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Andrei Tarkovsky is my second-favorite movie-maker. Dmitri Shostakovich is my second-favorite symphony composer. And Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote my third-favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
In terms of artistic creativity, Russia is great, with great contributions to the world. And yet Russia has never been able to generate a stable democracy. If Russia is a great nation, it is also a troubled and troubling one. Among its czars were Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible. And right now Russia is more terrible than great.
My wife and I watched Tarkovsky’s movie Mirror again the other night. Tarkovsky reflects the burden of being a child of Russia. The beauty and wonder of his mother and the languid scenes of a green and lovely landscape are countered by the cold winter training of boys to be snipers against the Germans, with the only color the red sores on the lips of a girl, and by the newsreel footage of Russia at war, the soldiers slogging their way through the mud of Crimea. Even the Orthodoxy that Tarkovsky believed in (despite the official atheism of the U.S.S.R.) was its own burden. He quotes the lines in a letter by Pushkin:
The division of churches separated us from Europe. We remained excluded from every great event that has shaken it. However, we had our own special destiny. Russia, with her immense territory, had swallowed up the Mongol invasion. The Tartars didn’t dare cross our western borders. They retreated to their wilderness and Christian civilization had been saved. To attain that goal we had to lead a special kind of life, which while leaving us Christians, had made us alien to the Christian world.
And the Russians are making themselves alien to the rest of Europe right now. That historic struggle with the Tatars (so vividly portrayed in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev) has now been replaced by Russia’s struggle with the West.
You can see the replacement already in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic movie from 1938, Alexander Nevsky, with that incomparable score by Prokoviev. In an early scene Nevsky makes peace with a Tartar chief, and then gathers all his forces to fight the Teutonic Knights with their heretical Latin church. Eisenstein costumes the Teutonic soldiers in helmets that evoke the Wehrmacht, and the propaganda is obvious: the Chinese are now our friends, and the Germans now our enemies. Eighty-four years later Nevsky lives on in Putin, and the enemy is not just the Germans but NATO and America. And Putin claims again the blessing of Orthodoxy for the salvation of Christian civilization.
There is so much to love about Russian Orthodoxy. Rublev’s icon of the Divine Hospitality is my go-to image (yes, I know, “Thou shalt not”) of the Holy Trinity. I love the All Night Vigil of Rachmaninoff, especially when sung by a Russian choir. And who can deny the powerful exploration of the Gospel in Karamazov with its comic joy and tragic passion? The incomprehensible love that fills the novel feels like the Russian Liturgy: mystical, dense, smoky, ethereal, and powerfully embodied with its bass lines going deep.
And yet, one can’t help but wonder how the very structure and practice of the Orthodox Church has not only isolated Russia, and conditioned the people to live with truth and power kept secret behind the closed doors of the iconostasis, but also prevented the development of the mediating institutions on which functioning democracy depends. The Kremlin is a fortress with several cathedrals inside it.
Tarkovsky, for all his Orthodoxy, loved the music of Bach. The soundtracks of both Solaris and Mirror feature Bach’s choral preludes on the organ, and the Erbarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion is prominent in The Sacrifice.
We know from his Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues that Shostakovich was inspired by Bach as well, except for him it was the secular Bach. In fact, in all of Shostakovich’s music I can’t think of any connection with sacred music, be it Orthodox or Western. His music is profoundly secular, and he was not a Christian. He was a convinced Marxist-Leninist, despite his persecution by Stalin.
It’s hard for us to imagine how positively creative and inspiring Marxism can be, and one hardly dares acknowledge how much power for good Marxism has sometimes engendered in the world. Shostakovich was also a patriot, despite his famous ambiguity and sarcasm in veiled critique of the Russian regime. His symphonies strike me as matters of life and death, especially when compared with American music of the same time. He is like Dostoevsky in the closeness of his comedy to tragedy.
Russia’s floundering invasion of Ukraine would be a joke if not for the tragedy of so many killed. I have read analyses of the Russian army’s destructive failure as a nation’s ambition to be a world power without the capacity for it. Russia cannot match its threat and bluster with effective performance. Despite its vast territory, large population, brilliant science in many fields, and industrial development, it does not have the kind of thick political and social development to match its global aspirations. In other words, as a political entity it has inherent structural defects. Russia punished Dostoevsky for ten years. Shostakovich lived in constant fear of arrest. Tarkovsky had to spend the end of his life in exile. We can multiply examples of Russia destroying its own people.
So one has to ask, has Putin imposed himself on Russia, or is Putin the kind of national leader that Russia prefers? Are the Russians willing to lose their individual freedoms and civil rights just so that their leader can restore the nation to some kind of greatness? What makes a nation great? That it can force its will on other nations?
