19 May 2011

Why are we here?

Tikhvinskii Convent, Buzuluk
"Why are you here?" I get this question constantly. Sometimes the question refers to why an American couple, with all the presumed advantages of life in the USA, would choose to live in Russia. Sometimes the question is more specific: why Elektrostal, a Stalin-era industrial city not mentioned in any tourist guide to Russia that I've ever seen.

These questions come up all the time. For example, a few days ago, an architecture student whom I was coaching in preparation for a seminar she was to attend in Germany, grilled me closely on what could possibly interest me in Elektrostal. One of my colleagues mused on the lengthy process we went through to get work visas: "Our authorities know that Russians want to leave for the West, but they can't understand someone wanting to come in the other direction."

On one level, it's easy to reply that we're here to serve as a metaphorical bridge of understanding between our countries, or between Friends (Quakers) and the Russian people to whom our Quaker ancestors related for many generations, from Peter the Great, through Catherine the Great and Alexander I, to the story of Buzuluk and the relief missions. We can speak of the great Friends tradition of citizen diplomacy. Concerning Elektrostal, we can talk about our personal friendship with the visionary educators who founded the New Humanities Institute and continue to make it a special place. We can mention all the ways that Russian culture inspires us, and how I've dreamed about living in a Russian-speaking environment since I was sixteen years old and just starting to learn the language. But what I'm increasingly interested in is this: What's behind this recurring question? What does it tell us about the psychic landscape of our host country?

I was reading a fascinating speech by Sergei Chapnin, the editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate (the official periodical of the Orthodox Church in Russia), and all those questions came back to me as I read these lines:
In earlier discussions [at the conference where Chapnin spoke], it's already been said that we're in a condition of post-imperialism. Even twenty years later, we cannot bear to talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, we still want to call our world Russian. We want to talk about the Russian people and Russian culture. Meanwhile, all of it has already long been Soviet or, more accurately, post-Soviet--and not "frozen" post-Soviet, but actively evolving. I am convinced that we are using the wrong concepts to describe the reality around us.

The values of post-Soviet culture are very contradictory and don't form a single picture. These internal contradictions have led to this: we have lost the ability to talk about ourselves, our ancestors, and each other positively, to create convincing and attractive images. Every image created these days has something hiding up its sleeve: it could be something ideologically unacceptable, or humiliating, or just cardboard and plastic.

You won't find a positive image of contemporary Russia either in high culture or in mass culture. We don't like ourselves and don't respect each other. So then how can we expect others to like us? And given all this, what kind of modernization can we expect?

There's a complete absence of a coherent picture of our here and now. Our image of the past is mythologized; it includes manifestations of heroic tragedy--and banned tragedy. And there's no clear image of our future.

(The full talk, in Russian, is here. Paul Goble's summary in English is here.)
A friend in Buzuluk put it another way: "We're living in nevremen'e"--an aimless non-time, which I interpret as sort of the opposite of kairos. Chapnin's whole speech is fascinating--see Goble's summary--but it's those words "We don't like ourselves and don't respect each other" that really stood out.

The words are not literally true--I can cite many experiences of Russian individuals liking each other, respecting each other. And Russians really do love their country! Nevertheless, on an intuitive level, I think I follow Chapnin's argument. In Soviet times, despite the supposed totalitarian control, there was certainly plenty of scope for corruption and the "hit-and-miss" approach to life summed up by the untranslatable word avos'. And all of that continues. But for those who were idealists in Soviet times or simply dutiful by nature, the official ideology and a growing body of related "best practices" gave some kind of coherence to life. I can think of several people in this very city who speak openly of their sense of acute post-Soviet loss--not that they regret the advance of freedom and initiative, nor do they gloss over the unspeakable repressions; they are simply noting the lack of positive energy in today's society. And as evidence, they cite the brusque and dismissive behavior they observe around them. For example, a few days ago, one of my friends said this about Russia's national minorities: "Look how they cluster together and support each other. And Jews are the same way. You don't see Russians taking care of each other that way." Squelching my American need to challenge, analyze, and correct, I simply made mental notes and kept my mouth shut.

Chapnin talks about the dangerous ways the vacuum he describes can be filled--using myths and conceits drawn from both crude nationalism (processed in a Soviet matrix) and Soviet-era civil religion with its pagan overtones. Meanwhile, that generation of Russian Orthodox leaders whose faith and practice comprehended both their specific tradition and universal love is aging and dying out.

Dilemmas are resolved (if they are ever resolved!) not by theories and advice--least of all, advice imported from abroad--but by example and story and abundant grace. I'm under no illusion that the presence of expatriate idealists like me solves any of these puzzles, even microscopically. It's my privilege to witness, not advise. But I'm more and more convinced that my top priority is to love.

I don't mean that I'm to become all sentimental, or to buy into Russian exceptionalism any more than I buy into American exceptionalism. It's not that complicated: this is a land and a people that deserve to be loved, and I'm here, so I humbly need to apply both heart and intelligence to loving this amazing, proud, wounded, suspicious, beautiful country. What this means in practice--I'm not always sure. But the task of finding out, day by day, transaction by transaction, is certainly worth the best that I can bring to it.

What about you? There's absolutely no reason to believe that all Russia needs to solve its problems is more foreigners!! (Although, just for the record, the government is officially rolling out the red carpet for "experts.") But, given the numbers going in the opposite direction, bringing in a few more people committed to come, learn, serve, and love can't do any harm, can it?

Righteous links:

A tragic symptom and the seeds of response: "Violence, death and cover-up in the Russian army." And on the same site, British Friend Madeleine Reeves writes about "illegals" in migrant Moscow.

Another discussion of priority: "The most precious and urgent thing that the Religious Society of Friends has to advance is the Everlasting Gospel...."

And more on priority: "Are Friends 'bumper-sticker' social justice? Can we be more?"

"The Legacy of [Korean Quaker] Ham Sok-hon." (And you can find an online edition of Ham Sok-hon's Queen of Suffering: A Spiritual History of Korea here.)

"Disappointment, despair, and Harold Camping" ... "after all, they're family."

A couple of blues links: a Chicago Reader profile on Alligator Records on its fortieth anniversary; and the Roadhouse podcast no. 325 features winners from the 2011 Blues Music Awards, held May 5th in Memphis, Tennessee.

Jean-Rene Ella, "Soon One Morning"

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