Growing up in the Soviet Union: a short story about Russia and Ukraine

I grew up in two places. One was Moscow, with its splendor of being a capital city, and the other place was in Ukraine, in its eastern part, where I spent first two years of my life and where I would go back each summer when I had my school holidays. It used to be one nation, it used to be one people. I remember how I inhaled the smokey area from the mines that was so present in a village near Donetsk, and how that smell brought me a sense of pleasure. It was a symbol for me of cosines, of deep friendships with my cousins, of a happy childhood that could be – when everyone grows up feeling the same, being friends with each other, regardless of the origins and the language spoken. It was a united place under the Soviet Union, where everyone had the same rights, the same benefits, food and the security of a great nation, where Armenians were friends with Georgians, where Ukraine and Russia were the same, where no one would ever imagine that sisters and brothers would fight a war on the opposite sides. One of my cousins lives near Donetsk (the ‘separatist’ area), the other lives right across the border in Russia, where tanks amass, and where no one understands how come that they have to fight each other.

When I would return each summer to the southern Russia, right across the border with Ukraine, it would take us an hour to reach the village One Four, close to Donetsk and Krasnodon, in the middle of the current separatist region, where the area was smoky from the mines, and where people would speak Russian but with a soft accent, that I inherited in my speech, because each summer I would be there, spending it with my grand-parents and my beloved cousins. We swam in the river Don, and we ate fried fish and pancakes in the evening. We would run around, and no one was thinking that this child was Ukrainian and this child was Russian. We were all the same, we were all the children of the Soviet Union, naïve in our beliefs that everyone had the same rights and the same privileges. Talking about Ukraine as a separate nation, a separate country, was unimaginable then. We were all friends, we were brothers and sisters.

The One Four settlement in the Eastern Ukraine that is now a separatist area was among my favourite places. It smelled of mines, a smell that I associated with happiness and a care-free life. Children could play outside whole day long, unrestricted in their movements and whereabouts. Together with my cousin we would walk around the settlement, picking pears and apples in the park, running with neighbourhood kids, to return to delicious pancakes or amazing fried fish made by my auntie. At weekend, if we were lucky, my uncle would take us sometimes to the river Don, a magnificent river where water was deliciously warm, and where instead of beaches, there were stretches of green grass, and one could jump into the water from not very high cliffs, and then climb back for another round. It was wild and so exciting, and made such a difference with a more regulated life back in Moscow. We would stay at my cousin’s house usually for a week during the summer holidays, and the rest of summer months were spent at my grand-parents across the border, where chickens would wake us up at five thirty, but we would promptly fall back asleep, to wake up to the sweet smell of pastries made by my grand-mum. The mornings would be spent on helping around the farm, such as picking up the weed or feeding the chickens, while in the afternoon we would run around the village, and swim in the narrow, small river, together with snakes. In the evening, together with other village’s children we would all assemble in the local park, light up a fire, and sing and dance around. After spending three months in such a paradise, it was always hard for me to get back to Moscow, because I missed Ukraine and Southern Russia.

It is especially painful to see people struggling there now, and it’s not because of the Soviet Union’s big past. We were the same people, one nation long before that. Denying us the right to be called One People is simply ignoring the history of a bigger nation, a greater past. Russia was born in Kiev, it was the capital city of the Big Rus. It was the same people, it was one nation, and a great nation at that. Different religions were welcome. Various languages could be spoken. It was embracing minorities and different walks of life. One of the princesses then, Anna, once she was married with a Western prince, sent a letter back from a ‘civilized’ western land. She could write the letter, but her aristocratic husband, a prince, could only sign it with a big letter. He couldn’t even write. Rus was prosperous and educated. It was a big nation, with a big heart.

It is devastating to see people, nations, languages and faiths being turned against each other, all at once, in a nation with such a great, honorable past.

‘We have to take sides!’ – Everyone seems to be proclaiming without actually realising that the only side which can bring a peaceful solution is to recognise the great past. And despite the fact that the Soviet Union became associated with something bad, I remember how fun it was to grow up there. I was born there, and I was taught equality, great friendships, respect for each other, and acceptance of other lands, faiths, and walks of life. I grew up loving all races, languages, and belief systems.

When I see all these people turning against each other, becoming enemies after centuries of being friends, I can only cry. Half of my family is in Ukraine, while the other is in Russia. I remember how I envied my cousin who went to school in Ukraine and could speak Ukrainian. It could never cross my mind that one language is better than another, or that one nation has more reasons to exist than someone else. Yes, the Ukrainian language is beautiful, but so is Russian, and it was all the same, before a movement of Cossacks claimed a separatist way in the old Rus. Catherine The Great brought it all back together. It became again a Great Rus, with new cities, such as Odessa, being created to memorize the way of a great nation, a great, same land.

Yes, claiming that it’s all different is denying both Ukrainians and Russians the great past. It is ignoring how much efforts was put into making it a beautiful, unique land, where different languages were welcome, and where one had respect for each other. Ukraine and Russia were never really separate lands until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and all the disasters the fall would bring with it. Without its strong bulk of unity, other countries, other lands started to fight, because the collapse of the Soviet Union brought wild capitalism to all other lands. Capitalism is an ideology, a set of beliefs, imposed on us now as if it’s a must, where as children we already grow up thinking that some are better than others, that some can have a better education, a better healthcare system, and a better life. The Soviet Union, however, was based in equality and it was a great and prosperous land. Each summer I would go to my beloved Ukraine, which was the same country, and the same land, and it was, oh, so welcoming and friendly, and together with my cousins we would play, run around and laugh. Growing up as a child thinking that everyone is equal is a past I will never deny myself.

When I think of that days in the past, I experience ‘toska’. It’s a Russian word that is difficult to translate into English. Toska is a dwelling, a dwelling for the old good days, and I dwell a lot because the current tension between Ukraine and Russia, brings to me the memories of how it could be: children happily playing on the street, several languages spoken with freedom, people being kind to each other, despite the country of the origin or a language one speaks. I love Russia, but I also love Ukraine, and things were so different in still quite recent past.

Once, upon a time, there was a great nation with a great outlook at life. It envisioned that everyone should be equal, that everyone should receive education, have access to good medical care, and never be homeless, without any support, understanding and love.

with my Ukrainian cousin at the border between Russia and Ukraine

Petr Mamonov as holy fool? (Holy-Foolishness in Russian Culture: Part Four)

Both ‘Taxi-Blues’ and ‘The Island’ movies (refer to my post on holy-foolishness here, here, here, and here)  acquire an additional meaning when one learns about the life of the main actor who played Lyosha and Anatoly, as one can rightly argue that in both movies the actor played himself.

As the character of the movies, Petr Mamonov had and has an unusual life, marked by extravagancy, creativity, unusual and weird behaviour, and a deep spiritual search for meaning and for Christian faith.

