Nikolay Lossky, Leo Shestov, Sergei Bulgakov and many more. Forced to leave their homeland, they brought their extraordinary visions and Russia’s traditions to Western shores.

Today no such ship is bringing to safety a culture that was slowly rebuilding itself after almost a century of Soviet censorship. Not only are journalists and writers subjected to a new gag order, but old classics are either used as ideological banners at home or denounced as carriers of foreign infections. Not only are dancers and singers subjected to ideological revision, forced to put on hold the performances scheduled before the "special military operation" in Ukraine, but even the interpretations and academic lectures on the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have become a clashing point, forcing people to take sides for or against this or that novel or poem.

In light of the current situation, Russian classics are more than ever needed to understand the motivations and contradictions of politics, war and religion, which Russians have always experienced on the cusp of death and rebirth, universal dreams and local imperatives, dogmatic revisions and revolutionary proclamations. 

Just rereading the works of two of the greatest authors in Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky, the embodiment of Russia’s Slavophile anima, and Leo Tolstoy, source of universalist aspiration, we can see the threats found in Demons (The Possessed) and the contradictions of War and Peace unfold in the battlegrounds of Ukraine.

Russian culture reflects precisely this ongoing tension between two poles, which took centre stage in the great 19th debate between Slavophiles and Westernisers. It is not only a question of specific traits of a country’s culture, but of the relationship between two views of Europe, and the many influences that found their way from Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere into Russia, in the past and the present.

Russian philosopher Sergey Medvedev recently mentioned the case of Czech writer Milan Kundera. After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was left without a job. When he was offered to write a play based on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Kundera thought about it for a long while, but in the end realised that “Dostoevsky's universe of overblown gestures, murky depths, and aggressive senti­mentality repelled me.”

The writer juxtaposed these feelings with a conversation he had on a road with a Soviet officer, who reassuringly explained to him the arrival of Russian tanks saying “it will straighten itself out. You must realize we love the Czechs. We love you!” Russian leaders then wanted to save fellow Slavs from themselves the way Russian leaders want to save Ukraine today.

History is just taking another turn around the same corner. To explain Russia’s invasion Medvedev goes all the way back to Dostoevsky, not to The Idiot, but to Notes from the Underground, a novel written in 1864, just before he wrote his great masterpieces, which Nabokov considered the quintessence of Dostoevsky's thought.

An imperial officer, short in height and weak in character, sits in the basement of his home, at war with the world and eager for revenge, heralding the prophecy of Vladimir Putin, who has been living in a bunker for years now and has harboured a desire to show the whole world how Russia can make up for the humiliations inflicted upon her. 

All of the great modern European philosophers have written about the character of the neurotic man full of resentment, from Nietzsche and Scheler to Sartre and Camus. In an imaginary dialogue between himself and the rest of the world, the anonymous protagonist of the Underground remembers his childhood and family traumas, marginalisation and lack of friends, as well as the offences of adult life, with the clashes and fights that led him to the irrational philosophy of the individual will against all.

Dostoevsky's hero rejects all of modern society’s projects of human coexistence, which he sees embodied in the Crystal Palace in London’s Hide Park, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and for this reason, dreams of one day destroying it. 

The man from the Underground led the way for Dostoevsky’s great iconic figures, from Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov to the terrorist Pyotr Verkhovensky in Demons (The Possessed): rejected, “humiliated and offended” men who seek revenge, like Putin in 2022.

Like Dostoevsky’s characters, the Russian president too hails from St Petersburg, a street urchin raised in a poor family who made a career in the Soviet apparatus, who today sits – according to rumours – in a nuclear bunker near the Urals.

Here is Dostoevsky’s own description: “I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors.”

Unable to be at peace with himself, the neurotic man from the Underground wonders: “Why, how am I, for example, to set my mind at rest? Where are the primary causes on which I am to build? [. . .]  Remember I spoke just now of vengeance. (I am sure you did not take it in.) I said that a man revenges himself because he sees justice in it. Therefore, he has found a primary cause, that is, justice. And so, he is at rest on all sides, and consequently he carries out his revenge calmly and successfully, being persuaded that he is doing a just and honest thing. But I see no justice in it, I find no sort of virtue in it either, and consequently if I attempt to revenge myself, it is only out of spite. [. . .] Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.”

