Wonder Confronts Certainty:
Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter
by gary saul morson
harvard university, 512 pages, $37.95
In 1909 the academic economist and former Marxist Sergei Bulgakov, a priest’s son who had recently and very publicly returned to Christian faith, published a long essay on the crisis of Russian culture and the mentality of the Russian intelligentsia. It is important to recognize that this distinctive mid-nineteenth-century Russian coinage, intelligentsiya, meant for Bulgakov and his contemporaries something more specific than it might today. It is not a shorthand for the chattering classes; it refers to a distinct group of extreme radical activists, determined to destroy the structures of existing society. This group’s “maximalism” encouraged random violence and what Bulgakov called “political obsessiveness”—a mindset dismissive of all activity other than radical activism. It nurtured a cult of personal sacrifice, to the point of suicidal risk, and it displayed a deliberate indifference to any short-term improvement of the lives of the suffering and despairing. It was widely recognized as a kind of religious cult: a secular form of ISIS, we might now say, with its apocalyptic dramas, its casual unconcern for innocent life, and its detachment from actual outcomes in the immediate future.
Bulgakov’s analysis is worth reading alongside Gary Saul Morson’s admirable survey of the Russian cultural world before and after the 1917 revolution. Morson’s chapter on the intelligentsia painstakingly fills out Bulgakov’s more abstract and polemical discussion, which anatomized in detail the controlling moral and spiritual mythology that pervaded intelligentsia life. Morson notes (citing another essay from the same collection in which Bulgakov’s study appeared) that a true intelligent would despise his or her job, if he or she had one; the idea of enabling or sustaining a viable economic life for the mass of the population was alien to the intelligentsia’s ethos.
Bulgakov interprets this ethos in terms of a passion for “heroism” at the expense of productive labor: Heroes don’t collect the garbage, drive buses, or nurse sick children. He contrasts this “heroic” culture with the classical virtues of the monastic life—a life of doing what is necessary for the well-being of the community, as the direct expression of one’s service to God. The spiritual journey is all about embracing the bus-driving, child-nursing, rubbish-collecting side of life: making things work for human persons. As Bulgakov renders it, the spiritual journey strongly resembles what figures like Dorothy Day in New York and Madeleine Delbrêl in Paris were saying half a century later. Delbrêl puts it with her usual wit, saying that your “spiritual director” is the phone that has to be answered, the unwelcome visit that can’t be postponed, the weather, the delayed bus on the way to work . . . In the monastery, says Bulgakov, everything is “obedience,” from silent contemplation to washing up. He uses the Russian word podvizhnichestvo to express this, a word quite impossible to translate but referring to the commitment to podvig, spiritual acceptance and effort, in every interaction with the world and others.
Only something like podvizhnichestvo ultimately produces societies that work for everyone, Bulgakov proposes. To adapt a phrase from William Blake, we need to love our neighbors in the “minute particulars” of shared life, asking at every turn what makes life possible, livable, for the other for whom we are responsible. Bulgakov had been experimenting with a form of Christian socialism in the years before he wrote his essay, much influenced by Dostoevsky’s understanding of mutual responsibility; and though he would have some harsh things to say about socialism as it played itself out in the politics of his day, he never abandoned this profound sense of mutuality at the heart of social reality.
As Morson makes plain, mutuality was what the conscientious intelligent would most passionately repudiate. The grotesque tragedy Morson traces is a story of twofold betrayal. First, it is the shameful failure of those liberals whose armchair radicalism was given a spice of dangerous drama by the “heroics” of the activists. Morson gives an unsparing account of the atrocities committed by some of these activists and of the refusal of bien-pensant progressives to condemn their tactics. Dostoevsky’s fictional representations of all this in The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov turn out to be anything but exaggerations. Second, intelligentsia heroics could be and were manipulated by the Bolsheviks, who institutionalized terror and indiscriminate butchery as a conscious means of social control, “authority untrammeled by any laws” (a phrase of Lenin’s, which Morson quotes). Authority of this kind could systematically set out to “put an end once and for all of [sic] the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life” (Trotsky this time). The result was the corporate insanity of Stalinism: the ceaseless purging of every rank of public service to secure an environment of fear in the face of unpredictable force; and the pathos of dedicated revolutionaries embracing their own arbitrary extermination as a form of revolutionary self-sacrifice, the reductio ad absurdum of “heroism.”
Morson expertly steers us through the complexities of the maximalist mindset, including its fascination with mechanistic models of human behavior, and the concomitant disparaging of the life of the imagination. The goal, wrote the Soviet author and industrial commissar Aleksei Gastev (executed by Stalin in 1939), should be “the mechanization, not only of gestures, not only of production methods, but of everyday thinking.” It has often been said that certain kinds of revolutionary rhetoric base their appeal on the simultaneous celebration of total anarchy and total determinism—the complete abandonment of a conditioning history, combined with the acceptance of an inevitable trajectory toward a new social order. Each flatters the ego in its own way: We are encouraged to think of ourselves as existing completely without constraint on our wills, and as somehow ennobled by being in tune with the arc of reality’s evolution.
What holds so much of the intelligentsia mindset together is a dread of real, embodied difference: the impenetrability of another consciousness; the uncontrollability of imagination; the strange transmutations of language itself; the alienness and the familiarity of the past (individual as much as collective); perhaps ultimately—though Morson does not go this far—the difference of God and the world, the ultimate gap between what is conditioned and what is unconditioned. The title of Morson’s book in effect puts before us the diverse responses we can make to difference: the wonder that accepts limitation, and the hunger for a world in which we are never out of control, never at a loss, never discovering, retelling, or rethinking. This tension runs through the whole story Morson tells, from the beginnings of Russian radicalism in the mid-nineteenth century to the nightmares of Stalinism, from the battles of Herzen, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky against antihuman theorizing to the more recent work of writers in the same tradition, such as Svetlana Alexievich and Eugene Vodolazkin. Morson starkly juxtaposes the endlessly inviting exploration of human complexity by such writers with the feverish and monomaniacal obsessions of nihilists and apocalyptic radicals of all shades.
