“A Land of Great Sinners, a Land of Great Saints”

If you can imagine a young, somewhat effete French aristocrat taking a trip to Russia to observe and perhaps even be instructed by their ways, then you can probably imagine the reaction of a colleague of mine who saw me reading the book.  He commented, “A French aristocrat observing Russians?  The poor man will be bound to say something like,’Oh, I can’t even!'”

Indeed, the Marquis von Custine found himself most unimpressed with the Russians and made that absolutely clear in his memoir of 1839, Empire of the Czar.

I feel for the Marquis.  His father perished in the French Revolution.  His mother survived only through good fortune.  He saw the rise of Napoleon and the attendant uncertainty following his fall.  Scarred by democracy and revolution, he came to Russia in hopes of finding an elixir to the political ills of the west.  Expecting so much, and indeed, too much, the crushing disappointment and disillusionment he expressed should not surprise us.

Obviously one can find much to critique about Russia.  The fact that Custine doesn’t like Russia should not bother the historian.  But Custine’s dislike is visceral and almost hysterical in nature.  Nearly everything disgusts him.  The lay of the land fills his soul with ennui, the architecture of the cities leave him cold.  The expressions of the people leave him perplexed and alienated.   It is not so much that he observes a kind of brutality, but that even the brutality seems lifeless.  He searches for explanations and finds none.  Those he encounters defend the situation by saying something like, “The soul of Russia is not veiled over or explained by any sort of doctrines,” which only enrage him all the more.  Inevitably he returns to his main theme, that Russia has no spontaneity, that all everywhere has a military bearing all the time, that no one ever laughs except on cue, and so on.  He lets himself go a bit and admits for a paragraph or two to admiring the Peterhof palace (pictured below), for example.  But then he inevitably returns to his theme–i.e., “yes it is grand and magnificent, but no one is happy here, one must force every gesture,” and so on.  His main lesson for all French parents boils down to, “If your children complain about France, send them to Russia.  They will return full of love for their native land.”

At roughly the same time as the Marquis went to Russia, Alexis de Tocqueville (another French aristocrat) came to America to observe democracy in action.  Tocqueville created an acknowledged masterpiece, in turn praising, critiquing, and giving deadpan analysis of nascent democratic practice.  Custine’s work strays nowhere near this.  Granted, sometimes he entertains his readers more than Tocqueville did.  His fits of astonishment and disgust provide a kind of comedy.

Though the book has obvious flaws, the Marquis provides something different than most historians.  He offers not analysis but a kind of poetry.  He offers to capture Russia in a painting rather than in prose.  He seeks to provide an interpretation even above seeking an understanding.

I don’t entirely fault him for this.  In fact I think we need more writers like him.  At least Custine dares greatly.

If one is an Orthodox Christian, as I am, one need not absolutely love Russia, but, one must at least come to know the Russians and appreciate them in some way. Their history bears witness to a great wisdom born from a great suffering.  The list of “new martyrs” under Communism is immeasurably long.  Their novelists write with an unmatched power to move the soul, as do their filmmakers.  I think it no coincidence that many of the greatest spiritual witnesses of the last century have been Russians.


Icon of the “New Martyrs” under Soviet rule.

And yet the blunt brutality witnessed by Custine (not so much in specific acts but in demeanor and habits) shows up often in Russia’s history. The horrors of Stalin had much to do with ideology and the particular leaders in place.  But we must admit too that the gulags, murders, and martyrs could not have happened just anywhere.  I once heard an American Orthodox priest sigh and say, “Ah, Russia, a land of great sinners, a land of great saints,” and he said this with a mixture of admiration, frustration, and bewilderment.  Though he has visited Russia on a few occasions spanning multiple years, he too did not understand.

But, though he did not understand, still, he saw the different sides.  So while I don’t blame Custine for his poetic attempt at understanding, it fails–not because he is negative–but because he blinds himself to Russia’s virtues.  If everyone really existed at the level of misery he describes their civilization would have collapsed some time ago.  And yet, they not only keep going, they have found a way to maintain their identity in the face of several disasters dating back centuries, from the Mongol invasions, to the “Time of Troubles,” through Napoleon, World War II, and the like.  Clearly Russia has something that Custine failed to see.

But–I heartily approve of the nature of his project and the way he attempted to understand Russia.  Historians do their job well when they can hone in on something specific and use it to explain the whole.  They need the flair of an artist.  As one historian comments,

My answer is an hypothesis, and it can take form both simple and complex. Most simply: history was—and still is— becoming elusive as well as ever more uncomfortable. Poets and novelists are people whose vocation it is to see and say as much as possible the whole of things rather than their division into categories; they are sensitive to a wholeness they believe to be really there and really prepotent over appearances even if it can be grasped only by synoptic and symbolic vision attending to minute particulars.

When one tries to specify a little more this elusiveness of history, the same hypothesis takes a more complicated, more problematic, maybe even a more dubious form. This form has to do with the amazing growth of the scientific way of viewing the world, and with the corresponding growth of the technological way of changing the world that went along with it. Most plainly, the poets have never been happy under the reign of Newtonian mechanics and Kantian criticism. Their distrust of, their protests against, the consequences entailed upon life and thought by this physics and this philosophy form a major strand in the movement known as Romanticism, which indeed may not be over yet. For it was the effect of Newton to remove mind from the cosmos except as a passive recording instrument, and the effect of the dominance of Kant’s philosophy to remove from remaining mind any access whatever to ultimate reality. Whereas poetic thought can proceed beyond the minimal affirmation of parlor verse only upon the supposition that the world is equally and simultaneously perceivable as real and as transpicuous, or sacramental, and that no percept is ever divorced entirely from concept.

The best historians will not necessarily need gobs of data.  For some writers, data and not conclusions or interpretation form their main concern.  While obviously saying nothing against facts, historians should know how to find the right part that illumines the whole.

I’ll make my own attempt to sum up all things Russian–the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religious revival, Putin swimming in icy lakes, and the like, via a story from the Russian Book of the Year for 2012 entitled Everyday Saints, which mainly tells stories about the monks in the one monastery the Soviets could not close.  The author relates an encounter between a group of monks and some drunken hooligans, which I paraphrase here.

The monks walked along a country road and came upon a few louts.  The foolish and loud youths threw mud and insults at them, calling them idlers, fools, black beetles, and other such names.

Still, the monks walked with heads bowed.

Then, “Getting no response, the idiots then took to blaspheming the Son of God and His Most Holy Mother in the foulest and most unnatural of ways.”

They stopped walking.  Their heads came up.

The priest at the head of the line stated, “I am a priest, and so may not answer.  Father Vassily is infirm, and Father Tikhon will look after him.  But Brother Alexander . . . he may answer.”

It turns out that Brother Alexander studied martial for years before entering the monastery.  He let out a ferocious yell and proceed to do some serious damage, easily taking all on at once, and leaving each man bloodied and a few with broken teeth behind him.

After checking to see that no one needed to go the hospital, the monks then continued on their way.