Overleaf: Natalia Goncharova: backdrop design for The Firebird (1926)


The monastery of Optina Pustyn nestles peacefully between the pine forests and the meadows of the Zhizdra river near the town of Kozelsk in Kaluga province, 200 kilometres or so south of Moscow. The whitewashed walls of the monastery and the intense blue of its cupolas, with their golden crosses sparkling in the sun, can be seen for miles against the dark green background of the trees. The monastery was cut off from the modern world, inaccessible by railway or by road in the nineteenth century, and pilgrims who approached the holy shrine, by river boat or foot, or by crawling on their knees, were often overcome by the sensation of travelling back in time. Optina Pustyn was the last great refuge of the hermitic tradition that connected Russia with Byzantium, and it came to be regarded as the spiritual centre of the national consciousness. All the greatest writers of the nineteenth century - Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy among them - came here in their search for the ‘Russian soul’.

The monastery was founded in the fourteenth century. But it did not become well known until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was at the forefront of a revival in the medieval hermitic tradition and a hermitage, or skete, was built within its walls. The building of the skete was a radical departure from the Spiritual Regulations of the Holy Synod, which had banned such hermitages since 1721. The Spiritual Regulations were a sort of constitution of the Church. They were anything but spiritual. It was the Regulations which established the subordination of the Church to the Imperial state. The Church was governed by the Holy Synod, a body of laymen and clergy appointed by the Tsar to replace the Patriarchate, which was abolished in 1721. The duty of the clergy, as set out in the Regulations, was to uphold and enforce the Tsar’s authority, to read out state decrees from the pulpit, to carry out administrative duties for the state, and inform the police about all dissent and criminality, even if such information had been obtained through the confessional. The Church, for the most part, was a faithful tool in the hands of the Tsar. It was not in its interests to rock the boat. During the eighteenth century a large proportion of its lands had been taken from it by the state, so the Church was dependent on the state’s finances to support the parish clergy and their families.* Impoverished and venal, badly educated and proverbially fat, the parish priest was no advertisement for the established Church. As its spiritual life declined, people broke away from the official Church to join the Old Believers or the diverse sects which flourished from the eighteenth century by offering a more obviously religious way of life.

Within the Church, meanwhile, there was a growing movement of revivalists who looked to the traditions of the ancient monasteries like Optina for a spiritual rebirth. Church and state authorities alike were wary of this revivalist movement in the monasteries. If the monastic clergy were allowed to set up their own communities of Christian brotherhood, with their own pilgrim followings and sources of income, they could become a source of spiritual dissent from the established doctrines of Church and state. There would be no control on the social influence or moral teaching of the monasteries. At Optina, for example, there was a strong commitment to give alms and spiritual comfort to the poor which attracted a mass following. None the less, certain sections of the senior clergy displayed a growing interest in the mystical ideas of Russia’s ancient hermits. The ascetic principles of Father Paissy, who led this Church revival in the latter part of the eighteenth century, were in essence a return to the hesychastic path of Russia’s most revered medieval monks.

Hesychasm has its roots in the Orthodox conception of divine grace. In contrast to the Western view that grace is conferred on the virtuous or on those whom God has so ordained, the Orthodox religion regards grace as a natural state, implied in the act of creation itself, and therefore potentially available to any human being merely by virtue of having been created by the Lord. In this view the way the believer approaches God is through the consciousness of his own spiritual personality and by studying the example of Christ in order to cope better with the dangers that await him on his journey through life. The hesychastic monks believed that they could find a way to God in their own hearts - by practising a life of poverty and prayer with the spiritual

* Unlike their Catholic counterpart!, Russian Orthodox priests were allowed to marry. Only the monastic clergy were not.

guidance of a ‘holy man’ or ‘elder’ who was in touch with the ‘energies’ of God. The great flowering of this doctrine came in the late fifteenth century, when the monk Nil Sorsky denounced the Church for owning land and serfs. He left his monastery to become a hermit in the wilderness of the Volga’s forest lands. His example was an inspiration to thousands of hermits and schismatics. Fearful that Sorsky’s doctrine of poverty might provide the basis for a social revolution, the Church suppressed the hesychastic movement. But Sorsky’s ideas re-emerged in the eighteenth century, when clergymen like Paissy began to look again for a more spiritual church.

Paissy’s ideas were gradually embraced in the early decades of the nineteenth century by clergy who saw them as a general return to ‘ancient Russian principles’. In 1822, just over one hundred years after it had been imposed, the ban on sketes was lifted and a hermitage was built at Optina Pustyn, where Father Paissy’s ideas had their greatest influence. The skete was the key to the renaissance of the monastery in the nineteenth century. Here was its inner sanctuary where up to thirty hermits lived in individual cells, in silent contemplation and in strict obedience to the elder, or starets, of the monastery.1 Three great elders, each a disciple of Father Paissy and each in turn renowned for his devout ways, made Optina famous in its golden age: Father Leonid was the elder of the monastery from 1829; Father Makary from 1841; and Father Amvrosy from 1860 to 1891. It was the charisma of these elders that made the monastery so extraordinary - a sort of ‘clinic for the soul’ - drawing monks and other pilgrims in their thousands from all over Russia every year. Some came to the elder for spiritual guidance, to confess their doubts and seek advice; others for his blessing or a cure. There was even a separate settlement, just outside the walls of the monastery, where people came to live so that they could see the elder every day.2 The Church was wary of the elders’ popularity. It was fearful of the saint-like status they enjoyed among their followers, and it did not know enough about their spiritual teachings, especially their cult of poverty and their broadly social vision of a Christian brotherhood, to say for sure that they were not a challenge to the established Church. Leonid met with something close to persecution in his early years. The diocesan authorities tried to stop the crowds of pilgrims from visiting the elder in the monastery. They put

20. Hermits at a monastery in northern Russia. Those standing have taken the vows of the schema (skhima), the strictest monastic rules in the Orthodox Church. Their habits show the instruments of the martyrdom of Christ and a text in Church Slavonic from Luke 9:24

up Father Vassian, an old monk at Optina (and the model for Father Ferrapont in The Brothers Karamazov), to denounce Leonid in several published tracts.3 Yet the elders were to survive as an institution. They were held in high esteem by the common people, and they gradually took root in Russia’s monasteries, albeit as a spiritual force that spilled outside the walls of the official Church.

It was only natural that the nineteenth-century search for a true Russian faith should look back to the mysticism of medieval monks. Here was a form of religious consciousness that seemed to touch a chord in the Russian people, a form of consciousness that was somehow more essential and emotionally charged than the formalistic religion of the official Church. Here, moreover, was a faith in sympathy with the Romantic sensibility. Slavophiles like Kireevsky, who began the pilgrimage of intellectuals to Optina, discovered a reflection of their own Romantic aversion to abstract reason in the anti-rational approach to the divine mystery which they believed to be the vital feature of the Russian Church and preserved at its purest in the monasteries. They saw the monastery as a religious version of their own striving for community - a sacred microcosm of their ideal Russia - and on that basis they defined the Church as a spiritual union of the Orthodox, the true community of Christian love that was only to be found in the Russian Church. This was a Slavophile mythology, of course, but there was a core of mysticism in the Russian Church. Unlike the Western Churches, whose theology is based on a reasoned understanding of divinity, the Russian Church believes that God cannot be grasped by the human mind (for anything we can know is inferior to Him) and that even to discuss God in such human categories is to reduce the Divine Mystery of His revelation. The only way to approach the Russian God is through the spiritual transcendence of this world.4

This emphasis on the mystical experience of the Divinity was associated with two important features of the Russian Church. One was the creed of resignation and withdrawal from life. The Russian monasteries were totally devoted to the contemplative life and, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, they played no active part in public life or scholarship. Orthodoxy preached humility and, more than any other Church, it made a cult of passive suffering (the first saints of the Russian Church, the medieval princes Boris and Gleb, were canonized because they let themselves be slaughtered without resistance). The second consequence of this mystical approach was the burden that it placed on ritual and art, on the emotional experience of the liturgy, as a spiritual entry to the divine realm. The beauty of the church - the most striking outward feature of the Orthodox religion - was its fundamental argument as well. According to a story in the Primary Chronicle, the first recorded history of Kievan Rus’, compiled by monks in the eleventh century, the Russians were converted to Byzantine Christianity by the appearance of the churches in Constantinople. Vladimir, the pagan prince of Kievan Rus’ in the tenth century, sent his emissaries to visit various countries in search of the True Faith. They went first to the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but found no joy or virtue in their religion. They went to Rome and Germany, but thought their churches plain. But in Constantinople, the emissaries reported, ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth’.5

The Russian Church is contained entirely in its liturgy, and to understand it there is no point reading books: one has to go and see the Church at prayer. The Russian Orthodox service is an emotional experience. The entire spirit of the Russian people, and much of their best art and music, has been poured into the Church, and at times of national crisis, under the Mongols or the Communists, they have always turned to it for support and hope. The liturgy has never become the preserve of scholars or the clergy, as happened in the medieval West. This is a people’s liturgy. There are no pews, no social hierarchies, in a Russian church. Worshippers are free to move around - as they do constantly to prostrate and cross themselves before the various icons - and this makes for an atmosphere that is not unlike a busy market square. Chekhov describes it in his story ‘Easter Night’ (1886):

Nowhere could the excitement and commotion be felt as keenly as in the church. At the door there was a relentless wrestle going on between the ebb and flow. Some people were coming in, and others were going out, but then they were soon coming back again, just to stand for a while before leaving again. There were people scuttling from one place to another, and then hanging about as it they were looking for something. Waves started at the door and rippled through the church, disturbing even the front rows where there were serious worthy people standing. There could be no question of any concentrated praying. There was no praying at all in fact, just a kind of sheer, irrepressible childlike joy looking for a pretext to burst forth and be expressed in some kind of movement, even if it was only the shameless moving about and the crowding together.

You are struck by the same same kind of extraordinary sense of motion in the Easter service itself. The heavenly gates stand wide open in all the side-altars, dense clouds of smoky incense hang in the air around the candelabra; wherever you look there are lights, brightness and candles spluttering everywhere. There are no readings planned; the energetic, joyful singing does not stop until the end; after each song in the canon the clergy change their vestments and walk around with the censor, and this is repeated every ten minutes almost.6

Anyone who goes to a Russian church service is bound to be impressed by the beauty of its chants and choral song. The entire liturgy is sung - the sonorous bass voice of the deacon’s prayers interspersed with canticles from the choir. Orthodoxy’s ban on instrumental music encouraged a remarkable development of colour and variety in vocal writing for the Church. The polyphonic harmonies of folk song were assimilated to the znamenny plainchants - so called because they were written down by special signs (znameni) instead of Western notes - which gave them their distinctive Russian sound and feel. As in Russian folk song, too, there was a constant repetition of the melody, which over several hours (the Orthodox service can be interminably long) could have the effect of inducing a trance-like state of religious ecstasy. Churches famous for their deacons and their choirs drew huge congregations - Russians being drawn to the spiritual impact of liturgical music, above all. Part of this, however, may have been explained by the fact that the Church had a monopoly on the composition of sacred music - Tchaikovsky was the first to challenge it when he wrote the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in 1878 - so that it was not until the final decades of the nineteenth century that the public could hear sacred music in a concert hall. Rachmaninov’s Vespers, or All Night Vigil (1915), was intended to be used as a part of the liturgy. The summation of Rachmaninov’s religious faith, it was based on a detailed study of the ancient chants and in this sense it can stand not simply as a work of sacred art but also as the synthesis of an entire culture of religious life.

Russians pray with their eyes open - their gaze fixed on an icon. For contemplating the icon is itself perceived as a form of prayer. The icon is a gateway to the holy sphere, not a decoration or instruction for the poor, as sacred images became in western Europe from medieval times. In contrast to the Catholics, the Orthodox confess, not to a priest, but to the icon of Christ with a priest in attendance as a spiritual guide. The icon is the focal point of the believer’s religious emotion -it links him to the saints and the Holy Trinity - and for this reason it is widely seen by Russians as a sacred object in itself. Even an ‘outsider’ like Kireevsky, who had been a convert to the Roman Church, felt himself attracted to the icon’s ‘marvellous power’. As he told Herzen:

I once stood at a shrine and gazed at a wonder-working icon of the Mother of God, thinking of the childlike faith of the people praying before it; some women and infirm old men knelt, crossing themselves and bowing down to the earth. With ardent hope I gazed at the holy features, and little by little the secret of their marvellous power began to grow clear to me. Yes, this was not just a painted board - for centuries it had absorbed these passions and these hopes, the prayers of the afflicted and unhappy; it was filled with the energy of all these prayers. It had become a living organism, a meeting place between the Lord and men. Thinking of this, I looked once more at the old men, at the women and the children prostrate in the dust, and at the holy icon - and then I too saw the animated features of the Mother of God, and I saw how she looked with love and mercy at these simple folk, and I sank on my knees and meekly prayed to her.7

Icons came to Russia from Byzantium in the tenth century, and for the first two hundred years or so they were dominated by the Greek style. But the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century cut off Russia from Byzantium; and the monasteries, which were largely left alone and even flourished at this time, began to develop their own style. The Russian icon came to be distinguished by qualities that guided the worshipper at prayer: a simple harmony of line and colour and a captivating use of ‘inverse perspective’ (where lines seem to converge on a point in front of the picture) to draw the viewer into the picture space and to symbolize the fact, in the words of Russia’s greatest icon scholar Leonid Ouspensky, that ‘the action taking place before our eyes is outside the laws of earthly existence’.8 That style reached its supreme heights in Andrei Rublev’s icons of the early fifteenth century - an era coinciding with Russia’s triumph over Tatar rule, so that this flowering of sacred art became a cherished part of national identity. Rublev’s icons came to represent the nation’s spiritual unity. What defined the Russians - at this crucial moment when they were without a state - was their Christianity. Readers may recall the last, symbolic scene of Andrei Tar-kovsky’s film about the icon painter, Andrei Rublev (1966), when a group of craftsmen cast a giant bell for the ransacked church of Vladimir. It is an unforgettable image - a symbol of the way in which the Russians have endured through their spiritual strength and creativity. Not surprising, then, that the film was suppressed in the Brezhnev years.

It is hard to overstress the importance of the fact that Russia received its Christianity from Byzantium and not from the West. It was in the spirit of the Byzantine tradition that the Russian Empire came to see itself as a theocracy, a truly Christian realm where Church and state were united. The god-like status of the Tsar was a legacy of this tradition.9 After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the Russian Church proclaimed Moscow to be the Third Rome - the direct heir to Byzantium and the last remaining seat of the Orthodox religion, with a messianic role to save the Christian world. This Byzantine inheritance was strengthened by the marriage of Ivan III to Sofia Paleologue, the niece of Byzantium’s last Emperor, Constantine, in 1472. The ruling princes of Muscovy adopted the title ‘Tsar’ and invented for themselves a legendary descent from the Byzantine and Roman emperors. ‘Holy Russia’ thus emerged as the providential land of salvation - a messianic consciousness that became reinforced by its isolation from the West.

