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Searching for Sanctity

Searching for Sanctity
The literary reaction to Russian society in the Nineteenth Century

by Spencer C. Woolley


For centuries, to be a Russian meant embracing divinity, worshipping an awe-inspiring, omnipotent, mostly benevolent God. Since Vladimir I accepted Orthodoxy as the religion of the Kievan state in 988, the idea of Christian spirituality infused the Russian character. Mystical yet simple, Russian Orthodoxy endured the Mongols, outlasted tsars and promised miserable peasants deep meaning to their immediate suffering and imminent salvation after death. Robert K. Massie says in Peter the Great,

 “Russians are preeminently a pious, compassionate and humble people, accepting faith as more powerful than logic and believing that life is controlled by superhuman forces, be they spiritual, autocratic or even occult. Russians feel far less need than most pragmatic Westerners to inquire why things happen, or how they can be made to happen (or not to happen) again. Disasters occur and they accept; orders are issued and they obey. ... Russians are contemplative, mystical and visionary. From their observations and meditations, they have produced an understanding of suffering and death which gives a meaning to life not unlike that affirmed by Christ.”

Into this archetypal view of the universe, Peter the Great and his successors dragged the Enlightenment, and the Romantic and Realist movements that followed it. Western thought brutally shattered the sheltered Muscovite way of life; no more beards, no more kaftans, and heretics and infidels running around the Third Rome like flies on a decaying corpse. By the middle of the nineteenth century, all Russia felt racked by this terrible dichotomy; yearning to remain as things always were, but lusting to change with the rest of Europe. Russian writers keenly felt this split personality and expressed it in their budding literature. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol in particular delved into the schizophrenic Russian psyche, trying to define what it meant to be Russian and how Russia might survive modernity. Gogol dealt with provincial Russia in Dead Souls, while Dostoyevsky analyzed life in St. Petersburg in Crime and Punishment. Through their characters of Raskolnikov, Chichikov, and others, these authors highlighted the disharmony that Russia felt with her old self and her new Western practices. Further, these authors proposed, through their plots and characters, a solution to the aching dilemma plaguing the Russian soul, namely practical spirituality, a kind of living that changes oneself and one’s fellow human beings for the better. This spirituality is the catalyst that will save Russia from the cancer of Western living. This everyday holiness, vastly different, yet drawing upon, the grand liturgy of the Russian church, could heal the broken-minded and bring serenity to the disenchanted. Rather than embracing communism or nihilism, this summons to true sanctity called for Mother Russia to look to her past, to bind up the Western wounds of the present.

In 1777, a young man named Prokhor Moshnin wearied of his father’s desire for money, and having received a vision of the Trinity, entered a monastery and became Seraphim of Sarov. He became famous for his writings on living a spiritual life; so famous that he was canonized a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903. He taught why being properly “Christian” is essential to the good life. He said,

“Prayer, fasting, watching, and all other Christian acts, however good they might be, do not alone constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this aim. The true aim of our Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God. All that is not done for His sake, though it be good, brings neither reward in the life to come, nor in our life here the grace of God . . . the good deed [should] be done for Christ’s sake, since good done for Him both claims in the life of the world to come a crown of righteousness and in this present life fills men with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

Seraphim outlived Catherine the Great, the Napoleonic invasion and Alexander I to die in 1841, while Nicholas I jackbooted around the burgeoning Russian intelligentsia. Though he lived at the time when Russia had entered the European stage, Seraphim’s statement harks back to the roots of Russian spirituality; the point of life is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God through good works. He repeated a common Christian theme of doing good that brought about personal salvation. This creed of charity and worship was prominently familiar to the Russian people in the past. But, increasingly, in Seraphim’s day, it had become vilified, mocked and ignored.

When Vladimir the Baptized thrust the Orthodox religion on his subjects, he gave them a powerful source of structure, guidance and wisdom for their lives. While Vladimir held many reasons for his conversion, his emissaries to Constantinople had reported that the liturgy in the Hagia Sophia had been so grand and wonderful that they did not know if they were on earth or in heaven. Put simply, Eastern Orthodoxy inspired awe for God, and for the grandeur of His Church. Whether that awe was part of the Russian character or not before 988 is open to debate; however, most scholars will agree that awe, and consequently the submission to God and God’s representative the tsar became a central part of Russian belief afterward. As the proverb states, “It is very High up to God! It is very far to the Tsar!”

