All the Best to the Russians, But I Am Profoundly Skeptical

All the Best to the Russians, But I Am Profoundly Skeptical September 22, 2014

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Orthodoxy and Colonialism: St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox church in Warsaw under attack via monument.

The Merton Annual asked me to write a piece about the Thomas Merton – Czeslaw Milosz correspondence that was published some time ago as Striving Towards Being. The correspondence includes a long discussion of Russia. I admit Russia is a minor obsession of mine; quite natural for a Pole, after all.

The thinness of today’s Western political writing on Russia has something to do with the desperation of conservatives who are pretty much the only intellectuals who are actively interested in that region of the world. But they are interested in it for all the wrong reasons. Russia has become for them a consevatopia, something of a city burning upon a hill for all to see, and the last refuge of conservative values. The uncritical praising of Russia reminds me of all those turn of the century fellow-travelers like Shaw, Sartre, Russell, and Gide. Naivete is not the sole property of the left.

The American-Centrism (center of the universe!) in response to any criticism of Russia is quite shocking. Any critical comment on Russia and Orthodoxy (frequent on my part) will elicit a litany of breast-beating about America’s sins usually connected to stupid American militarism. That’s all fine, since I hate those American excesses as well, but they don’t excuse stupid Russian militarism at all.

My Polishness usually comes in for criticism during such “discussions,” because I obviously have a slanted view on Russia and shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s fine, only if we remember that saying something like this makes almost as much sense as saying that American-Indians or African-Americans should not be allowed to criticize America because they are biased (duh!) in their take.

The Russian Orthodox church of St. Mary Magdalene registers in my earliest memories. It is on a major thoroughfare in Northern Warsaw, not far from where I was born. The church was erected there by occupying Russian forces in 1867 to service the Russians who had been relocated to partitioned Poland in order to change its ethnic makeup (sound familiar?). Therefore, since time immemorial, the onion dome has always stood for me (and many others in Eastern/Central Europe) as a sign of colonialist force, rather than as a sign of salvation (the Catholics don’t have that market cornered at all). The lugubrious seriousness of the church as a symbol is undermined by a monument to Polish-Soviet “solidarity” (fictional) during WW2 whose figures are aiming their guns and grenades at the onion domes. Yes, black humor is Eastern Europe’s #1 export.

While I’ve talked about the problems with Putin and Russia (independently of America–not now or ever the center of the universe) before, I think it would be useful for you to take a look at this passage by Milosz’s from Striving Towards Being to see how Russia is perceived by those whose historical consciousness has been shaped by their proximity to Russia and their (more realistic) understanding of what makes it tick. Mind you Milosz is no Russophobe. He’s did his share to champion the cause of Russian thinkers such as Solovyov, Shestov, and Bulgakov in Poland. He was also frequently theologically critical of Polish religiously-fueled nationalism from a cosmopolitan papist standpoint.

What’s fascinating is how easily this could be applied to today’s headlines:

It’s complicated.

I do not know whether you are familiar with the history of the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church. It is strange to think that big planetary issues of today depended once upon success or failure of what Russia considered the greatest threat to its power: the spread of that Church fos­ tered by the Vatican and by the Poles. The last act was staged in 1944/45 when the Soviet authorities converted by force the last areas where that Church was rooted and killed its bishops. Note: converted, officially, into Orthodox religion, with religious hierarchy residing in Moscow.

I have serious difficulties when I start to speak about Russia. Many misunderstandings between me and my friends, French or American. Certainly, I am more interested in Russia than in the Soviet Union. Political struggle masks today the truth about that peculiar civilization of which the Soviet Union is but one of the avatars. Very few people in the XIXth c. understood or tried to grasp the phenomenon, instruments were lacking and are lacking now, as admirers and foes turn together against anybody who dares to stress the astonishing continuity under changing appearances. I confess, I distrust Russians when they speak about themselves. I distrust, for instance, Berdayev and his escapes into pseudo­mystical fogs. And how much I can admire Boris Pasternak for his human qualities-there is something in his Doctor Zhivago which makes me distrustful. I know certain undercurrents. A great Russian poet, Alexander Blok, wrote immediately after the Revolution a famous poem “The dozen” in which revolutionary soldiers march in empty streets and “in white wreath of roses, before them Jesus Christ.” Crucified Russia, as the Savior of mankind, as a chosen nation opening the paths to true Christianity through suffering, makes part of Dostoyevsky’s historiosophy and appears in many other authors-also, in a discreet form, in Pasternak.