With Byzantium’s decline, Russia was cut off from the mainstream of Christian civilization and, by the end of the fifteenth century, it was the only major kingdom still espousing Eastern Christianity. As a consequence, the Russian Church grew introspective and withdrawn, more intolerant of other faiths, and more protective of its national rituals. It became a state and national Church. Culturally the roots of this went deep into the history of Byzantium itself. Unlike the Western Church, Byzantium had no papacy to give it supranational cohesion.

It had no lingua franca like Latin - the Russian clergy, for example, being mostly ignorant of Greek - and it was unable to impose a common liturgy or canon law. So from the start the Orthodox community was inclined to break down into independent Churches along national lines (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.) - with the result that religion reinforced, and often became synonymous with, national iden-tity. To say ‘Russian’ was to say ‘Orthodox’.

The rituals of the Church were the basis of these national differences. There was one essential doctrine - set long ago by the Church Fathers - but each national Church had its own tradition of rituals as a community of worshippers. For the Western reader, accustomed to conceive of religious differences in terms of doctrine and moral atti-tudes, it may be difficult to understand how rituals can define a national group. But rituals are essential to the Orthodox religion - indeed, the very meaning of the concept ‘Orthodox’ is rooted in the idea of the ‘correct rituals’. This explains why Orthodoxy is so fundamentally conservative - for purity of ritual is a matter of the utmost importance to the Church - and why indeed its dissenting movements have generally opposed any innovations in the liturgy, the Old Believers being the most obvious case in point.

The whole of Russian life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was permeated with religious rituals. At birth the Russian child would be baptized and given a saint’s name. The annual celebration of a person’s saint’s day was even more important than that of their birth-day. Every major event in a Russian’s life - entry into school and university, joining the army or civil service, purchasing an estate or house, marriage and death - received some form of blessing from a priest. Russia had more religious holidays than any other Christian country. But no other Church was so hard on the stomach. There were five weeks of fasting during May and June, two weeks in August, six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, and seven weeks during Lent. The Lenten fast, which was the one fast kept by all classes of society, began after Shrovetide, the most colourful of the Russian holidays, when everybody gorged themselves on pancakes and went for sleigh rides or tobogganing. Anna Lelong, who grew up on a medium-sized estate in Riazan province in the 1840s, recalled the Shrovetide holiday as a moment of communion between lord and serf.

At around 2 p.m. on the Sunday of Shrovetide, horses would be harnessed up to two or three sleighs and a barrel would be put on the driver’s seat of one of them. Old Vissarion would stand on it, dressed up in a cape made of matting and a hat decorated with bast leaves. He would drive the first sleigh and behind him would be other sleighs on which our servants crowded, singing songs. They would ride round the whole village and mummers from other villages would join them on their sleighs. A huge convoy would build up and the whole procession lasted until dusk. At around seven our main room would fill with people. The peasants had come to ‘bid farewell’ before the Lenten journey. Each one had a bundle in his hands with various offerings, such as rolls or long white loaves, and sometimes we children were given spiced cakes or dark honey loaves. We would exchange kisses with the peasants and wish each other well for the Lenten period. The offerings were put in a large basket and the peasants were given vodka and salted fish. On Sunday only our own Kartsevo peasants came to say goodbye, and peasants from other nearby villages would come on the Saturday. When the peasants left, the room would have to be sealed tightly as it smelt of sheepskin coats and mud. Our last meal before Lent began with special pancakes called ‘tuzhiki’. We had fish soup, and cooked fish which was also given to the servants.10

In Moscow there would be skating on the ice of the Moscow river, where a famous fairground with circuses and puppet shows, acrobats and jugglers would draw huge crowds of revellers. But the aspect of the city would change dramatically on the first day of Lent. ‘The endless ringing of bells called everyone to prayer’, recalled Mikhail Zernov. ‘Forbidden food was banished from all houses and a mushroom market started up on the banks of the Moscow river, where one could buy everything one needed to survive the fast - mushrooms, pickled cabbage, gherkins, frozen apples and rowanberries, all kinds of bread made with Lenten butter, and a special type of sugar with the blessing of the Church.’11 During Lent there were daily services. With every passing day the religious tension mounted, until its release in Easter week, recalled Zernov.

On the eve of Easter Moscow broke out of its ordered services and a screaming, raving market opened on Red Square. Ancient pagan Rus’ was greeting the arrival of warm days and throwing down the gauntlet to orderly Orthodox piety. We went every year to take part in this traditional Moscow celebration with our father. Even from far away, as you approached Red Square, you could hear the sounds of whistles, pipes and other kinds of homemade instruments. The whole square was full of people. We moved among the puppet booths, the tents and stalls that had appeared overnight. Our religious justifi-cation was buying willow branches for the All Night Vigil to mark Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. But we preferred the other stalls which sold all kinds of weird and useless things, such as ‘sea dwellers’ living in glass tubes filled with coloured liquid, or monkeys made from wool. It was difficult to see how they connected with Palm Sunday. There were colourful balloons with wonderful designs, and Russian sweets and cakes which we were not allowed. Nor could we go to see the woman with moustaches, or the real mermaids, or the calves with a double head.12

The Easter service is the most important service, and the most beautiful, in the Russian Church. As Gogol once remarked, the Rus-sians have a special interest in celebrating Easter - for theirs is a faith based on hope. Shortly before midnight every member of the congregation lights a candle and, to the subdued singing of the choir, leaves the church in a procession with icons and banners. There is an atmosphere of rising expectation, suddenly released at the stroke of midnight, when the church doors open and the priest appears to proclaim in his deep bass voice ‘Christ is risen!’ - to which he receives the response from the thronging worshippers: ‘He is risen indeed!’ Then, as the choir chants the Resurrection Chant, the members of the congregation greet one another with a three-fold kiss and the words ‘Christ is risen!’ Easter was a truly national moment - a moment of communion between the classes. The landowner Maria Nikoleva recalled Easter with her serfs:

The peasants would come directly from church to exchange Easter greetings. There would be at least 500 of them. We would kiss them on the cheek and give them each a piece of kulicb [Easter cake] and an egg. Everyone had the right to wander all over our house on that day and I do not remember anything going missing or even being touched. Our father would be in the front room, where he received the most important and respected peasants, old men and elders. He would give them wine, pie, cooked meat and in the maid’s room our nanny would give out beer or homebrew. We received so many kisses from faces with beards that were not always very clean that we had to wash quickly so we wouldn’t get a rash.13

The procession of the icons on the Easter Monday, in which icons were brought to every house for a blessing, was another ritual of communion. Vera Kharuzina, the first woman to become a professor of ethnography in Russia, has left us with a wonderful description of an icon being received in a wealthy merchant household in Moscow during the 1870s:

There were so many people who wanted to receive the Icon of the Heavenly Virgin and the Martyr that a list was always made up and an order given out to set the route of the procession round the city. My father always went to work early, so he preferred to invite the icon and the relics either early in the morning or late at night. The icon and the relics came separately and almost never coincided. But their visits left a deep impression. The adults in the house would not go to bed all night. Mother would just lie down for a while on the sofa. My father and my aunt would not eat anything from the previous evening onwards so as to be able to drink the holy water on an empty stomach. We children were put to bed early, and got up a long time before the arrival. The plants would be moved from the corner in the front room and a wooden divan put in their place, on which the icon could rest. A table would be placed in front of the divan and on it a snow white table cloth. A bowl of water would be placed on it for blessing, a dish with an empty glass, ready for the priest to pour holy water into it, candles and incense. The whole house would be tense with expectation. My father and my aunt would pace from window to window, waiting to see the carriage arrive. The icon and the relics would be transported about the city in a special carriage, which was extremely solid and cumbersome. The housekeeper would be standing in the hall, surrounded by her servants, who were ready to carry out her requests. The doorman would be looking out for the guests and we knew he would run to the front door as soon as he saw the carriage in the lane and knock hard in order to warn us of its arrival. Then we would hear the thunder of six strong horses approaching the gates. A young boy as postilion would sit at the front and a sturdy man would be posted at the back. Despite the severe frost at that time of year, both would travel with their heads uncovered. A cluster of people led by our housekeeper would take the heavy icon and carry it up the front steps with difficulty. Our whole family would greet the icon in the doorway, genuflecting before it. A stream of frosty air would blow in from outside through the open doors, which we found bracing. The service of prayer would begin and the servants, accompanied by their relatives sometimes, would crowd at the door. Aunt would take the glass of holy water standing in the dish from the priest. She would take the glass to everyone to sip from, and they would also dip their fingers in the water in the dish and touch their faces with it. Our housekeeper would follow the priest around the room with the aspergillum and the bowl of holy water. Meanwhile everyone would go up to touch the icon - at first father and mother, then our aunt, and then we children. After us came the servants and those with them. We would take holy cotton wool from bags attached to the icon and wipe our eyes with it. After the prayers, the icon would be taken through the other rooms and outside again into the courtyard. Some people would prostrate themselves before it. The people carrying the icon would step over them. The icon would be taken straight out into the street and passers-by would be waiting to touch it. That moment of common brief prayer would join us to those people - people we did not even know and would probably never see again. Everyone would stand and cross themselves and bow as the icon was put back in the carriage. We would stand at the front door with our fur coats over our shoulders, then we would rush back into the house so as not to catch cold. There was still a festive mood in the house. In the dining room everything would be ready for tea, and aunt would sit by the samovar with a joyful expression.14

Religious rituals were at the heart of the Russian faith and national consciousness. They were also the main cause of a schism in the Orthodox community that split the Russian nation into two. In the 1660s the Russian Church adopted a series of reforms to bring its rituals closer to the Greek. It was thought that over time there had been deviations in the Russian liturgy which needed to be brought back into line. But the Old Believers argued that the Russian rituals were in fact holier than those of the Greek Church, which had fallen from grace by merging with Rome at the Council of Florence in 1439. In the Old Believers’ view the Greeks had been punished for this act of apostasy by the loss of Constantinople in 1453, when the centre of Orthodoxy had passed to Moscow. To the Western reader the schism may appear to be about some obscure points of ritual (the most contentious reform altered the manner of making the sign of the cross from two to three fingers) that pale into insignificance when compared with the great doctrinal disputes of Western Christendom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But in Russia, where faith and ritual and national consciousness were so closely associated, the schism assumed eschatological proportions. As the Old Believers saw it, the reforms were the work of the Antichrist, and a sign that the end of the world was near. During the last decades of the seventeenth century dozens of communities of Old Believers rose up in rebellion: as the forces of the state approached they shut themselves inside their wooden churches and burned themselves to death rather than defile themselves before Judgement Day by coming into contact with the Antichrist. Many others followed the example of the hermits and fled to the remote lakes and forests of the north, to the Volga borderlands, to the Don Cossack regions in the south, or to the forests of Siberia. In places like the shores of the White Sea they set up their own Utopian communities, where they hoped to live in a truly Christian realm of piety and virtue untouched by the evil of the Russian Church and state. Elsewhere, as in Moscow in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they tended to remain in particular neighbourhoods like the Zamosk-voreche. The Old Believers were a broad social movement of religious and political dissent. Their numbers grew as the spiritual life of the established Church declined and it became subordinated to the state in the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century their numbers peaked at an estimated 20 million, though their continued persecution by Church and state makes it difficult to say with any certainty that there were not still more in the wilderness.15

In many ways the Old Believers remained more faithful than the established Church to the spiritual ideals of the common people, from which they drew their democratic strength. The nineteenth-century historian Pogodin once remarked that, if the ban on the Old Belief was lifted by the state, half the Russian peasants would convert to it.16 Against the emerging Tsarist doctrine of an autocratic Christian state the Old Believers held up the ideal of a Christian nation which seemed to strike a chord with those who felt alienated from the secular and Westernizing state. Old Believer communities were strictly regulated by the rituals of their faith and the patriarchal customs of medieval Muscovy. They were simple farming communities, in which the honest virtues of hard work, thrift and sobriety were rigidly enforced and indoctrinated in the young. Many of the country’s most successful peasant farmers, merchants and industrialists were brought up in the Old Belief.

Persecuted by the government for much of their history, the Old Believers had a strong libertarian tradition which acted as a magnet for the discontented and the dispossessed, for oppressed and marginalized groups, and above all for the Cossacks and members of the peasantry who resented the encroachments of the state against their customs and their liberties. The Old Believers refused to shave off their beards or put on Western clothes, as Peter the Great had demanded in the 1700s. They played a major role in the Cossack rebellions of the 1670s (led by Stenka Razin) and the 1770s (led by Emelian Pugachev). There was a strong anarchistic and egalitarian element in the Old Believer communities -especially in those which worshipped without priests (the bezpoptsy) on the reasoning that all priestly hierarchies were a corruption of the Church. At the heart of these communities was the ancient Russian quest for a truly spiritual kingdom on this earth. It had its roots in the popular belief, which was itself an early form of the national consciousness, that such a sacred kingdom might be found in ‘Holy Rus”.

This Utopian search was equally pursued by diverse peasant sects and religious wanderers, which also rejected the established Church and state: the ‘Flagellants’ or Khlysty (probably a corruption of Khristy, meaning ‘Christs’), who believed that Christ had entered into living individuals - usually peasants who were seized by some mysterious spirit and wandered round the villages attracting followers (Rasputin was a member of this sect); the ‘Fighters for the Spirit’ (Dhikbobortsy), who espoused a vague anarchism based on Christian principles and evaded all state taxes and military dues; the ‘Wanderers’ (Stranniki), who believed in severing all their ties with the existing state and society, seeing them as the realm of the Antichrist, and wandered as free spirits across the Russian land; the ‘Milk-drinkers’ (Molokane), who were convinced that Christ would reappear in the form of a simple peasant man; and, most exotic of them all, the Sell castrators’ (Skoptsy), who believed that salvation came only with the excision of the instruments of sin.

