25. Poor and Simple

Probably few of those who condemn ‘tsarist’ Russia also reject the culture it created. Pushkin and Gogol, and in the end Dostoevsky, were recognised even under the ‘new order’. But recognising the advantages of culture, i. e. the fruits of mental and sensual life, we must also recognise that this life itself under the ‘old order’ was richer and more fruitful than the present one, at least at its heights.

On what soil did the authors from Pushkin to, roughly speaking, Khodasevich grow up? What are the differences between this soil and the present one? Some will say: on the soil of Orthodoxy. Others: on the soil of Russian culture (as if it were the same for all times). Still others will recall Pushkin’s nanny, Arina Rodionovna, i. e. ‘folk influence’.

The second and third answers are probably the most common. We either do not see anything special peculiar to this cultural line, or we are ready to admit that it was fuelled by ‘popular’ (read: folk) influence. Then let us ask: why did the Russian soil only between the Eighteenth Century and the Eighteenth Year bear such fruit? Apparently, something special was in or over that soil.

The fruits of the break with the previous cultural lineage (to avoid the word ‘soil’ which is ambiguous for reasons I will touch on later) became visible immediately after the end of the Old World.  These fruits: the loss of the ability to express things clearly, the loss of the ability to think, which afflicted the educated stratum and the whole Russian culure (not literature alone, since the disease also affected science).

Only that literature survives its epoch, to which one comes for eternal questions. It is nourishing for the soul. Everything produced by the revolution in the field of culture does not contain nourishment for the soul and will therefore be discarded: it is technical, superficially enlightening or entertaining literature, not to mention ‘servant literature’. Complex thoughts and feelings left it at the same time as complex means of expression — the developed literary language and its (I repeat it again) developed and clever, educating the reader spelling.

Speaking of spelling. The rules of writing are a set of conventions; they have more than just utilitarian meaning. Written speech should be beautiful; written speech should be connected to the past, i. e. to tradition. A purely utilitarian approach to spelling extinguishes both aesthetic and patriotic feeling. Utilitarian Russian orthography differs from historical one as a mannequin differs from a woman: the proportions are the same, but it cannot be loved.

If spelling is the clothing of the language, i. e. its most superficial layer, it is also the most visible and, in its way, sacred, because it comes from the ancestors. This clothing cannot be measured by the measure of ‘convenience’. Utilitarian spelling is not only ugly, but also fails to achieve the goal stated at its introduction: no matter how much Russian orthography is simplified, there are no more literate persons (rather vice versa).

Means of expression directly affect the thinking ability, determining the level of complexity available to it. The mind, in its most important part, is not a factory, but a door, and our perception of what opens behind this door is determined by our own ability to express complex thoughts, i. e. by our knowledge of our native language. Thinking ability never exceeds the ability to express thoughts. A profound mastery of the mother tongue proves to be an invaluable aid here, because all the complex forms of expression have already been developed, it is only necessary to internalise them. There is not and cannot be ‘thinking’ in a jargon similar to that used by Russian science today: its expressive power is too low. One can even admit that for physics, chemistry, biology — jargon may be enough, but not for knowledge about man and the human.

The semi-culture, which I have mentioned many times before, uses and reproduces jargon. Being unable to create new things (the expressive power of jargon is not enough for this), the semi-culture is not engaged in the generation of meanings, but in the rewriting of those already created. Words about words, opinions about opinions are its main content. Worse, in the world of ‘humanitarian science’, understood as the formal study of the fruits of other people’s creativity, any original thought is unacceptable. After all, thought is ‘unscientific’; thought does not ‘study’ the heritage of X and typos in the writings of Y; thought defines new meanings — and this is unacceptable. ‘Meanings were once in the past; science has proved that there are no meanings’…

The break with the previous cultural line also killed personal originality. Yes, it was suppressed by the ‘new order’ deliberately (this is the nature of Socialism). But the consistent destruction of the past, if I may put it this way, itself eliminated the possibility of higher personal development.

Having no past means ‘faceless’, like the cities built by the ‘new order’. Uniqueness is only possible under the condition of having a memory. Without soil, ‘personal originality’ is reduced either to ugliness, nihilism, or to the choice of one of the ‘hobbies’ permitted by place and time. This was the case in Russia, when the fifty-year oppression of the ‘new order’ weakened: people rushed to the outlets of ‘hobbies’, small private interests that do not presuppose the height of personal development; this is the case in the West, where one can ‘freely choose’ from a dozen entertainments approved by politics and industry.

