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A Glimpse of Eastern Expanses

How to Order by Richard Smoley

"To Dostoyevski's Christianity," predicted Oswald Spengler, "the next thousand years will belong."(1)

What did he mean by this? Spengler, who in his celebrated work The Decline of the West tried to prove that great world cultures have lifespans of approximately 1000 years, believed the West was at the end of its time, while Russia's was only beginning. Once it threw off the alien ideology of Marxism, Spengler thought, the Russian world culture would come into its own.

This assertion, which seems more prophetic now than when it first appeared in the 1920s, rests on one crucial assumption: that Russia is not intrinsically a part of the West. Is this true? And if so, what makes it different? These questions have been disputed for centuries, nowhere more hotly than in Russia itself.

And the more one thinks about it, the more one wonders exactly where the borders of Western civilization may be drawn. Much of Eastern Europe has been intensely involved in the central processes of Western history. The fifteenth-century Czech priest Jan Hus led a popular reform movement that predated Luther by over a century, while Poland took full part in the struggles between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. To the south, the present-day battle between Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians grimly recapitulates the warfare between Christianity and Islam that has stained both religions for over 1300 years. But somehow Russia seems different - another world culture, as Spengler said, or, in the exotic terminology of Daniil Andreev (who has been hailed as Russia's greatest mystic of the Soviet period), a different zatomis, or metaculture. Why? We've devoted this issue to different views of the spiritual heritage of this enormous nation and its neighbors, but first it might be useful to gain some historical perspective.

The name "Russia" is thought to derive from the Rus, a tribe of Vikings who settled in what is now northwestern Russia in the ninth century A.D. According to the medieval Primary Russian Chronicle, a certain Viking prince named Rurik was invited by the Slavs to bring order to their nation. The idea of inviting a Viking to bring order is a bit puzzling and may help explain the semimythical status to which Rurik has been relegated by modern historians.(2) Nonetheless it is known that by the tenth century a flourishing state known as Rus existed encompassing parts of what are now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. At this point Vladimir, prince of Kiev, searching for a faith that would unify his far-flung realm, investigated the religions of his neighbors. He sent emissaries to various nations to find out how they worshiped. When his emissaries came back, they told him:

When we journeyed among the [Muslim] Bulgarians, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the [Catholic] Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went to Greece, and the [Orthodox] Greeks led us to the buildings where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter.(3)

Vladimir was convinced, and he and the Russian nation officially converted to Orthodox Christianity around the year 988. What's interesting about this process is the criterion that was used. The esotericist Valentin Tomberg points out that "Christianity was chosen as the result of a cult experience. Neither the Christian world conception nor a preached sermon was decisive for the acceptance of Christianity in Russia, but rather the experience of the Eastern Christian liturgy."(4)

Tomberg believes that this experience was crucial for the development of the Russian soul, and there are good reasons to agree with him. In the first place it helps explain the importance of beauty to Russian culture. The magnificence of Orthodox churches and the palaces of the tsars are familiar from hundreds of coffee-table volumes, but beauty was something that pervaded all levels of Russian life: even the humblest cottage featured the krasnii ugol, the "beautiful corner," with its icon and lamp (pictured on this issue's cover). Nine hundred years after Vladimir's emissaries returned from Constantinople, Dostoyevsky hoped that the world would be saved by beauty.(5)

Vladimir's choice of Orthodoxy over Roman Catholicism would have another kind of impact. Orthodoxy was the religion of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived for nearly 1000 years after the collapse of its counterpart in the West. This longevity enabled the Byzantine emperors to play a much greater role in shaping Orthodoxy than Western monarchs could with Catholicism. In the words of historian Richard Pipes, "The Orthodox church never had the power and the cohesion needed to defend its interests from secular encroachments."(6)

Moreover Orthodoxy is a conservative religion: it regards the eternal truths of faith as having been set out by the seven ecumenical councils (the last of which was convened in 787). As Pipes notes, "this inherent conservatism causes Orthodoxy to want strong secular authority at its side. The land must be pure and 'holy,' unpolluted by false faiths. No deviation from tradition can be tolerated."(7) By the time the Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453, Kiev, which itself had been sacked by the Mongols two centuries earlier, had lost its primacy among the cities of Russia. Its place was rapidly being occupied by the burgeoning city of Moscow. With Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, now in the hands of the Muslim Turks, the Muscovite Grand Duke Ivan the Great claimed the role of champion of Orthodoxy, calling his capital the "Third Rome." The Muscovite Grand Dukes also took the title of "tsar," a Russianized version of "Caesar." The stage was set for the rise of absolutism, a form of government that, in the guises of both tsarism and communism, would prevail for centuries.

