Ours is an ideological age. War, revolution, and terrorism are lit by ideas. Majorities regulate speech and enforce ways of thinking. Partisan politics drowns out civil society. Identity is sought in tribes that select or reject based on creed. Ours is an abstract age.
For more than a century the battle lines of ideology have everywhere been drawn, but nowhere more harshly than Russia. People were abandoned for ideas in the name of some future paradise. In this contest for truth, we have much to learn from the Russian literary masters, who teach that we are partners with nature in the creation of meaning.
When Russian literature is mentioned, we often think of stark questions of good and evil, or of plunges in the cold waters of suffering and redemption. But when we stand back from these powerful ideas, we see earth’s small things. We see trees. We see sticky green leaves and bushes. Tangibility. Russian writers sanctify the world around them. They translate the pain of reality into monuments of striving and desire. Trees are not just trees.
Mikhail Lermontov was a brooding military man, known for his cruel wit and psychological acuity. He was at home describing mountains, clouds, and rocky ravines. In this poem, solace comes from the tangible:
When the yellowing cornfield sways, and the cool forest rustles to the sound of the breeze, and in the garden the crimson plum hides beneath the green leaf’s luscious shade;
When on a rose-colored evening or in the golden hour of morning the silvery lily of the valley, sprinkled with fragrant dew, nods its head to me in friendly greeting from underneath a bush;
When the cold spring dances down the glen, and lulling thought into an uncertain dream, murmurs to me a mysterious saga of the peaceful land from which it speeds;
Then my soul’s anxiety is stilled, the furrows on my brow are smoothed, I am able to comprehend happiness on earth, and in heaven I see God.
In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy gives us the character Andrei Bolkonsky, a prince and soldier who nearly dies in battle against Napoleon. When he returns home, his wife dies while giving birth to their only son. Despondent, Andrei sinks into the mundane affairs of estate management. While travelling on business one early spring, he finds everything in bloom, except for one oak. The tree mirrors his despair:
“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seemed to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud?”
“Yes, the oak is right, a thousand times right,” thought Prince Andrei. “Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!”
Early spring turns to late spring, and Bolkonsky returns from his trip, travelling through the same forest by which he came. There stands the same tree, transformed from its gnarled bareness into something green, abundant and hopeful.
“No, life is not over at thirty-one!” Prince Andrei suddenly decided finally and decisively. “It is not enough for me to know what I have in me—everyone must know it, . . . everyone must know me, so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live so apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony!”
Boris Pasternak told the story of revolution and civil war through a love story. Yury Zhivago had been captured by the Red Army and conscripted as a doctor. While escaping months later, he comes across a rowan tree. But it ceases to be a mere tree and becomes the substance of his hopes, a symbol of his love for Lara, who embodies the feminine strength and grace of the Russian land.
It was half covered with snow, half with frozen leaves and berries, and it stretched out two snowy branches to meet him. He remembered Lara’s big white arms, rounded, generous, and, taking hold of the branches, he pulled the tree towards him. As if in a conscious answering moment, the rowan showered him with snow from head to foot. He was murmuring, not realizing what he was saying, and unaware of himself: “I shall see you, my beauty, my princess, my dearest rowan tree, my own heart’s blood.”
Valentin Rasputin wrote in the late Soviet period about the dangers of uprooting rural values in the interests of industrialization. In Farewell to Matyora, the forces of modernization flood an island village by constructing a dam for a hydroelectric power station. But standing in the way is a behemoth larch tree, defying all attempts to destroy it. Evoking images of Christ, the peasants compare the tree to a “shepherd carrying on his ancient watch.” On Easter they laid offerings of food at its roots. After all the residents had resettled, workers come wielding axe, fire, and chain saw, but none can bring it down. “If this were only a tree,” the strangers lament, then they could raze it. The larch remains the only survivor, and as a tsar, “continued to rule over everything around it.”
Andrey Tarkovsky, a Soviet-era film director, was a disciple of the imagination, probing its darkness and light to uncover the human condition. He depicted the loneliness of those who create. “The artist,” he says, “exists because the world is not perfect.” In his last film, The Sacrifice, a father and son plant a bare tree by the seaside. The father tells the son to water it every day and the tree will bloom. Later that day, fighter jets fly over the house and they learn from the radio that World War III has erupted. In the face of what looks like the end of the world, the young boy continues to water this tree, even though it has little chance of surviving. The promise of the boy and the tree bespeaks the perpetuity of hope that can be seen in the natural world. The universe is waiting to be organized into meaning.
Few peoples have suffered like the Russians. Invasions, famines, censors, and gulags—the toll adds up. It’s enough to make nihilists of the lot of them. But through these hardships, a stronger pulse beats. The great Russian writers knew how to turn tragedy into poetry. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “Once you’ve found a word or an image that connects atrocity with the rest of human experience, even in the most fragile or attenuated way, you’ve turned away from nihilism.”
If you look deep enough into nature, she will whisper back to you.
Nathan Nielson is founder of Books & Bridges, a community institute of ideas and conversations.