By Natasha Yarotskaya
Russia by mind comprehended cannot be
Nor by wide arshins measured:
Its uniqueness be that—
In Russia is possible only but to believe.
(Tiutchev, I. 28 November, 1866, translation by Fr. S. Janos)
Since anti-government protests started last winter, Moscow has been buzzing with politics and what seems to be a social awakening. The other day at Jean-Jacques, a bistro popular with liberal intelligentsia and protest movement activists, I overheard someone saying, “Why is it happening? It is all very simple: It is the Russian soul rebelling.”
As I spent last summer studying the relationship between ‘the Russian soul’ and Russian identity, I found this statement to be ironic. The Russian soul is traditionally located within the common folk. But while the momentum of the protest movement keeps going in Moscow, the rest of the country remains apathetic. For months the protesters have filled the capital’s central squares chanting, “Russia will be free!” and joining writers, poets, and artists—a class that the “Man of Steel,” Joseph Stalin, referred to as the “engineers of the human soul”—for peaceful marches through the city. Unfortunately, the Russian people show no apparent sympathy for this group’s struggle for freedom and fairness.
The movement’s supporters as well as many in the West have been wondering, “Why don’t more Russians join in the protests against the corrupt and oppressive regime?” While there are apparent political and economic reasons (such as fears of unemployment) explaining the statement overheard at Jean-Jacques, the answer to this question may be incomplete without revisiting the relationship between the Russians and the Russian soul.
The meaning of the Russian word for soul—dusha (душа)—is not exactly analogous to the English soul, French âme, or German Seele. In a religious sense, as used in prayer, dusha has the same (Christian) meaning as the English word “soul.” Yet, the meaning of the Russian soul is not limited to the religious context. It appears to be a complex notion that brings together religious, psychological, and moral aspects of human life. It is viewed as the core of an individual’s intimate world—which also consists of knowledge, will, intuition, and thinking. Bringing together varied elements of human life, the soul refers to the invisible deeper layers in an individual’s personality and may remain unknown even to the individual himself.
What is unique about the Russian soul compared to that of other peoples is its ability to reconcile the contradictions that permeate Russian lifestyle. In turn, negative elements become virtuous: poverty is seen as a vehicle for spiritual growth through austerity; coldness toward strangers suggests a striving for genuine and profound interpersonal relations as opposed to superficial mannerisms; political apathy and disregard for social injustice is reinterpreted as trust in fate and God-ordained power. It is this paradoxical, irrational nature of the Russian soul that makes it alluring to Westerners. Ridiculing foreigners’ attempts to comprehend the Russian soul, dissident writer Alexander Zinovjev wrote, “The conceit of the West deserves our mockery.”
The origin of the term dusha as it is known today is commonly traced back to classical Russian writers from the second half of the 19th century. Its first mention appeared in 1842 in Vissarion Belinsky’s praise of Gogol’s Dead Souls. Gogol’s use of the soul had a heavily religious connotation and reflected his own interest in religious mysticism. The term was popularized in the 1860s and 1870s by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s journalism and acquired a slightly different meaning. For Dostoyevsky, a zealous nationalist at the time, the Russian soul offered a language for expressing Russia’s brewing frustration with Europe. Adoption of the term arose as explorations into and extolment of the virtues of the common man became popular among the Russian intelligentsia and the noble class. Such virtues included simplemindedness, excessive hospitality, ‘love for pastoral freedom,’ innocence, but also submissiveness and obedience. The Russian soul was thus explained in relation to the West, or, more aptly, to the absence of a soul in the West. It referred to the superiority of the Russian mind, spirit, will, and nature and signified the fundamental rejection of European values.
The idea of the Russian soul was not only adopted by the Russians, but also embraced by the Europeans themselves. Between 1880 and 1930, the concept of the benevolent Russian soul became popular in France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe (the memoirs of Marquis de Vogue and Rainer Maria Rilke’s fascination with the Russian soul are prime examples).
Many scholars have since tried to explain the role of the ‘Russian soul’ in Russian culture. One such explanation points to the mythological nature of the Russian soul. To some degree, cultural myths reveal a certain worldview or help explain a practice or belief that is often built around the ideals of that culture. British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski insisted that cultural myths offer a ‘charter’ for social behavior. In psychoanalysis (Freud and Jung), myths are seen as an expression of the repressed needs of the human psyche and as a product of the “collective unconscious.” The Russian soul seems to have served both as a “charter” for social behavior and as an articulation of the repressed nature, offering an explanation for what Russian people did and why. For example, a popular belief in Christ’s passive suffering forms a core in the Russian soul—free but doomed—and has arguably served Russians well in their centuries-long powerlessness before authority.
The myth of the Russian soul is also based on the ideals of national unity. These ideals find genuine support only in the heritage of great Russian literary classics. Yet, the nostalgia for it has inspired a two-century-old recurring cultural narrative. The notion of the Russian soul also played a more practical role as it defined criteria for belonging to the Russian nation: It epitomized the spiritual virtues and the life itself—blood and soil. To be Russian, therefore, meant to possess the Russian soul and to love Russian soil.