[The Poles have their own version of messianism that sometimes veers into the heretical: Mickiewicz’s vision of Poland as the Christ of nations. It differs from American or Russian messianisms in that, unlike those nations, Poles have frequently defended hopeless causes of the oppressed against their own interests and at great cost. No lesser figure than Vladimir Soloyvov understood, appreciated, and commended the Polish messianic difference. See: Walicki’s Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism, or Zamoyski’s Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries. –AR]

You know it's good when it's been denounced by both czar, communist, and Putin (a lot of both).
You know it’s good when it’s denounced by czar, communist commissar, and Putin (a lot of both).

But a collective body, a human society, cannot be the Savior. A dream about collective purity achieved thanks to collective suffering is just a dream and in practice it leads to bestiality. I say that as translator of Simone Weil who was as un-Russian as possible. Geoffrey Gorer pretends that there was only one society based upon the principle of sin-as opposed to Western society based upon the principle of guilt and that was Czarist Russia. Here he hits the nail, I feel. Guilt is individual, it is my guilt. Sin is universal-not I am guilty but society (Or rather, the Universe) and I can be saved not through my effort (Grace given to me) but by the collective of which I am a particle. That’s why they are always in search of the Kingdom of God, but placed in time, substituting for it Communism or, perhaps, in the future, another type of eschatology. But personal responsibility is dissolved and I witnessed in 1945 murders committed by Russian soldiers with a deep feeling of sin, but without any feeling of personal guilt whatever. Are you not stricken by passivity of Zhivago, by his being completely submerged in Russia, to the extent that his 3 successive wives are transformed into pay­sage?

By his writing under the spell of inspiration but lack of a moment when a man says to himself: Well, I shall perish, but I shall leave something which will bear fruit in a proper time? Russians to this day detest Marquis Astolphe de Cus­tine but I am afraid this is because in his voyage in 1839 he guessed many of their secrets. Do not accuse me of being unjust towards Pasternak. His novel is an act, with full conscience of the risk. But a writer expresses trends and attitudes which are stronger than his conscience. During a bombardment in Moscow a Pole asked a crowd looking at the sky why they do not hide themselves in the metro and received the following answer: Nitchevo, we are many. This is splendid as humility: my death does not count. But dangers are tremendous as this means also: my guilt does not count.

The standard history of Russian thought has been written… by a Pole.

There is an archetype of Polish attitude towards Russians, a sort of fascination with Russians as human beings but a categorical rejection of “Russianity,” the best example of which is Joseph Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes. I am not ashamed to find in myself that archetype as this is not nationalism and does not come, I hope, from wounded patriotic feelings (my patriotism is doubtful). For me Russia is a sad affair, has been a sad affair since its beginnings in the XVth c., different from other countries and continents not by its crimes-history of our planet is criminal-but by a persisting myth of a collective pseudo-Christ.

Peoples should not suffer too much. They should be able to produce from time to time a Rabelais or comment on sadness of our fate as Cervantes did. If they suffer too much, obsessed by sin of the Universe, they look for imaginary accomplishment, and, en attendant, one goes to the police to denounce his best friend. After all, Karl Marx, with all his exaggerations, was not perhaps so stupid–I do not know whether you have heard of his being one of the most virulent Rus­sophobes of the XIXth c.-of course, those writings of his are censored in Moscow and do not reach the public. I wish all the best to the Russians but am profoundly skeptical.

Note how much Milosz’s criticism mirrors the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter in The Brothers Karamazov. Would it be fair to say that Dostoevsky was projecting to the collective history and present of Russian Orthodoxy onto Catholicism?

For more on Russia see “Cross-Kremlin-Orthodoxy” and excerpts from Milosz’s letter to Merton on Manichaeism.

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