The old order was, it is no exaggeration to say, based on personal uniqueness. There is a common misconception that democracy encourages uniqueness — but this is precisely the misconception. Democracy encourages belonging to the herd. It is true that, in view of industrial and political competition, not one large Herd is encouraged, but several smaller ones. Serving several small herds is more politically and economically advantageous. Moreover — these ‘small herds’ are sometimes created by industry and in the interests of industry. The individual is offered ‘self-expression’ in forms convenient to the political and industrial machine…

Culture differs from democracy in that it creates few centres of attraction, but at high altitude, reaching them requires effort. Democracy scatters its lures within reach, they are many, and no effort is required to reach them. Drinking this or that, dyeing your hair this way or that, all these possibilities do not compel effort. People were happy to imitate not the simple, the accessible and the stupid — but the high and the complex, but there is no one to offer it to them…

When the ‘new order’ was dying in Russia, a secret, unstoppable interest in the soil, the ‘national’ emerged — for the first time since 1918. The national, however, was understood then exclusively as ‘folk’, the soil as peasant life. It must be said that it is still understood in this way. This understanding is false, though rooted in Russia. Alexander Saltykov († 1940) correctly spoke of this ‘exaltation of the plain people’:

‘The “national’ is extremely easily understood in our country as the “popular” or “folk”.

That is why it is one step from the exaltation of the “popular” to the exaltation of the simple people. The Slavophiles fell into this dialectical and psychological trap in their time and went headlong into it.

Be that as it may, the element of the “simple people” is infinitely distant from the nation and all the creative values of life connected with it. It, the simple people, not only does not constitute a nation, but cannot create anything at all: neither a state, nor a culture, nor a will for common action, nor even a language. The simple people say: ‘we are from Kaluga’. A nation, whether we want it or not, and no matter how much it disgusts our “democratic” feeling or prejudice, a nation is created and lives by a non-popular element.’

If we value the style of personality created by the Old Order, it is not in the ‘popular’ that we should look for its roots. Again I recall Saltykov’s words:

‘It may sound “anti-democratic” and not in the spirit of our time, but language, culture, and even the “nation” itself, of which language and culture serve only as an expression, live in the higher, enlightened classes of society and are created by them. Language, nation, culture — all this is something spiritual, which has little to do with the physiological and ethnic existence of the masses.”

The soil that was particularly fruitful for us from the 18th century to the Eighteenth Year was not the soil of the ‘simple people’. Our identity ‘does not come from peasant clothes’, as Bielinsky rightly said. This originality was created by a combination of European education and technologies, European classical (i. e. pagan) inheritance, Church Slavonic culture. Peter the Great combined them, and the revolution separated them.

Romanov’s Russia (the former cultural world) cannot be deduced from the ancient Russia, from the ‘soil’. Ancient Russia did not have and was afraid of the pagan (Greco-Roman) heritage and was wordless. New Russia entered into the rights of this heritage and measured personality by the word according to the Hellenic example. ‘If the Russian nation was born, as a nation, in the style of European culture’, says Saltykov, ‘it can obviously only be that or cease to exist’. The foundation of this nation was laid by Peter.

Dostoevsky in ‘The Fantastic Pages of “The Devils’ says:

‘Our whole reform, starting with Peter, consisted only in the fact that he took a stone that was lying tightly and managed to put it on the tip of the corner. We stand and balance on this point. If the wind blows, we will fly’.

The prophecy came true. As it seemed to many — due to the fragility of the Peter’s cause. In reality, any fruitful order is short-lived, because it is formed by the influences of mutually opposing and almost (an indispensable condition) equivalent principles. Breach of balance destroys it.

The best fruits are produced by the combination of the previously incongruous, heterogeneous, distantly related. New Japan was created by the same combination of distantly related forces, ‘Japanism’ and Europeanism. I say ‘related’ because Japan is not alien to Europe, rather it is extremely distant from it, but still understandable and even attractive for European minds and feelings, unlike China. 

Peter created in Russia a society with many foundations, having grafted Roman branches to the Russian wildwood. Without this ‘Romanism’ there would be neither Romanov’s greatness nor Russian cultural and business discipline, which shone for the last time in the White Crimea and in emigration. Berdyaev, I think, said that ‘a Jew and a Russian without their God are no good’. I don’t argue about the former. But the latter have all their best from that grafting of Roman hardness and dignity.