Unsurprisingly, one of his greatest heroes (in a benign sense of the word) is Chekhov, that unchallenged master of deflationary realism, gentle irony, and unsentimental compassion. He quotes Chekhov’s letter to his brother defining what it means to be “cultured”—a series of characterizations that goes well beyond what we might associate with that word. Self-respect, a sense of proper obligation to others, generous sympathy, a sense of proportion, a profound antipathy to lying and posturing, and a willingness quite simply to work. All these things belong with genuine culture, putting into perspective any “cultural” ambition that does not attend to immediate material reality. This definition is remarkably in tune with Bulgakov’s affirmation of the prosaic “obedience” of the monk as a model for social virtue.
Morson is, of course, concerned to remind us that obsessional certainty, political tunnel vision, and what he calls “theoretism,” the preferring of theory to tangible reality, are not the preserve of the political left alone. Dostoevsky may be the finest critic in European literature of determinist and reductive doctrines of the human, and of the ease with which good people are lured into appalling evils by utopian fantasy; but he has his own flirtations with theocratic ideals, and (to put it mildly) some problems with the “difference” of other nations, not least the Jews. Solzhenitsyn, nearer our own times, is both a lucid, moving witness to the horrors of the Soviet camps and a fierce anti-Western polemicist, stubbornly wedded to a kind of Russian exceptionalism whose legacy is more and more disturbing. We do not need much reminding of this shadow side, faced as we are with the brutality of a resurgent Russian messianism and a callous indifference to random slaughter worthy of the most devoted intelligent.
Without recycling clichés about the Russian soul, Morson helps us to grasp how diverse forms of maximalism crop up across the literature. He touches on the pervasiveness of interrelated types—the “pilgrim” or holy wanderer, who refuses stability and security, alongside the (usually but not always youthful) idealist, and the straightforward nihilist. He does not discuss in detail the recurrent ideal of the “holy fool,” although this archetype stands behind many literary representations of all three of his models. The notion of yurodstvo, “foolishness for Christ’s sake,” helps to make sense of the landscape: Holy folly is a way of declaring the radical gulf between the values of the gospel—poverty, self-forgetfulness, unconditional compassion—and the values of human societies, including Christian societies.
But unmoored from its doctrinal anchorage, yurodstvo drifts inexorably toward contrarian anarchy, a dissolution of all value and so of any sense of the nonnegotiable dignity of the embodied human. The revolutionary hero is—and Bulgakov follows Dostoevsky in diagnosing this—a secular messiah, and the promise he (it is normally a “he”) offers is an apocalyptic transvaluation of values, a terminally violent catharsis through destruction. George Steiner argued that the appalling, seductive, hopeless figure of Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed is subtly presented as a kind of ersatz Christ, no less than is the deceptively benign figure of Myshkin in The Idiot. We should never imagine that “secular” projects are necessarily without mythology, and Morson is good at alerting us to the wafer-thin character of the secular carapace in so much of the Russian revolutionary agenda.
It is hard to do justice to Morson’s book in a brief space. Its importance is not only in its analysis of the Russian imagination from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, though much in these pages will illuminate those aspects of modern geopolitics that are resistant to “rational” accounts of national identity or diplomatic advantage. There are more general points to be digested. As I have noted, it is dangerously easy to conclude that the “revolutionary” mind is the exclusive home of the nightmare pathologies expressed and explored in the literature Morson reads with us. Absolutism, mechanistic social models, inflated accounts of individual will or creativity, the reduction of all difference to a kind of primordial all-consuming warfare, and the consequent search for heroes will all be found across the political spectrum.
Messianic cults of leadership are generated by both right and left—these days, more by the right than otherwise, it seems. The reluctance to acknowledge that human societies have learned and changed—in other words, the reluctance to take history seriously—is evident in the barbarizing of much modern “conservatism” in conspiracist rhetoric and nationalist paranoia, and the shapelessness of a progressive vision that has no fundamental doctrine of human dignity beyond the sum total of identitarian claims. And, as Morson reminds us, a would-be “liberal” ethos that lets itself be captured by the romance of the absolute individual will is at risk of colluding with a profound destructiveness—whether it is allied to unqualified identitarian activism or to economic laissez-faire.
Chekhov’s humane, pragmatic account of what it is to be “cultured” should stand alongside the bitter dramas of Dostoevsky or Pasternak or Grossman as a lesson to be pondered. We talk glibly, angrily, and endlessly about culture wars; it wouldn’t hurt to talk about what counts as culture in the first place, and about what it might mean to inhabit a culture. What skills do we need in order to maintain a critical and appreciative memory of the past, amid an irreducibly diverse contemporary reality in which the stranger is not simply going to disappear, and with a keen awareness of human crises and tragedies that can be properly confronted only when we recognize that we share them with our enemies as well as our friends? Ultimately we are brought back to Dostoevsky’s and Bulgakov’s (and Christ’s and St Paul’s) challenge: How shall we live together in full accountability for one another’s life and hope? Morson is right to make us think through the ways in which these issues have been meditated on (and lived out) in the rich, conflicted, extreme, fertile soil of modern Russian civilization. Any possible political renewal in our present wilderness must be nourished by that landscape.
Rowan Williams is a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Images by Library of Congress on GetArchive, Wikimedia Commons on Picryl, Wikimedia Commons on GetArchive, and Store Norske Leksikon, licensed via Creative Commons, Creative Commons, Creative Commons, and Creative Commons. Images cropped and combined.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?