He was born in Moscow in 1951, and was expelled twice from a secondary school because he was constantly organising ‘a circus’. He loved dancing, music, and was showing quite remarkable talent in the way he danced. He came across some Western music, including the Beatles, and it marked him profoundly, pushing him to explore different musical genres and performance. While being considered a hippy, he used to distance himself from the group and would often find himself in a conflict or even a fight. In one of such fights he was very badly wounded by a knife, and almost died, but was saved by the doctors and recovered after spending days in a coma.

His behaviour was exuberant and bizarre, he could sometimes walk around with a handle from the toilette seat, or pretend that he would run at full speed and collude with a wall, just to lie down and watch people assembling around him.

His professional path was also very unusual, where in a matter of ten years he changed numerous jobs, and attended a university but without finishing it. He worked as a typist, as a corrector in a journal ‘Pioner’, as a massage therapist, elevator operator, moving man, as well as a translator of poetry from English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish languages. He experienced moments of desperation and loneliness, when he would be without any job or any money. During sad periods of his life, he would write his own poetry, and would later use it for his songs.

In the 1983 Petr launched his music group, called ‘Zvuki Mu’, which immediately attracted controversy due to unusual, and often absurd lyrics, playfulness, and quite dramatic presence on the stage by Petr. He would dance, make weird gestures, exhibit eccentric, artistic behaviour. The fact that many of his songs seemed to reflect the absurdity of that times, the total chaos at the political and economic levels, only attracted more attention to the group. For instance, in his song and video clip ‘Coyz pechat’, Mamonov clearly makes fun of the political uncertainty then, but in a subtle, provocative way. He tells us about going to ‘Kiosk’, which could refer to both a small shop selling newspapers, but also to small shops which started to appear at that time, reflecting the ideological switch from socialism to capitalism, selling everything from Mars chocolate bars to cigarettes and spirits. He sings with a background of Saint Vasilii The Blessed Cathedral, as a sign of trying to find new meaning among instability and uncertainty of the years which preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union and immediately after. Interestingly enough, Mamonov, by positioning himself in the background of the most notorious Russian Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the most famous Russian Holy Fool, foresaw how he would be perceived later in his life, where he is often referred to in Russia as a ‘holy fool’ (Ruvinsky, 2011).

In 1988 Mamonov made his first appearance in movies by playing a drug lord in ‘The Needle’ (Igla), which became a cult Soviet film. In 1990 he played Lyosha, the saxophonist in Taxi-Blues, where some parallels can be drawn with Mamonov’s real life. It was a turbulent period for former Soviet Union and its people, and ordinary people struggled to find meaning in the chaos of that time. As Mamonov, his character is unpredictable, slightly ‘mad’, talented, artistic and eccentric.

Following the dismantling of his music band, Mamonov had a long period of depression, which he managed to overcome by turning to Christianity and by finding an absolute faith in Jesus. He moved with his wife to a remote village in Moscow region, where he would spend his days on farming and praying, making only very rare appearance at public. He had to be convinced several times to appear as Anatoly in ‘The Island’, where, as it is commonly agreed, he played himself.

Whether we can call Petr Mamonov a ‘Holy Fool’ is, of course, embedded in the current discourse on madness and at how we look at eccentricity. Many Russian Orthodox sites themselves refer to him as a true representative of Russian holy-foolishness. Mamonov was a devoted Christian, who had a highly unusual life. As holy-fools in the past, he also battled with madness, having spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, due to his problems with alcohol. He had periods of deprivation, and sadness, and where, ultimately he turned to Christian faith to find his own personal meaning in life.

Mamonov, when he made his rare public appearances, remained a controversial figure. When he talked about faith, he often used the same lyrical language he used in his songs. When he received the Russia’s award for best actor following his role as Anatoly, the Christian hermit in ‘The Island’, he came to the ceremony dressed in jeans, an odd cardigan, and sneakers, and proceeded to tell the public that it failed to address real problems in Russia:

“Do you expect Putin to solve these problems? Putin is a wimp, an intelligence officer, what can he do? We should do it ourselves.” (Ruvinsky, 2011).

Understanding Mamonov as a modern holy fool requires understanding of the Russian culture, and its long tradition of the unique phenomenon of holy-foolishness. Russia always looked at manifestations of weirdness and eccentricity as an obligatory trait of national character. Russian culture always had a penchant for the grotesque, for the unusual, embedded in the history which has never been linear, but characterised by changes of regimes, revolution, political and economic uncertainty. Russian people tried to find answers in searching for the meaning, where laughter and weirdness provided a respite from daily problems, gave hope and a new perspective. Ivan the Fool, positioned in Russian folklore, is one of such characters, giving us hope, but also making us laugh, but also Holy Fools, real personalities in Russian history, gave people the possibility of a different interpretation of reality, by using bizarre behaviour and talk in order to highlight the problems of the society and ruling class. The resurrection of Christian faith in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave a new justification and reverence for the phenomenon of the Holy Fool.

Mamonov was very popular in Russia today because he was a typical example of someone who overcame the difficulties of the change in regime and political ideology. As many other Russian people, he had difficult moments in his life, where he also experienced deprivation and periods of total hopelessness.  He resorted to Christian faith as many other Russian people, to find new meaning and hope, and uses his popularity and fame in order to tell others about God, while also using his influence to point to the short-coming of the government.

In this respect, we can argue that holy-foolishness is embedded In Russian character and culture, where it is a recognised Christian phenomenon, positioned outside the mental health discourse on madness. Mamonov could be considered as ‘mad’, but because he was Russian, where ‘madness’ is accepted as eccentricity, he managed to channel his eccentricity into a higher purpose, where his madness is used to cherish artistic talent, and educate others about faith.

As Mamonov told us himself:

“We all choose byways. In this respect, I am a very good example; I often choose the longest way round. Thanks to God, He led me to the right spring….” (Ruvinsky, 2011).

(post updated following the death of Petr Mamonov)

Modern Holy Fool (Holy-Foolishness in Russian Culture: Part Three)