After all, what is ‘Europeanism’?  Hardness of form; personal discipline; pagan (Hellenic-Roman) heritage; aristocratic character, spread among the masses. Aristocracy, by the way, should not be confused with hereditary aristocracy. A peasant may be aristocratic; an aristocrat may be a low man in his tastes and development. It is not a matter of ancestry, but of the fact that culture, as the sum of distinctions, is always aristocratic. Culture never ‘equalises’ a man with others — it only pulls him upwards.

The revolution destroyed the fruits of this grafting, trampled down the personality in general, and the best that it managed to get was the type of a loyal soldier of the party or a narrow specialist who does not rise above his speciality, both without their own thoughts in their heads. These types are now offered to us as national heroes and generally as models of personal development.

To put it another way: a Russian without pagan virtues is either a ‘servant of the party’ or a worshipper of the ancient Moscow. Peter did an important thing: he created Russia a past, which she did not have, i. e., violated the law, once formulated by Nikolai Strakhov: no creature can get other ancestors than those whom it has. This is how cultural continuity is created: by acquiring the past. Revolution follows the opposite path: it destroys the past.

By destroying ties to the past, the revolution introduces education instead of enlightenment (i. e. essentially the semi-enlightenment I have already mentioned). But education alone (not even to speak of its quality) without aristocratic and religious beginnings does not form a personality. You can’t create a superior person (i. e. a complex, self-conscious and judgement capable personality) with the help of a library alone…

But there was a crack in the Peter’s edifice. I am not saying now that the European way of thinking and feeling did not embrace the whole nation — higher mental habits always descend from the top downwards, from a small minority to the majority… The flaw was elsewhere. Wealth and complexity frightened many in Russia long before the end of the Romanov era. Worse: the worship of poverty and simplicity became almost a national idea in our country. Hand in hand with it went the desire for ‘one truth for all’. Here ‘Westernised’ Russia differed from its model — Europe.

The European, unlike the Russian, understands that there are different truths for different cases. To the Russian observer, this seems hypocrisy and insincerity. In fact, this is the source (depleted now) of  European strength. In a variety of circumstances, from the royal palace to the overseas colonies, the European has behaved according to those circumstances. The Russian ideal is one truth for all occasions; in practical application it is the same simplicity, the disappearance of all shades, the inevitable lowering of the level.

Russian culture was as hierarchical as European culture. Where European influences ended, the craving for equality and simplicity began. ‘The intelligentsia’ was a class which, of all European grafts, had learnt only education. Its instability and thirst for everything ‘popular’, i. e. the desire to ‘be like others’, especially the ‘poor and simple’, are not surprising.

The highest development is recognised by the desire for particularity. The rupture that caused the revolution was the rupture between the natural longing for identity, complexity and development — and the longing to ‘be like everyone else’, i .e. the longing for simplification. Simplification won out — from the Spelling Conferences to March-November 1917.

It started innocently. The search for ‘soil’, the interest in the ‘folk’ — was once a natural response to the worship of everything foreign. One extreme is always balanced by the other. ‘People’ was eventually understood as necessarily ‘simple people’; ‘simplicity’ was seen as a virtue.  Simplification in Russia was understood ethically. To be poor and simple is moral. It is moral to at least approach the poor and simple. Let remember Tyutchev’s ‘long-suffering country of my birth’, ‘in servant’s guise the King of Heaven’… All this was said by complicated people and for complicated people.  Simplicity was believed in. A half-century-long race for simplification began…

Only the revolution brought the worship of the ‘poor and simple’ to its logical end. ‘Poor and simple’ was invited to rule Russia — in words, of course — but the permissible level of personal development, that is, personal uniqueness, was thus measured sparingly. Either poor simplicity or high development; development is always original. The extinguishing of personal originality in all forms is the true pathos of the revolution.

As for the ‘popular’ in the sense of poor and simple, it was even encouraged by the revolution: ditties, etc. — of course, after the massacre of the peasantry, when there was no longer any living cultural continuity in the village. Of course, this ‘folklore’ was unpretentious. It did not create anything comparable to, say, the ‘Russian style’ in the architecture of the times of the last two emperors.

