Russia is turning inward. As the fabric of purpose and identity seems to fray among Western nations, the Russian people have set out to consolidate their culture and revive the national spirit. The glory of the Motherland is something to behold—her literature, art, music, and science are among the treasures of the earth. But this introspection has a cost.
In the name of “sobornost”—social and spiritual unity—Russia seeks to limit foreign influence on political and cultural life. New laws curtail NGOs that accept foreign funding. Speech that offends religious sensibilities can result in jail time. State-owned media cast suspicions at Western governments. Outside churches are no longer welcome. Beleaguered by economic sanctions, Russians fear being surrounded by a secular Euro-Atlantic sphere.
Russia has been engaged in finding herself ever since Peter the Great began to modernize in the eighteenth century. Vacillating between east and west, she wonders whether to orient toward Europe or Asia, or be content in the middle. The debate heated up in the nineteenth century, pitting home-loving Slavophiles against cosmopolitan Westernizers. From this tension, the country’s best thinkers emerged with a moral vision: Russia’s greatness lies in her simple goodness and spiritual capacity to love all humankind.
These visionaries wrestled with the “accursed questions” of human existence—Why do we suffer? How do we find beauty? What is the cost of freedom? Where is our redemption?—and came out on the side of harmony and wholeness. We gaze at the universe through the Russian navel.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky embodies this expansiveness. Though a fierce nationalist his entire life, he stretched outward in a speech just months before he died. His Christian vision culminated not in national might, but in a call to befriend the human family: “To become a true Russian, to become fully Russian, … means only to become the brother of all men, to become, if you will, a universal man.” The true path of Russia leads through the gate of the heart. “Our destiny is universality,” Dostoyevsky insisted, “won not by the sword, but by the strength of brotherhood and our fraternal aspiration to reunite mankind.” Dostoyevsky turned the usual formula of statecraft on its head: Success comes from affinity, not advantage. The nobleness of Russia is not for Russia alone; it is for everybody.
After completing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy shunned the nationalist fervor of the Czarist state. “The great writer of the Russian land,” as Ivan Turgenev called him, shifted the focus of his art from the elite to the masses, from sophistication to simplicity. “The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbor … the customary feeling and instinct of all men. … And universal art, by uniting the most different people in one common feeling, by destroying separation, will educate people to union.”
The philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev, banished from the Soviet Union in 1922, urged Russia to be “an East-West, a uniter of the two worlds, and not a divider.” The Russian soul, he maintained, is not a creed or doctrine, but an intuition that “burns in a fiery search for the truth,” that mourns “the suffering of both its people and [the people] of the entire world.”
A poem read by generations of Soviet schoolchildren captures the Russian impulse to turn love of country into love of humanity. “I have come to know that on this earth I have an enormous family—the pathway, the forest, and in the field every ear of corn! The brook, the blue sky—it is all mine, by birth. This is my homeland! I love everyone in the world!” A celebration of the particular is somehow incomplete without homage to the universal.
The Western critique of Russia is too easy. Clichés of a rough, dour, closed but aggressive society overlook the aspirations still alive in its tradition. Headlines of intrigue and espionage along with narratives of conspiracy and manipulation float in the political shallows, while the deeps of Russia go unexplored. Yes, the propaganda of Russian media stokes needless triumphalism. But as the latest Pew data show, Russians are willing to work with the West as a partner even though they distrust its culture.
Russia could benefit from a “sobornost” that builds on the best of her universalist tradition. Such solidarity would not dilute national identity, and would be less threatening to the West. Russians bring spirituality to life’s riddles, render compassion to the stranger, and persevere like poets in the face of suffering. Their destiny does not stand apart from the world’s destiny.
Nathan Nielson is the founder of Books & Bridges, a community institute of ideas and conversation.