The image of a Holy Fool (read about who is Holy Fool here and here) found its new popularity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons is, of course, the recognition of Russian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion, but also the collapse of the beliefs of the socialist regime, when the country as a whole found herself in a momentary chaos, becoming, one can argue, a prototype for holy foolishness as a search for meaning.
The holy fool found a renewed interest in Christian studies, but also in academia. However, it is in the popular forms of media, such as films and even music that the holy-fool found a new ‘fame’, he came back to be yet again a spiritual hero, but he also acquired a new angle, the one of controversy in terms of his ‘madness’. What does lie behind his madness? And can we call someone mad, individually speaking, when the whole society can be considered as mad, especially if we look at what was happening in Russia since the late eighties of the last century? The old regime collapsed, reversing the ideology of communism to the ideology of capitalism in a matter of a couple of years. Old government structures were sold as vouchers to the Russian population, to be immediately bought back by those running these companies for a penny, because the population was suddenly starving, making them oligarchs. Shops got empty, there was shortage of food and clothes, and a total disarray in terms of a spiritual direction of the nation. While Russian Orthodox churches were emerging from their oblivion, Tarot readers and palm readers would sit in their proximity and promise the passers-by some hope for a better life. Hypnotist Kashpirovsky got a prime spot on the TV to hypnotize an entire nation, feeding tales from the national TV in 1989.
It was absolute and total madness, and it found its way into popular art, where painters, artists, and film-makers, would resort to the character of a holy fool to make sense of something which didn’t make any sense.
Russia is often referred to by Russians themselves as a country of fools, and the changes that the country witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, could be delegated firmly in the domain of total madness, where the only way to show the light at the end of the tunnel, was to resort to laughter and the grotesque, as a way to manage the deep spiritual malaise. As Heller and Volkova ask, in relation to the fascination of Russian culture with holy-foolishness: “A question arises: is there something deep inside the Russian mentality that correlates with the state of insanity?” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153) Some changes that Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Russians at a loss, where they were asked to adjust to a new ideology, new beliefs and new rules, and the popular art showed us the difficulty of the transition, by resorting to holy-foolishness and the character of a holy-fool in order to negotiate the incomprehension and deep spiritual uncertainty that the country and her people experienced then.
During the years of Perestroika, the image of holy-fool became the one of a dissident, adopting the weird behaviour of holy-fool to show the plight of many individuals who struggled to adapt to the changes in Russia on an economic and political levels. We can see this theme clearly in Taxi-Blues by Pavel Lungin, a film which was released in 1990, and which portrays us the reality of Russia at that time.
The film focusses on the life of two protagonists, a taxi-driver, Shlykov, and Lyosha (played by Pyotr Mamonov), a saxophonist. They meet on a ride in a taxi, when Shlykov takes Lyosha and his friends as passengers, but Lyosha doesn’t pay for the ride, after which Shlykov manages to track him down. Both characters then develop a truly bizarre friendship, which becomes a main story on the background of the madness of the country then.
The madness of that time starts from the beginning of the movie. The hypnotist Kashpirovsky greets us on the screen, by delivering his slogan promise: ‘Everything will be calm’. It immediately shows us the absurdity of that times, when ordinary people couldn’t find work, when hard-core communists quickly established their new capitalistic businesses, and when, in the ultimate feat of total absurdity, Mikhail Gorbatchev abolished alcohol, driving many Russians to either create a black market, or resort to the home production of alcohol. Kashpirovsky was put on the national TV in order to try to calm the nation down.
The lives of the two main characters show us how ordinary people managed life at that time. Thus, Shlykov, as it appears, adapted better to the new changes, by working hard as a taxi-driver. He has a room in an apartment, a girlfriend, can afford nice food, and from exterior it looks like a good life. Only by watching the narrative do we discover that he is not really happy in himself, that he doesn’t have many friends, that he struggles to find the spiritual meaning in life. And the aim of the film is also to show that all those who just continued hard-work couldn’t dream of acquiring the same richness that nouveu riches managed to accumulate. Hard-work and integrity were all the values that became suddenly obsolete, not cool and not needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lyosha, the saxophonist by profession, refused to adjust. He just goes with the flow. Despite the fact that saxophonists are nor longer needed and struggle to find any employment, Lyosha refuses to change anything, and gets by, by either singing on the streets, or by pure luck, such as meeting Shlykov in a difficult moment in his life and being helped by him. And while Shlykov helps Lyosha on a material level, Lyosha gives Shlykov a new spiritual meaning, found in laughter, unpredictability, and love of grotesque. Lyosha reminds Shlykov to sometimes let go, do something unexpected, believe in the fate.
The character of Lyosha, played by Pyotr Mamonov is often compared to that of a holy fool, but transformed into a modern version of it. We can disagree, however, with that meaning, because while during the whole narrative, Lyosha does exhibit all the characteristics of a holy fool, he fails in the end of the movie to fulfil the ultimate obligation of giving. Lyosha meets a famous American saxophonist at some point, and gets an opportunity to perform in the United States, which re-launches his musical career. Shlykov watches the newly found fame of his friend from a distance, and is desperate to see Lyosha again. He misses the playfulness and cheerfulness of his friend, and he doesn’t understand why Lyosha fails to come and see him when he is back in Moscow. Eventually when Lyosha comes to see him, he brings with him a band of new friends and absurd presents, such as a big doll. We can see that he breaks the heart of Shlykov and lets his old friend down.
But while one can argue whether Lyosha can be compared to the character of a holy-fool, it is the narrative itself that is representative of holy-foolishness positioned at the fall of the Soviet Union. The film shows us how the modern world changed to the worst, where the goodness of character, kindness and empathy are replaced by greediness, strive for material goods, and desire to become famous. It is the story itself that leads us to ask the eternal spiritual questions: but what is the meaning of life if one is lost completely in the material side of it? Should we remain humble even if we get further in life, and still remember those who helped us at the most difficult part of our journey? Shouldn’t we cherish friendship and simple things in life, such as sharing warm soup with friends, laugh even when life is difficult, appreciate people rather than goods?
It is in his next movie, The Island that Lungin returns to the question of deep spiritual meaning. The Island appeared in 2006, quite a few years later after Taxi-Blues. In it we see a story of a modern fictional Russian orthodox monk, played yet again by Pyotr Mamonov.
It starts during the second world war, when sailor Anatoly and his captain, Tikhon are ambushed by the Germans, somewhere at the shore of the white sea. As a grotesque joke, the Germans present Anatoly with a choice: either to shoot Tikhon and live, or die. Anatoly shoots Tikhon after which the Germans blow up the ship.
Anatoly survives and is rescued by the monks from a local monastery, where he stays. It is many years later that the new life of Anatoly is presented to us. He works as a stoker at the monastery and acts as a local ‘wise’ man. It is to him that ordinary people come for advice, prayer and also in order to heal.
The parallels with the holy-fool are much more striking in The Island. Anatoly is a deeply spiritual man, who constantly prays to God. He has a gift of a prophet and of a healer. He sees the future and can predict it. He gives wise advice. At the same time, his behaviour is extremely weird. He rarely washes his face, makes fun of the monks, is always late for the Church services, where he shows up in a truly bizarre attire, one day marching with one foot in a boot, another dressed in a sock.
But while watching the character, we can’t help but fall in love with him and his way of thinking and doing. His faith in God is so beautiful and sincere, that the viewer hopes that he will be forgiven for his ultimate sin. And we are relieved indeed when right before his death (that Anatoly foresees himself several days in advance, by organising his own coffin), we learn that Tikhon had survived. He brings his daughter to see the remote monk due to rumours of his healing gift, and meets Anatoly. Anatoly reassures Tikhon that his daughter is not mad but is possessed by a demon, preforms exorcise, after which she is healed. After that Anatoly tells Tikhon who he is, but Tikhon tells him that he was only wounded in the arm, and that he had forgiven him.
The movie, while basing the character of Anatoly on holy-fool, presents us a different façade of holy-foolishness than the one we have seen in ‘Taxi-Blues’. It reaches a deeper spiritual meaning where we are confronted with the true meaning of holy-foolishness: one has to have faith in God and Jesus, and then and only then, one can become a holy-fool, while renouncing also worldly conventions and material aspects of things. It also shows us Russia as it changed in the years after the turmoil of the uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It became quieter in its own spiritual search, firmly embracing Christianity, and by going back to its roots preceding the revolution. The country might still experience turmoil at a political level, but spiritually, it found a new meaning.

