Random Brain Dump #1: What’s up with Russia? The Russian Idea

Megyn Kelly’s interview with Vladimir Putin did little to enlighten us. I haven’t watched Oliver Stone’s maligned interviews with him, though I did watch most of James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Russia seems to have reappeared out of nowhere as an enemy of the United States. It’s as if Russia has replaced Iraq in George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” that also included North Korea and Iran. But why? When Russians and Americans meet, they get along great.

So, what’s up with Russia?

If I had been Megyn Kelly, I would have asked President Putin how he defines “the Russian idea” and his role in fulfilling it in present day.

By Ivan Kramskoi - http://lj.rossia.org/users/john_petrov/442794.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2533079
Painting of 19th-century Russian philosopher, Ivan Kramskoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Huh?” you ask. Well, I’ve dusted of a volume of essays by the late-nineteenth-century Russian philosopher, Vladimir Solovyov, to explain. Although published in French in 1888, his essay, “The Russian Idea,” was translated into Russian in 1909 (eight years before the Bolshevik Revolution) and ended up in my grubby little mitts around 1994 in Moscow (three years after the fall of the Soviet Union).

Recent events have brought the essay back to mind, at least its conclusion. The result is this brain dump of my thoughts on Russia. I realize I make gross generalizations, and there’s certainly much more that could be and has been said on the subject by folks who know a whole lot more than I do. That’s why it’s a random brain dump and not a Foreign Affairs journal article. It’s probably as long as one, though. Thanks for your patience.

Where I’m Coming From

Let me start by my love for Russia and for the Russian people. While living there for most of my twenties, it became my second rodina or homeland. The only time I have ever felt geographically content was when I was working near Chelyabinsk in the mid-2000s. Last year, my husband and I visited friends of more than 25 years in Moscow, Tver and Saint Petersburg – the kind of friends that feel more like close relatives, with whom you can just be without explanation or pretense. I long to return on my very American passport (or British, but that’s another post for another time).

Russian tea and philosophy, anyone? Photo by EB Miceli

I also love the United States of America and the British culture my immigrant parents instilled in me. My dushá, my soul, however, finds a peculiar affinity to the Russian soul, its language and culture and its contradictions. Some of my fondest memories are of philosophizing about the world’s ills through the night at a kitchen table somewhere in the former Soviet Union over endless pots of tea, only to realize nothing had changed in the morning. Catharsis followed by inertia – the story of my life. So, I invite you to my kitchen table for several cups of tea with me – Russian style, of course, diluted from a concentrate brewed in a hand-painted, slightly cracked teapot, maybe with a lemon slice and sugar cubes, but definitely with a carefully arranged plate of cookies and chocolates to savor with each steaming sip.

After the defeat of the Nazis, the Cold War gave both the United States and the Soviet Union an enemy nefarious enough to strengthen their national identities and belief in their core political systems – each other. The end of it left the United States the clear winner and the Soviet Union disintegrated and demoralized. The enemy, for the Russians, was themselves, their perceived stagnation and their leaders, responsible for the deaths of millions of their own people. I was there when it happened.

I remember the day the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I was an exchange student in Moscow, living in a dorm where I hung out with East Germans and North Koreans and shared a room with a Ukrainian girl. The countenance of even the most avowedly communist of the East German students changed overnight at the smell of freedom. I remember the despair of the North Koreans in the following year, when they were recalled back to their country. Their growing freedom in Perestroika-era Soviet Union threatened North Korea’s tight grip on their movement and their minds. The rallies during the 1991 coup helped me realize the power of my American passport and how far people will go for democratic rights. In those years, there was a feeling of positive forward movement and great hope. Russians tend to be fatalists, classic frustrated optimists. It didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed.

Westernizers vs Slavophiles

Since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the late 16th century, Russia has struggled with a superiority-inferiority complex. In the same breath, Russians will boast about their national accomplishments and berate their homeland and themselves. They simultaneously recognize their country’s greatness and its inadequacy. I believe that this is because in virtually every Russian two forces battle for supremacy – the Westernizer and the Slavophile.

The Westernizer is easy for us to understand. It is the force of capitalism, prosperity, modern dress, pop music and every aspiration of freedom Western lifestyle promises. A Starbucks on every corner and a smartphone in every hand. Peter the Great imposed this worldview on the Russian empire, when he moved the capital from sleepy Moscow to his swampy, disease-ridden, new city on the Baltic Sea with a German name, Sankt Peterburg, and required nobles to shave their traditional beards in favor of the European mustache. Western tourists often prefer Peter’s city over Moscow because its art and architecture still reflect a strong Western influence. Catherine the Great, the only Russian monarch after Peter to receive this moniker, was a German. The influence of French and German can still be felt in the Russian language. The idea here is that Russia is a backwards country and must adopt Western ways to prosper and progress on the world stage.