Russia was a breeding ground for Christian anarchists and Utopians. The mystical foundation of the Russian faith and the messianic basis of its national consciousness combined to produce in the common people a spiritual striving for the perfect Kingdom of God in the ‘Holy Russian land’. Dostoevsky once maintained that ‘this ceaseless longing, which has always been inherent in the Russian people, for a great universal church on earth’, was the basis of ‘our Russian socialism’.17 And there was a sense in which this spiritual quest lay at the heart of the popular conception of an ideal Russian state where truth and justice (pravda) were administered. It was no coincidence, for example, that the Old Believers and sectarians were commonly involved in social protests - the Razin and Pugachev revolts, or the peasant demonstrations of 1861, when many former serfs, disappointed by the limited provisions of the emancipation, refused to believe that the Decree had been passed by the ‘truly holy Tsar’. Religious dissent and social protest were bound to be connected in a country such as Russia, where popular belief in the god-like status of the Tsar played such a mighty and oppressive role. The peasantry believed in a Kingdom of God on this earth. Many of them conceived of heaven as an actual place in some remote corner of the world, where the rivers flowed with milk and the grass was always green.18 This conviction inspired dozens of popular legends about a real Kingdom of God hidden somewhere in the Russian land. There were legends of the Distant Lands, of the Golden Islands, of the Kingdom of Opona, and the Land of Chud, a sacred kingdom underneath the ground where the ‘White Tsar’ ruled according to the ‘ancient and truly just ideals’ of the peasantry.19

The oldest of these folk myths was the legend of Kitezh - a sacred city that was hidden underneath the lake of Svetloyar (in Nizhegorod province) and was only visible to the true believers of the Russian faith. Holy monks and hermits were said to be able to hear its ancient churches’ distant bells. The earliest oral versions of the legend went back to the days of Mongol rule. Kitezh was attacked by the infidels and at the crucial moment of the siege it magically disappeared into the lake, causing the Tatars to be drowned.

Over the centuries the legend became mixed with other stories about towns and monasteries concealed underground, magic realms and buried treasure under the sea, and legends of the folk hero Ilia Muromets. But in the early eighteenth century the Old Believers wrote the legend down, and it was in this form that it was disseminated in the nineteenth century. In the Old Believers’ version, for instance, the Kitezh tale became a parable of the truly Christian Russia that was concealed from the Russia of the Antichrist. However, among the peasantry it became a vehicle for dissident beliefs that looked towards a spiritual community beyond the walls of the established Church. Throughout the nineteenth century pilgrims came to Svetloyar in their thousands to set up shrines and pray in hopeful expectation of a resurrection from the lake. The height of the season was the summer solstice, the old pagan festival of Kupala, when thousands of pilgrims would populate the forests all around the lake. The writer Zinaida Gippius, who visited the scene in 1903, described it as a kind of ‘natural church’ with little groups of worshippers, their icons posted to the trees, singing ancient chants by candlelight.20

Another of these Utopian beliefs, no less tenacious in the popular religious consciousness, was the legend of Belovode, a community of Christian brotherhood, equality and freedom, said to be located in an archipelago between Russia and Japan. The story had its roots in a real community that had been established by a group of serfs who had fled to the mountainous Altai region of Siberia in the eighteenth century. When they did not return, the rumour spread that they had found the Promised Land. It was taken up, in particular, by the Wanderers, who believed in the existence of a divine realm somewhere at the edge of the existing world, and parties of the sect would journey to Siberia in search of it.21 The legend grew in status after 1807, when a guidebook to Belovode was published by a monk who claimed to have been there and, although his directions on how to get there were extremely vague, hundreds of peasants set off each year by horse and cart or riverboat to find the legendary realm. The last recorded journeys, in the 1900s, seem to have been prompted by a rumour that Tolstoy had been to Belovode (a group of Cossacks visited the writer to see if this was true).22 But long after this, Belovode remained in the people’s dreams. The painter Roerich, who took an interest in the legend and visited the Altai in the 1920s, claimed to have met peasants there who still believed in the magic land.


’I stopped at the Hermitage at Optina’, Gogol wrote to Count A. P. Tolstoy, ‘and took away with me a memory that will never fade. Clearly, grace dwells in that place. You can feel it even in the outward signs of worship. Nowhere have I seen monks like those. Through every one of them I seemed to converse with heaven.’ During his last years Gogol came to Optina on several occasions. He found comfort and spiritual guidance for his troubled soul in the tranquillity of the monastery. He thought he had found there the divine Russian realm for which he had searched all his life. Miles away from the monastery, he wrote to Tolstoy, ‘one can smell the perfume of its virtues in the air: everything becomes hospitable, people bow more deeply, and brotherly love increases’.23

Nikolai Gogol came from a devout family in the Ukraine. Both his parents were active in the Church, and at home they kept to all the fasts and religious rituals. There was a tinge of mysticism in the Gogol household which helps to account for the writer’s life and art. Gogol’s parents met when his father had a vision in the local church: the Mother of God had appeared before him and, pointing to the young girl standing next to him, had said that she would become his wife, which indeed she did.24 Like his parents, Gogol was not satisfied by the observance of the Church’s rituals. From an early age he felt a need to experience the divine presence as a drama in his soul. In 1833 he wrote to his mother:

[in my childhood] I looked at everything with an impartial eye; I went to church because I was ordered to, or was taken; but once I was there I saw nothing but the chasuble, the priest and the awful howling of the deacons. I crossed myself because I saw everyone else crossing themselves. But one time - I can vividly remember it even now - I asked you to tell me about the Day of Judgement, and you told me so well, so thoroughly and so touchingly about the good things which await people who have led a worthy life, and you described the eternal torments awaiting sinners so expressively and so fear-somely that it stunned me and awoke in me all my sensitivity. Later on it engendered the most lofty thoughts in me.23

Gogol never had religious doubts, as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did. The torments of his final years arose only from doubts about his own merits before God. But the intense nature of the writer’s faith could not be contained within any Church. In some ways, as he himself acknowledged, his faith had much in common with the Protestant religion, in the sense that he believed in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.26 Yet in the six years which Gogol spent in Rome, from 1836 to 1842, he also became close to the Catholic tradition, and if he chose not to convert to Rome, it was only, in his words, because he saw no difference between the two creeds: ‘Our religion is just the same thing as Catholicism - and there is no need to change from the one to the other.’27 In the final version of Dead Souls, which he never published, Gogol planned to introduce the figure of a priest who would embody Orthodox and Catholic virtues. He seems to have been searching for a Christian brotherhood that would unite all the people in a spiritual Church. This is what he thought he had found at Optina and in the idea of the ‘Russian soul’.

Gogol’s fiction was the arena of this spiritual search. Contrary to the view of many scholars, there was no real divide between the ‘literary works’ of Gogol’s early period and the ‘religious works’ of his final years, although he did reveal a more explicit interest in religious issues later on. All Gogol’s writings have a theological significance - they were indeed the first in a national tradition that granted fiction the status of religious prophecy. Many of his stories are best read as religious allegories. Their grotesque and fantastic figures are not intended to be realistic - any more than icons aim to show the natural world. They are designed to let us contemplate another world where good and evil battle for man’s soul. In Gogol’s early stories this religious symbolism is embedded in biblical motifs and sometimes quite obscure religious metaphors. ‘The Overcoat’, for example, has echoes of the life of St Acacius - a hermit (and tailor) who died after years of torment by his elder, who later repented of his cruelty. This explains the hero’s name, Akaky Akakievich - a humble civil servant of St Petersburg who dies unloved, robbed of his precious overcoat, but who then returns to haunt the city as a ghost.28 After the ‘failure’ of The Government Inspector (1836) - a play intended as a moral parable but which the public look as a hilarious satire - Gogol sought to drive his religious message home. The work to which he then devoted all his energies was envisaged as a three-part novel called Dead Souls - an epic ‘poem’ in the style of Dante’s Divine Comedy -in which the providential plan for Russia was at last to be revealed. The grotesque imperfections of provincial Russia exposed in the first, and only finished (1842) volume of the novel - where the adventurer Chichikov travels through the countryside swindling a series of moribund squires out of the legal title to their deceased serfs (or ‘souls’) -were to be negated by Gogol’s lofty portrait of the ‘living Russian soul’ which he was intending for the second and third parts. Even the roguish Chichikov would eventually be saved, ending up as a paternal landowner, as Gogol moved towards the Slavic idyll of Christian love and brotherhood. The whole conception of the ‘poem’ was Russia’s resurrection and its spiritual ascent on an ‘infinite ladder of human perfection’ - a metaphor he took from the parable of Jacob’s ladder in the Book of Genesis.29

Gogol’s divine vision was inspired by his champions, the Slavophiles, whose fantasy of Russia as a holy union of Christian souls was naturally attractive to a writer so disturbed by the soulless individualism of modern society. The Slavophile idea was rooted in the notion of the Russian Church as a free community of Christian brotherhood - a sobornost’ (from the Russian word ‘sobor’ which was used for both ‘cathedral’ and ‘assembly’) - as outlined by the theologian Aleksei Khomiakov in the 1830s and 1840s. Khomiakov came to his conception from a mystical theology. Faith could not be proved by reasoning, he said. It had to be arrived at by experience, by feeling from within the Truth of Christ, not by laws and dogmas. The True Church could not persuade or force men to believe, for it had no authority except the love of Christ. As a freely chosen community, it existed in the spirit of Christian love that bound the faithful to the Church - and this spirit was its only guarantee.

The Slavophiles believed that the True Church was the Russian one. Unlike the Western churches, which enforced their authority through laws and statist hierarchies like the Papacy, Russian Orthodoxy, as they saw it, was a truly spiritual community, whose only head was Christ. To be sure, the Slavophiles were critical of the established Church, which in their view had been spiritually weakened by its close alliance with the Tsarist state. They espoused a social Church, some would say a socialistic one, and many of their writings on religion were banned as a result (Khomiakov’s theological writings were not published until 1879).30 The Slavophiles were firm believers in the liberation of the serfs: for only the communion of fully free and conscious individuals could create the sobornost’ of the True Church. They placed their faith in the Christian spirit of the Russian people, and this was the spirit which defined their Church. The Slavophiles believed that the Russian people were the only truly Christian people in the world. They pointed to the peasantry’s communal way of life (‘a Christian union of love and brotherhood’), to their peaceful, gentle nature and humility, to their immense patience and suffering, and to their willingness to sacrifice their individual egos for a higher moral good - be that for the commune, the nation or the Tsar. With all these Christian qualities, the Russians were far more than a nationality -they bore a divine mission in the world. In the words of Aksakov, ‘the Russian people is not just a people, it is a humanity’.31

Here was the vision of the ‘Russian soul’ - of a universal spirit that would save the Christian world - which Gogol tried to picture in the second and third volumes of Dead Souls. The concept of a national soul or essence was commonplace in the Romantic age, though Gogol was the first to give the ‘Russian soul’ this messianic turn. The lead came from Germany, where Romantics like Friedrich Schelling developed the idea of a national spirit as a means to distinguish their own national culture from that of the West. In the 1820s Schelling had a godlike status in Russia, and his concept of the soul was seized upon by intellectuals who sought to contrast Russia with Europe. Prince Odoevsky, the archpriest of the Schelling cult in Russia, argued that the West had sold its soul to the Devil in the pursuit of material progress. ‘Your soul has turned into a steam engine’, he wrote in his novel Russian Nights (1844); ‘I see screws and wheels in you but I don’t see life.’ Only Russia, with her youthful spirit, could save Europe now.12 It stands to reason that young nations like Germany and Russia that lagged behind the industrializing West would have recourse to the idea of a national soul. What such nations lacked in economic progress they could more than make up for in the spiritual virtues of the unspoilt countryside. Nationalists attributed a creative spontaneity and fraternity to the simple peasantry that had long been lost in the bourgeois culture of the West. This was the vague Romantic sense in which the idea of the Russian soul began to develop from the final decades of the eighteenth century. In his essay ‘On the Innate Qualities of the Russian Soul’ (1792), Pyotr Plavilshikov maintained, for example, that in its peasantry Russia had a natural creativity that had more potential than the science of the West. Carried away by national pride, the playwright even claimed some unlikely firsts:

One of our peasants has made a tincture which all the learning of Hippocrates and Galen failed to find. The bone setter of the village Alekseevo is famous among pioneers of surgery. Kulibin and the mechanic Sobakin from Tver are marvels in mechanics… What the Russian cannot grasp will for ever be unknown to men.33*

After the triumph of 1812 the idea of the peasant’s soul, of his selfless virtue and self-sacrifice, began to be linked to the notion of Russia as the saviour of the West. This was the mission that Gogol first developed in Dead Souls. In his earlier story ‘Taras Bulba’ (1835) Gogol had attributed to the Russian soul a special kind of love that only Russians felt. ‘There are no bonds more sacred than those of comradeship!’ Taras Bulba tells his fellow Cossacks:

The father loves his child, the mother loves her child, a child loves its mother and father. But this is not the same, my brothers; a beast also loves its young. But the kinship of the spirit, rather than the blood, is something only known to man. Men have been comrades in other lands too, but there have never been comrades such as those in the Russian land… No, brothers, to love as the Russian soul loves - that does not mean to love with the head or with some other part of you, it means to love with everything that God has given you.34

* Such claims were often made by Russian nationalists. In the 1900s, when a practical joker let loose a report that an old Russian peasant had flown several kilometres on a homemade aeroplane, this was taken as a proof that the patriarchal system of Russia was not only better than the West’s -it was cleverer as well (B. Pares, Russia (Harmonds-worth, 1942), p. 75).

The closer Gogol came to the Slavophiles, the more convinced he was that this Christian brotherhood was Russia’s unique message to the world. Here was the providential plan for the ‘Russian soul’ which Gogol hinted at in the unforgettable troika passage at the end of the first volume of Dead Souls:

Is it not like that that you, too, Russia, are speeding along like a spirited troika that nothing can overtake? The road is like a cloud of smoke under you, the bridges thunder, and everything falls back and is left far behind. The spectator stops dead, struck dumb by the divine miracle: it is not a flash of lightning thrown down by heaven. What is the meaning of this terrifying motion? And what mysterious force is hidden in these horses the like of which the world has never seen? Oh horses, horses - what horses! Are whirl winds hidden in your manes? Is there some sensitive ear, alert to every sound, concealed in your veins? They have caught the sound of the familiar song from above, and at once they strain their chests of brass and barely touching the ground with their hoofs are transformed almost into straight lines, flying through the air, and the troika rushes on full of divine inspiration. Russia, where are you flying to? Answer! She gives no answer. The bells fill the air with their wonderful tinkling; the air is torn asunder, it thunders and is transformed into wind; everything on earth is flying past, and, looking askance, other nations and states draw aside and make way for her.35

The ‘Russian principle’ of Christian love, to be revealed by Gogol in the second and third volumes, would save humanity from the selfish individualism of the West. As Herzen put it after reading Gogol’s novel, ‘in potentia there is a great deal in the Russian soul’.36

The longer Gogol worked on his novel, the greater was his sense of a divine mission to reveal the sacred truth of the ‘Russian soul’. ‘God only grant me the strength to finish and publish the second volume’, he wrote to the poet Nikolai Yazykov in 1846. ‘Then they will discover that we Russians have much that they never even guessed about, and that we ourselves do not want to recognize.’37 Gogol looked for inspiration to the monasteries - the place where he believed this hidden Russian spirit was to be revealed. What he most admired in the hermits of Optina was their apparent ability to master their own passions and cleanse their souls of sin. It was in such discipline that he saw the solution to Russia’s spiritual malaise. Once again it was the Slavophiles who pointed Gogol towards Optina. Kireevsky had been there many times to see Father Makary in the 1840s, when the two men had brought out a life of Father Paissy and translated the works of the Church Fathers from the Greek.38 Like all the Slavophiles who followed him, Kireevsky believed that the hermits of Optina were the true embodiment of Orthodoxy’s ancient spiritual traditions, the one place where the ‘Russian soul’ was most alive, and by the time Gogol returned to Moscow from abroad, its salons were all filled with Optina devotees.

