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The Two Russias

Boris Pasternak (l), with brother Alex, painted by their father Leonid

This essay will zero in on two competing visions of Russia. One vision, reflected in some of Russia’s great writers, emphasizes what are sometimes considered the more feminine virtues of peace, love, and compassion. The second vision stresses a warped version of values often deemed more masculine, such as strength and toughness, and is best exemplified by the macho hawkishness of Vladimir Putin.

A decade ago I recounted the high regard for Russia’s great writers by two prominent Catholic peace lovers, Dorothy Day and the monk Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis once mentioned as two of four “great Americans.” Among the Russian writers the two Americans admired were Tolstoy (1828-1910), the philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), Chekhov (1860-1904), and Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), author of Doctor Zhivago

Although not a total pacifist until the last three decades of his life, Tolstoy had questioned the wisdom of war even earlier. As a lieutenant in the Crimean War (1853-56), he recounted a short truce between French and Russian soldiers in order to gather up dead bodies.

“Yes, on the bastion and entrenchments white flags have been placed, the lowering valley is full of dead bodies. . . . And these people, who are Christians . . . do not suddenly fall with repentance on their knees before Him who has given them life . . . . They do not embrace like brothers with tears of joy and happiness. No! The white flags are lowered, and again whistle the instruments of death and suffering, again flows innocent blood, and groans and curses are heard.”

Decades later, in the early 1880s, Tolstoy became a complete pacifist and, until his death, one of the world’s leading advocates of pacifism. Gandhi corresponded with and learned from the great Russian writer and referred to himself as a “humble follower” of Tolstoy. Merton and Day both had high praise for this “follower” of Tolstoy, Day writing that “there is no public figure who has more conformed his life to the life of Jesus Christ than Gandhi.”

Although Day loved Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, it was Merton who especially valued the Russian writer (both men were poets, in addition to their other pursuits) and corresponded with him from 1958 until 1960. Although not calling himself a pacifist, Pasternak would have been appalled at the innocent suffering Putin is causing in Ukraine. The writer’s parents were ethnic Jews, and his father a famous painter who “illustrated his [Tolstoy’s] books, went to see him, revered him." During Tolstoy’s pacifist years, the whole Pasternak “house was imbued with his spirit.” As a boy, young Boris spent several years studying in Ukraine, then still part of Russia. In Doctor Zhivago he has his main female character, Lara (more on her later), say: “It was then [with World War I] that untruth came down on our land of Russia. The main misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of confidence in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense.”

Merton maintained that in Pasternak’s novel he was indicating that “the state exists for man, not man for the state.” Much more of what Merton has to say about Pasternak places the Russian writer squarely in opposition to the ideas of Putin, who once wrote that the state “is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change. . . . Society desires the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state.”

Pasternak also stresses love and compassion; Putin, strength and toughness. Seven years ago, I detailed Putin’s machoness in Putin vs. Obama: ‘Macho Man’ vs. ‘Girly Boy’? His attack on Ukraine fully reflects that it has only gotten worse.

Contrast this with Pasternak. Merton wrote that Doctor Zhivago depicted “love as the highest expression of man’s spirituality and freedom.” and that “Love and Life . . .  form the great theme of Doctor Zhivago.” Moreover, Pasternak’s heroine, Lara, was a “sophianic figure.”

In referring to “sophianic,”Merton made it clear that he thought that Pasternak was adapting the insights of the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev, son of Russia’s most famous nineteenth historian, Sergei Soloviev. Both Merton and Day highly valued the younger Soloviev’s works including his long essay, “The Meaning of Love.” But Merton was especially intrigued by Soloviev’s development of “Sophia,” the Divine Wisdom, and later wrote a poem with a Solovievian vision, “Hagia Sophia.”

Pasternak’s Lara, according to Merton, symbolized Sophia, “the Personal and Feminine Wisdom Principle.” Soloviev saw history as a process of man and nature falling away from God and splintering into separateness and then eventually reuniting in a higher synthesis. Sophia symbolized that potential synthesis. For Soloviev that all-oneness with God became the goal of history. But for the philosopher, Sophia was also the epitome of femininity; she represented not only the mystical oneness of the universe, but also a tender, loving, maternal force, and his most potent symbol of beauty. In an 1876 poem “My Queen Has a Magnificent Palace,” he described Sophia as living in a palace with golden pillars. But when far below she sees her abandoned and desolate friend, she comes to him “bathed in light,” “full of gentle tenderness,” “with eternal love in her sky-blue eyes,” and she covers him with her radiance.

About Chekhov (a doctor by training), Merton said little, but Day loved his writings and his dedication to others. In a long essay on Chekhov, I wrote that his “most outstanding . . . characteristics were his humility, his tolerance, and his compassion.” Writer and activist Cornel West saw Chekhov in a similar light, referring to his “magnificent compassion for each of us,” and adding that “Chekhov leads us through our contemporary inferno with love and sorrow.”