The Slavophiles require a bit more history to comprehend. In short, they directly oppose the Westernizers by emphasizing the inherent superiority of Slavic culture, tradition and religious expression for resolving Russia’s and possibly the world’s problems. Individualism is subordinate to the needs of family and society, and generally the West has a corrupting influence on Russian values and institutions.

Покорение Сибири Ермаком
“Yermak’s Conquest of Siberia” by Vasiliy Surikov (ArtLib.ru) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 988 CE, Vladimir had the East Slavic tribes of Kievan Rus baptized into the Eastern version of Christianity, not the Western version – the Eastern Orthodox Church, not the Roman Catholic Church. (If you want some insight into Russia’s present-day actions in Ukraine, note that Kiev is the spiritual birthplace of Russia.) After the Tatar-Mongols’ defeat and the unification of the disparate principalities under one Caesar or czar in Moscow, Russia’s empire expanded east and south, swallowing up native people of numerous different languages and faiths. Imperial manifest destiny. The first missionary to North America was a Russian Orthodox priest to Alaska, I believe. When Orthodox Constantinople, Constantine’s New Rome, fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453, the Russian Empire saw itself as the “Third Rome,” the political defender of the Orthodox Christian faith. And because Orthodoxy generally holds that they are the one, true Church, Russia should not subordinate its cultural or political identity to the Roman Catholic and Protestant West.

“The Swan Princess” Mikhail Vrubel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You can see this internal battle between the Westernizers and Slavophiles throughout Russian society. Russian ballet is a Western style of dance. The Russian novel draws from a Western style of literature. Russian composers are students of Western classical music. Yet, in each, you’ll find the Slavophile peeking through, whether in Ballet Russe’s Firebird, in Tolstoy’s Levin from Anna Karenina or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The Slavophile may use a Western medium, but the result is uniquely Russian.

Vladimir Solovyov’s Russian Idea

The Russian idea is the culmination of this Westernizer/Slavophile battle. God has given Russia a greater purpose beyond its borders. Sound familiar to us Americans? Isn’t the Puritan idea of a “city upon a hill” part of our national DNA along with our God-given duty to protect or spread democracy throughout the world?

 This is where Solovyov comes in. He wrote, “The Russian idea is to restore the true image of the divine Trinity on the earth” (my translation). This “image,” which is synonym for “icon” in Russian, by the way, Solovyov explains earlier, is a societal trinity consisting of Church, State and Society. These three are “certainly free and powerful, not severed from one another, devouring and or using them, but affirming their definitive internal connections.” The Orthodox Church, like God the Father, should inform the workings of the State. The State, in the person of the czar as Christ the King, ensures the society’s freedom to act, like the Holy Spirit. After reforming these three institutions, Russia can fulfill this national calling, he says, “without needing to act against other nationalities but with them and for them, – here lies the great proof that this idea is a true idea. For truth is but a form of Goodness and envy is unknown to Goodness.” Are you still with me?

The Russian Idea as Societal DNA

I am suggesting that this idea of Russia’s greater purpose or exceptionalism is as much a part of Russia’s societal DNA as American exceptionalism is in ours and it is motivating Russia’s current actions. Russia was one of the largest empires in the world before it became the USSR and before the United States became a nation. As much as it recognized its national defects in light of the progressive West, it also reacted to Western influence. It tried democracy for about nine months in 1917, which ended disastrously in revolution. It didn’t take long for the Bolshevik experiment to turn totalitarian and its own terrible czar in Stalin. As much as socialism and communism were developed in the West by Marx and Engels, the Bolsheviks created a slavophilic version, which adapted the Russian idea to atheistic communism. The Soviet Union’s Lenin-given duty was to spread communism to world, and Russia represented the ideal of that vision. This perception of Russian exceptionalism ran so deeply, I remember friends swearing that birch trees and cranberries only grew in Russia, despite my protestations.

When the USSR fell apart in 1991, it took the old Russian Empire with it, including Central Asia and Crimea. “Famous American preachers” flooded Russian stadiums, and busloads of American tourists handed out Bibles to passersby. I was a missionary myself back then, though hopefully with a bit more cultural sensitivity. We were initially welcome. Years of enforced atheism exhausts the soul. Some well-meaning Protestants acted as if Russia had always been atheist, with notable exceptions (such as Josh McDowell). Seventy years of atheism versus 1,000 years of Christianity. Why were we surprised in 1993 when the Russian Orthodox Church sided with Islam, Judaism and Buddhism to declare themselves the “traditional religions of Russia” and create draconian measures against burgeoning Protestant churches, even though Protestants had existed in Russia since the 17th century?