Last summer I decided to see how this antique concept looked and functioned today. I asked young educated Russians, those who grew up in the post-Soviet era and now belong to the so-called ‘creative class,’ to tell me about the Russian soul and whether or not they believe they had one. Interview after interview laid bare multiple contrary and competing accounts on what the Russian soul actually was: On the one hand, I was told that it was wide open, hospitable, and festive. On the other, it was tightfisted and suspicious of strangers; it did everything на авось, or carelessly, relying on instincts. Yet, it was also measured and aligned; it was appallingly lazy, but at the same time, it was extremely hardworking. It permitted extraordinary emotionality, sensitivity, and depth of feelings, while it required a Russian man to be stoic and reserved.
The cultural knowledge of the Russian soul evidently contains a great deal of contradictions, which expose the concept’s centuries-long accrual of richness. But linguistically, the resulting hodgepodge of properties assigned to the Russian soul suggests a strong polysemy, or one word with different or opposite meanings, implying the inability to define a term or articulate a narrative suitable for the present time. As those I spoke with were searching for a fitting meaning for the ‘Russian soul,’ they also noticeably struggled to build a consistent rapport with something that is undeniably central to their culture. There appeared to be at once nostalgia, frustration, and disappointment with the Russian soul: It is venerable, if not desirable, to have the Russian soul, but it is also afflicting, I was repeatedly told, as there is little room for its virtues in today’s society. Dmitry, a sociologist from Moscow said, “I think that this type of person no longer exists. … Most of them no longer exist, not because it is unreal—no, it is very real! But it seems like they have disappeared at some point during the 20th century.”
So, young Russians identify themselves with the past they never lived and find it difficult to relate to the present-day reality and its values. But in the absence of a set of values that they can relate to in their home country, many of whom I spoke with admitted their attempts to construct a Western identity and find themselves torn between having Russian roots and a Russian soul on one hand, and choosing to reject those traits to construct one’s life in a Western way on the other. Ultimately, many seem to settle on resignation. They neither cease to emphasize their Russianness nor do they deny it. They accept it and consciously overcome it. Being Russian becomes given, but does not shape their worldview or life. In a way, it symbolizes surrender to the ongoing debate about Russianness, the Russian soul, and the present-day country.
Young Russians draw on a combination of meanings that best suits their perceived sense of Russianness. In their minds, the notion of the Russian soul can be a symbol of Russia’s bygone unity, vices, or simply a myth, but beneath it lies a confusion—a wound inflicted by the country’s tormented past. Enduring the repetitive history of national fragmentation, Russian people have been caught in an intense whirlpool of ideas and images that became a traumatic experience. But unlike physical injury that hurts and causes a great deal of discomfort, a historical trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and sense of historical mission. It, therefore, might be that the function of the Russian soul is precisely in the safety of its multiple meanings: its space helps deal with the troubled history and negotiate the present. On the flip side, however, the indifference that evidently results from it is a true tragedy. One of the experts on the Russian soul, Anton Chekhov, warned: “They say philosophers and wise men are indifferent. Wrong. Indifference is a paralysis of the soul, a premature death.”
The indifference that results from the perpetual failure to grasp the meaning of the Russian soul gives insight into the lackluster participation of Russian citizens in the anti-government protests. It is obvious that identity – a nucleus of shared experiences – is not just an occasional mental exercise, but also a way of collective relating to the world. It defines one’s position on such practical issues as taxation, education, religion, the direction of the national politics, etc. Most importantly, it is bound to the experience of agency in the society – a capacity or desire to act consistent with the sense of self. As the Russian soul is argued to be at the core of Russian identity, the resignation that its conceptual ambiguity inflicts upon the Russian self-understanding speaks for the perceived powerlessness and exhaustion from the continuous attempts to (re)invent itself. The lack of popular interest in the protest movement is doubtlessly rooted in the more complex conflicts in the Russian identity, which the Russian soul is just a sign of. In other words, how can one act if one does not have a clear idea of where one stands?
One might say that the link between a poetic notion of Russian soul and the struggle for national support of Moscow protests is too far-fetched. Surely, decrypting the cultural function of the concept or recognizing its actual emptiness in the minds of the young educated Russians is not going to help mobilize the rest of the population to stand up for the democratic rights and liberties. However, political participation requires a sense of belonging, responsibility, and ownership of a cause. The fact that Russia’s recent past gave its people little chance to define who they are and choose their own historical course should not be brushed aside. The answer to why the Russian people do not take on the chance to oppose Putin’s regime stretches beyond politics and economics, and it needs to take into account the Russian soul.
Natasha Yarotskaya holds an MPP degree from the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago and an MSc degree in Social and Cultural Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is currently a freelance researcher based in Moscow.
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