Newspaper article International New York Times

The Russia I Miss

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Russia I Miss

Article excerpt

Gone is the depth of soul that influenced Western culture for 150 years.

People who came of age after the end of the Cold War may not realize how powerfully Russia influenced Western culture for 150 years. For more than a century, intellectuals, writers, artists and activists were partly defined by the stances they took toward certain things Russian: Did they see the world like Tolstoy or like Dostoyevsky? Were they inspired by Lenin and/or Trotsky? Were they alarmed by Sputnik, awed by Solzhenitsyn or cheering on Yeltsin or Gorbachev?

That was because Russian culture had an unmatched intensity. It was often said that Russian thinkers addressed universal questions in their most extreme and illuminating forms.

In his classic book, "The Icon and the Axe," James H. Billington wrote that because of certain conditions of Russian history, "the kind of debate that is usually conducted between individuals in the West often rages even more acutely within individuals in Russia."

Russian influence was especially strong in America. There were certain mirror image parallels. Both nations didn't quite know what to make of the sophistication and polish of Western Europe. Both countries had Eurocentric elites who copied Parisian manners, and populist masses who ridiculed them. Both nations had mental landscapes defined by the epic size and wild beauty of their natural landscapes.

But Russia stood for something that America has never been known for: depth of soul. If America radiated a certain vision of happiness onto the world, Russian heroes radiated a vision of total spiritual commitment.

"The 'Russian' attitude," Isaiah Berlin wrote, "is that man is one and cannot be divided." You can't divide your life into compartments, hedge your bets and live with prudent half-measures. If you are a musician, writer, soldier or priest, integrity means throwing your whole personality into your calling in its purest form.

The Russian ethos was not bourgeois, economically minded and pragmatic. There were radicals who believed that everything should be seen in materialistic terms. But this was a reaction to the dominant national tendency, which saw problems as primarily spiritual rather than practical, and put matters of the soul at center stage.

In the Middle Ages, Russian religious icons presented a faith that was more visual than verbal, more mysterious than legalistic. Dostoyevsky put enormous faith in the power of the artist to address social problems. The world's problems are shaped by pre-political roots: myths, morals and the state of the individual conscience. …

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