In building culture, we worshipped simplicity. The frailty of culture in Russia, the lack of need for it in the majority — perfectly combined with the features of a certain kind of Christianity understood in a certain way: homelessness and groundlessness.  The ideal of weakness and poverty is a biblical ideal. It was no accident that the revolution mirrored the Christian upheaval with a crooked mirror. The same ‘one truth’ without shades, the same poverty as an ideal. Looking closely, in Christianity we see revolution (against the wealth and complexity of the ancient world), in revolution we see Christianity, i. e. the worship of the weak, the simple and the poor.

The meaning of Christianity and Socialism (the effective meaning, anyway) is not that ‘it is not good for the strong to offend the weak’, but that ‘it is good to be weak’ or at least ‘like the weak’. The same idea was held by the admirers of all kinds of simplification, up to philological simplification: ‘make spelling accessible to the weak..’.

Christianity is power through hope. Whoever owns people’s hopes, owns people. However, the reservoir of hope is explosive. Christianity is, in a sense, the mother of revolution. The reservoir of ‘hope’, imputed as a duty, in peaceful years gave stability to the Christian state, but in stormy years it explodes, forcing the masses to demand fulfilment of deferred expectations, and with interest. Where there is no ‘hope’, there is no ‘despair’. A society based on hope is poorly protected from shocks, moreover, it necessarily anticipates them.

The Russian revolution could be called an explosion of falsely directed Christian aspirations… if in the main, in its veneration of weakness and poverty, in its disbelief in labour and culture, this revolution were not the daughter of Christianity. ‘Thieves undermine and steal; world lieth in wickedness; so, do not worry; be like poor in spirit’ The word became flesh. It turned out that the Old World was not rich and great at all because it was a ‘Christian world’.

The leftist idea, more broadly speaking, always links ethics and the ‘state of being oppressed’ (echoing the biblical worldview). To be weak and poor is moral; ‘woe to the oaks and high towers and ships of Tarshish’. This is the same reasoning of the latest Western Socialism, applying the old mould to new matters: people of the ‘third sex’ are oppressed — therefore they are more moral than ordinary men or women; black people are oppressed — black skin colour is a sign of moral superiority. However, all possible conclusions are drawn here: what makes a person ‘oppressed’ makes him more moral, more natural, more human…

At the same time, Socialism is hostile to any rich and complex culture — because this culture is not based on moral principles that are understandable even to a child. It is naturally non-national (because nationality and soil are too complex, rooted in the past, and obviously not moral). In both ways it resembles Christianity. It could be called ‘morally sensitive’. It is as sensitive to hypocrisy as it is prone to it. But more often than not its resentment is provoked by things whose complexity exceeds ‘two times two four’ and ‘mum washed the frame’. Culture, homeland — all these things are beyond its comprehension, because they cannot be interpreted from the point of view of morality. Socialism treats them with the arrogant contempt with which children judge sexual love, which is alien to them and also inadmissible for discussion: ‘what a disgusting thing, that’s what mum used to say!’ When the supporter of all-conquering moralism takes to judge culture and the state, he rejects them in almost the same terms (Leo Tolstoy, Lieskov at the time of his passion for Tolstoyism).

Moral judgements are the simplest; they require neither intelligence, nor experience, nor understanding of things. He who attaches a moral measure to everything takes literally the Gospel: ‘unless you change and become like little children..’. However, there is nothing charming about this childlikeness. To paraphrase Kirkegaard, ‘Life has a secret from morality’. Socialism is hostile to this secret, that is, to life itself.

Socialism promises not just ‘an equal lot for all’, as Vladislav Khodasevich said, but wants the strong to become like the weak, the rich like the poor (not to mention the latest transformations of this demand, directed at the relations of the sexes). Its  goal is not the numerical growth of the strong, but the multiplication of the weak, the voluntary renunciation of abilities, which in itself may require strength, but leads to nothing. A demand quite evangelical — but without evangelical moral rigour. And of course — like Christianity, voluntary weakness is not offered by Socialism to everyone.