Dead Souls was conceived as a work of religious instruction. Its written style is imbued with the spirit of Isaiah, who prophesied the fall of Babylon (an image Gogol often used for Russia in his letters while working on the second volume of Dead Souls).39As he struggled with the novel Gogol was swept up by the religious fervour of his own prophecy. He plunged into the writings of the seventh-century hermit John of Sinai, who had talked about the need to purify one’s soul and climb a ladder of spiritual perfection (an image Gogol used in his letters to his friends where he said that he was only on the bottom rungs).40 Constant prayer was Gogol’s only comfort and, as he believed, the spiritual source from which he would get the strength to complete his divine mission in Dead Souls. ‘Pray for me, for the sake of Christ Himself, he wrote to Father Filaret at Optina Pustyn in 1850.

Ask your worthy superior, ask all of the brotherhood, ask all of those who pray most fervently and who love to pray, ask them all to pray for me. My path is a difficult one, and my task is such that without God’s help at every minute and hour of the day, my pen will not move… He, the Merciful, has the power to do anything, even to turn me, a writer black like coal, into something white and pure enough to speak about the holy and the beautiful.41

The trouble was that Gogol could not picture this holy Russia, the realm of Christian brotherhood which he believed it was his divine task to reveal. This, the most pictorial of all the Russian writers, could not conjure up an image of this place - or at least not one that satisfied his critical judgement as a writer. However hard he tried to paint an ideal picture of his Russian characters - an icon, if you like, of the Russian soul - Gogol’s observations of reality were such that he could not help but burden them with grotesque features derived from their natural habitat. As he himself despaired of his own religious vision, ‘this is all a dream and it vanishes as soon as one shifts to what it really is in Russia’.42

Sensing he had failed in his fictional endeavour, Gogol sought instead to drive his message home in Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1846), a pedantic moral sermon on the divine principle contained in Russia which was meant to serve as a sort of ideological preface to the unfinished volumes of Dead Souls. Gogol preached that Russia’s salvation lay in the spiritual reform of every individual citizen. He left untouched the social institutions. He neglected the questions of serfdom and the autocratic state, ludicrously claiming that both were perfectly acceptable so long as they were combined with Christian principles. Progressive opinion was outraged - it seemed a defection from their sacred ideals of progress and political commitment to the people’s cause. In an open letter of 1847 Belinsky launched a devastating attack on the writer whom he had championed (mistakenly, perhaps) as a social realist and advocate of political reform:

Yes, I did love you, with all the passion a man tied by blood ties to his country can feel for a man who was its hope, its glory and its pride, one of its great leaders on the path of consciousness, progress and development… Russia sees her salvation not in mysticism, asceticism or piety, as you suggest, but in education, civilization and culture. She has no need of sermons (she has heard too many), nor prayers (she has mumbled them too often), but of the awakening in the people of human dignity, a sense lost for centuries in the mud and filth.43

The Slavophiles, who were no less committed to reform, threw their hands up in despair. ‘My friend’, Sergei Aksakov wrote to Gogol, ‘if your aim was to cause a scandal, to make your friends and foes stand Up and unite against you, then you have simply achieved this. If this publication was one of your jokes, it has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: everyone is mystified.’44 Even Father Makary, Gogol’s mentor at Optina, could not endorse Selected Passages. The elder thought that Gogol had not understood the need for humility. He had set himself up as a prophet and had prayed with all the fervour of a fanatic, but, without the truth or inspiration of the Holy Ghost, that was ‘not enough for religion’. ‘If a lamp is to shine’, he wrote to Gogol in September 1851, ‘it is not enough that its glass merely be washed clean: its candle must be lit within.’45 Nor could Makary agree with the writer’s social quietism. For the calling of his monastery was to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Makary’s criticisms were a crushing blow for Gogol, all the more so since he must have realized that they were fair: he did not feel that divine inspiration in his soul. As soon as he received Makary’s letter Gogol broke off all relations with Optina. He saw that he had failed in his divine calling as a writer-prophet. He felt himself unworthy before God and began to starve himself to death. Instructing his servant to burn the manuscript of his unfinished novel, he took to his deathbed. The last words he uttered as he died, aged forty-three, on 24 February 1852, were, ‘Bring me a ladder. Quickly, a ladder!’46


In his letter to Gogol, Belinsky had acknowledged that the Russian peasant was full of pious reverence and fear of God. ‘But he utters the name of God while scratching his backside. And he says about the icon: “It’s good for praying - and you can cover the pots with it as well.” Look carefully’, the literary critic concluded, ‘and you will see that the Russians are by nature an atheistic people with many superstitions but not the slightest trace of religiosity.’47

Doubts about the Christian nature of the peasant soul were by no means confined to the socialist intelligentsia for whom Belinsky spoke. The Church itself was increasingly concerned by the image of a heathen peasantry. Parish priests drew a dismal picture of religious ignorance in the countryside. ‘Out of one hundred male peasants’, wrote I. S. Belliutsin in the 1850s, a maximum often can read the Creed and two or three short prayers (naturally, without the slightest idea or comprehension of what they have read). Out of one thousand men, at most two or three know the Ten Commandments; so far as the women are concerned, nothing even needs to be said here. And this is Orthodox Rus’! What a shame and disgrace! And our pharisees dare to shout for everyone to hear that only in Russia has the faith been preserved undefiled, in Rus’, where two-thirds of the people have not the slightest conception of the faith!48

For the parish priest it was an uphill task to lead his peasant flock towards a conscious knowledge of the faith - even more to defend it from the secular ideas that came in from the towns. It was partly that the priest himself was barely literate. Most priests were the sons of other parish priests. They were brought up in the countryside, and few had received more than a little education in a local seminary. The peasants did not hold their priests in high esteem. They saw them as servants of the gentry and the state, and their humble, even squalid, way of life did not earn the peasantry’s respect. The clergy were unable to support themselves on the meagre salaries they received from the state, or from the farming of their own small chapel plots. They relied heavily on collecting fees for their services - a rouble or so for a wedding, a bottle of vodka for a funeral - and, as a consequence, the peasants came to see them less as spiritual guides than as a class of tradesmen in the sacraments. The peasant’s poverty and the priest’s proverbial greed often made for lengthy haggling over fees, with peas-ant brides left standing for hours in the church, or the dead left unburied for several days, until a compromise was found.

In this precarious situation the priest was obliged to live on the constantly shifting border between the Church’s idea of faith and the semi-pagan version of the peasantry. He would use the icons, the candles and the cross to ward away the demons and the evil spirits who, the peasants were convinced, were able to cast spells on their cattle and crops, make women infertile, bring misfortune or disease, or come back as apparitions of the dead to haunt their houses. For all the claims of the Slavophiles and the intense devotion of the Old

Believers, the Russian peasant had never been more than semi-attached in the Orthodox religion. Only a thin coat of Christianity had been painted over his ancient pagan folk culture. To be sure, the Russian peasant displayed a great deal of external devotion. He crossed himself constantly, pronounced the Lord’s name in every other sentence, always observed the Lenten fast, went to church on religious holidays, and was even known to go on pilgrimages from time to time to the holy shrines. He thought of himself, first of all, as ‘Orthodox’, and only later (if at all) as ‘Russian’. Indeed, if one could travel back in time and ask the inhabitants of a nineteenth-century Russian village who they thought they were, the most likely answer would be: ‘We are Orthodox, and we are from here.’ The religion of the peasants was a long way from the bookish Christianity of the clergy. Being illiterate, the average nineteenth-century Russian peasant knew very little of the Gospels, for there was no real tradition of preaching in the countryside. Even peasant readers had little means of access to the Russian Bible (which did not exist in a complete published version until the middle of the 1870s). The Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments were unknown to the average peasant. He vaguely understood the concepts of heaven and hell, and he no doubt hoped that his lifelong observance of the Church’s rituals would save his soul. But other abstract notions were a foreign land to him. He thought of God as a human being, and could not understand him as an abstract spirit that was invisible. In My Universities (1922) Gorky describes a peasant he encountered in a village near Kazan who pictured God as a large, handsome old man, the kindly, clever master of the universe who could not conquer evil only because: ‘He cannot be everywhere at once, too many men have been born for that. But he will succeed, you see. But I can’t understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I’m concerned. There is God and that’s enough. But now there’s another! The son, they say. So what if he’s God’s son. God isn’t dead, not that I know of.’49

This was the way the peasant thought of saints and natural gods as well: the two, in fact, were frequently combined or interchangeable in the peasant’s Christian-pagan religion. There was Poludnitsa, goddess of the harvest, worshipped through the placement of a sheaf of rye behind the icon in the peasant’s house; Vlas, the protector of the herds, who became in Christian times St Vlasius; and Lada, the deity of good fortune (an attribute much needed on the Russian roads), who featured with St George and St Nicholas in peasant wedding songs. The Christianization of the pagan gods was also practised in the Russian Church itself. At the core of the Russian faith is a distinctive stress on motherhood which never really took root in the West. Where the Catholic tradition stressed Mary’s purity, the Russian Church emphasized her divine motherhood - the bogoroditsa - which practically assumed the status of the Trinity in the Russian religious consciousness. This cult of motherhood can easily be seen in the way that Russian icons tend to show the Madonna’s face pressed maternally against her infant’s head. It was, it seems, a conscious plan on the part of the Church to appropriate the pagan cult of Rozhanitsa, the goddess of fertility, and the ancient Slavic cult of the damp Mother Earth, or the goddess known as Mokosh, from which the myth of ‘Mother Russia’ was conceived.50 In its oldest peasant form, the Russian religion was a religion of the soil.

Russia’s Christian rituals and ornaments were similarly influenced by pagan practices. From the sixteenth century, for example, the procession of the Cross in the Russian Church moved in clockwise circles with the sun (as it did in the Western Church). In the Russian case it has been suggested that this was in imitation of the pagan circle dance (kborovod) which moved in the direction of the sun to summon up its magic influence (as late as the nineteenth century there were peasant proverbs advising on the wisdom of ploughing in the direction of the sun’s movement).51The onion dome of the Russian church was also modelled on the sun. Its inner ‘sky’, or ceiling, usually depicted the Holy Trinity at the centre of a sun that radiated twelve apostolic rays.52 Medieval Russian churches and religious manuscripts were often decorated with plant motifs and other ornaments, such as rosettes, rhomboids, swastikas and petals, crescent moons and trees, that were derived from pagan animistic cults. No doubt most of these symbols had long lost their original iconographic significance, but the frequency with which they reappeared in the folk designs of the nineteenth century, in wooden carvings and embroidery, suggests that they continued to serve in the peasant consciousness as a gateway to the supernatural sphere.

Embroidered towels and belts had a sacred function in peasant culture - they were often draped around the icon in the ‘holy corner’ of the peasant hut - and individual patterns, colours and motifs had symbolic meanings in various rituals. The twisting threaded pattern, for example, symbolized the creation of the world (‘the earth began to twist and it appeared’, the peasants said).53 The colour red had a special magic power: it was reserved for belts and towels that were used in sacred rituals. In Russian the word for ‘red’ (krasnyi) is connected with the word for ‘beautiful’ (krasivyi) - which explains, among many other things, the naming of Red Square. It was equally the colour of fertility - which was regarded as a sacred gift. There were different belts for every stage of life. Newborn babies were tied up with a belt. Boys were given a red ‘virgin belt’. Bridal couples girded themselves with embroidered linen towels. And by custom a pregnant woman stepped on a red belt before giving birth.54 It was important for a dead man to be buried with a belt, ideally the one that he was given at his birth, to symbolize the end of the life cycle and the return of his soul to the spirit world.55 According to folklore, the Devil was afraid of a man with a belt; not to wear a belt was regarded as a sign of belonging to the underworld. Hence Russian demons and mermaids were always portrayed beltless. A sorcerer would remove his belt when he entered into conversation with the spirit world.