Imagine if we had lost the Cold War. Would you have embraced Soviet culture? Russians embraced Western culture because the Westernizers had won the Cold War. When ordinary Russians perceived that their Westernizer leaders allowed the country to fall into chaos and many of its people into deeper poverty as “New Russians” flouted their often ill-gotten gains, is it any surprise that the Slavophiles arose? Or that there were those who longed for a “strong arm,” a krépkaya ruká?

Россия была, есть и будет великой державой – Russia was, is and will be a great power

I remember seeing a sign at what was clearly a Soviet-style youth march in 2005 in Moscow when Putin was already in power five years. Young people held a banner that read, “Russia was, is and will be a superpower (великая держава).” That’s Christian phraseology, “Christ was, is and is to come,” absconded by the communists (“Lenin was, is and is to come”) and now employed in the post-Communist era. The Russian idea resurfaces. Think back, though. In 2005, which average American was concerned whether Russia was still a superpower? American focus has been elsewhere since 9/11, including reflecting on our own exceptionalism.

Папа Джонс в г. Тверь
Papa Johns in Tver, Russia, photo by EB Miceli

When I visited Russia in the fall of 2016, my soul was very, very happy. Moscow and Saint Petersburg have become grand European metropolises. Little has changed in Tver, though they do have a Papa John’s now. Even as the Starbucks near my old Moscow apartment reminded me of the reach of Western influence in Russia, news programs proclaimed that America was starting a new Cold War with Russia. Nearly every international story revealed American interference. When friends asked what Americans think of Russia, they were taken aback when I replied that most Americans don’t think anything about Russia. Our thoughts are full enough with our own economic woes and radical Islamic terrorism. This was before the election, that is.

Conclusion of the Matter

For hundreds of years, Russians have both envied and adored the West. We should not be surprised that Russia is reasserting itself on the world stage or that this incarnation has the veneer of Western democracy but looks more and more like the Russian Empire. I cannot judge Putin’s Christian faith – that is for God alone – but I do see political savvy in his embracing and promoting Russian Orthodoxy.

I can say with some confidence, nevertheless, that the reason Russia has meddled in our elections is that it wants the world to see it as it has wanted to perceive itself for centuries – a velikaya sverkh-derzhava, a great superpower. The Russian idea was not defeated in 1991. It’s reshaping itself. The modern Russian idea belongs to a new generation of Russian philosophers. I pray it will indeed bring goodness to the world because it doesn’t appear that way on our side of the planet. Lord, have mercy on both our countries and all those under our influence.

I’m going to take a sip of tea now and await your comments in English or in Russian. Чайку попью пока жду комментарии по-русски или по-английски от вас. That is, after I eat my homemade pelmeni (Russian meat ravioli) with sour cream and watch the Houston Ballet perform the Russian classic ballet, “La Bayadére.” Oh, and the happy face on the tab to my site? That’s how we received our fried eggs in our Saint Petersburg hotel. As the Russians say, “Vso budet khorosho“everything is going to be alright.” Amen and Аминь.

End of Brain Dump #1.

2 thoughts on “Random Brain Dump #1: What’s up with Russia? The Russian Idea

  1. I really only have one personal Russian story…. I was teacher HS sophomore English is a private school in 2010. We had a new IT man, and my desktop was acting up. So during one of my classes this gentleman quietly entered and did his job. We were reading “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut so the discussion easily moved toward socialism, communism, Cold War, Russia and air raid shelters- which I told my class my father in the 1950s really wanted to build in the backyard. I heard some quiet teehees from my desk, and then a strongly accented voice said, “Us, too!”
    It was a revelation to me that two probably average families many miles and cultures apart, felt exactly the same way!!
    I often wonder the difference between Putin and the hardworking average Russian…. is it the same difference as President Trump and my family… or not so long ago our last President?
    Whatever the story or motivation, I too pray that our nation, and other good meaning nations can spread good to the entire world.
    And I would love to visit St Petersburg and Moscow someday!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucia! What a neat story. It’s really true, too. Economically, your comparison is pretty right on about Putin and Trump.

      You should definitely make the trip to Russia. As a literature buff, you would love all the house-museums they have for their famous authors. I’ve been Chekhov’s house in Moscow and Tolstoy’s estate near Tula, Yasnaya Polyana. They really value their writers!

Now, what do you think?