To a pre-Petrine Russian, the Orthodox Church was everything. After birth, the Russian was christened in the Church. What education there was to be found was under the direction of the Church, even if the priest was only slightly more literate than his students. Russians were married in the Church and then went to church once a week, and on the feasts of the Saints. Easter was by far the biggest festival of the year. The Church took the old pagan Slavic fertility symbol of the chicken egg and turned it into a powerful symbol of the resurrection of Christ. Monks and nuns were revered as being special servants of God, and were accorded great respect as well as large gifts of property and land. Equally important were the holy hermits and vagabonds, the “fools in Christ.” Rather than being confined in monastery or convent, they wandered the countryside, demonstrating that “God loves simple folk, and turns things to their advantage in the end.” The Orthodox Church taught that it was the only way to gain peace in this life, and salvation in the world to come. The good works that Seraphim of Sarov spoke of were held under the direction of the Church; the church was the place of prayer, the receptacle of alms, and the dispenser of the sacred sacraments that made the miserable moujik’s life worth living, as that moujik could be assured of eternal rest and bliss after death.

As well as teaching Russians what they should do, the Orthodox Church also taught them what they should not do. Heading the list of prohibited behaviors was the association with foreigners. The Russian Orthodox Church, and by extension Moscow itself, was viewed as the Third Rome. The First Rome had fallen by heresy, the Second Rome, Constantinople, had fallen to the infidel, and that left Mother Moscow, the last bastion of true Christianity on the face of the earth. As the final stronghold of Christianity, Russians were taught that their way was the best way, and indeed the only way to God. Other ideas, beliefs and religions were at best bizarre, and at worst the grossest heresies. Such teaching led to the distrust of foreign ways, and the enshrinement of Russian ones; by the time of Peter the Great, such distrust had given way to full-blown xenophobia. While Peter was hammering and sawing his way across Europe, the Strelsy were ready to kill all the foreigners in Moscow, proclaim Peter as an illegitimate pretender to the throne, and bring back his sister Sophia, just because the tsar had the temerity to associate with foreigners.

Modern Western scholars, with the fruits of the Enlightenment around them, have regarded the teachings of the pre-Revolution Orthodox Church as barbaric and cruel, squashing freedom of thought and squelching opposition to its views. Many Soviet scholars would concur. Whatever may be said of the pre-Revolution Orthodox Church, it was the central unifying feature of Kiev, Muscovy and Imperial Russia. It brought hope, personal peace and imminent salvation to generations of Russians, rich and poor, boyar and serf. Russian Orthodox achieved spiritual, intellectual and emotional dominance on a national scale; its xenophobic doctrines assured compliance and total spiritual, emotional and intellectual control of Russia, on a level never achieved by the Latin-based churches of Western Europe. It simply meant everything to the Russian people.

Into this carefully constructed view of the world, Peter the Great strode like a demolition worker with a sledgehammer. He flew in the face of everything a good Russian tsar was supposed to be. He was never very far away, but spent his whole reign traveling about his realm, checking on the various projects that he had running at the time. He hung out with the foreigners in Moscow’s German quarter, he visited those foreigners in their home countries in Western Europe, and he brought back ships, plans and ideas that would change Russia forever. Significant as Peter was, his descendents did much more to change Russian attitudes. Catherine the Great in particular foisted upon upper-class Russian society the ideas of her pen-pals Diderot and Voltaire. By the time that Dead Souls was published in 1842, Russian society had undergone a profound transformation.

In 1842, Nicholas I was tsar, people were still wondering about the “disappearance” of Alexander I, and Russia had definitively entered the European scene. The beginnings of industrialization were under way, the tsar’s army had routed the great Napoleon, and life, for the aristocracy at least, seemed to be good. However, lurking beneath the surface of this Enlightened Russia was great discontent, and fermenting revolution. Nicholas I had crushed and tortured the Decembrists, and the nihilist movement gathered strength from the continued abuses of the autocracy. Then Gogol published Dead Souls. Gogol referred to the book as an “epic poem, after the order of the Iliad and Odyssey.” He makes a convincing case of it; Dead Souls shares many characteristics of the ancient epics, but Chichikov is neither an Achilles nor an Odysseus. Rather, Chichikov represents the classic Russian folk hero, trying to outsmart the upper classes and get ahead himself.

However, there are significant differences in Chichikov’s heroic foolishness than in the foolishness of the earlier Russian folk heroes’. Chichikov is not a fool for Christ; instead he is a fool for himself. He admits that his pilfering of dead souls is technically wrong, but “[He] hadn’t exactly stolen anything, but he had availed himself of things.” His efforts to gain status and wealth ultimately fail, whereas the holy fools of the past succeeded against the wildest odds. Chichikov is radically different; not being intellectually absent, but morally defunct. Gogol’s genius appears in that Chichikov remains admirable through the novel; Gogol’s most acerbic wit reserves itself for the asinine, pompous, and even more morally bankrupt provincial gentry that Chichikov calls upon. Once, Russia’s landowning class competed against itself to see who could build the largest church or endow the most needy orphanage or convent. But Gogol points out that they now lounge around their decrepit estates, abusing their serfs, and going to an endless round of parties, banquets, salons and balls, without really understanding why. In his defense to the Prince at the end of the novel, Chichikov says, “I’ve wandered from the strait and narrow; I won’t dispute that. But I wandered from the strait and narrow, you see only when I perceived that there was no taking the direct road and the indirect road was the most direct . . . If I took anything, it was from the rich.” Prince Murazov does indeed place a great deal of blame on Chichikov, upbraiding him for not making better choices life, but the Prince also condemns the Russian society for having made Chichikov. His moral culpability is less than the society which created him. Dead Souls’ satirical prose points out the utter foolishness of the current Russian society, and in so doing highlights the ancient tales of holy foolishness, the kind of foolish that redeemed, rather than damned those who partook of it.

