Reimagining American Community

russianeastertableI began reading this article on the Washington Post with some level of annoyance, not exactly befitting the Lenten season. I found Antoine Arjakovsky’s argument – sadly in no wise rebuffed or even questioned by the author of this article which quotes him – that our Patriarch, His Holiness Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, has ‘invented’, in concert with Putin’s government, ‘a new mythology, the new ideology… of the Russian idea, which would invent a new theology of politics’ to be, even on its very face, absurd. Our Patriarch is a kind, gifted and intelligent man, and of course I am happy to see him invite others to explore these ideas, but it is a great insult to the saints and philosophers who came before him to claim that it represents some sort of novelty on his part. But rather than fall prey to my grievous wonted sins of anger and verbal abuse over it, I thought it would be a good opportunity to offer another perspective, and meditate a bit on the history of this idea – certainly a far longer one than His Holiness’s reign as our Patriarch.

There is an affinity between the history of the Slavs and the history of the Jews. The story of each is a story of nomadism, of slavery, of foreign domination, of the uncertain quest for a homeland. Slavs were always subject to the clashes of great empires: the Franks and the Huns, the two ‘Roman’ Empires, the various Turkic, Iranian, Ugric and Mongolic pastoralist empires which raged across the Slavs’ eastern frontier. They were settled on, but did not hold, the great bridge between East and West. At many times during the history of the Slavs, all they had, it seemed, was their common tongue and their faith. And that faith was a fault line, particularly after the Great Schism. The Czechs, the Poles and Pomeranians, the Sorbs, the Ruthenians, the Slovenes and the Croats all embraced the Old Rome; the Russians of Novgorod, Moscow and Kiev, the Bulgars and the Serbs all embraced the New. Broadly speaking, the Slavs have a tragic sense of history, married ironically to a patient and enduring messianic hope – to which the clearest and purest voice was given by the witness of the Church as it approached them from Byzantium.

My encounter with theo-philosophical Slavophilia (a Russian movement which could be inclusive of, but which was very different from, the political pan-Slavism which took hold all over Eastern Europe) has been largely second-hand, through the works of Orthodox lay philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, who was deeply influenced by the fathers of the Slavophil movement, Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. Indeed, one of the most influential books of his later life was entitled The Russian Idea.

The Russian idea, as Berdyaev quotes from the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, ‘is not to be understood by intellectual processes. You cannot take her measurements with a common yardstick, she has a form and stature of her own: you can only believe in Russia†’. I might have said in college and after that, that this Russian idea is a very Daoist idea – and there is certainly more than a grain of truth to that. There is an element of 無為 wu wei to the entire Russian Slavophil project, particularly when its two greatest ideas – those of sobornost’ and of integral knowing – are only ever pointed to in the fragmentary writings of Khomyakov and Kireevsky, and not spoken aloud. (As Laozi had it: ‘道可道,非常道;名可名,非常名’ – ‘the way that can be told of is not the constant way; the name that can be spoken is not the constant name’.) And the idea that there is a Far Eastern or a Chinese element in Russian thinking is, as Berdyaev would likely agree, not an idea to be tossed lightly aside. But now I would say that it is more correct to call Tyutchev’s sentiment not Daoist but Patristic.

The Russian idea is a Christian idea, and there is something apophatic in its core, something not to be grasped by the fragile and fallible human mind. One can see through Berdyaev reflections in the Slavophils of S. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in particular, when they mount their attacks on the ‘triumph of formal reason’ which tended toward an ‘external and lifeless unity’ rather than towards ‘something inward and living’. The positive ideal to which this points, sobornost’, is often translated as ‘catholicity’ or more literally as ‘conciliarity’, carries with it far more dynamic, creative and emotive connotations. Sobornost’ represents the free and loving subordination of individuals to each other in community (under Church, under Tsar, under narod), in response to the same ineffable values.

Khomyakov and Kireevsky, theorists though they were of Russia’s special spiritual and world-historical mission, were not mean-spirited, arrogant nationalists, as their intellectual heirs (such as our Patriarch Kirill who is known to quote Berdyaev, along with Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin and the leading lights of the erstwhile ‘Motherland’ party, Dmitry Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev) are painted in the Washington Post, along with most other Western news outlets, on a routine basis. They acknowledged the deep debts they personally, and Russia generally, owed to a Christian Greece and indeed to a pre-Christian Iran. The Russian idea didn’t point to a larger or more powerful Russia – indeed, power was something which has always sat ill with the Russian idea. The Slavs were always on the receiving end of power – of Frankish power, of Byzantine power, of German power, of Tatar and Mongol and Magyar power. Tragedy and messianic hope touched each other to produce something like anarchism, fierce and uncompromising… and also something positive which found, in the persons of Nikolai Berdyaev and Vladimir Solovyov, a close kinship with Catholic personalism.