In his novel Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), born into an ethnic Jewish family in Ukraine, has one of his characters say that “Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history.” Unlike so many before him, Chekhov said, “Let’s begin with man, let’s be kind and attentive to the individual. . . .  Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual.”

Although Chekhov possessed ample amounts of “manly” courage, his compassion and unmacho personality was noted by others. Tolstoy, who felt a strong, almost paternal love for the younger (by 32 years) Chekhov, once said of him: “Ah, what a beautiful, magnificent man: modest and quiet like a girl. . . . He's simply wonderful."

Thus, we have two different Russias. One is that of Tolstoy, Pasternak, V. Soloviev, and Chekhov, which stresses peace, love, and compassion. The other is the macho world of Vladimir Putin, which emphasizes strength, toughness and rigidity.

Although born in Leningrad (in 1952) a decade after it was besieged for 900 days by German forces in World War II, Putin did have an older brother who died in the siege, and his father was wounded and his mother almost starved to death. As a youth, Putin took up judo, eventually obtaining a black belt, and much later became “honorary president” of the International Judo Federation--a title stripped from him because of the invasion of Ukraine. From 1975 to 1991, the year of the collapse of the USSR, he served in the KGB, spending the years 1985 to 1990 in East Germany.

Putin considered the breakup of the Soviet Union a great tragedy:  It “left tens of millions” of those Putin referred to as “our co-citizens and co-patriots . . . outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” Among pre-communist Russian rulers, he most admired the herculean and autocratic Emperor Alexander III, who could bend iron pokers.

Upon becoming the leader of his country (despite being prime minister, not president, from 2008 to 2012, Putin has been the real supreme authority in Russia during the entire twenty-first century), he moved decisively to end Chechnya’s decade-long attempt to achieve independence (actually, he had already begun this campaign after becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister in August 1999). Employing brutal tactics and causing atrocity, including the massive bombing of the Chechen capital of Grozny, Russian forces subdued the Chechen rebellion in 2000, except for subsequent scattered and ineffective attempts to resist Russian controls.

In 2015, aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin again used Russian air power to put down rebels--only this time Syrian ones. According to one source, Russian

bombing was not indiscriminate. It was worse: Hospitals were considered legitimate targets by Russian commanders. Even civilians whose only concern was the safety of others . . . were killed while they were responding to earlier attacks.

In 2022, Russian forces in Ukraine again bombed and shelled multiple hospitals.

That Putin does not represent all of the Russian people should not need saying. Wendell Berry’s poem “To a Siberian Woodsman,” written in 1968 while the Cold War was still ongoing, wonderfully reminds us of all the commonalities that Russians share with us. But which Russia is dearest to most Russians? Is it the more compassionate world of Tolstoy, Vladimir Soloviev, Chekhov, and Pasternak or is it that of the more pugnacious Putin?   

Despite some flawed elections and increasing controls over the media--and perhaps partly because of them--Putin was popular with most Russians up until launching his present war against Ukraine. Many Russians thought of his two predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, as weak leaders who had given away too much to Western powers. They hoped Putin would be different. They liked his tough-guy image. Very popular also were the macho films of Russian director Alexei Balabanov (1959-2013). But how about now? As a result of Western sanctions, the Russian ruble is fast losing value and hundreds of foreign businesses--like McDonald’s, which is temporarily closing 850 restaurants--are pulling out or suspending business operations in Russia. No doubt, life is going to become a lot harder for many Russians.

But who will most Russians blame? Putin? The West? Many Russians get their news from state-controlled media, which explains why one Russian-born scholar now living in the USA could state, “When I say [to relatives in Russia] that, yes, Ukrainian cities are bombed by Russians, they say, no, nothing like that is happening. It's just those Nazi battalions that are making provocations. They are just pretending that there is something going on. But, really, we [Russian forces] are there to help.”

Yet, the Russia of Tolstoy, Pasternak, V. Soloviev, and Chekhov--one that values not only peace, love, and compassion, but also truth--also continues to live on in Russia. That Russia was evident when Russian dissidents protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and dissident Andrei Sakharov later wrote that the USSR “displayed its true colors, its stagnation, its inability to tolerate pluralistic or democratic tendencies, not just in the Soviet Union but even in neighboring countries.”

A decade later I made my first visit to various cities in the USSR (then including Ukraine), and on that and many subsequent occasions witnessed many individual acts of goodness and kindness, not only from Ukrainians but also from Russians. In mid-March of this year, a woman dared to dart behind a news anchorwoman on state TV and held up a sign reading “Stop the war” and “Do not believe the propaganda.” In Doctor Zhivago, in one of the poems at the end, there is the image of a candle in the window, contrasting to the blizzard whirling outside. Merton thought the candle “suggests, among other things, the Personal and Feminine Wisdom Principle,” as stressed by Soloviev. In 2022, I’m convinced that the candle of love and compassion continues to flicker in the hearts of many Russians, and hope that it can eventually enlighten those now lost amid the pugnacious Putin’s blizzard of lies and obfuscations.