These old pagan rituals were by no means confined to the peasantry. Many of them had become a part of national custom and were even found among the upper classes, who prided themselves on their modern attitudes. The Larin family in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin were typical in this respect:

Amid this peaceful life they cherished, They held all ancient customs dear; At Shrovetide feasts their table flourished With Russian pancakes, Russian cheer; Twice yearly too they did their fasting; Were fond of songs for fortune-casting, Of choral dances, garden swings. At Trinity, when service brings The people, yawning, in for prayer, They’d shed a tender tear or two Upon their buttercups of rue.56

It was not unusual for a gentry family to observe all the strictest rituals of the Church and, without any sense of contradiction, to hold simultaneously to pagan superstitions and beliefs that any European would have dismissed as the nonsense of serfs. Fortune-telling games and rituals were almost universal among the aristocracy. Some families would employ a sorcerer to divine the future by interpreting their dreams. Others relied on their maids to read the signs from the tea-leaves.57 Yuletide fortune-telling was a serious affair and, as Anna Lelong remembered, its rituals were a part of the all-night vigil on New Year’s Eve:

There was always an all-night vigil and prayers on New Year’s Eve. Dinner was at nine, and afterwards there would be fortune-telling in the dining room, twelve cups would be made by hollowing out onions - one for every month - and salt would be sprinkled in them. Then they would be put in a circle on the table marking a different month on each. We children would be given two glasses - we would pour water into them and then drop egg white into them. We would then get up on New Year’s morning very early and go into the dining-room, which stank of onion. We would look into our glasses and see fantastic shapes that had been made by the egg-white - churches, towers or castles. Then we would try to create some kind of pleasant meaning out of them. The grown-ups looked at the onion cups and worked out which month would be particularly rainy or snowy depending on whether the salt in the onion was dry or not. People took all this very seriously and we would make a note of what resulted. We also predicted whether the harvesting of grain would be wet or not. There was an order then to clear everything away and the stoves were heated, all the windows opened, and some kind of powder burned which gave off a nice smell. We were not taken to church that morning. We would spend it playing with our puppets, with bits of food for their banquet given to us by the servants in the kitchen.58

Peasant superstitions were also widely found among the aristocracy, even among those who would shudder at the thought of sharing any other customs with the peasantry. Stravinsky, for example, who was the perfect European gentleman, always kept a talisman that had been given to him at his birth. Diaghilev was full of superstitions which he had inherited from his peasant nanny. He did not like being photographed; he would become alarmed if someone placed his hat on the table (which meant that he would lose money) or on the bed (which meant that he would become ill); the sight of a black cat, even on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, filled him with horror.59

The peasant nanny was without a doubt the main source of these superstitions, and such was her importance in the nobleman’s upbringing that they often loomed much larger in his consciousness than all the teachings of the Church. Pushkin’s upbringing, for example, was Orthodox but only in a superficial way. He was taught to pray, and he went to church; but otherwise he was a Voltairean who held firmly to the secular beliefs of the Enlightenment throughout his life.60 However, from his nanny he inherited superstitions that had their origins in the medieval age. He was struck down by foreboding when a fortune-teller told him that he would be killed by a tall blond man (true, as it turned out), and he was notoriously superstitious about hares (a fact that may have saved his life in 1825 when a hare crossed his path on his estate near Pskov and made him superstitious about travelling to Petersburg to join the Decembrists on Senate Square).61

Superstitions about death were particularly common in the aristocracy. Gogol never used the word ‘death’ in his letters, fearing it might bring about his own. This was, in fact, a widely held belief. It may perhaps explain why Tolstoy gave the nameless pronoun ‘it’ to the idea of death in those brilliant passages where he explores the experience of dying in The Death of Ivan Ilich and in the scene of Andrei’s death in War and Peace.61 Tchaikovsky, who was terrified of death (a fact often overlooked by those who claim that he committed suicide to cover up a homosexual affair), shared this common phobia. The composer’s friends were careful not to mention words like ‘cemetery’ or ‘funeral’ in his presence, knowing that they threw him into a panic.63

Orthodox and pagan - yet a rationalist: an educated Russian could be all these things. It was part of the Russian condition to master such conflicting strands within oneself and fashion out of them a sensibility, ways of living, of looking at the world that were perfectly at ease with each other. Stravinsky, for example, though more chameleon-like than most, found an intellectual home in French Catholicism in the 1920s. Yet at the same time he became more emotionally attached than ever to the rituals of the Russian Church. He attended services at the

Orthodox Church in Paris on a regular basis from 1926; he collected Russian icons for his home in Paris and faithfully observed the Russian rituals in his private worship there; he even planned to build a Russian chapel at his house. There was no contradiction in this combination -at least not one that Stravinsky ever felt. Indeed, it was quite common for the cosmopolitan elites into which Stravinsky had been born to live in several different faiths. Some were drawn to the Roman Church, particularly those (like Zinaida Volkonsky when she moved to Italy in the 1830s) who found its internationalism more in keeping with their own world view than the ethnocentric Russian Church. Others were more drawn to Lutheranism, particularly if, like many of the aristocracy, they were of Russian-German parentage. It is difficult to say what was more important in the evolution of this complex religious sensibility, the relatively superficial nature of the aristocracy’s religious upbringing which allowed space for other beliefs or the multinational influences on that class, but either way it made for a culture that was far more complex than the type we might imagine from the mythic image of the ‘Russian soul’.


In 1878 Dostoevsky made the first of several trips to Optina Pustyn. It was a time of profound grief in the writer’s life. His favourite child Aleksei (Alyosha) had just died of epilepsy, an illness he had inherited from his father, and, on the urging of his wife, Dostoevsky visited the monastery for spiritual comfort and guidance. The writer was working on the last of his great novels, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), which at that time he was planning as a novel about children and childhood.64 Many of the scenes he witnessed at Optina would reappear in it, and the long discourse of the elder Zosima on the social ideal of the Church, which really should be read as Dostoevsky’s own profession de foi, was borrowed from the writings of the monastery, with long parts lifted almost word for word from The Life of the Elder Leonid (1876) by Father Zedergolm.65 The character of Zosima was mainly based on the elder Amvrosy, whom Dostoevsky saw on three occasions, once, most memorably, with a crowd of pilgrims who had come to see him at the monastery.66 The novelist was struck by the charismatic power of the elder and, in one of the novel’s early chapters, ‘Devout Peasant Women’, he re-creates a scene which takes us to the heart of the Russian faith. Zosima gives comfort to a desperate peasant woman who is also grieving for a little son:

’And here’s one from a long way off,’ he said, pointing to a woman who was still quite young, but thin and worn out, with a face that was not so much sunburnt as blackened. She was kneeling and staring motionless at the elder. There was almost a frenzied look in her eyes.

’From a long way off, Father, from a long way off,’ the woman said in a sing-song voice… ‘Two hundred miles from here - a long way, Father, a long way.’

She spoke as though she were keening. There is among the peasants a silent and long-enduring sorrow. It withdraws into itself and is still. But there is also a sorrow that has reached the limit of endurance: it will then burst into tears and from that moment break out into keening. This is especially so with women. But it is not easier to bear than a silent sorrow. The keening soothes it only by embittering and lacerating the heart still more. Such sorrow does not desire consolation and feeds upon the sense of its hopelessness. The keening is merely an expression of the constant need to reopen the wound…

’What is it you’re weeping for?’

’I’m sorry for my little boy, Father. He was three years old - three years in another three months he would have been, I’m grieving for my little boy, Father, for my little boy - the last I had left. We had four, Nikita and I, four children, but not one of them is alive, Father, not one of them, not one. I buried the first three, I wasn’t very sorry for them, I wasn’t, but this last one I buried and I can’t forget him. He seems to be standing before me now - he never leaves me. He has dried up my soul. I keep looking at his little things, his little shirt or his little boots, and I wail. I lay out all that’s left of him, every little thing. I look at them and wail. I say to my husband, to Nikita, let me go, husband, I’d like to go on a pilgrimage. He’s a driver, Father. We’re not poor people, Father. We’re our own masters. It’s all our own, the horses and the carriage. But what do we want it all for now? My Nikita has taken to drinking without me, I’m sure he has, he used to before: I had only to turn my back, and he’d weaken. But now I’m no longer thinking of him. It’s over two months since I left home. I’ve forgotten everything, I have, and I don’t want to remember. And what will my life with him be like now? I’ve done with him, I have, I’ve done with them all. I don’t want to see my house again and my things again. I hope I’ll never see them again!’

’Now listen to me, Mother,’ said the elder. ‘Once, a long time ago, a great saint saw a woman like you in church. She was weeping for her little infant child, her only one, whom God had also taken. “Don’t you know,” said the saint to her, “how bold and fearless these little ones are before the throne of our Lord? There’s none bolder or more fearless than they in the Kingdom of Heaven: Thou, O Lord, hast given us life, they say to God, and no sooner had we looked upon it than Thou didst take it away. And so boldly and fearlessly do they ask and demand an explanation that God gives them at once the rank of angels. And therefore,” said the saint, “you, too, Mother, rejoice and do not weep, for your little one is now with the Lord in the company of his angels.” That’s what the saint said to the weeping mother in the olden days. And he was a great saint and he would not have told her an untruth… I shall mention your little boy in my prayers. What was his name?’

’Aleksei, Father.’

’A sweet name. After Aleksei the man of God?’

’Of God, Father, of God. Aleksei the man of God.’

’He was a great saint! I shall mention him in my prayers, Mother, I shall. And I shall mention your sorrow in my prayers, too, and your husband that he may live and prosper. Only you should not have left your husband. You must go back to him and look after him. Your little boy will look down on you and, seeing that you’ve forsaken his father, he will weep over you both: why do you destroy his bliss? For don’t forget, he’s living, he’s living, for the soul lives for ever, and though he is no longer in the house, he’s always there unseen beside you. How do you expect him to come home if you say you hate your house? To whom is he to go, if he won’t find you, his father and mother, together? You see him in your dreams now and you grieve, but if you go back he will send you sweet dreams. Go to your husband, Mother, go back to him today.’67

Dostoevsky was a man who yearned for faith. But the death of little children was a fact he could not accept as a part of the divine plan. His notebooks from when he was working on The Brothers Karamazov are filled with agonizing commentaries on incidents of awful cruelty to children which he had read about in the contemporary press. One of these true stories appears at the centre of The Brothers Karamazov and its discourse about God. It involved a general whose hunting dog was wounded when a serf boy on his estate threw a stone. The general had the serf boy arrested, stripped naked in front of the other villagers, and, to the cries of his desperate mother, torn to shreds by a pack of hunting dogs. This incident is cited by Ivan, the rationalist philosopher among the three Karamazov brothers, to explain to Alyosha, his younger brother and a novice at the monastery, why he cannot believe in the existence of a God if his truth entails the suffering of little innocents.

’I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price. I do not want a mother to embrace the torturer who had her child torn to pieces by his dogs… Is there in the whole world a being who could or would have the right to forgive? I don’t want harmony. I don’t want harmony, out of a love for mankind, I don’t want it.’68

In a letter to a friend Dostoesvky said that Ivan’s argument was ‘irrefutable’.69 In terms of moral feeling it was unacceptable to leave such torture unavenged, and even Alyosha, who tries to follow Christ’s example of forgiveness, agrees with Ivan that the general should be shot. Here was the fundamental question which Dostoevsky posed, not just in this novel, but in all his life and art: How could one believe in God when the world created by him was so full of suffering? It was a question he was bound to ask when he looked at the society in which he lived. How could God have made Russia?

Dostoevsky came, in his own words, from a ‘pious Russian family’ where ‘we knew the Gospel almost from the cradle’.70 The teaching of the Gospels always remained at the core of Dostoevsky’s personality and even when, in the 1840s, he became a socialist, the type of socialism to which he subscribed had a close affinity with Christ’s ideals. He agreed with Belinsky that if Christ appeared in Russia he ‘would join the socialists’.71 In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested as a member of a radical underground movement which met at the house of the young socialist Mikhail Petrashevsky in St Petersburg. His offence was to have read out Belinsky’s by-then famous but forbidden letter to Gogol of 1847 in which the literary critic had attacked religion and called for social reform in Russia. It was even forbidden to circulate or read handwritten copies of the letter as Dostoevsky did. Dostoevsky and his comrades were condemned to death, but at the final moment, when they were on the parade ground waiting to be shot, they received a reprieve from the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s sentence was commuted to four years of prison labour in Siberia, followed by service as a private soldier in a front-line Siberian regiment.

Dostoevsky’s years in the Omsk prison camp were to be the turning point of his life. They brought him face to face with the roughest and most brutal of the common people and gave him what he thought of as a special insight into the hidden depths of the Russian soul. ‘All in all, the time hasn’t been lost’, he wrote to his brother in 1854. ‘I have learned to know, if not Russia, then at least her people, to know them, as perhaps very few know them.’72 What Dostoevsky found among his fellow convicts was a level of depravity that shook him from his old intelligentsia belief in the people’s innate goodness and perfectibility. In this underworld of murderers and thieves he found not a shred of human decency - only greed and guile, violent cruelty and drunkenness, and hostility to himself as a gentleman. But the most depressing aspect of it all, as he describes it in The House of the Dead (1862), was an almost total absence of remorse.

I have already said that for a period of several years I saw among these people not the slightest trace of repentance, not one sign that their crime weighed heavily on their conscience, and that the majority of them consider themselves to be completely in the right. This is a fact. Of course, vanity, bad examples, foolhardiness and false shame are the causes of much of it. On the other hand, who can say that he has fathomed the depths of these lost hearts and has read in them that which is hidden from the whole world? It must surely have been possible over so many years to have noticed something, to have caught at least some feature of these hearts that bore witness to inner anguish, to suffering. But this was absent. Yet, it seems that crime cannot be comprehensible from points of view that are already given, and that its philosophy is rather more difficult than is commonly supposed.73

This dark vision of the human psyche was the inspiration for the murderers and thieves who populate the pages of Dostoevsky’s post-Siberian novels, beginning with Crime and Punishment (1866).

And yet at the depths of his despair came a vision of redemption to restore the writer’s faith. The revelation appeared, as if by a miracle, at Easter time, if we are to believe Dostoevsky’s own later recollection in A Writer’s Diary.74 The prisoners were drinking, fighting and carousing, and Dostoevsky was lying down on his plank bed to escape. Suddenly, a long-forgotten incident from his childhood came into his mind. When he was aged nine he was staying at his family’s country home, and one August day he wandered off alone into the woods. He heard a sound, thought that someone shouted ‘There’s a wolf!’ and ran terrified into a nearby field, where one of his father’s serfs, a peasant called Marey, took pity on the boy and tried to comfort him:

’Why you took a real fright, you did!’ he said, wagging his head. ‘Never mind, now, my dear. What a fine lad you are!’

He stretched out his hand and suddenly stroked my cheek.

’Never mind, now, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Christ be with you. Cross yourself, lad.’ But I couldn’t cross myself; the corners of my mouth were trembling, and I think that particularly struck him. He quietly stretched out a thick, earth-soiled finger with a black nail and gently touched it to my trembling lips.

’Now, now,’ he smiled at me with a broad, almost maternal smile. ‘Lord, what a dreadful fuss. Dear, dear, dear!’75

Remembering this ‘maternal’ act of kindness magically transformed Dostoevsky’s attitude towards his fellow prisoners.

And so when I climbed down from my bunk and looked around, I remember I suddenly felt I could regard these unfortunates in an entirely different way and that suddenly, through some sort of miracle, the former hatred and anger in my heart had vanished. I went off, peering intently into the faces of those I met. This disgraced peasant, with shaven head and brands on his cheek, drunk and roaring out his hoarse, drunken song - why he might also be that very same Marey; I cannot peer into his heart, after all.76

Suddenly it seemed to Dostoevsky that all the Russian convicts had some tiny glimmer of goodness in their hearts (although, always the nationalist, he denied its existence in the Polish ones). Over Christmas some of them put on a vaudeville, and at last, in a gesture of respect, they sought his help as an educated man. The convicts might be thieves, but they also gave their money to an Old Believer in the prison camp, who had earned their trust and whose saintliness they recognized. Now, to Dostoevsky, the convicts’ ability to preserve any sense of decency, in the dreadful conditions of the camp, seemed little short of miraculous, and the best proof there could be that Christ was alive in the Russian land. On this vision Dostoevsky built his faith. It was not much to build on. From the distant memory of a single peasant’s kindness, he made a leap of faith to the belief that all Russian peasants harboured Christ’s example somewhere in their souls. Not that he had any illusions about the way the peasants actually lived their lives (his horrific description of ‘how a peasant beats his wife’ is clear evidence of that). But he saw this barbarism as the ‘filth’ of centuries of oppression concealing, like a ‘diamond’, the peasant’s Christian soul. ‘One must know’, he wrote, how to segregate the beauty in the Russian peasant from the layers of barbarity that have accumulated over it… Judge the Russian people not by the abominations they so frequently commit, but by those great and sacred things for which, even in their abominations, they constantly yearn. Not all the people are villains; there are true saints, and what saints they are: they are radiant and illuminate the way for all!… Do not judge our People by what they are, but by what they would like to become.77

Dostoevsky was released and allowed to return to St Petersburg in 1859, three years after Volkonsky was set free by the ‘Tsar Liberator’ Alexander II. The educated circles of the capital were in a state of high excitement when Dostoevsky arrived from Siberia. The emancipation of the serfs, which was in its final stages of preparation, had given rise to hopes of a national and spiritual rebirth. The landlord and the peasant were to be reconciled on Russian-Christian principles. Dostoevsky compared the Decree to Russia’s original conversion to Christi-anity in 988. He belonged at this time to the group of writers known as the ‘native soil’ movement (pochvennichestvo). They called on the intelligentsia (and on Russia’s writers in particular) to turn toward the peasants, not just to discover their own nationality and express it in their art but, more importantly, in that truly ‘Russian’ spirit of Christian brotherhood, to bring their Western learning to the backward villages.