Russia was shaped by another decisive event. Lying on the eastern periphery of Europe, it was forced to absorb the primary shock of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Not only did the "Mongol yoke" keep the Russians in political subservience for 200 years, but it cut them off from the broader cultural currents of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Henceforth Russia would remain divided in its attitude toward foreigners, particularly Europeans: gingerly curious about ideas from abroad, it also reacted with suspicion and hostility to Latinstvo or "Latinism," as sixteenth-century Muscovites referred to Western innovations.(8)

Yet these innovations would not be resisted. Finally they found their champion in Tsar Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725. A giant of a man, six feet eight inches tall, Peter was determined to drag his recalcitrant subjects into the world of greater Europe. Celebrated for feats ranging from building Russia's first navy to cutting off his courtiers' beards to bring them in line with Western fashion (some stashed away their shorn beards, fearing to show up without them on Judgment Day), he is also remembered for building a new capital in the Baltic marshes - a "window to Europe" which he called St. Petersburg.

One of the earliest Western importations that came in the wake of Peter's reforms was Freemasonry. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) Masonry became fashionable among the aristocracy for reasons much like those that draw people to esotericism today: it offered an alternative both to a simplistic popular faith and the skepticism prevalent among the educated. Not only did it serve as a vehicle for importing many of the ideas of the Enlightenment to Russia, but, as the first semisecret society to gain any prominence there, it set a precedent for the many secret societies - some spiritual, some political - that have flourished there up to the present day.(9) Later, in the nineteenth century, the Masonic influence among the intelligentsia would be augmented or supplanted by other Western currents, such as German Romanticism and the idealism of G.W.F. Hegel, as well as other occult influences, which are noted in Stephan Hoeller's article "Esoteric Russia."

Thus one could say that the influences most profoundly affecting Russian spirituality have been its native Paganism (discussed in several articles in this issue), Orthodox Christianity, and Western ideas. The combination of these forces go a good way toward explaining many of the trends that have appeared in Russia even in recent times; still it would be wrong to describe the Russian spirit as a mere synthesis of alien influences. There remains something profoundly original about what the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev called "the Russian idea." And it seems to me that only by glimpsing something of this "idea" that can one understand this nation's dark though brilliant history.

Take sobornost, for example. This can be roughly translated as "commonality," although it far exceeds the concept implied by the English word. It is a type of commonality that is marked not by compulsion but by voluntary participation - by love. Sobornost neither suffocates the individual nor sets him apart; it "indicates a unity which knows of no external authority over it, but equally knows no individualistic isolation and seclusion." It is "the organic union of freedom and love."(10)

Another central idea in the Russian soul is a profound apocalypticism. "Apocalypse has always played a great part both among the masses of our people and at the highest cultural level," Berdyaev stresses.(11) This apocalypticism can take on quite unfamiliar forms. The philosophy of Hegel, who characterized history as the process of the manifestation of Spirit in the world, was wholeheartedly welcomed by Russian intellectuals, as were other thinkers who held that history has an ultimate goal or direction. As Christopher Bamford and Michael Murphy explain, Russian philosophy "is future oriented, expressing a philosophy of history passing into metahistory, the life-of-the-world-to-come in the Kingdom of God"(12) (a primary concern of Daniil Andreev, among others).

But the central theme in the Russian psyche seems to be suffering. As Tomberg's article in this issue indicates, suffering occupies a different place in the Russian soul than in ours. We regard it as a nuisance, an unfortunate byproduct of life in this world, whereas Russians seem to regard it as innately ennobling, a means of purifying the soul. (Compare G.I. Gurdjieff's espousal of "conscious labor and intentional suffering.") Suffering also ties into the concept of sobornost. Dostoyevsky's characters suffer not only for themselves but for others: the housepainter Nikolai in Crime and Punishment, for example, confesses to a murder he did not commit as a means of redemption.

There is indeed something beautiful and ennobling in these themes. Which of us doesn't feel the need of community? Who doesn't want to see the Kingdom of God on earth, or to feel that the sufferings we undergo in life have redemptive value? And it is the spirit behind these ideas that Spengler seems to mean when he speaks of "Dostoyevski's Christianity." Yet these ideas have their dark side as well. By the beginning of this century, the Russian people, exasperated with tsarism and the Orthodox Church (which was widely regarded as a mere organ of the tsarist state) came to accept Marxism, a materialistic faith that broke all ties with the spiritual heritage of the past. The tragedies of the 70-year Soviet epoch are too well known to be rehearsed here, but it's not hard to see how the themes of sobornost and apocalypticism were played out in communism, a world view that emphasizes commonality as well as the culmination of world history in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even the communal sense of sin, whereby one takes on another's guilt, was turned into a grotesque parody of itself when the KGB and its predecessors forced people to confess to crimes of which they were innocent. (Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn contain the most eloquent denunciations of these atrocities.) Similar points can be made about the Orthodox heritage. If Orthodoxy, as some claim, has preserved esoteric traditions that go back to the Apostles, if it incorporates a mystical element that values experience as much as faith, it also has to atone for a certain past of its own.