The large glass building (Crystal Palace) is the symbol of today's globalisation. “You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.”

“I will not accept as the crown of my desires a block of buildings with tenements for the poor on a lease of a thousand years, and perhaps with a sign-board of a dentist hanging out. Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you. You will say, perhaps, that it is not worth your trouble; but in that case I can give you the same answer. We are discussing things seriously; but if you won’t deign to give me your attention, I will drop your acquaintance. I can retreat into my underground hole.”

The other great prophet of Russia’s anima, Leo Tolstoy, wrote War and Peace after the horrors of the Crimean War, which he experienced as a young officer in 1855, especially the burning humiliation of the siege of Sevastopol by European armies, including those of the Kingdom of Sardinia. In the novel, the writer inserts liturgical moments from the Orthodox Church, deemed a tool of those in power denying very essence of Christianity, another theme found throughout his opus.

A girl from the aristocracy, Natasha Rostova, is one of the novel’s characters; at 13 she is in love with the military heroes of the Russian war against Napoleon. At a certain point she participates in a liturgy in which worshippers pray for the success of the war. “’Lord God of might, God of our salvation!’ began the priest in that voice, clear, not grandiloquent but mild, in which only the Slav clergy read and which acts so irresistibly on a Russian heart.

“Lord God of might, God of our salvation! Look this day in mercy and blessing on Thy humble people, and graciously hear us, spare us, and have mercy upon us! This foe confounding Thy land, desiring to lay waste the whole world, rises against us; these lawless men are gathered together to overthrow Thy kingdom, to destroy Thy dear Jerusalem, Thy beloved Russia; to defile Thy temples, to overthrow Thine altars, and to desecrate our holy shrines. How long, O Lord, how long shall the wicked triumph? How long shall they wield unlawful power?

“Lord God! Hear us when we pray to Thee; strengthen with Thy might our most gracious sovereign lord, the Emperor Alexander Pávlovich; be mindful of his uprightness and meekness, reward him according to his righteousness, and let it preserve us, Thy chosen Israel!”

The litany of war, like Patriarch Kirill’s today, goes on for a long while in similar tones. “In Natásha’s receptive condition of soul this prayer affected her strongly. She listened to every word about the victory of Moses over Amalek, of Gideon over Midian, and of David over Goliath, and about the destruction of ‘Thy Jerusalem’, and she prayed to God with the tenderness and emotion with which her heart was overflowing, but without fully understanding what she was asking of God in that prayer.

“She shared with all her heart in the prayer for the spirit of righteousness, for the strengthening of the heart by faith and hope, and its animation by love. But she could not pray that her enemies might be trampled underfoot when but a few minutes before she had been wishing she had more of them that she might pray for them. But neither could she doubt the righteousness of the prayer that was being read on bended knees.

“She felt in her heart a devout and tremulous awe at the thought of the punishment that overtakes men for their sins, and especially of her own sins, and she prayed to God to forgive them all, and her too, and to give them all, and her too, peace and happiness. And it seemed to her that God heard her prayer.”

The desire for mercy in Natasha's soul, a metaphor for Russia upset and divided onto herself, drove Tolstoy to develop a theory of non-violence, or non-resistance to evil, so as not to give in to the instinct of mutual destruction. 

A young Gandhi discovered these ideas in Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, when he was in South Africa in 1894.  He would later write: “At that time I believed in violence. After reading this book I was cured of my scepticism and firmly believed in ahimsâ,” the religious philosophy that inspired India's liberation from British rule.

Gandhi closely studied Tolstoy's works, and wrote to him four times, between 1909 and 1910, describing himself as “Your humble follower”. Perhaps it is not a good thing to censor Russian culture; indeed, it is worth rereading it more carefully in today’s tragic times.

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