Though they sat on this immense bridge between East and West, whenever the Slavs happened to mount the watchtowers themselves they always did so in a spirit of distrust, that in doing so they were taking on the mantle of Antichrist. Berdyaev notes that the Kievan Rus’ did not dare arrogate to themselves the power of life and death over their subjects. Khomyakov absolutely baulked with revulsion at the very idea of capital punishment – a sentiment echoed both by sympathetic pochvenniki like Dostoevsky and semi-Westernisers like Turgenev, not to mention someone like Leo Tolstoy! Indeed, in much of Russian thought there lies not so far beneath the surface a legendary suspicion that beneath the trappings of the Tsar’s worldly power (and in particular that of Peter the Great) lies the mark of Antichrist.

In truth, the Slavophils loved monarchy. They even elevated it along with Orthodoxy and the narod to the status of one of the basic principles of the Russian idea. But it would be wrong to think that they worshipped monarchical power for its own sake! They elevated it only insofar as it was a specifically Russian characteristic, an organic corrective to the tyranny of the Western absolutisms of bourgeois democracy and of enlightened despotism. Because it was not love of power that motivated the Slavophils, or those who came after them, but the power of love: what animated the Slavophil ideal of monarchy was precisely the sobornyi spirit, that of the inner life of the community. Berdyaev notes that there was a radical moment in the writings of Khomyakov, a shunning of the state and an instinct prefiguring narodnichestvo, that peculiarly Russian populism which elevates the lived values of the traditional peasantry and working class to something approaching a civic-messianic status.

It ought to be noted that in the present day, the intellectual and political atmosphere of Russia is far more ambiguous. Putin himself takes Slavophilia second-hand, for example, from the works of Berdyaev’s fellow white émigré Ivan Il’in. Though the two overlap significantly, it is also wrong to conflate, as the Western press sometimes does, Slavophilia with the new Eurasian doctrine. There is Slavophilia to be found in the Church and amongst the clergy, but aside from the political platforms of ‘Motherland’ and now ‘Fair Russia’, Slavophilia as such has few outlets in the political realm. Aleksandr Dugin, one of the more prominent Eurasianists, is not so much influenced by the Slavophils as he is by more extreme, even neo-pagan sources. Dugin’s political doctrine bears greater resemblance to that of Konstantin Leontev, and is anti-personalist and anti-narodnik: it brooks no freedom-in-community, embraces power triumphally and not tragically, and clings far too tightly to the nation-state – all three tendencies which would have repelled Khomyakov and Kireevsky, not to mention Berdyaev. Even sympathetic Russia-watchers ought to be highly wary of this direction.

It is nevertheless on one level wrong-headed to equate the Russian civic messianism with that of America, despite their surface similarities. True – both Russia and America have historically and geographically faced vast frontiers leading outward, away from the rest of civilisation. And also true – Russia and America both have used this geographic fact to command great empires driven by ideology. True yet still – Russia and America have embraced their respective empires most unwillingly. But America was and is still, in a very real sense, the New World; the old world with its old gods into which the European colonists set foot quickly vanished beneath our guns, germs and steel. The American colonists faced no great existential threats to their survival, and our approach to power and to progress has been always triumphal, never tragic.

Russia, on the other hand, is a unique bridge between many Old Worlds, all of which have shaped its historical destiny: the Franco-Latin West through the Balts, Poles and Germans on one side, and China through the Tatars on the other. Their ruling class came from the heathen Swedes and Finns, and these were baptised by the Byzantines. The Slavic sense of tragedy has given the Russians a keen and deeply conservative awareness of the trade-offs involved in the precarious geopolitical position they have pretty much always occupied.

But the dissimilarities between these two forms of civic nationalism – now dancing a deadly dance with each other amidst a vortex of misunderstanding, hostility and recrimination – also make the need for understanding all the more urgent. As an American of (Czech) Slavic immigrant extraction, I see more similarities than I see differences in the basic desires and beliefs of the American people and the Russian, in spite of the posturing now being taken by our respective governments. None of us who are sane want to plunge into another cold war that stands such a great danger of heating up.  And as someone who is trying to follow in the Slavophils’ footsteps philosophically and theologically, I truly hope and pray that we can learn from and better understand Russian history.

I should note in closing that Berdyaev himself was not a Slavophil – for him, their historical thinking (about the Tsars of Moscow in particular) was too naïve when not downright wrong; their attachment to monarchy too sentimental; their antipathy toward Catholicism and all things Western too simplistic. But Berdyaev also refused to let himself be understood without them. Berdyaev took to heart and made his own the Slavophil concept of sobornost’; with it he mounted his twin attacks on bourgeois individualism and atheistic collectivism. He elaborated on the Slavophil critiques of Catholicism and Scholasticism, particularly in his friendly disputes with fellow Personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain. Most importantly, though, he endorsed and shared the Slavophil faith in Russia’s spiritual mission, which had yet to manifest itself. And still has.

† The famous quatrain by Tyutchev:

‘Умом Россию не понять,

Аршином общим не измерить:

У ней особенная стать –

В Россию можно только верить.’

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.