Holy Fool in Russian literature and art (Holy-Foolishness in Russian culture: part two)

The Holy Fool, to remind you (please, refer to part one), was a person who became mad for the sake of Christ. It was a well-known, recognized phenomenon in the old Russia. It was a man or a woman who would often wander the streets of old Rus and remind people to live their lives based in Christian values. They would often appear as ‘mad’, as ‘insane’, but several of these Holy Fools were recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as saints, with one of the most famous Holy Fool being Saint Vasilii the Blessed. It was after him that the most famous Russian Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil) was named.

From the beginning the character of the Holy Fool has fascinated Russian writers and we can find this personage in several writing and also paintings. Behind it, is the interest in the unexplainable, in the grotesque, in the spiritual domain, but where things always remain mysterious. It is the fascination with unpredictability, as long as good outweighs the evil, Russian people have been driven to explore the human soul, and the human misery, throughout the history, which can be seen in literature and art.

For example, Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), based his character in ‘Deathless Golovan’ on holy-fool, where the main protagonist is a simple man who takes care of those affected by a plague, despite danger for his own health. He also gives milk to a Jewish man, stupefying his neighbours. In his other writing, ‘Singlethought’ (1879), the main character, a police officer based in a provincial town, becomes slightly ‘mad’ after reading scriptures of the Bible. The reading has such a profound impact on him, that he starts to behave strangely, such as refusing bribes and gifts at his job, as was the custom then. The story highlighted the corruption of the power at that time, but also raised the more important spiritual questions. Who is really a fool here? A simple man who refuses to be corrupted, or the society as such, driven by corruption? And shouldn’t we rather abide by Christian, moral values in our daily life? As in holy-foolishness, the story also contains many grotesque, ‘hilarious’ moments, such as then Ryzhov, the main character, forces the mean Governor of the town to bow in front of the icons in the Church.

Other Russian writers explored the theme of ‘holy-foolishness’ either basing their character directly on holy-fool, or by building a story around the theme of holy-foolishness, where madness always takes on an additional meaning. It is never an ‘illness’, but something deeper, a battle of one’s soul, where the hero, while being ‘mad’, is more connected with God and spiritual aspects of life, than the laypeople, preoccupied with the material sides of things. Gorki explored the theme in ‘A Confession’, Chekov built his short story ‘Ward No. 6’ around holy-foolishness, where both protagonists, a long-time staying psychiatric inmate and his treating psychiatrist share remarkable traits with holy-fools, but also Bulgakov, it can be argued, based his ‘Master and Margarita’ on the motifs of holy-foolishness. The main character, the master, who ends up disillusioned by this world, is a modern ‘holy fool’, but unlike in the Moscovite Rus, he has problems to adjust and adapt to the requirements of the modern world, which in the Soviet Union, was characterised by omnipresent bureaucracy, corruption, ridiculous rules, and greediness, despite the fact that one of the slogans of the socialist regime was an equal society. The story of the Master runs in parallel with the story of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), and some obvious conclusions can be drawn from the novel. There is a deep spiritual need nascent in all humanity, but it is often compromised by scepticism and inability to think outside the box, because of being under too much influence of materialistic world. Many ridiculous, hilarious scenes in the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov draw a direct parallel with the weirdness and ‘laughter’ of holy-fools.

The image of Holy Fool can be also encountered in numerous paintings, where painters depicted the fascination and also certain reverence towards the character. He can be seen on numerous paintings of Nesterov, and also Syrikov, showing his firm place among laypeople, and not just being a character of Christian writings.

For a Russian culture, the holy fool has a deep meaning. It shows the possibilities of a spiritual domain, reinforces one’s faith, and reassures one that good will always outweigh the evil. Thus, the character of Holy Fool is deeply embedded in Russian culture and tradition.

A God’s Fool Sitting on the Snow, by Vasily Surikov, 1885)

A Peek Inside the Modern Asylum

The psychiatric hospital of today might appear as a foreign, scary object to the mind who has never visited the institution. It represents the unknown, the territory that one is terrified of, but at the same time attracted to with natural human curiosity. Let’s be frank here: we want to know what is inside and who is “hiding” there.

In the eighteenth century, in Europe, many mental institutions called “asylums” were open to the public. In exchange for some entrance money, interested visitors could have a peek: they could stroll in the corridors and observe the patients inside. It was a popular destination by all accounts. People found “madness”—or rather, what is assigned to the term—interesting and irresistible.

Michel Foucault wrote about it extensively, presenting a picture of a typical Sunday morning in Paris for a middle-age couple. They wake up, have breakfast, and then go for a visit to a local asylum for entertainment. Doors were open to the eager public, and the asylums never lacked in visitors. It is indeed interesting, and probably more attractive than going to a theatre or the modern cinema. People aren’t acting there, and they are real.

William Hogarth’s 1735 engraving depicts visitors gawking at patients at Bethlehem Hospital, also known as ‘Bedlam’ @The Trustees of the British Museum

Today, that same curiosity about manifestations of “madness” is satisfied via books or, more often, via movies. It isn’t by accident that such movies as Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind were such a big success: “madness” has always been fascinating, and will always attract and terrify the human mind at the same time.

But let’s look at the psychiatric institution of today. It isn’t by accident that doors to it are closed to the curious mind, and only those who are unlucky end up being inside, on the wrong side of the equation—being a patient. The psychiatrists are the ones who walk really free there, looking, observing, analyzing, and then administering the cocktail of modern drugs. We read some stories, we get some news, but it is all presented to us as “mental illness,” part of the bigger discourse on “mental health.”

These stories hide the truth of the modern psychiatric narrative: that real, nice people end up there, and the psychiatric experience is likely to ruin one’s life for good. The drugs they prescribe don’t help with anything, and the stigma which gets attached after one receives a label or diagnosis is forever a scarlet letter on one’s life CV.

I have been unfortunate enough to deal with the psychiatry from “inside” and thus, am an unfortunate witness to the horrors behind the machine. I am also an academic and thus, am interested in the narrative—how my own personal story becomes part of a bigger picture. My story is unique, as are many others, but we all become just statistics in the psychiatric tale. We are all “patients” and we are all “insane.”

The mental health narrative of today is the continuation of the history of the psychiatry, beginning with the age they call “enlightenment,” when the doors were closed to the curious, and only the patients and treating “doctors” were allowed inside. I am not sure it was done out of good will, because it banned the witnesses of the injustices happening there. It is really taking the truth out of the terrifying tale hidden in the modern mental health narrative. People are often held against their will inside these institutions, though their only “crime” is that they dared to have weird thoughts or hear voices.

