Weird Russians

Every time I mention that I am Russian, I can always register some fascination mixed with deep suspicion on the face of my interlocutor. Russians are considered to be weird and big. It’s the biggest country in the world, with long history, enormous culture and habits that leave the rest of the world population always slightly puzzled about us.

It was Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) who said the following about my native land:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:

She stands alone, unique –

In Russia, one can only believe.

Russia is considered to be big in everything but also weird. Russia has big writers read by many, such Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. It has world-famous composers, such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, leading chess players, famous ballets and trains. The trans-Siberian train takes 7 days of travel from Moscow to Vladivostok and spans eight time zones and 9,289 kilometers.

But this bigness runs in parallel to misunderstanding. Russians do appear as strange from the look of outsiders. We celebrate the New Year twice, we like vodka, and we had the revolution, the Soviet Union and the communist dream. Russians are often considered to be cold and distant, but few realise that if you probe more, you will discover a great romantic behind the façade of what looks like aloofness. You will discover a passionate spirit, capable of marking a page in the history books. Behind the initial impression of coldness, hides an eccentric.

Scratch a Russian, and you will encounter a great predisposition to deep philosophical debates, a penchant for nostalgia and great ‘terpenie’ that means patience. Because of the history of the country, Russians learned that bad times always end, that good things are meant to happen, and that for everything there is fate.

The misunderstanding of Russians is often due to the fact that we know how to remain silent. Russians rarely do small talk, and don’t chat. They like meaningful discussions about life, about the meaning of existence, about literature and art. If you go to Moscow and take the metro, you will see that many Russians read books while on their journey to work or study. They read a lot, and go to the theatre. If you want a good conversation with a Russian, don’t talk about the weather but ask about the latest theatre piece a Russian saw. Russians like theatre, books, and poetry.

Being a Russian is a tough job. I often think about our own strangeness and came up with the list of some of our weirdness. These are:

  • We celebrate the New year as others on the first of January and then again, on the 14th of January, because of the old calendar.
  • We love poet Pushkin. We learn about him from the moment we are born. He is the best poet. Truly, the best. We learn a lot about Pushkin. We grow up listening to his poems and we know lots of his poems by heart. We even have an expression when we want to be sarcastic that goes like: ‘Right, who will do that for you, then? Pushkin?
  • We are very superstitious. Spilled sault brings quarrel. Money discussed in the evening brings trouble. An empty bottle should be removed immediately from the table, or it will lead to financial difficulties. If your ears or cheeks are hot, it means that someone is talking or thinking about you. An itchy nose signifies that you will soon be drinking, etc, etc. We have a lot of these weird traditions, like really a lot.
  • We believe in Domovoy. It’s the household spirit of a given kin. This little man lives (he is invisible) in your house in order to protect it from the evil spirit. You need to respect him. Never talk badly about Domovoy.
  • We have the salad, called ‘Olivier’, originally from France, as the main dish for every celebration.
  • Most of us are Christians, but, and I am myself stupefied by this strangeness, we also believe in astrology, palm reading and other manifestations of magic.
  • We are great at computers and technology. If something is hacked, Russians are blamed.
  • We have great education at schools and universities. We learn mathematics at school at the level of what is taught at the master level in the universities in the west. School is like a marathon in Russia, and you do come out of it extremely knowledgeable.
  • We like to think big. We think about fate, about true love, about justice in this world. No wonder, revolution happened in Russia.
  • We eat fried sunflower seeds for pleasure.
  • We drink lots of tea, and many households can make their own ‘liquor’.
  • We are obsessed with jam. Each summer we make our own jams, and we stock it for the year ahead. There should be lots of it. There is never enough of jam.

And so many other things that make Russians slightly weird, but I will come back to it in the following posts.  

Russians and the meaning of life

Russians like deep feelings and philosophical discussions. You won’t meet a Russian, who doesn’t believe in ‘cudjba’, ‘ducha’ and ‘toska’. These three words mean: fate, soul, and a sort of nostalgia, that is difficult to translate directly.

However, toska has real part in the Russian culture. It’s a sort of dwelling, dwelling over life, dwelling over the past, dwelling over what could be. Russians are romantics at heart, and behind the façade of initial coldness, you will find a person who reflects constantly about the meaning of life. Russians reminisce about things. Do you remember, they will ask you, how it used to be, -uncomplicated and easy? Do you remember, how the world was peaceful and correct? Older generation reminisces about the days under the Soviet Union, while younger generation reminisces about the freedom that the year 1990ies brought to Russia, when right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone had lots of liberty and ideas to start new things.

Russians dwell about things, because things can always get better. Reflecting about ‘cudjba’ happens every time when two or more Russians gather together. Every Russian believes in fate. If things are difficult, it’s the fault of fate. Russians strongly believe that nothing in life happens because of coincidence. Everyone has a path in life, that is embedded in ‘cudjba’. If things happen, they happen for a reason. ‘You can’t escape your fate’ we say in Russia. You can’t escape your density, as each of us has one.

I remember how my late uncle would explain to us, my cousins and me, the particularities of fate. We would assemble around big table in the garden of my grand-parents farm, and talk. My uncle, a very kind person would tell us that life could be difficult sometimes, but difficulties were meant to be, and one had to learn how to overcome them. I know that most children in Russia have these conversations in their families, as all my friends are the same as me. With my friends from Russia, I can talk for hours about the meaning of life. We might chat for a bit about trivial stuff, but always end up in deep philosophical discussion. Why things are as they are, we ask ourselves? What is a deep meaning in events that happen in our lives? What lesson can we learn from our experiences? What is our path? What is the meaning of life?

