Nikolai Gogol is not a writer well-known in the West. The picture of him one gets in English-language sources—Wikipedia and introductions to translations of his fiction—is of a talented but unfulfilled writer. A crypto-Ukrainian nationalist despite never writing in Ukrainian, even when writing home to his mother. A religious fanatic towards the end of his life and finally, quite preposterously, possibly a homosexual.
His fiction is little appreciated, hopelessly misinterpreted and over-analysed, and his thinking outside of it—almost unknown.
But Gogol had very much to say. About God, Holy Church, Russia, Europe, enlightenment, the future. These themes dominate and preoccupy him even in his fiction.
Without attempting an exhaustive study of his thought with constant reference to his writing on all the issues enumerated, I’d like to take cue from him, to develop his thinking in the present day context we have before us and to do so precisely because his insights are so vitally relevant just now.
Gogol lived with his eyes on the future hoping for the better. Not, as too many too often, with them fixed on what is usually only a self-contrived caricature of the past and highlighting the worst. Much of what he said is so. Much of what he anticipated has happened. And we can still pursue that better he hoped in.
What I will write is going to look naïve. Let’s be naïve. If we were all a little more—we would all be very much happier.
. . .Что пророчит сей необъятный простор?
Здесь ли, в тебе ли не родиться беспредельной мысли,
когда ты сама без конца?
You’ve made your flight in good time and the glass of champagne that glittered in the lounge is glowing inside you as you board. Remember how it hissed when poured? You put your bag overhead, sidle to your window-seat and sink into the cushion. Turn your phone off. Isn’t the stewardess pretty? She is.
When you arrive into Moscow at Sheremetyevo International Airport there are two chapels to choose from in which to pray. After you’ve Crossed yourself for the last time and kiss the doors on your way out—you may want to take the train out. And when you do you can put on the radio and hear lives of Saints and the history of Holy Rus.
When you arrive at your friend’s apartment or check-in to your hotel, you might want to turn on the television for just an hour or so, or more, before your hot shower. And you’ll find documentaries frequently and excellently explore Orthodox themes. A soap-opera revolving around an Icon. A television series about the White Guard.
But don’t get too comfortable. You couldn’t afford that hotel and your friend is set on watching 1612, a splendid film about the defeat of the Polish invaders driven from and beaten outside ancient Orthodox Moscow.
Russia is an Orthodox country today. The Russian Federation is the largest Orthodox power in the world today.
Approximately 7 out of 10 Russians are Orthodox. According to both the Levada Centre and the Moscow Patriarchate—the number is increasing.
Icons have been returned, temples and monasteries are being restored, new churches are being built—at a rate of almost 1 per day.
Religious education is improving, and Sunday attendance is better annually.
And this is just the beginning. What are the possibilities?
I do not ask what can we expect, as expectations here are out of place. Religious conviction concerns the free conscience of individuals. 50 years before the October Revolution no one could have expected the rise of Soviet Communism. And no one who saw the Revolution could have expected the 1000th Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. Possibilities—in Russia—are the best we can do. Gogol’s troika, awing mouths open as it takes a path no one, least of all itself, can predict. But possibilities at least, as I said, can be considered. I’d like to focus on one.
Suppose, grant, imagine that Holy Orthodoxy continues apace in satisfying the minds, hearts and souls of ever more Russian people in the decades to come. What are the possible consequences and likely geopolitical implications of this? I have three that I think are worth entertaining.
- Unity, cooperation and common mind of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus at least at the public level if not (in Kiev’s case: almost certainly not) on the political. That is—the Russian World (Русский мир).
- Orthodox monarchism as a live possibility, at least in the Russian Federation.
- The emergence of a model of governance, even if not Orthodox monarchism resurgent, as a competitor with and in some places: an alternative to, Western liberal democracy. In those instances where such a model of governance might be a viable alternative—that is the Orthodox World (Православный мир).
I am perfectly aware and just as much at ease that all three of the above will not sit well with many readers. Many will dismiss 1 as having one link in the chain too weak to bear the burden of any hopes placed on it. 2 even Vladimir Vladimirovich has publically dismissed as impracticable. 3 is the stuff of contemporary Russian imagination, State posturing and historical pride.
But after that reflexive reaction, which I’ve generously allowed you, let’s think a little about whether there might not be something to this.
I do not mean to treat the three systematically or even necessarily in order. Only everything I say will circle around one or the other or all of the three points.
It is about the first point that Gogol has least to say to us.
Gogol lived in a Russian Empire where Great Russia, Little Russia and White Russia went together like Faith, Hope and Love. After the collapse of the USSR nationalisms emerged and countries came into existence—Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus. But no amount of voting can alter history. There still remains a common culture and memory. The term coined for this is the Russian World.
The Rus which became the Russian Empire has its beginning in the conversion of the Grand Prince Vladimir whose capital was Kiev, the mother of all Russian cities, to the Orthodox Christian Faith received from Byzantium.
Our ancestors were baptized in the living water of the Dnieper—the Dnieper, which flows through Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. It is this that unites most Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians and which can unite all of us in a way that even State nationalism can’t (Note: State nationalism is nationalism based on allegiance to State rather than on ethnicity).
There is one historical Rus that is the shared source and common history of all three contemporary countries—and there is one Russian Orthodox Church of which the majority in all three countries are sons and daughters.
Who hasn’t experienced that borders and pronunciation matter less to two Orthodox people? In my own experience, just as Gogol was of Ukrainian descent, I’ve met people from Russia who see no difference between myself and them even with my thoroughly bumpkin, cranberry-derivative last name. (Note: Gogol itself is just as bad).
Then I’ve met people who are in every respect “too cool” for God, the epitome of Russians who make certain I know that where my family came from is not the Russian Federation, and who jest at my expense on the supposition that Ukrainian mouths are invariably full only of foul language, vodka or varenniki. We seem to them to be a centimetre above the bonobo ape in our mental development.
The more sincere and serious one is in their Orthodox Faith, the more they will know of the history of Holy Rus. More familiar with saints’ lives and histories of monasteries, locations of cathedrals and temples. Spread out as they are across all three countries, the more inclined we will be to visit them. The more contact, the more together and less foreign people will be to each other.
Holy Orthodoxy is the sole unifying power left from a time before we were “others” to each other. Taken together with the fact that the teaching of the Church is entirely love, kindness, non-judgement, harmony of spirit, purity of soul and balance of mind. Supposing that this is what Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians will be working at attaining and trying their best to practise. Or even just with these things untiringly held up before them in the life and worship of the Church. Peace, stability and cooperation would be the welcome consequence.
Holy Orthodoxy is supra-national. Politics and oligarchs cannot stand against the inevitable. Unity. And if government in these countries is representative, policy will eventually come to reflect it.
The unity of the Russian World today extends to a shared Faith, calendar holidays, common culture and history. Is it possible that there is a further level of unity an avenue to which is opened by Holy Orthodoxy?
Martin Kalyniuk is a young man of letters, a contributor to Soul of the East and presently resides in Australia. All thoughts, comments, criticism, provided they are in the spirit of honest enquiry, are welcome. Please send them to email@example.com