This includes not only Orthodoxy's collusion in tsarist absolutism but its reluctance to stand up to the communists. For the Russian hierarchy's subservience to the secular powers continued into the Soviet era. Though many of the clergy fled after the revolution of 1917 or were killed or imprisoned thereafter, a good number of the remainder accommodated themselves to what Boris Pasternak called "the revolutionary superstate" (a fact that led to splits and schisms in Russian Orthodox denominations abroad).

To some extent this conciliation was an attempt to survive, to some extent mere habit. But it was also the result of infiltration by the KGB: estimates of Russian Orthodox clergy who were KGB agents under the Soviets range from 15 to 50%. The secret police also controlled appointments to the church hierarchy; one ecclesiastic was even heard to say, "I don't know what induced the KGB to make me archbishop of Vilnius." While there were churchmen who opposed the Soviet regime, most of them were of low rank and did not receive the support of their superiors. Now that communism has collapsed, certain figures in the Orthodox Church have been aligning themselves with the extreme right that has aroused such apprehension of late.(13)

In making these points, I'm not trying to discredit the Orthodox heritage, which is after all a remarkable one, and which, as Siobhan Houston's "Turning to Orthodoxy" indicates, is having more appeal in the U.S. itself. (I should also point out that for centuries there has been a strong countercurrent in Russian Orthodoxy emphasizing the inner life rather than the trappings of power.) But if a tree is known by its fruit, all of its fruit must be examined, the bad along with the good.

What one will conclude from this examination is, of course, a personal matter. On a broader scale, does Russia's future indeed belong to that combination of beauty, suffering, sobornost, and mysticism that so flavors its spirituality? I suspect it does, but it doesn't seem as if this future will belong to any one denomination. Though Orthodoxy retains a considerable amount of respect in Russia, and no doubt will remain the dominant religion, other strains in the Slavic heritage also seem very much alive. Igor Kungurtsev and Olga Luchakova, in their article "The Unknown Russian Mysticism," describe various folk and Pagan practices that have survived to this day. And the liberalization of travel and removal of censorship has attracted a number of new Western influences ranging from fundamentalist Christianity to Werner Erhard's brand of self-improvement.

This urge to help and rescue, which is of course a longstanding characteristic of the American spirit, sometimes also seems to imply a certain condescension in our attitude toward the Russians. And it's quite true that their political and economic example is not one we would care to emulate. But if Russia seems to lack the American knack for industry and finance, we might also remember that this supposedly backward nation has made contributions to world literature and art that America cannot begin to match. (No one in his right mind would claim the next thousand years belong to Hemingway or Henry James.) To return to the initial question: where does the West end and the East begin? No signs mark the borders between civilizations: if the primarily Catholic Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians have been very much a part of Mitteleuropa, Balkan nations like Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia, with their long past under Turkish rule, seem as close to the Middle East as to the West. Still other nationalities, such as the Ukrainians and the Baltic peoples, have struggled with fierce passion to retain their own independent identities and have often looked to the West as a counterweight to Russian hegemony. And of course the Jews of Eastern Europe survived for centuries - even producing rich traditions such as Hasidism - despite persecution in nearly all of these nations.

As for Russia itself, it seems to have its own heritage and its own fate: both Spengler and Andreev seem right in describing it as a world culture of its own. Nonetheless it also has strong bonds with the West, even with the United States - bonds that may include common or parallel destinies. As Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in 1835, when both Russia and the U.S. were still rural backwaters, "their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."(14)


1. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), vol. 2, p. 196.

2. Serge A. Zarkovsky, ed., Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1963), pp. 49-51.

3. Ibid., pp. 67-68. The "Bulgarians" mentioned were a Volga tribe not to be confused with the Balkan Bulgarians, who had mostly converted to Orthodoxy.

4. Valentin Tomberg, "Christianity in Russia," in Spiritual Fire and the World Situation: Early Articles (Spring Valley, N.Y.: Candeur Manuscripts, 1984), p. 55. Emphasis is in the original.

5. James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 349.

6. Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), p. 224.

7. Ibid., p. 226.

8. Billington, p. 96.

9. Ibid., pp. 242-52.

10. Nikolai Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, trans. R.M. French (Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press, 1992), p. 180.

11. Ibid., p. 208.

12. [Michael Murphy and Christopher Bamford], "Esalen Institute/Lindisfarne Press Library of Russian Philosophy," in Berdyaev, p. 286.

13. Walter Laqueur, Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 231-37.

14. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Schocken Books, 1961 [1835]), vol. 1, p. 522.

(c) copyright 1994 by GNOSIS Magazine and Richard Smoley

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