For Dostoevsky, in particular, this turning towards ‘Russia’ became his defining credo. He was a repentant nihilist, as he described himself, an unhappy atheist who longed to find a Russian faith. In the early 1860s he mapped out a series of novels to be called ‘The Life of a Great Sinner’. It would chart the spiritual journey of a Western-educated Russian man who had lost his faith and led a life of sin. He would go in search of truth to a monastery, become a Slavophile, join the Khlysty sect, and at the end he would find ‘both Christ and the Russian land, the Russian Christ and the Russian God’. It was to be a ‘gigantic novel’, Dostoevsky wrote to the poet Apollon Maikov in December 1868: ‘please don’t tell anyone, but this is how it is for me: to write this last novel, even if it kills me - and I’ll get it all out’.78 Dostoevsky never wrote ‘The Life of a Great Sinner’. But his four great novels - Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov - were all variations on its theme.

Like his sinner, Dostoevsky struggled over faith. ‘I am a child of the age’, he wrote in 1854, ‘a child of unbelief and scepticism.’79 His novels are filled with figures, like himself, who yearn for a religion in the face of their own doubts and reasoning. Even the believers, such as Shatov in The Devils (1871), can never quite commit to an unambiguous belief in God. ‘I believe in Russia,’ Shatov tells Stavrogin.

’I believe in the Greek Orthodox Church. I - I believe in the body of Christ -I believe that the second coming will take place in Russia - I believe,’ he murmured in a frenzy.

’But in God? In God?’

’I - I shall believe in God.’80

Dostoevsky’s novels can be read as an open discourse between reason and belief in which the tension between the two is never quite resolved.81 According to Dostoevsky, truth is contained in reason and belief - one cannot be undermined by the other - and all true belief must be maintained in the face of all reason. There is no rational answer to Ivan’s arguments against a God that allows little children to suffer. Nor is there a reasonable response to the arguments of the Grand Inquisitor, the subject of Ivan’s poetic fantasy in The Brothers Karamazov, who arrests Christ when he reappears in Counter-reformation Spain. Interrogating his prisoner, the Grand Inquisitor argues that the only way to prevent human suffering is, not by Christ’s example, which ordinary mortals are too weak to follow, but by the construction of a rational order which can secure, by force if necessary, the peace and happiness that people really want. But Dostoevsky’s faith was not of the sort that could be reached by any reasoning. He condemned as ‘Western’ all faiths which sought a reasoned understanding of Divinity or which had to be enforced by papal laws and hierarchies (and in this sense the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor was itself intended by Dostoevsky as an argument against the Roman Church). The ‘Russian God’ in which Dostoevsky believed could only be arrived at by a leap of faith: it was a mystical belief outside of all reasoning. As he wrote in 1854, in one of the rare statements of his own religious credo, ‘if someone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it really was that the truth lay outside Christ, I would prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth’.82

In Dostoevsky’s view, the ability to continue to believe in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence was a peculiarly Russian gift. There is a scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Karamazov’s servant Smerdyakov is holding forth on the question of God at a family dinner. In a confused effort to refute the Gospels, Smerdyakov says that nobody can move a mountain to the sea - except ‘perhaps two hermits in the desert’.

’One moment!’ screamed Karamazov in a transport of delight. ‘So you think there are two men who can move mountains, do you? Ivan, make a note of this extraordinary fact, write it down. There you have the Russian all over!’83

Like Karamazov, Dostoevsky took delight in this ‘Russian faith’, this strange capacity to believe in miracles. It was the root of his nationalism and his messianic vision of the ‘Russian soul’ as the spiritual saviour of the rationalistic West, which ultimately led him, in the 1870s, to write in the nationalist press about the ‘holy mission’ of ‘our great Russia’ to build a Christian empire on the continent. The simple Russian people, Dostoevsky claimed, had found the solution to the intellectual’s torment over faith. They needed their belief, it was central to their lives, and it gave them strength to go on living and endure their suffering. This was the source of Dostoevsky’s faith as well - the urge to go on believing, despite his doubts, because faith was necessary for life; rationalism led only to despair, to murder or to suicide - the fate of all the rationalists in his novels. Dostoevsky’s answer to the voice of doubt and reason was a sort of existential ‘credo ergo sum’ that took its inspiration from those ‘Russian types’ - hermits, mystics, Holy Fools and simple Russian peasants - imaginary and real, whose faith stood beyond reasoning.

Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy was inseparable from his belief in the redemptive quality of the Russian peasant soul. In all his novels the quest of the ‘Great Sinner’ for a ‘Russian faith’ is intimately linked to the idea of salvation through reconciliation with the native soil. Dostoevsky’s own salvation came to him in the Siberian prison camp where for the first time he came into close contact with the common Russian people, and this theme of penance and redemption was a leitmotif in all his later works. It is the central theme of Crime and Punishment, a murder novel which conceals a political subplot. Its main protagonist, Raskolnikov, tries to justify his senseless murder of the old pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna using the same utilitarian reasoning as that used by the nihilists and revolutionaries: that the old woman had been ‘useless’ to society and that he, meanwhile, was poor. He thus persuades himself that he killed the pawnbroker for altruistic reasons, just as the revolutionaries legitimized their crimes, when in fact, as he comes to realize with the help of his lover and spiritual guide, the prostitute Sonya, he killed her to demonstrate his superiority. Like Caesar and Napoleon, he had believed himself exempt from the rules of ordinary morality. Raskolnikov confesses to his crime. He is sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in a Siberian prison camp. One warm Easter Day Sonya comes to him. By some strange force, ‘as though something had snatched at him’, Raskolnikov is hurled to Sonya’s feet, and in this act of repentance, she understands that he has learned to love. It is a moment of religious revelation:

Her eyes began to shine with an infinite happiness; she had understood, and now she was in no doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last it had arrived, that moment…

They tried to speak, but were unable to. There were tears in their eyes. Both of them looked pale and thin; but in these ill, pale faces there now gleamed the dawn of a renewed future, a complete recovery to a new life.84

Strengthened by Sonya’s love, he turns for moral guidance to the copy of the Gospels which she had given him, and resolves to use his time in prison to start on the road to that new life.

The suffering of such convicts had long been seen by Russian writers as a form of spiritual redemption. The journey to Siberia became a journey towards God. Gogol, for example, had envisaged that in the final volume of Dead Souls the old rogue Chichikov would see the light in a Siberian penal colony.85 Among the Slavophiles, the Decembrist exiles had the status of martyrs. They venerated Sergei Volkonsky as an ‘ideal Russian type’, in the words of Ivan Aksakov, because he ‘accepted all his suffering in the purest Christian spirit’.86 Maria Volkonsky was practically worshipped in the democratic circles of the mid-nineteenth century, where everybody knew by heart the poem by Nekrasov (‘Russian Women’) which compared Maria to a saint. Dostoevsky shared this veneration of the Decembrists and their suffering wives. During his own journey to Siberia, in 1850, his convoy had been met by the Decembrist wives in the Tobolsk transit camp. Even after a quarter of a century, in his recollection of this encounter in A Writer’s Diary, his attitude towards them was deeply reverential:

We saw the great martyresses who had voluntarily followed their husbands to Siberia. They gave up everything: their social position, wealth, connections, relatives, and sacrificed it all for the supreme moral duty, the freest duty that can ever exist. Guilty of nothing, they endured for twenty-five long years everything that their convicted husbands endured. Our meeting went on for an hour. They blessed us on our new journey; they made the sign of the cross over us and gave each of us a copy of the Gospels, the only book permitted in the prison. This book lay under my pillow during the four years of my penal servitude.87

In 1854 Dostoevsky wrote to one of these Decembrist wives, Natalia Fonvizina, with the first clear statement of the new faith he had found from his revelation in the prison camp at Omsk.

What struck the writer most about these women was the voluntary nature of their suffering. At the centre of his faith was the notion of humility, which Dostoevsky argued was the truly Christian essence of the Russian peasantry - their ‘spiritual capacity for suffering’.88 It was the reason why they felt a natural tenderness towards the weak and poor, even towards criminals, whom villagers would help with gifts of food and clothes as they passed in convoy to Siberia. Dostoevsky explained this compassion by the idea that the peasants felt a ‘Christian sense of common guilt and responsibility towards their fellow-men’.89 This Christian sense emerged as the central theme of The Brothers Karamazov. At the heart of the novel stand the teachings of the elder Zosima - that ‘we are all responsible for each other’, even for the ‘murderers and robbers in the world’, and that we must all share in our common suffering. The Kingdom of Heaven, Zosima concludes, will become a reality only when everybody undergoes this ‘change of heart’ and the ‘brotherhood of man will come to pass’.90

Dostoevsky places Zosima’s own conversion precisely at that moment when he realizes his guilt and responsibility toward the poor. Before he became a monk Zosima had been an army officer. He had fallen in love with a society beauty, who had rejected him for another man. Zosima provoked his rival to a duel. But the night before the duel a revelation came to him. In the evening Zosima had been in a foul mood. He had struck his batman twice about the face with all his strength, drawing blood, while the serf just stood there ‘stiffly to attention, his head erect, his eyes fixed blankly on me as though on parade, shuddering at every blow but not daring to raise his hands to protect himself. That night Zosima slept badly. But the next morning he woke with a ‘strange feeling of shame and disgrace’, not at the prospect of shedding blood in that day’s duel, but at the thought of his wanton cruelty to the poor batman the evening before. Suddenly he realized that he had no right to be waited on ‘by a man like me created in God’s image’. Filled with remorse, he rushed to his servant’s little room and went down on his knees to beg for his forgiveness. At the duel he let his rival shoot, and, when he missed, Zosima fired his own shot into the air and apologized to him. That day he resigned from his regiment and went into the monastery.91

Dmitry Karamazov, another dissolute army officer, experiences a similar revelation and, in the end, comes to repent for the guilt of social privilege. Wrongly convicted of his father’s murder, Dmitry wants nevertheless to suffer in Siberia to purify himself and expiate the sins of other men. Suffering thus awakens consciousness. The revelation comes to Dmitry in a dream. During the hearings before his trial he falls asleep and finds himself in a peasant’s hut. He cannot understand why the peasants are so poor, why the mother cannot feed her baby, which continually cries. He wakes up from the dream transformed, ‘his face radiant with joy’, having at last felt a ‘change of heart’, and expressing his compassion for his fellow men.92 He knows that he is not guilty of his father’s murder, but is, he feels, to blame for the suffering of the peasants, his own serfs. Nobody can understand why Dmitry keeps muttering about the ‘poor baby’ or that it is the reason he ‘must go to Siberia!’93 But all is revealed at his trial:

And what does it matter if I spend twenty years in the mines hacking out ore with a hammer? I’m not afraid of that at all. It’s something else that I fear now - that the new man that has arisen within me may depart. One can find a human heart there also, in the mines, under the ground, next to you, in another convict and murderer, and make friends with him. For there too one can live and love and suffer! One can breathe new light into the frozen heart of such a convict. One can wait on him for years and years and at last bring up from the thieves’ kitchen to the light of day a lofty soul, a soul that has suffered and has become conscious of its humanity, to restore life to an angel, bring back a hero! And there are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are all responsible for them! Why did I dream of that ‘baby’ just then? ‘Why is the baby poor?’ That was a sign to me at that moment! It’s for the ‘baby’ that I’m going. For we are all responsible for all. For all the ‘babies’, for there are little children and big children. All of us are ‘babies’. And I’ll go there for all, for someone has to go for all.94

Dostoevsky believed in a Church of social action and responsibility. He was critical of the official Church, which had allowed itself to become shackled by the Petrine state since the eighteenth century and, as a consequence, had lost its spiritual authority. He called on the

Church to become more active in society. It had, he said, lost sight of its pastoral role and had shown itself to be indifferent to Russia’s major problem, the suffering of the poor. Such views were widely shared by lay theologians, like the Slavophile Khomiakov, and even by some priests in the Church hierarchy, whose writings were an influence on Dostoevsky.95 There was a common feeling that the Church was losing ground to the socialist intelligentsia and to the various sectarians and mystics who were searching for a more meaningful and socially responsible spiritual community.