One’s soul is also important for Russian. We greatly believe in ‘ducha’. Each of us has a soul that transcends the body. Belief in ‘ducha’ is very much linked with Christian Orthodoxy, but in Russia, everyone believes in the power of the soul, regardless of one’s religion. The soul and caring after it, is much more important than pursuing material comfort. There is a great belief that our soul landed on earth for a reason, that there is deeper meaning to life, that we can only grasp when we are aware of our soul, of a higher calling than mundane existence.

Russians love discussing meaningful things in life, and ‘toska’, ‘cudjba’ and ‘ducha’ are important words with a deep meaning in the Russian culture.

(me: reflecting as usual, about the meaning of life)

Each Language has beauty in it

If you ever listen carefully to languages, you will hear a particular music in each of them. In the English language I hear Robbie Williams, Taylor Swift, and Shakespeare. It is funny, playful, mad and pure orange. If I might assign an animal to this language, it would definitely be a monkey or maybe even a cat.

            In French I hear Paris, red, passion, grace, Sophie Marceau and the raven. Raven says: “it is magique.”

            Italian is amazing. I hear nirvana, Andrea Bocelli, turquoise, amaretto, Florence and yellow. It is the colour of the sun and of feathers of the hummingbird. This bird sings the songs of delirious joy. Just like Andrea Bocelli.

            The Dutch language has a flavour that can appear as hard at first, but then becomes soft and cosy. I dream of Amsterdam in Dutch, of flat beautiful landscapes, of coffees with biscuits, of bikes, and of the most beautiful beaches. I hear dance music in it, and the colour in front of my eyes is deep blue and purple. Blue heron rules that language, always somewhere lurking, observing and blending in, challenging one towards the exploration of one’s soul. 

            Russian is the trickiest of all animals. On good days you can experience with this language a cosy winter evening near the fire, Chekhov, green colour and the healing touch of a Siberian cat.

            On bad days, however, it can bring a life sentence in a psychiatric institution, capitalism in its most unwanted form and a snake in its reversed form. Snakes are very funny animals in a normal position – they bring the healing power of transformation and make the day of all children on a visit to the zoo. In their reversed position snakes bite by injecting a deadly poison into your veins. Russian language is like the most beautiful snake. It attracts by its beauty, terrifies you, and remains enigmatic, full of mystery. I love the Russian language.

In German I hear classical music, the philosophical debates, and great discussions. If I find time, I would definitely learn it. It speaks to me of fresh yummy bread, romantic candles, and cosiness of a Christmas market.

I love languages, do you too?

Elena: A Love Story for Humankind

After catching a brief glimpse of a woman’s face on a friend’s Tinder page, world-famous pianist Elena Sokolova’s life is plunged into total chaos and collapse. The quickly vanishing image is the face of her missing twin sister Olga, separated from her in a Russian orphanage at the age of eight, and who Elena has been told may not even exist except as a symptom of her supposed schizophrenia.
Needing to find answers, Elena frantically runs through the streets of London knocking on random doors until she is finally picked up by police and brought to a NHS psychiatric hospital where she is placed in the care of the kindly Dr Arms, a practitioner of trauma-based therapy. Under his treatment, Elena gradually learns to process the painful events of her past life in the Russia of the oligarchs, while forming close friendships with fellow patients who are also embarked on journeys of healing from trauma.
Set in London and Sheffield amid the backdrop of the Covid crisis with its disruptions and enforced isolation, Elena: Love Story for the Humankind, is a love letter to British culture as well as a testament to the power of human connection to repair broken lives. Elena’s story teaches us that individual resilience is not enough; we all travel through this life together.

‘Elena: A Love Story for Humankind’ is a novella I wrote last year among the Covid pandemic and personal struggle with my bipolar disorder. The novella can be found on Amazon Kindle (here is the link).

Thank you!

Born in the Soviet Union. A phone prank

When I was growing up, during the times of Gorbachev and Perestroika, which as you probably know, resulted in total change of the regime, as well as, of the whole country, things used to be different. Around the age of sixteen or seventeen I was contemplating the end of the Soviet Union and the way Russia was trying to adjust herself to the requirements of capitalism, in a slightly mad mode. We had new churches being opened on a daily basis, together with Tarot and palm readers offering their services in the proximity of the same churches, as well as all kinds of other esoteric stuff. It was total and absolute madness, but it gave me a hint that all kinds of belief systems can be turned into a profit, which is a sad fact of our world which still claims some sanity.
However, while capitalism was there (in new Russia), what wasn’t common as yet, was the usage of mobile phones, and therefore, the community and friendships remained intact, for the time being, as well as some Russian sense of humour, which helped me to survive until I decided to move to Brussels to study in French.
Back in Russia, my best friend and I were doing all sorts of pranks. Sergei, my friend, like me, was observing the dramatic and traumatic changes around us with total bewilderment, resulting in both of us, trying to laugh it off (not very successfully). And there were many things which were indeed funny, besides numerous new churches and witches co-existing in a weird peace. Like, imagine ten women wearing the same coat (we had shortage of choices in food, clothes and everything else) while entering an underground station in the morning! Or tanks next to the white house in Moscow, and Sergei and me drinking coca-cola right next to one (as it turned out, we left five minutes before the coup d’Etat started and were lucky to stay alive). But the funniest thing was our own invention, called the radio joke.
I am not sure who came up with the idea of radio prank (probably both of us) but it was hilarious.
I would sit next to my home phone and make calls. