Wed Jan 14 18:16:06 2004

To: Brussels, Dar es Salaam, New Delhi, Jakarta, Gaaga, Islamabad, Harare, London, Tehran, Lusaka, New York


Christmas week in Russia, which according to the Julian calendar, begins on January 7 (Christmas) and ends on January 13 (New Year's Day) year by year reminds the world about the unique nature of Russian Christianity connected with the innermost cultural patterns of Russia.

The New Jerusalem Monastery, not far from Moscow, is an excellent expression of Russian Orthodoxy. Patriarch Nikon, whose character combined the traits of Savonarola and Machiavelli, built the monastery 300 years ago. There was a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church while Nikon was the patriarch. Though formally bridged, the rift is still present in the Russian mind. Nikon, a patriarch-reformer viewed his favorite monastery as a replica of Jerusalem at the time of the Passions of Jesus Christ. The monks dug a channel named Jordan River, built a hill of boulders to replicate Calvary, and planted their own Garden of Gethsemane. Thereby Patriarch Nikon hoped to prove to members of his congregation that once Muslims controlled Jerusalem the Holy Land had shifted to Moscow. This idea is characteristic of Russian culture, as it is a manifestation of Russians' aspiration to supremacy as a reward for true orthodoxy.

As the product of assimilated and adopted ideas and European influence, Russian culture regards itself as a primal source of morals and as a model of authenticity - a status to which it considers to be inherited, while its sources are deliberately ignored.

Inspired by his visit to Amsterdam, Peter the Great conceived St. Petersburg as a city of islets and canals, and ordered Domenico Tresini to use Amsterdam as a model for the layout of the city. St. Petersburg was meant from its inception to trump Amsterdam in beauty and grandeur. A new Amsterdam was to rise on the Neva banks and overtake priority from its West European prototype.

As time went on, that naive and absurd challenge of the pristine mind developed into a concept of Russian culture as paragon and an example for all cultures to imitate. In that sense, the 20th century brought Russian messianic attitudes to a climax. Kazimir Malevich meant his "Black Square" to become not a mere non-figurative painting but an icon of Suprematism. The painting was intended to end all other artistic trends and styles, which Malevich regarded as manifestations of conformist impotence. It was to become a global fetish - an aspiration quite in keeping with the Russian Orthodox thinking.

The Silver Age made Russia the world's leader of creativity and the cradle of Abstractionism, Constructivism and Suprematism, the three foremost trends in new culture of that time. As the Soviet Union developed into a great power it stubbornly tried to impose all patterns of its life on the world as a sublime example to follow. This messianic attitude repeated the stances of the Russian Orthodox Church, which regards all Christianity outside Russia as blatant heresy. Until quite recently, the Russian Orthodox Church was no less unyielding and embittered in its confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church than the Soviet Union was in its rivalry with the United States.

Ancient Rome did not perish in its clash with Christianity - it merely Christianized the form of its postulates. The cult of infallible Caesars developed into the worship of Christ, the arrogant patrician ideal of lofty solitude gave rise to monasticism, etc., argues Pascal Quignard, French philosopher, essayist and expert on Roman culture.

His idea holds true in Russia. Russia's Christian piety came through the trials and tribulations to develop into a secret heart and soul of a godless state: the worship of secular leaders and of their remains as holy relics or the Communist Party, which imitated the structure of a religious military order. The Soviet Union even retained the symbolism of the Cross. Many discerned it in the crossed hammer and sickle held high by the colossal statue of "The Worker and the Collective Farm Girl." Cross or no cross, Vera Mukhina's sculpture became a sensation during its recent restoration. The Russian media were panicky in their coverage of the day the stainless steel giants spent headless. Commentators refrained from their trademark sarcasm when speaking about these idols. Perhaps, every national totem is rooted in the media's subconscious to take its eternal life for granted and give food to their flippant irony. Jeering was forgotten as soon as the idols displayed the vulnerability of all material objects.

Now, as it used to be in Russia's Communist past, even the extremist negation of Christianity acquires a religious form. A spectacular instance came with last year's scandalous art show at the Sakharov Center, where modernists displayed icons with obscenities scribbled over the holy images. The shocking show turned into a religious happening as enraged viewers wrecked the exhibition and left the place covered with even more obscene graffiti. That was a negation of negation, so characteristic of Russian culture - an instant on which either side was unshakably aware of its righteousness and the other's vice to drive each into frenzy.

These are examples of unconscious Christianity, ridden with contradictions and permanently at odds with its own self. Conscious religious trends are also flourishing. The Moscow stage is only one of many instances. Anatoliy Vasilyev's Studio Theatre, one of the city's most frequented places, intersperses even thoroughly secular stage versions of Pushkin's works with church canticles. The Satire Theatre's recently premiered "An Angel Came Out of the Mist" offered quite a shocking angel with huge wings, who was guzzling vodka and finished by taking the heroine's soul into the other world.

Certain Orthodox Christian influences on contemporary Russian culture are latent. They can be discerned in the classic impact on modern ballet, which is more pronounced in Russia than in Europe, and in the spirituality of Russian avant-garde music - for instance, Sophia Gubaidullina, Alfred Schnitke, or Alexander Bakshee's "Symphony of Peace." The same is evident in the public mentality. Take one of pulp fiction heroes, a Russian mobster who braves the evils of the world for the sake of his gang and of the girl he loves. A cultural historian would easily discern in the book hagiographic patterns-the Life of Alexander Nevsky or another Russian saint. Even the witches of latter-day mystical thrillers secretly repeat the sublime features of Vanga, the pious Bulgarian prophetess, or the saintly Matryona of Russia, women whose blindness made them able to discern the future.

Mikhail Bulgakov achieved the peak of contradiction intrinsic to the 20th century mentality in his celebrated novel, "The Master and Margarita." Here, the unconscious mental cliches of Eastern Christianity come in their unprecedented tenacity amid the travesty diabolism of comic scenes: the Devil defends justice at Heaven's bidding.

Christianity continues to influence Russian life and culture like it has done for the past thousand years.

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