The modern mental health narrative is the recycling of the psychiatric song to present it to us as something innocent, mundane and even good. Yes, we should think about the sanity of our minds, take care of our bodies, sleep, eat well, and exercise our bodies and minds. However, this tale that appears innocent hides the fact that it simply scares people into a pattern of normality. A pattern where everyone should be the same, behave the same way, and do the same things as everyone else: think about which car to purchase, where to spend the next holiday, and whether to swipe left or right on Tinder. Once you start questioning the so-called normality of student loans, paying mortgages, marriage, kids, gym membership and the like, you will exhibit “abnormal” behavior, I can guarantee you that. You will start questioning things and stop and wonder: Why are there so many homeless people on the streets? Why is Africa so poor? How can I think of the next holiday when there is so much poverty in my otherwise rich land?

Your weird thoughts will scare you, and you might become what they call “depressed.” Depression is definitely not an illness, but it is a fact. It is nothing else but a natural reaction of a mind that wants more from life than the boring tale of “normality.” If you dig deeper, you might even get onto the scale of what they call “bipolar,” and if you embrace your weird thoughts with zeal, and voices finally reach you (the real spirit world hiding behind our “normality” narrative disguised as “the age of reason and enlightenment”), then you might get the label of “schizophrenic.”

All these labels are just words invented by the twisted tale of psychiatry to deceive our minds and prevent us from thinking and behaving differently. There is no mental illness, and there never was. People simply get unwell, and bad things happen in life.

But the psychiatric institution of modern times, with its closed doors, lingers on top of our minds as the forbidden bad fruit that no one should touch, terrifying us and scaring us, because let’s be frank and honest here: no one wants to end up there. And not because one is afraid to become “ill” (we are all prone to “madness,” let me assure you), but because of the narrative of mental health.

Trump demonstrated the scariness of the narrative to perfection when he condemned all “mentally-ill” people. He showed how strong the stigma is and that the slogan “mental illness is like physical illness” is just words into the air. Trump demonstrated the real attitude toward people with “mental illness.” He simply doesn’t know who they are, and what is really taking place—behavior and thought control by the psychiatric institution.

And only a few of us know and see the truth.

The psychiatric institution is mostly an abstract body hanging over our head, sort of a bad headmaster telling us what to do and how to act—a behavioral control manager. It terrifies us with its promise of inflicting a label on the innocent mind, but at the same time, lures us for a peek inside.

Today we don’t have the possibility for a peek inside, but we remain, nevertheless, very curious. We do wonder what is taking place inside, who is held inside, and what it looks like. Mental health patients are your biggest celebrity story, hidden behind the bars of the psychiatric system, which doesn’t want to reveal its badly written script.

I was once inside and thus, am inviting you to have a look. I will take your hand, and encourage you to join me, on an exploration of the inside of the psychiatric institution.

Let’s open the door.

Once we manage it (and it isn’t easy as the doors are really locked), we proceed along a corridor. Psychiatric hospitals operate according to the principle of the panopticon, as Michel Foucault describes in his brilliant book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. He tells us about the emergence of the modern prison system, operating according to the principle of surveillance. “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication,” Foucault tells us, referring to the fact that in our current behavior surveillance system, we act like everyone else due to fear of being observed and punished if we do something wrong. The panopticon has a structure: you have a central vintage point through which you can see everything, scaring the subjects into compliance. The subject is always observed.

Modern psychiatry operates according to the same principle, and so do its facilities, such as mental health institutions. In each long corridor of its facilities you have a central point, where psychiatric nurses hold their watch. It is indeed a watch, and if you think that they provide care and show love, then you are wrong. Most of the time they write notes and if we glance inside the notes we will see the following: “Today M dressed more appropriately and was nice to the staff,” or “This morning G stopped his uncontrollable laughing and showed some insight into his behavior.”

Trust me, school is a piece of cake to pass in comparison to what is happening in the notes and observation techniques of the staff in psychiatric hospital, and none of them ever shows any insight or comprehension into their own idiocratic stance. They simply don’t know what they are doing and why, because of the system of the psychiatric establishment. Those who show any weird thought pattern or exhibit strange behavior should be put inside the mental health institution and be re-trained as to how to behave normally.

The nurses sit at their central point, visibly bored and annoyed. They don’t like the patients who come with constant demands, which are always the same and don’t change. “Can I go out, please?” “Can I have a bath?” “Can someone, please, take me on a walk?” “Can I call my friend R?” “When can I see the doctor?” “When will I be discharged?” These are the irritating demands of the patients, taking the attention of nurses away from their notes—and notes take most of their time and attention, because of someone out of their mind who invented psychiatry: it isn’t the patient that matters, but what is written about him/her in the notes. The notes are shown to the treating psychiatrist and stored on shelves, although no one will ever glance a second time into the books and volumes describing us, describing the behavior of those unfortunate enough to step outside the scales of normality.

But let’s move away from the central post and look at the room next to it. It is a room with a phone, where patients queue (when they are allowed) to make a call, and where the treating psychiatric consultant deals with the patients, if other rooms are occupied. It is a small, stinky room, with a closed window, where both the consultant and his patients feel suffocated and mal-at-ease. The doctor doesn’t want to be there, it is the patient who asks to see him again and again, with the same annoying demand as always: “When can I go home?” she asks.

You might think it is funny, but it isn’t funny at all for the patient on the wrong side of the equation. The power machine is firmly in the hands of the consultant psychiatrist and only he can decide on your fate. And it is indeed a fate: one day longer and the patient can be driven to such a despair that he will try to take his life. And if this happens, the cycle becomes much longer, because in that case, the patient is proclaimed as a risk to himself, and is kept behind the doors for much longer. Then it is just survival instinct that might save the patient and give her the strength to endure it all longer.

Let’s walk away from the room and have some fresh air—in the garden that is usually present (thank god) in the facilities. The garden is used for the patients to have a cigarette and to pray. It is here that most interesting conversations take place, away from the observational post of the nurses. It is here that they dare to quickly exchange their own thoughts, such as sharing the voices they hear and the visions they see. It is here that they also get advice from someone who is more advanced in their knowledge of the panopticon, such as, “Don’t say all this to the doctor.” One needs to comply, behave as normal as possible, and not reveal one’s mind to the psychiatrist. Following the rules also means being extra-nice to the nurses who are not nice back to you, wearing presentable clothes, and acting like you are at an office meeting, definitely not as if in the hospital, oh no. I feel much more relaxed in my working place than I ever was inside a psychiatric hospital.

The psychiatric hospital of today, to conclude my narrative, is a panopticon, a modern prison for the daring mind and for weird behavior. We had a small peek, but in reality, it is much more distressing for the one who is being observed. In some hospitals they have cameras in the rooms to supervise the “patient,” and in some establishments, there are people who stay there for years, injected with drugs against their will, losing all hope and desire for living.

It isn’t funny, it isn’t entertaining, and it is bad.

But all who are lucky enough not to end up there march past this monstrosity, oblivious to the torture of the mind happening behind those walls.

(This article was first published by me on Mad in America website and can be found here.)

***

(Picture of me, taking a picture: I like to observe)

The devil and the cross

It was while being on holidays in the Canaries that I saw the power of the cross on the devil. The cross happened by accident, while the devil wasn’t just an occurrence, but a well-calculated presence in a good (five star hotel) in Playa Blanca, in Lanzarote.

We got a last minute deal with my former partner and our child. We didn’t have that much money, but saw an offer while looking at holidays deals, and there it was, a nice hotel with several swimming pools, with an all-inclusive option, in our favorite town in the Canaries, the beautiful Playa Blanca, right next to the ocean, where the wind is always breezing, and where the sun embraces everyone with its warmth in the morning. It is indeed a unique place – quiet and cozy, and where British tourists still travel in their minority, leaving enough space for local Spanish tapas and gentle artisanal music. There are no loud bars, and no casinos, and while there is one McDonalds, it is hidden away in an alley, not placed at a central place, as happened in other nice towns, countries, and spaces.

I was sitting at the café by the swimming pool of the hotel, having a break for myself, while my partner was looking after our son at the swimming pool. I had a notebook where I was frantically writing my thoughts. I was working on a book idea, where the subject line was based on the concept of psychic vampires, ruling a beautiful country, called the Republic of Light, and proclaiming everyone as ‘mad’ who dared to exhibit strange thoughts or ideas. Needless to say, the idea for a book was based on what I was also observing in my daily reality, and the dystopian motive was embedded in how I perceived our daily world.

I saw HIM from a distance, he was walking towards my table, and I failed to notice in the beginning that I was dealing with the devil. I was just flabbergasted that a strange man, with extremely weird energetic field around him, chose to sit at my table, staring at me all the way, while there were lots of empty tables around, and it was indeed very surprising as to why the man installed himself on the chair in front of me, and would just look at me piercingly, without saying a single thing for at least good twenty minutes. I glanced at him, and gave a brief smile out of habit (to be polite), while feeling goosebumps on my skin. It was a total feeling of fear that I sensed, but I still failed to understand the significance of the appearance of the man. My sanity was just telling me that I was simply dealing with a slightly deranged person. He was sitting at the table, looking at me, almost without blinking, and I couldn’t help but sense that he was trying to read my thoughts. My thoughts, however, were around psychic vampires and a heroine for my book, called Olivia Jenson, who could lucid-dream, noticing that people around her, the so-called ruling class, were sucking energy out of good people, and organized mass surveillance in order that everyone complies with a certain behavior. The concept of psychic vampires I borrowed from a good book by Ellen Dugan, called ‘Practical Protection Magick’, and while I tried to keep the idea of my own book in the domain of fiction, I couldn’t help but start having a definite sensation that in front of me, was indeed a psychic vampire, feeding on my energy and trying to read my thoughts, which (at that moment) were strolling around psychic energy and how my heroine would eventually liberate the Republic of Light and the world.

The man, if I describe him in more details, had that distinctive appearance when you can’t point exactly as to whether it is a man or a woman. I assumed it was a man, but it could also be a woman. He was blond, of stocky appearance, quite tall, and it was a voice, with high pitch, that made me jump but also start doubting that I was dealing with a man. But the gender of the person in front of me wasn’t my biggest preoccupation at that moment, it was the feeling of imminent danger and the realization that perhaps I was indeed dealing with something totally strange.

“How are you?” The man asked me, and the goosebumps returned on my skin and I started to feel that I would faint any moment, and the feeling of danger took massive proportions as I saw that my partner and my son were approaching the table, and I couldn’t have this man anywhere near my son, but at the same time there was nothing I could really do. He was firmly sitting on the chair and looked like someone who would never move, and I realized that I was under some sort of hypnosis and was almost fighting for my life. I sensed that I wouldn’t be able to chase him away or take my partner and my son somewhere else, as our society of normality is based on the assumption that everyone acts in a certain way, and I would be accused of being totally impolite and rude if I just said to my partner and my son not to approach the blond man. A huge scandal was in the air, but it was more than that, it was like an atom was above our heads, ready to explode any second.

Was it indeed a survival instinct that suddenly kicked in, judging from what I did next? Some higher force? I am not sure but I said to my partner and my son to wait for me, and run towards our room in the building to change into a tee-shirt. My decision had no logical grounding, as I was already dressed for the day, in a nice pink dress, acquired in Oxfam charity shop two years previously.

But here I was, suddenly feeling a need to change my attire. I quickly put on a tee-shirt of also nice pink color and matching shorts, and quickly run back towards the café, noticing from a distance that the man was still sitting there, and watching my son. It was a strange view, and I could sense that my partner was as puzzled as me, thinking: ‘but who is this man, and what does he want precisely?’

I also failed to realize the significance of my attire and it was only the frantic movement of the man who suddenly jumped when he saw me approaching that made me glance at my own tee-shirt. The man was standing now, laughing with a definite note of fright, looking at my tee-shirt in fear. He then turned around and left, leaving me and my partner totally stupefied by the whole experience.

I had a large printed cross on my tee-shirt when I checked it properly and I knew at once that I had dealt yet again with the devil, and he is the most powerful psychic vampire on earth, able to take many forms and appearances.

 

Bibliography:

Dugan, E. (1963). Practical Protection Magick: Guarding and reclaiming your power. Llewellyn Publications. Woodbury, Minnesota.

ORBC Family organization. (2019). ‘What Does the Cross Represent in the Christian Faith?’, online at https://www.orbcfamily.org/faith/what-does-cross-represent-christian-faith/

Cross at sunset, crucifixion of Jesus Christ

The devil’s ball

It was while living in Sheffield that I ended up attending the devil’s ball. I woke up in one of my lucid-dreaming and found myself waiting on the road, somewhere near a Dutch forest. If you are not familiar with lucid-dreaming, let me explain. It is a state when you wake up in your dream and realize that you are no longer dreaming but are experiencing an absolute, magical, parallel reality. Your physical body usually remains in its place, in your bed, but I heard of some shamans who can move their bodies in their sleep from one place to another with a simple power of their mind. They fall asleep in one place and wake up in another.

So, I woke up in my dream, and found myself standing on a recluse road, somewhere in the Netherlands. I just knew that I was in the Netherlands, out of deep knowledge of my mind. I also once woke up in my  other dream, travelling on the train, and knew at once that I was somewhere in Switzerland, although the purpose of my travel wasn’t entirely clear, and remains vague to me till today. Why Switzerland I wondered? But on the other hand, I was also experiencing a sense of absolute wonder while looking outside the train’s window. Yes, I could travel in my dream, and yes, I was doing it in reality, not just in my dream. I also sensed that my body wasn’t in my bed, in my cozy house in Sheffield, but indeed on the train, somewhere near Zurich.

While knowing that I was near a Dutch forest (however, I am not sure whether it was in the south or the north of the country), I was also aware at once that I was due to attend a ball of the devil, and visit his residence. I waited for a couple of moments, and a strange dog appeared, who would transport me to the house where the devil lives, deep in the forest, besides many trees, a place that I am not sure how it looks in reality. I didn’t see the house itself and thus, can’t describe it in details.

