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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 That historic struggle with the Tatars (so vividly portrayed in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev) has now been replaced by Russia’s struggle with the West.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.