I remember that after the Netherlands had lost its empire, Queen Juliana gave a speech in which she said that the Netherlands, though no longer a “great power,” should be great in those things in which a small country can be great. [graphic: Juliana at Congress] Recently some Ukrainians have said they want only to live in a “normal” country. I know for myself, as a dual citizen, that when I’m in Canada it’s something of a relief to be in a “normal” country that doesn’t have pretensions to world power like the United States. Canadians don’t “believe” in Canada in the way that Americans believe in the United States.
But Russians seem to believe in Russia, whether the version is Marxist or Orthodox. Russia is sacred, and because all governments are violent, Russia consecrates its violence. Putin is pushing a holy war, in which casualties can be justified as sacrifices. As of early April, despite the Russian casualties, Putin’s support within Russia seems to be strengthening, although how much do we really know about this society so used to hiding the truth behind closed doors. I wonder how long he can keep it up. My brother thinks that may depend on the support of the Chinese—as the Tatars were for Nevksy.
A week after the invasion my wife said, “I feel like this is the first time we are living in a war.” I said, “Ya, if you mean the first time that a war is against us. What about our invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Panama, Grenada, and Vietnam?” Greatness is a temptation. Great nations can also be terrible, and often in ways that we don’t see ourselves. Tarkovsky made a mirror for Russians, and I have to think about what artists make mirrors for us. And I have to lament both the destruction of Ukrainian lives and the self-destruction of Russia.
Daniel, this is so good, on so many levels — profoundly insightful and deeply engaging. The excerpt from Pushkin’s letter especially struck me. For all my engagement with things Russian and Ukrainian the last many years (and now especially in these last few weeks), I had not previously encountered it. Thank you for it … and for your article.
This is thoughtful, excellent, and seems true. Why Russia is the way it is is a bit of mystery to me and you shed some light on that.
One question/comment, though, re: “one hardly dares acknowledge how much power for good Marxism has sometimes engendered in the world.” I’d be interested in hearing you expand on that (I mean that seriously, not snarkily). A cursory review of the 20th century suggests that Marxism, wherever it’s been put into practice, has resulted in oppression, poverty, and tens of millions of dead. I’m open to the possibility that there’s a bright spot there somewhere, but I have a hard time seeing it.
Thanks for this essay.
Tom, a fair question. Without a doubt, Marxist political systems leave enormous wreckage, depression, and death. I would not want to live in one. But let me start that Marxist theory is at its best when it’s a critique, and it does offer a valuable unmasking of so much that we take for granted in our comfortable rationalism, humanism, and capitalism. It can be a liberating force and a purging power. But, despite its idealistic visions, it is not good as a positive, constructive power and system. It does not offer any thick way to build and develop those very important social structure and institutions, free of the state,, that stable democracies depend on. It clears the ground so effectively that autocratic leaders and parties can take over. How it looks to me.
Sorry, I’m very late in checking back on this. I appreciate your take, and you’re correct. There are a lot of movements in history (and currently, I suppose) that are quite accurate in identifying the problem, not so good at finding the solution. The “purging power” quickly overwhelms the “liberating force”.
Thanks for inviting us into your Russian history class – so much to learn and ponder.
Kristen R. Ghodsee’s podcast – A.K.47 – 47 Selections from the Works of Alexandra Kollontai, is another history lesson from 1872-1952 regarding socialism and women’s emancipation.
Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. I enjoy Russian literature and read a lot of it at university, from “Evgeny Onegin” to “The Gulag Archipelago.” There’s much to love about Russia, but also much that is baffling to anyone but a Russian. Your essay helps.
Thank you, as always, for good teaching. I mourn. I know Christ is Risen because it was on the Easter trip to the former USSR, in 1988, that I richly celebrated the Triduum in the Russian Orthodox churches. The experience deeply influenced my own faith and witnessed to the wider Church, opening new thinking for me. It will always be so. This war and Russia’s cruelty, and the Church’s obvious failure to stand against the invasion and witness to Truth, Light and Love, grieve me deeply.
A thoughtful and provocative reflection of the complexities and paradoxes of a nation and a culture that have enriched us all with extraordinary art, literature and music — while also impoverishing their own people economically and intellectually through autocratic rule and relentless repression of independent thought. Some Russians now say they felt more free in the USSR than in today’s purportedly democratic Russia.
But please let’s avoid cultural and political stereotypes. (Remember: all generalizations are false, including this one.) To say that Russians favor autocrats who exalt Mother Russia overlooks not only a rich tradition of theological and political dissent (think of Tolstoy, Gogol, and, in the Stalinist era, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita). And let us remember too the tireless efforts of many today who are devoted both to their nation and to their Orthodox church to uplift and educate fellow Russians and help them build a more open society that remains rooted in its distinctive history and theology (best example: reformist priest Alexander Men, brutally murdered in 1990, and the remarkable organization that carries on his legacy today, St. Andrew’s Biblical-Theological Institute). There is light even in the darkness of Putinist totalitarianism.