The flight on the dog, and it was similar to a flight, was exhilarating and magical. I couldn’t help but to think that, ‘wow’, I was really doing it and wow, it was really happening. I also knew that, despite the evidence so to speak, I wasn’t a witch, but strange things keep on happening in my life, and the appearance of the devil in many forms and appearances is taking place in my regular life (and not just in my dreams), with terrifying occurrence. What does he want from me, and why does he chase me – is a question I ask myself on a daily basis.

The dog was of an unknown breed and if I would describe it in more details, the breed was similar to a mixture between pit bull and bulldog, but there was more to it than just a breed. It was obvious that the dog was magical, and that I was experiencing a total emergence into the parallel world.

We arrived at our destination and entered the house, which had different levels. The moment between arriving and entering the devil’s domain was too brief for me to notice more. I can’t say, for instance how the house looks from exterior, but I noticed a few things from inside. It is based in a place where people don’t walk, away from the humans, and one can enter it by invitation only, but I might be wrong about all this, as my impression was that I happened to be there by accident.  Who had sent the dog for me was unclear. The devil himself? I am not so sure, as while being inside his house, I had a definite feeling that there was some sort of mistake and I wasn’t really expected there.

On the first floor there was a big bar, with guests exchanging the pleasantries and having some drinks, while in the basement, guarded by bodyguards, was HIM. I was pushed by some invisible force to approach the guards to go the basement, but at the last moment turned away. Was it a higher force preventing me from making the fatal step towards the basement, or was it my own inner strength which banned me from going down, and it was indeed deep, deep down, and I knew instinctively that where was a place from which I would never return.

Instead I approached the bar and ordered a drink (a glass of champagne) but it all became a blur and I don’t remember how I exited the devil’s domain and found myself back in my bed, waking up and knowing with absolute certainty, that yes, it had happened, and no, I wasn’t mad or insane.

master and margarita

(Illustration to ‘Master and Margarita’ of Bulgakov, found on ‘Russia Beyond’ website. The great writer depicted the character of the devil in an unusual and interesting way, while also describing a ball where Margarita acted as a hostess)

The devil, the monster from hell

I finished my last post promising to tell you about how I met the devil as depicted in the scariest Christian stories. However, since then I remembered that I had encountered the character way before in the 90s in Russia, much earlier than that time he appeared to me and my friend, and before I once saw him in one of my lucid-dreaming experiences (and where he showed how he really looks, and he can take many forms and appearances).

It is easier to write about it than talk, because people simply stopped believing in all that stuff, and it’s every day that I wonder how the Christianity survived till today, as everything in it can be judged as ‘delusions’ and according to the psychiatry, all Christians should be proclaimed as insane. I once read a psychiatric article where it was hinted quite clearly that Jesus had suffered from psychosis and exhibited all signs of being a bipolar. Needless to say it wasn’t a nice read, as for yet another time I started to doubt my own mind and my own sanity, because I believe in Jesus, and have seen the manifestations of parallel world many times. Denying this truth to me (and other people) is denying the whole reason of any existence based in spirituality, and once I tried to live a life denied of it, I stopped to see the aim of any life, or at least a life, based in some meaning. How can we wake up and not believe in Jesus, is a question I decided I don’t want to explore any longer. I have to add here that my own ‘search’ for Jesus took a long time, and not because I failed to realize until recently that Jesus is always around, but because I have been obscured by the presence of the devil almost my entire life. Yes, he is constantly around, and yes, I’ve met him and know for sure that he is as real as a glass of nice red wine I am drinking right now, while writing this post.

The problem with the devil is that he made his appearance in my life way before I received baptism in the Russian Christian Church (on my own accord, at the age of twelve), and hasn’t left me since, in terms of his presence. He appeared many times in my life, and I do wonder as to why he is so much interested in my persona. Do I have an interesting soul? Is it because I am indeed a holy fool (a concept to which I will come back again and again) or is it because I can contribute to humanity and he tries to ban me from doing good works? But I will try to quiet my ego for now and go back (in my mind) to that first time I met the devil in my life.

I was three years old then and was sleeping in my cot, on the sixteenth floor in our Moscow’s apartment. We lived on the top floor, and as was established later, the apartment was chased by the spirits or something similar, and my step-mother would discover some sort of insects all the time under the flower pots years later.

I woke up from a dream because I literally sensed a presence and then I glanced at the window, I saw HIM. He looked like a total monster from hell, with horns, and terrifying eyes, and I knew at once that it was the devil, and that he was interested in me.

Interestingly, I didn’t panic or anything like that at that point because, even at the age of three, I knew that there was no point in panicking. If I started to cry, the parents would arrive and tell me that he wasn’t real and that I had simply had a bad dream, and therefore, I did the opposite of child logic. I stared at him without crying and told myself aloud: yes, he is real, and what you see is not your imagination.

I also forgot that vision till later in life, but I had to resuscitate the memory once I had met him on that bench in Moscow, overlooking the church. You might ask me, but how do you know for sure? And the only answer I have, is that yes, I know, and the truth runs sometimes deeper than anything else. It is the whole core of your being which tells you that what you see and hear, while not visible to everyone else, is happening in reality. I also learned from experience that people simply don’t want to believe in uncomfortable truth, because once they do, the only remaining path is to embrace Christianity and pray for the return of Christ. And the path of a true Christian is indeed much harder than anything else.

I met the devil several times later in my life and will tell you more about the encounters. You don’t have to listen to me, of course, and you don’t have to believe in me, but I am sharing you my story from a vintage point of view of hexagram number 41 of the Chinese I Ching, line nine in the second place. The text of the oracle says: “…without decreasing oneself, one is able to increase to others”, which means that I share the story from the position of personal truth. You might believe and hear and see, but it’s obscured by what others reply to you in return. Jesus is real, and so is the devil, and the fight between good and the evil is taking place now on earth as never before.

In the next post I will tell you about how I attended the devil’s ball.  It was during one of my lucid-dreaming, just for those who might start saying, but is she insane? All these whispers (implying insanity) are just whispers of the devil preventing so many of us from saying the truth, according to my gypsies cards (demons, card 47, in straight position). But I studied all the enemy tools (including all Tarot cards and oracles) for years, and therefore, yes, I have the tools and the courage to say the truth as I see it, and not as others tell me it should be.

Hear, hear.

 

Bibliography:

Wilhelm, R. (1967). I Ching: a book of changes. Penguin.

Touchkoff, S. (1992). Russian Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards. Harper San Francisco.

0TheFool

(the fool in Tarot cards is, of course, showing us the path of a Holy Fool, it is all real, and it is all based in reality. Tarot cards taught me many lessons, and I am grateful for that)

Foolishness for Christ. Encounter with the devil

There is a reason as to why I go back to the 1990s in Russia so often on my blog, because it was exactly at that time that devil made his appearance in my country. The Christianity was proclaimed as official religion, and he, quite, obviously, couldn’t miss the opportunity to battle for a few remaining souls.