Twenty-three years later, Dostoyevsky brought forth Crime and Punishment. The intervening decades had not been kind to Mother Russia. The myth of Russian invincibility shattered on the bulwarks of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. While industrialization proceeded along, Russia grew further and further behind technologically with Western Europe, and the poverty of the people grew worse. As bad as it was in the provinces, Crime and Punishment shows the true squalor of the big cities, and especially St. Petersburg. The novel begins with a view of an almost schizophrenic man, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov trying to exist in the hard-bitten world of the St. Petersburg slums. Raskolnikov has separated himself from Russian society, feeling himself wiser and more morally aware than the people he is surrounded by.

This idea of separation becomes extremely important in the novel. Raskolnikov commits his infamous murder based on the idea that he can act above other human beings. His torment does not begin over the death of the pawn-broker, but rather over her sister. Dostoyevsky says,

 “He longed to run away from the place as fast as possible. And if at that moment he had been capable of seeing and reasoning more correctly, if he had been able to realize all the difficulties of his position, the hopelessness, the hideousness and the absurdity of it, if he could have understood how many obstacles, and, perhaps, crimes he had still to overcome or to commit, to get out of that place and to make his way home, it is very possible that he would have flung up everything, and would have gone to give himself up, and not from fear, but from simple horror and loathing of what he had done.”

Thus the true separation of Raskolnikov begins; the separation that he enforced on himself through his murderous deed. He spends the rest of the novel trying to rationalize what he did, but to no avail; the story ends with him confessing his actions, and ending up in Siberia with the woman he loves. “But that is the beginning of the new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another, of how he learned to know a hitherto undreamed of reality.”

Dostoyevsky proposes here that Raskolnikov’s utilitarianism brought him immense mental torment. Siberia seems easy after the hell Raskolnikov put himself through in St. Petersburg. He becomes a symbol for Russia itself, torn between the material usefulness of Western ideas, but knowing that, at least on their terms, and the beliefs of their ancestors, are wrong.

The connection between the Church, morality and people had previously been stronger in Russia than almost anywhere else in Europe, but as the West encroached, that connection was lost. A major transformation, at least symbolically, occurred when Peter the Great disbanded the Patriarchate and formed the Holy Synod. Previous to Peter, it had often been the tsar that had served the Church; now those roles reversed. With the Church becoming increasingly an instrument of state policy, many Russians felt alienated from the supposedly “sanctified church,” and sought spiritual fulfillment elsewhere. Raskolnikov was one of them; he thought that utilitarianism for the intellectually and morally superior would work, but he proved himself subject to the ancient morality. Dostoyevsky calls back the old Russian virtues of charity, labor and suffering through other characters in the novel. Marmeldov speaks of the joy his long-suffering daughter will enjoy, “He will come in that day and He will ask: ‘Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?’ And He will say, ‘Come to Me….Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee, for thou has loved much….’” It is this kind of love, Dostoyevsky demonstrates through these ancillary characters, that can rescue Russia. Indeed, it is this kind of love that redeems Raskolnikov at the end of the novel. Crime and Punishment had been called Dostoyevsky’s denunciation of the then-current Russian system, and stands as a call to return to former values.

Nicholas II, last of the Romanovs, loved both Gogol and Dostoyevsky. Several scholars argue that he tried to institute the kinds of ideas both authors described in Dead Souls and Crime and Punishment, but such efforts came too late, and he perished with his family in the cellar in Yekaterinburg. Thanks to the machinations of Nicholas I, nihilism, socialism and the other revolutionary movements were well entrenched by the time these books came into print. Those forces proved far more powerful than the old vestiges of Russian Orthodoxy. Russian Orthodoxy by the time of Nicholas II was a toothless bear, stripped of most of her power by Peter the Great, and run by a doddering old bigot who even Tolstoy chose to mock. The history of nineteenth-century Russia may have been very different, had there been a larger movement to return to the old ways of the Church. But even Gogol knew that Russia was slipping from her ancient, Orthodox-sanctified roots. “Russia! Russia! I see you now, from my wondrous, beautiful past I behold you! How wretched, dispersed and uncomfortable everything is about you...”


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