Dostoevsky’s writings must be seen in this context. He, too, was searching for such a Church, a Christian brotherhood like the Slavophiles’ sobornost’, that would transcend the walls of the monastery and unite all the Russians in a living community of believers. His Utopia, a socio-mystical ideal, was nothing less than a theocracy. Dostoevsky advanced this idea in The Brothers Karamazov - in the scene where Ivan gains the approbation of the elder Zosima for his article proposing the radical expansion of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. This was a subject of considerable topical importance at the time of the novel’s publication. Ivan argues that, contrary to the pattern of Western history, where the Roman Church was absorbed by the state, the idea of Holy Russia was to raise the state to the level of a Church. Ivan’s reforms of the courts would substitute the moral sanction of the Church for the coercive power of the state: instead of punishing its criminals, society should seek to reform their souls. Zosima rejoices at this argument. No criminal can be deterred, he argues, let alone reformed, by ‘all these sentences of hard labour in Siberian prisons’. But unlike the foreign criminal, Zosima maintains, even the most hardened Russian murderer retains sufficient faith to recognize and repent of his crime; and through this spiritual reformation, the elder predicts, not only would a member of the living Church be saved but ‘perhaps also the number of crimes themselves would diminish to a quite unbelievable extent’.96 From Dostoevsky’s Notebooks it is clear that he shared the elder’s theocratic vision (which was closely based on the writings of Optina’s Father Zedergolm) of a ‘single universal and sovereign Church’ that was destined to appear on the Russian land. ‘The star will shine in the East!’97

According to Dostoevsky’s friend and fellow writer Vladimir Soloviev, The Brothers Karamazov was planned as the first of a series of novels in which the writer would expound his ideal of the Church as a social union of Christian love.98 One can see this vision unfolding in the final scene of The Brothers Karamazov, where Alyosha (who has left the monastery and gone into the world) attends the funeral of the poor child Ilyusha, struck down by tuberculosis. After the service, he gathers around him a group of boys who had followed him in caring for the dying boy. There are twelve of these apostles. They gather at the stone where Ilyusha’s father had wanted to bury his son. In a farewell speech of remembrance, Alyosha tells the children that the spirit of the dead boy will live on for ever in their hearts. It will be a source of kindness in their lives and it will remind them, as Alyosha tells them, ‘How good life is when you do something that is good and just!’99 Here was a vision of a Church that lived outside the walls of any monastery, a Church that reached out to the heart of every child; a Church in which, as Alyosha had once dreamed, ‘ “there will be no more rich or poor, exalted nor humbled, but all men will be as the children of God and the real Kingdom of Christ will arrive”’.100

The censors banned large parts of Dostoevsky’s novel, claiming that such passages had more to do with socialism than with Christ.101 It is perhaps ironic for a writer who is best known as an anti-socialist, but Dostoevsky’s vision of a democratic Church remained close to the socialist ideals which he espoused in his youth. The emphasis had changed - as a socialist he had believed in the moral need for the transformation of society, whereas as a Christian he had come to see that spiritual reform was the only way to effect social change - but essentially his quest for Truth had always been the same. Dostoevsky’s whole life can be seen as a struggle to combine the teaching of the Gospels with the need for social justice on this earth, and he thought he found his answer in the ‘Russian soul’. In one of his final writings Dostoevsky summarized his vision of the Russian Church:

I am speaking now not about church buildings and not about sermons: I am speaking about our Russian ‘socialism’ (and, however strange it may seem, I am taking this word, which is quite the opposite of all that the Church represents, to explain my idea), whose purpose and final outcome is the establishment of the universal church on earth, insofar as the earth is capable of containing it. I am speaking of the ceaseless longing, which has always been inherent in the Russian people, for a great, general, universal union of brotherhood in the name of Christ. And if this union does not yet exist, if the Church has not yet been fully established - not merely in prayers alone, but in fact - then the instinct for this Church and the ceaseless longing for it… is still to be found in the hearts of the millions of our people. It is not in Communism, not in mechanical forms that we find the socialism of the Russian people: they believe that salvation is ultimately to be found in worldwide union in the name of Christ. That is our Russian socialism!102


At 4 a.m. on 28 October 1910 Tolstoy crept out of his house at Yasnaya Polyana, took a carriage to the nearby station, and bought a third-class railway ticket to Kozelsk, the station for the monastery at Optina Pustyn. At the age of eighty-two, with just ten days to live, Tolstoy was renouncing everything - his wife and children, his family home in which he had lived for nearly fifty years, his peasants and his literary career - to take refuge in the monastery. He had felt the urge to flee many times before. Since the 1880s he had got into the habit of setting out at night to walk with the pilgrims on the Kiev road that passed by his estate - often not returning until breakfast time. But now his urge was to leave for good. The endless arguments with his wife Sonya, largely over the inheritance of his estate, had made life at home unbearable. He wanted peace and quiet in his final days.

Tolstoy did not know where he was going. He left in a hurry, without plans. But something drew him to Optina. Perhaps it was The Brothers Karamazov, which Tolstoy had just read for the first time; or perhaps it was the presence of his sister Marya, the last survivor of his happy childhood, who was living out her last days at the nearby Shamordino convent under the direction of Optina’s monks. The monastery was not far from his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and on several occasions over the previous thirty years he had walked there like a peasant to calm his troubled mind by talking about God with the elder Amvrosy. The ascetic life of the Optina hermits was an inspiration to Tolstoy: so much so that Father Sergius (1890-98) - his story of an aide-de-camp-turned-hermit from Optina who struggles to find God through prayer and contemplation and at last finds peace as a humble pilgrim on the road - can be read as a monologue on Tolstoy’s own religious longing to renounce the world. Some say that Tolstoy was searching at Optina for a final reconciliation with the Church -that he did not want to die before his excommunication (imposed by the Church in 1901) had been rescinded. Certainly, if there was a site where such a reconciliation could have taken place, it was Optina, whose mystical approach to Christianity, uncluttered as it was by the rituals and institutions of the Church, was very close to Tolstoy’s own religious faith. But it seems more likely that Tolstoy was driven by the need to ‘go away’. He wanted to escape from the affairs of this world to prepare his soul for the journey to the next.

To judge from A Confession, Tolstoy’s turn to God was a sudden one - the result of a moral crisis in the latter half of the 1870s. This, too, is the view of most scholars, who draw a sharp distinction between the literary Tolstoy of the pre-crisis decades and the religious thinker of the post-crisis years. But in fact the search for faith was a constant element of Tolstoy’s life and art.103 His whole identity was bound up in the quest for spiritual meaning and perfection, and he took his inspiration from the life of Christ. Tolstoy thought of God in terms of love and unity. He wanted to belong, to feel himself a part of a community. This was the ideal he sought in marriage and in his communion with the peasantry. For Tolstoy, God is love: where there is love, there is God. The divine core of every human being is in their compassion and ability to love. Sin is loss of love - a punishment itself - and the only way to find redemption is through love itself. This theme runs through all Tolstoy’s fiction, from his first published story, ‘Family Happiness’ (1859) to his final novel, Resurrection (1899). It is misleading to see these literary works as somehow separate from his religious views. Rather, as with Gogol, they are allegories - icons - of these views. All Tolstoy’s characters are searching for a form of Christian love, a sense of relatedness to other human beings that alone can give a meaning and a purpose to their lives. That is why Anna Karenina -isolated and thrown back completely on herself - is destined to perish in Tolstoy’s universe; or why his most exalted figures, such as Princess Maria or the peasant Karataev in War and Peace, show their love by suffering for other human beings.

Tolstoy had a mystical approach to God. He thought that God could not be comprehended by the human mind, but only felt through love and prayer. For Tolstoy, prayer is a moment of awareness of divinity, a moment of ecstasy and freedom, when the spirit is released from the personality and merges with the universe.104 Not a few Orthodox theologians have compared Tolstoy’s religion to Buddhism and other oriental faiths.105 But in fact his mystical approach had more in common with the hermits’ way of prayer at Optina. Tolstoy’s division from the Russian Church, however, was a fundamental one, and not even Optina could satisfy his spiritual requirements. Tolstoy came to reject the doctrines of the Church - the Trinity, the Resurrection, the whole notion of a divine Christ - and instead began to preach a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being. His was a form of Christianity that could not be contained by any Church. It went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues - of poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression - which no Christian in a country such as Russia could ignore. Here was the religious basis of Tolstoy’s moral crisis and renunciation of society from the end of the 1870s. Increasingly persuaded that the truly Christian person had to live as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy vowed to sell his property, to give away his money to the poor, and to live with them in Christian brotherhood. Essentially his beliefs amounted to a kind of Christian socialism - or rather anarchism, insofar as he rejected all forms of Church and state authority. But Tolstoy was not a revolutionary. He rejected the violence of the socialists. He was a pacifist. In his view, the only way to fight injustice and oppression was by obeying Christ’s teachings.

The Revolution of 1917 has obscured from our view the threat which Tolstoy’s simple reading of the Gospels posed to Church and state. By the time of his excommunication in the 1900s, Tolstoy had a truly national following. His Christian anarchism was hugely appealing to the peasantry, and as such it was perceived as a major threat to the established Church, even to the Tsar. Any social revolution in Russia was bound to have a spiritual base, and even the most atheistic socialists were conscious of the need to give religious connotations to their stated goals.* ‘There are two Tsars in Russia’, wrote A. S. Suvorin, editor of the conservative newspaper Novoevremia, in 1901: ‘Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy. Which one is stronger? Nicholas II can do nothing about Tolstoy; he cannot shake his throne. But Tolstoy, undoubtedly, is shaking his.’106 It would not have come to this, if the tsarist authorities had left Tolstoy alone. Few people read his religious writings of the 1880s, and it was only in the 1890s, when the Church began to denounce him for trying to bring down the government, that mass illegal printings of these works began to circulate in the provinces.107 By 1899, when Tolstoy published Resurrection, he was better known as a social critic and religious dissident than as a writer of fiction. It was the novel’s religious attack on the institutions of the tsarist state -the Church, the government, the judicial and penal systems, private property and the social conventions of the aristocracy - that made it, by a long way, his best selling novel in his own lifetime.108 ‘All of Russia is feeding on this book’, an ecstatic Stasov wrote to congratulate Tolstoy. ‘You cannot imagine the conversations and debates it is provoking… This event has had no equal in all the literature of the nineteenth century.’109 The more the Church and the state attacked Tolstoy, the greater was the writer’s following, until he was finally excommunicated in 1901. The intention of the excommunication had been to provoke a wave of popular hatred against Tolstoy, and there were reactionaries and Orthodox fanatics who responded to the call. Tolstoy received death threats and abusive letters, and the Bishop of Kronstadt, who was notorious for his support of the extreme national-

* The Bolsheviks made the most political capital out of socialism’s religious resonance. S. G. Strumilin, in a pamphlet for the rural poor in 1917, compared socialism to the work of Christ and claimed that it would create a ‘terrestrial kingdom of fraternity, equality and freedom’ (S. Petrashkevich [Strumilin], Pro zemliu i sotsializm: slovo sotsialdemokrata k derevenskoi bednote (Petrograd, 1917), pp. 1-2). The cult of Lenin, which took off in August 1918, after he had been wounded in an assassination attempt, carried explicit religious overtones. Lenin was depicted as a Christ-like figure, ready to die for the people’s cause, and, because the bullets had not killed him, blessed by miraculous powers. Pravda (meaning Truth and Justice), the title of the Party’s news-paper, had an obvious religious meaning in the peasant consciousness - as did the Red Star, for, according to folklore, the maiden Pravda wore a burning star on her forehead which list up the whole world and brought it truth and happiness.

ists, even wrote a prayer for the writer’s death which was circulated widely in the right-wing press.110 Yet for every threatening message, Tolstoy received a hundred letters of support from villages across the land. People wrote to tell him of abuses in their local government, or to thank him for his condemnation of the Tsar in his famous article ‘I Cannot Remain Silent’, written in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre which sparked the Revolution of 1905. Millions of people who had never read a novel suddenly began to read Tolstoy’s. And everywhere the writer went, huge crowds of well-wishers would appear - many more, it was remarked by the police amidst the celebrations for Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday in 1908, than turned out to greet the Tsar.

Tolstoy gave all the money he had made from Resurrection to the Dukhobors. The Dukhobors were Tolstoyans before Tolstoy. The religious sect went back to the eighteenth century, if not earlier, when its first communities of Christian brotherhood were established. As pacifists who rejected the authority of Church and state, they had suffered persecution from the very start of their existence in Russia, and in the 1840s they had been forced to settle in the Caucasus. Tolstoy first became interested in the Dukhobors in the early 1880s. The influence of their ideas on his writings is palpable. All the core elements of ‘Tolstoyism’ - the idea that the Kingdom of God is within oneself, the rejection of the doctrines and rituals of the established Church, the Christian principles of the (imagined) peasant way of life and community - were also part of Dukhobor belief. In 1895 the sect staged a series of mass demonstrations against military conscription. Thousands of Tolstoyans (or pacifists who called themselves by that name) flocked to join their protest in the Caucasus, many of them merging with the Dukhobors. Tolstoy himself publicized their cause, writing several hundred letters to the press and eventually securing and largely paying for their resettlement in Canada (where their dissent proved just as troublesome to the government).111

Tolstoy was in close contact with many other sects. There was a natural affinity between his living Christianity and the sects’ searching for a True Church in the Russian land: both came from social visions of Utopia. ‘Tolstoyism’ was itself a kind of sect - or at least its enemies thought so. There were prolonged discussions between Tolstoy’s followers and the main religious sects about organizing a united movement under Tolstoy’s leadership.112 This was a major challenge to the Church. The number of sectarians had grown dramatically, from somewhere in the region of 3 million members in the eighteenth century to perhaps 30 million in the first decade of the twentieth century, although some scholars thought that fully one-third of the Russian population (about 120 million) was sectarian.113 New sects were formed, or discovered, every year, as the Populist intelligentsia began to study them in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Then, in the 1900s, the theosophists, the anthroposophists, the Symbolists, Rasputinites and mystics of all types started to see in these sects an answer to their yearning for a new and more ‘essential’ kind of Russian faith. The established Church was in danger of imploding. Politically shackled to the state, its parish life inert, if not spiritually dead, the Church could not prevent its peasant flock from running off to join sects, or fleeing to the city and the socialists, in their search for truth and justice on this earth.

If Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism was motivated by the yearning to belong to a free community of Christian love and brotherhood, the personal root of his religion was a fear of death which became more intense with every passing year. Death was an obsession throughout his life and art. He was a child when his parents died; and then as a young man he lost his elder brother Nikolai as well - a haunting episode he pictured in the death scene of another Nikolai, Prince Levin’s brother, in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy desperately tried to rationalize death as a part of life. ‘People who fear death, fear it because it appears to them as emptiness and blackness’, he wrote in ‘On Life’ (1887), ‘but they see emptiness and blackness because they do not see life.’114 Then, under Schopenhauer’s influence perhaps, he came to regard death as the dissolution of one’s personality in some abstract essence of the universe.115 But none of it was convincing to those who knew him well. As Chekhov put it in a letter to Gorky, Tolstoy was terrified of his own death, but he did not want to admit it, so he calmed himself by reading the Scriptures.116

In 1897 Tolstoy paid a visit to Chekhov. The playwright was gravely ill. His long illness from tuberculosis had taken a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, with a massive haemorrhaging of the lungs, and

Chekhov, who had hitherto ignored his condition, was finally obliged to call for the doctors. When Tolstoy arrived at the clinic, six days after the haemorrhage, he found Chekhov sitting up in bed in a cheerful mood, laughing and joking, and coughing blood into a large beer glass. Chekhov was aware of the danger he was in - he was a doctor, after all - but he kept his spirits up, and even talked of plans for the future. Tolstoy, Chekhov noted with his usual cutting wit, was ‘almost disappointed’ not to find his friend at the point of death. It was clear that Tolstoy had come with the intention of talking about death. He was fascinated by the way that Chekhov seemed to accept death and just get on with life, and, envious of this calm attitude perhaps, he wanted to know more. Soon Tolstoy touched on the topic which is generally taboo around the bed of someone who is gravely ill. As Chekhov lay there spitting blood, he harangued him with a lecture about death and the afterlife. Chekhov listened attentively, but in the end he lost patience and started arguing. He viewed the mysterious force, in which Tolstoy thought the dead would be dissolved, as a ‘formless frozen mass’, and told Tolstoy that he did not really want that kind of eternal life. In fact, Chekhov said, he did not understand life after death. He saw no point in thinking about it, or in comforting oneself, as he put it, with ‘delusions of immortality’.117 Here was the crucial difference between the two men. When Tolstoy thought of death his mind turned to another world, while Chekhov’s always returned to this one. ‘It is frightening to become nothing,’ he told his friend and publisher A. S. Suvorin in the clinic after Tolstoy left. ‘They take you to the cemetery, return home, begin drinking tea, and say hypocritical things about you. It’s ghastly to think about it!’118

It was not that Chekhov was an atheist - although in the last years of his life he claimed to have no faith.119 His religious attitudes were in fact very complex and ambivalent. Chekhov had grown up in a religious family and throughout his life he retained a strong attachment to the rituals of the Church. He collected icons. At his house in Yalta there was a crucifix on his bedroom wall.120 He liked reading about the Russian monasteries and the lives of saints.121 From his correspondence we learn that Chekhov loved to hear church bells, that he often went to church and enjoyed the services, that he stayed at monasteries, and that on more than one occasion he even thought of becoming a monk himself.122 Chekhov saw the Church as an ally of the artist, and the artist’s mission as a spiritual one. As he once said to his friend Gruzinsky, ‘the village church is the only place where the peasant can experience something beautiful’.123

Chekhov’s literary works are filled with religious characters and themes. No other Russian writer, with the possible exception of Les-kov, wrote so often or with so much tender feeling about people worshipping, or about the rituals of the Church. Many of Chekhov’s major stories (such as ‘The Bishop’, ‘The Student’, ‘On the Road’ and ‘Ward No. 6’) are profoundly concerned with the search for faith. Chekhov himself had religious doubts - he once wrote that he would become a monk if the monasteries took people who were not religious and he did not have to pray.124 But he clearly sympathized with people who had faith or spiritual ideals. Perhaps Chekhov’s view is best expressed by Masha, when she says in Three Sisters, ‘It seems to me that a man must have faith, or be seeking it, otherwise his life is empty, quite empty.’125 Chekhov was not overly concerned with the abstract question about the existence of a God. As he told Suvorin, a writer should know better than to ask such things.126 But he did embrace the concept of religion as a way of life - a basic moral code - which is what it was for him and what he thought it was for the simple Russian man.127

In his early story ‘On the Road’ (1886) Chekhov discusses this Russian need for faith. The scene is a highway inn where some travellers are sheltering from bad weather. A young noblewoman gets into a conversation with a gentleman called Likharev. She wants to know why famous Russian writers all find faith before they die. ‘As I understand it,’ replies Likharev, ‘faith is a gift of the spirit. It is a talent: you have to be born with it.’

’As far as I can judge, speaking for myself, and from all that I have seen, this talent is present in the Russian people to the highest degree. Russian life represents an endless series of beliefs and enthusiasms, but it has not, if you ask my advice, it has not yet gone anywhere near not believing or rejecting belief. If a Russian person does not believe in God, it means he believes in something else.’128

This was close to Chekhov’s view - and he himself was very Russian in this sense. Chekhov might have had his own doubts about the existence of a God. But he never once lost sight of the need for Russians to believe. For without faith in a better world to come, life in Chekhov’s Russia would be unendurable.

The need to believe was as central to his art as it was to the Russian way of life. Chekhov’s plays abound in characters (Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya, Vershinin in Three Sisters, Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard) who place their faith, as Chekhov himself did, in the ability of work and science to improve life for humanity. They are filled with characters who reconcile themselves to suffer and endure in the Christian hope of a better life to come. As Sonya puts it in those famous (and already cited) closing lines of Uncle Vanya: ‘When our time comes we shall die submissively, and over there, in the other world, we shall say that we have suffered, that we’ve wept, that we’ve had a bitter life, and God will take pity on us.’129 Chekhov saw the artist as a fellow sufferer - as somebody who worked for a spiritual end. In 1902 he wrote to Diaghilev:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God - that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four.130

Death is felt in all of Chekhov’s works, and in many of his later stories the approach of death is the major theme. Chekhov had confronted death throughout his life - first as a doctor and then as a dying man - and perhaps because he was so close to it he wrote about the subject with a fearless honesty. Chekhov understood that people die in a very ordinary way - for the most part they die thinking about life. He saw that death is simply part of the natural process - and when death came to him, he met it with the dignity and courage, and the same love of life, he had always shown. In June 1904 he booked into a hotel at Badenweiler, Germany, with his wife Olga. ‘I am going away to die,’ Chekhov told a friend on the eve of their departure. ‘Everything is finished.”131On the night of 2 July he woke in a fever, called for a doctor and told him loudly, ‘Ich sterbe’ (‘I am dying’). The doctor tried to calm him and went away. Chekhov ordered a bottle of champagne, drank a glass, lay down on his bed, and passed away.132

For Tolstoy, death was no such easy thing. Terrified of his own mortality, he attached his religion to a mystical conception of death as a spiritual release, the dissolution of the personality into a ‘universal soul’; yet this never quite removed his fear. No other writer wrote so often, or so imaginatively, about the actual moment of dying - his depictions of the deaths of Ivan Ilich and of Prince Andrei in War and Peace are among the best in literature. But these are not just deaths. They are final reckonings - moments when the dying re-evaluate the meaning of their lives and find salvation, or some resolution, in a spiritual truth.133 In The Death of Ivan Ilich (1886) Tolstoy shows a man, a senior judge, who comes to realize the truth about himself as he lies on his deathbed looking back on his life. Ivan Ilich sees that he has existed entirely for himself and that his life has therefore been a waste. He has lived for his career as a judge, but he cared no more for the people who appeared before him than the doctor treating him cares for him now. He has organized his life around his family, but he does not love them, and nor does it appear that they love him, for none of them will recognize the fact that he is dying and try to comfort him. The only real relationship which Ivan Ilich has is with his servant Gerasim, a ‘fresh young peasant lad’ who looks after him, sits with him at night and brings him comfort by holding up his legs. Gerasim does all of this as a simple act of kindness for a man who, he knows, is about to die, and his recognition of this fact is itself of immense comfort to the dying man. ‘The awful, terrible act of his dying was’, Ivan Ilich sees, reduced by those about him to the level of a fortuitous, disagreeable and rather indecent incident (much in the same way as people behave with someone who goes into a drawing-room smelling unpleasantly) - and this was being done in the name of the very decorum he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one was willing even to appreciate his situation. Gerasim was the only person who recognized the position and was sorry for him. And that was why Ivan Ilich was at ease only when Gerasim was with him… Gerasim alone told no lies; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case, and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, and simply felt sorry for the sick, expiring master. On one occasion when Ivan Ilich was for sending him away to bed he even said straight out:

’We shall all of us die, so what’s a little trouble?’ meaning by this that he did not mind the extra work because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.134

A simple peasant has given to this judge a moral lesson about truth and compassion. He has shown him how to live and how to die - for the peasant’s acceptance of the fact of death enables Ivan Ilich, at the final conscious moment of his life, to overcome his fear.

The Death of Ivan Ilich was based upon the death of Tolstoy’s friend, Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, an official in the judicial service, whose brother furnished Tolstoy with a detailed account of his final days.135 It was not uncommon for the Russian upper classes to draw comfort from their servants’ presence at the moment of their death. From diaries and memoirs it would seem that, far more than the priest who came to take confession and administer last rites, the servants helped the dying overcome their fears with their simple peasant faith which ‘enabled them to look death in the face’.136 The fearless attitude of the peasant towards death was a commonplace of nineteenth-century Russian literature. ‘What an astonishing thing is the death of a Russian peasant!’ wrote Turgenev in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. ‘His state of mind before death could be called neither one of indifference, nor one of stupidity; he dies as if he is performing a ritual act, coldly and simply.’137 Turgenev’s hunter encounters several peasants at the point of death. One, a woodcutter called Maxim who is crushed by a falling tree, asks his team-mates to forgive him, and then, just before he breathes his last, asks them to make sure that his wife receives a horse for which he has put down money. Another is informed in a country hospital that he has only a few days to live. The peasant thinks about this for a bit, scratches the nape of his neck and puts his cap on, as if to depart. The doctor asks him where he is going.

’Where to? It’s obvious where to - home, if things are that bad. If things are like that, there’s a lot to be put in order.’

’But you’ll do yourself real harm, Vasily Dmitrich. I’m surprised that you even got here at all. Stay here, I beg you.’

’No, Brother Kapiton Timofeich, if I’m going to die, I’ll die at home. If I died here, God knows what a mess there’d be at home.’138

The same peasant attitudes were noted by Tolstoy in Three Deaths (1856), by Leskov in The Enchanted Pilgrim (1873), by Saltykov-Shchedrin in Old Days in Poshekhonie (1887) and by practically every major Russian writer thereafter, so that in the end the stoicism of the peasants assumed the status of a cultural myth. This was the form in which it was repeated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward (1968), in the scene in which Yefrem remembers how ‘the old people used to die back home on the Kama’.

They didn’t puff themselves up or fight against it or brag that they were going to die - they took death calmly. They didn’t shirk squaring things up, they prepared themselves quietly and in good time, deciding who should have the mare, who the foal, who the coat and who the boots, and they departed easily, as if they were just moving into a new house. None of them would be scared by cancer. Anyway, none of them got it.139

But attitudes like this were not just literary invention. They were documented in the memoir sources, medical reports and ethnographic studies of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.140 Some put down the peasants’ resignation to a serf-like fatalism in which death was viewed as a release from suffering. When they talked about their lot, the peasants often referred to the afterlife as a ‘kingdom of liberty’ where their ancestors lived in ‘God’s freedom’.141 This was the idea behind Turgenev’s Sketches, in the story ‘Living Relic’, where a sick peasant woman yearns for death to end her suffering. Like many of her class, she believes that she will be rewarded for her suffering in Heaven and this makes her unafraid to die. Others explained such peasant fatalism as a form of self-defence. Death was such a common fact of village life that, to a degree, the peasant must have become hardened towards it. In a society where nearly half the children died before the age of five there had to be some way of coping with the grief. Doctors often noted that the parents of a village child would not react emotionally to its death, and in many of the poorest regions, where there were too many mouths to feed, women would even thank

God for taking it away.142 There were peasant proverbs to advance the view that ‘It’s a good day when a child dies’.143 Infanticide was not uncommon, especially at times of economic hardship, and with children who were illegitimate it was practically the norm.144

The desperate peasant woman in The Brothers Karamazov who has lost her boy is told by Zosima that God has taken him and given him the rank of an angel. In peasant Russia it was generally believed, in the words of a villager from Riazan province, that ‘the souls of little children go straight up to heaven’.145 Such thoughts must have been of real comfort. For the peasantry believed in a universe where the earth and spirit worlds were intimately linked in one continuum. The spirit world was a constant presence in their daily lives, with demons and angels at every turn. The fortunes of the souls of their kin were a matter of the highest importance. There were good and bad spirits in the Russian peasant world, and how a person died determined whether his spirit would also be good or bad. The peasant thought it was essential to prepare for death, to make the dying comfortable, to pray for them, to end all arguments with them, to dispose properly of their property, and to give them a Christian burial (sometimes with a candle and a bread ladder to help them on their way) in order that their souls could rise up peacefully to the spirit world.146 Those who died dissatisfied would return to haunt the living as demons or diseases. Hence, in many places it became the custom to bury murder victims, those who died by suicide or poisoning, deformed people and sorcerers and witches outside the boundaries of the cemetery.

During a severe harvest failure it was even known for the peasants to exhume the corpses of those whose evil spirits were thought to be to blame.147 In the peasant belief system the spirits of the dead led an active life. Their souls ate and slept, they felt cold and pain, and they often came back to the family household, where by custom they took up residence behind the stove. It was important to feed the dead. All sorts of food would be left around the house where the spirit of the dead was believed to remain for forty days. Water and honey were mandatory, in popular belief, but vodka, too, was often left out to prepare the soul for its long journey to the other world. In some places they left money out, or placed it in the grave, so that the spirit of the dead person could buy land in the next world to feed itself.148

At set times of the year, but especially at Easter and Pentecost, it was important for the family to give remembrance to the dead and feed their souls, in graveside picnics, with ritual breads and pies and decorated eggs. Breadcrumbs would be scattered on the graves to feed the birds - symbols of the souls that rose up from the ground and flew around the village during Easter time - and if the birds arrived it was taken as a sign that the spirits of the dead were alive and well.149 Dostoevsky was borrowing from this ancient custom in The Brothers Karamazov when he made Ilyusha, the dying little boy, ask his father to scatter bread around his grave ‘so that the sparrows may fly down, and I shall hear and it will cheer me up not to be lying alone’.150 The Russian grave was much more than a place of burial. It was a sacred site of social interchange between the living and the dead.

One of the last utterances Tolstoy made, as he lay dying in the stationmaster’s little house at Astapovo, was ‘What about the peasants? How do peasants die?’ He had thought a lot about the question, and had long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives. The peasants died accepting death, and this was the proof of their religious faith. Tolstoy meant to die in that way, too.151 Many years before, he had written in his diary: ‘When I am dying I should like to be asked whether I still see life as before, as a progression towards God, an increase of love. If I should not have the strength to speak, and the answer is yes, I shall close my eyes; if it is no, I shall look up.’152 No one thought of asking him the question at the moment of his death, so we shall never know how he crossed the frontier which had brought him so much agony and so much doubt. There was no reconciliation with the Church, despite Tolstoy’s flight to Optina. The Holy Synod tried to win him back and even sent one of the Optina monks to Astapovo, where Tolstoy became stranded, too ill to go on, after he had left the monastery. But the mission failed - none of Tolstoy’s family would even let the monk see the dying man - and so in the end the writer was denied a Christian burial.153

But if the Church refused to say a mass for the dead man, the people said one for him in another way. Despite the attempts of the police to stop them, thousands of mourners made their way to Yasnaya Polyana, where amid scenes of national grief that were not to be found on the death of any Tsar, Tolstoy was buried in his favourite childhood spot. It was a place in the woods where, many years before, his brother Nikolai had buried in the ground a magic stick on which he had written the secret about how eternal peace would come and evil would be banished from the world. As Tolstoy’s coffin was lowered into the ground, the mourners started singing an ancient Russian chant, and someone shouted, in defiance of the police who had been instructed to impose the Church’s excommunication of the writer to the end, ‘On your knees! Take off your hats!’154Everyone obeyed the Christian ritual and, after hesitating for a moment, the police kneeled down too and removed their caps.

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