I could watch what was happening in my country from a vintage point of a teenager, which helped me somehow, because it is much more difficult to survive the battle between good and evil when you are an adult. The mundane daily responsibilities don’t allow space for any deep philosophical inclinations, and then, of course, it is hard to believe in anything, yet, allow oneself any ‘magical’ thinking, because one is always at risk to end up on the radar of the psychiatrists. The psychiatrists rule the world based in normality, and no one dares anymore to proclaim loud and clear: yes, there is the devil, and yes, there is God, and Jesus was real.

Back in the 1990s in Russia I met the character, the devil, on numerous occasions. He was lurking around, and once when I was with one of my best friends, he announced himself around us, right when we were admiring the visitors to a local church. My friend Anya and I were skipping a class in algebra, and were sitting on the bench on the hill, above a Russian Orthodox Church where some people started to go because Christianity had seen its return, and people didn’t have to hide anymore their faith in secret.

It was an interesting development for both me and Anya as we had grown up in a country without any religion. The Soviet Union’s doctrine was based on absence of any belief system, besides the building of a communal goal, with  stuff like ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ considered to be absolute madness, and where those who had dared to proclaim otherwise, were deemed to be mad, and had to undergo a psychiatric treatment. Interestingly enough while I live now in a so-called free society, the mantra that you can believe in anything you want as long as you remain silent, is truer than anywhere else. You are proclaimed as insane immediately if you start talking about God and the devil, and especially if you hint at the fact that you see their manifestations in a daily reality.

So, Anya and I were watching the church with deep curiosity, it was indeed totally beyond any logical thinking. How come, we both wondered, that a country of absolute atheists suddenly turned into zealous church devotees?

“Look, even young people go now there,” I made a remark to Anya, and she nodded to me an agreement, noticing as me, a couple of what looked like students entering the door of the church.

“And I still remember how the doors to the same church were totally closed in the seventies,” we both jumped from fright as we hadn’t noticed the man, sitting now next to us on the bench, approaching us, let alone, materializing himself, suddenly on the bench. But here he was, wearing an interesting red hat, and staring longingly into the distance at the church, furtively giving me a wink in the process, locking his eyes with mine for a brief moment.

A though immediately entered my mind that he was the devil, and I allowed it to remain there, because I was still a teenager, and radical thoughts and visions are more tolerated when you are still at a precarious age. I haven’t yet reached the years when you learn that weird thoughts are not allowed, and that the psychiatry as an institution has the reins and power to silence all ‘different’ individuals once and for good. All those that have seen the devil, met him and know that he is real, are sitting behind the psychiatric bars. Since I am not there, I decided that I have the liberty to say whatever I want, and therefore, I am taking this opportunity to reassure you that everything ever written in the Bible is totally real, not that I had read all of it, due to the difficulty of the scripture. But I live the stories written in it in real life, and manifestations of it and the truth, reach me on a daily basis, usually in my dreams.

And so I allowed the thought to remain there and it was scary but at the same fascinating. Oh wow, I thought, it isn’t all fables and just stories then, is it? Here he is, the devil, and once I permitted the thought to stay there, it took that definite proportions when you realize that perhaps, magic is all real, and I was blessed (or cursed) to see and witness the manifestations of it in my daily reality. It was also interesting to observe that Anya jumped from fear and started to run away, while I remained sitting on the bench for another good couple of minutes, to (and I realize it only now) come to terms to my ‘raison d’etre’ from now on. Yes, I would be chased by the presence of the devil my entire life, and it’s only with experience that I learned that the only way to fight him is via Christianity and belief in Jesus.

Amazingly enough we didn’t talk with Anya about that particular manifestation of the character. I think that like me, she realized the significance of the presence of the man in the red hat, but it was too scary to admit the reality as it is: yes, the devil is real, and he is chasing the earth for a few remaining souls.

It was also the same year that I went to receive baptism and became a Russian Orthodox, embracing a difficult and run with obstacles life. Because the life of a true Christian, the life of a Holy Fool, is one of a martyr, and I ended up fighting with the devil my entire life.

Having met the character many times since that first encounter, I will tell you more about him from now on. He is a great manipulator, and uses clever tactics to lure one into his kingdom. He can also take different forms, and only once I saw the real him, as depicted in Christian scary stories, when I was lucid-dreaming in my sleep.

But this is a tale I will share with you next time.

holy fool

(Saint Nicholas of Pskov – Russian Holy Fool)

Capitalism, Corona, and Moscow in the 1990s

But let’s return to the 1990s in Moscow, a period in time that reminds me of the situation we are all in now: the unprecedented external circumstances that will affect us all, but we just don’t know how exactly. Today we have a virus that is hanging above our heads as a threat to our every existence, while back in Moscow from 1989 onward, we had a change in ideology, when instead of socialism, we were presented with capitalism.

Unlike the situation now that has a precise threat, such as a virus, the developments back in Russia were happening in a cunning way, leaving most people deceived and totally unprepared. First, it started with the opening of the MacDonald’s in the center of Moscow as its main restaurant, with queues stretching for more than a kilometer to get inside. It was more than a restaurant, it became a symbol of a better life, attracting the inhabitants of Moscow with the lure of life under capitalism. The small corner shops started to sell coca-cola and twix chocolate, and because of the novelty, it seemed indeed like a promise of a life never experienced before, such as the availability of burger and chips. It was, of course, a moment of absolute novelty, hidden behind the dangers of fast unhealthy food, but Moscovites, without knowing better, thought for a short while, that it would lead to something better, because it was just simply exciting. Burgers and chips do provide the moment of instant gratification, but after a while they loose their appeal and are extremely unhealthy.

It was at the moment of MacDonald’s madness, right when people believed that life could ever be something better, something better than the security of a job for life, good medical services, children all going to school and never being hungry that the future rulers of Russian capitalism, the oligarchs and the greedy ones,  set up their oil and gas voucher scheme where they robbed an entire nation. People wanted quick money, and sold their vouchers back to the capitalists for a penny, thinking of a relief of some useless groceries and a trip to MacDonald’s. It was only later, watching the oligarchs from their offshore villas that they realized that they were robbed, and so was the entire Russian nation.

The current situation around the Corona virus reminds me of the 1990s years in Russia for a number of reasons. I can feel the same despair from people around that I felt in my native country then. And it isn’t just the fear of the virus, and the illness affecting so many people, it is more about the anxiety of all of us, those who don’t possess millions about what tomorrow might bring. It is the rising unemployment, people applying for universal credit, lack of adequate medical services in otherwise ‘prosperous’ countries, the insecurity of zero-hour contracts, and the possibility of so many small businesses not surviving this crisis. I can feel the anxiety of our world that simply woke up to the reality in which we have been living already for a long while. The society woke up to the face of the capitalism, and the virus showed us the precocity of life. Such as that it isn’t shopping, holidays, or a new car that matter, but having a good and secure job, seeing children going to school and playing with each on the streets, sharing a simple meal among friends, and enjoying the parks and the nature.

The virus of today is a wake-up call for our world, but will we respond to the alarm once it’s all over?

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