To what has been said above, one can reply: it is good; your ‘culture’ is not needed by the people, and even aggravates inequality — it is time to forget about it. We can also say that we do not need fine and profound art, because it does not serve the purpose of entertaining the masses, and disinterested (i. e., unprofitable, technically inapplicable, pertaining to the human world) judgements — even more so, because they are useless, they were a luxury under the old order and have become an unnecessary excess under the new one. One might advise to seek spiritual development in the Church and to leave culture to the small-minded but enterprising, remembering J. F. Barnum’s precept: ‘Fools are born every day’. But that would mean leaving all thoughts about the meaning of life and personal development and immersing yourself, as one old author wrote, in ‘materialistic dreams’. Immerse yourself — if you can and do live like that. It seems to me, however, that it is impossible to completely extinguish the human craving for depth and complexity.

As for complexity and inequality… Yes: culture is produced by the desire for complexity and consists in the possession of fruitful distinctions. ‘Fruitful distinctions’ — those that refine the mind and sense — are not reducible to mere ‘form-making’. Examples of empty form-making are the notorious ‘hobbies’, the choice of haircut or chewing gum or music. These hobbies, as I have said, are created to entertain the masses by the forces of mass production and reduce all imaginary variety to a few forms.

Behind the questions raised there is one, the main one: why does society exist at all? Is there any value in higher development and what is it?  The Greeks regarded their gods as interested spectators, connoisseurs; as F. S. Naiden thinks, the arts grew and blossomed on this soil. Our dominant religion does not value creativity. It is true that in new times society has absorbed enough pagan values to accept the self-sufficient value of personal development expressed in the sciences and arts.

Not all of us, but still some of us believe that the higher and the more people rise high on the path of transparency and depth of the inner life, then… What then? We don’t know. We only guess that the abilities given to us must be developed to the end; we even interpreted the Christian parable about ‘talents’ long ago in relation to our talents, although Christianity is deeply indifferent to them. In short, we see personal development as a religious value. Or, rather, we have seen it, because ‘culture for the masses’ does not offer any way forward and upwards, taking religion away from the individual…  On our side, as on the side of the Hellenes, it is faith. Someone demands that we labour honestly, not scattering the gifts we have received. And we follow this way.

But to what can we return? To everyday life? To state forms? I have put this question before and have come to disappointing answers. Everyday life, forms, everything solid and definite, is too unstable. The ‘soil’ in culture is spirit rather than custom. Domestic tradition is passing away irretrievably. If we will be again Russian people of Romanov’s style, this style will be mental, general cultural. Beard is not a sign of ‘tradition’. Romanov’s Russian was first of all a European with Russian roots. The return to tradition in Russia is a return to Europe or, in the words of an old book, to ‘Russian Europe’.

The return to ‘soil’ as far as thought and word are concerned can only be understood as a return to classical soil, i. e. to the Russian Europeanism of the Romanov style — not to that poor and simple which we tend to regard as ‘soil’ in the Slavophile sense. The ‘popular’ (or ‘folk’) and ‘national’ (imperial and European) are different in Russia, and Alexander Saltykov is quite right about this.

Another possible objection is: why do we need the ‘Romanov style’, we will have everything new. To this I will say that there will be no second Peter the Great, and there will be no second wave of European influence in the Peter’s sense, i. e. challenging and creative, because there is no Europe from which we could learn discipline, creativity, order. Europe lies in illness, whether it will rise and what it will be then — no one knows.

The main question of Russian thought now is the question of continuity, of the unaccepted heritage. In the 1920s, a complex intellectual life left Russia for Europe, and never returned. This heritage is repelled by modern Russia. It is difficult for it, incomprehensible and unnecessary. However, ‘all this was long ago, it is over, it is not ours, we do not need it’ are empty words. In the realm of the spirit, nothing ever ends; any inheritance finds an heir.

Unfortunately, the very concept of ‘spiritual life’ in today’s Russia is a historical concept. Spiritual life is understood either as a subject of study — in Russian Paris, in Muscovite Russia, — or as something from the church’s usage. The spirit is personal, unique, peculiar, and therefore not ‘scientific’; what is valued is ‘scientific mindset’, i. e., the ultimate absence of personality in its labours.

Of course, restoring the line of continuity does not mean simply transposing a known historical moment into modernity. Our culture lived on with its former juices for at least 40 years after the fall of the Old World, albeit ‘outside the mainland’, i. e., outside the state. This ‘outland Russia’ is our nearest source of cultural strength…

The restoration of continuity means at the same time a break with those who wanted a break with continuity. Revolution is unhistorical and cannot be included in history, despite the demands of its later defenders. Either you are in history, or you are starting a ‘new world’ in a wasteland. It is on a wasteland that your descendants will leave you.

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

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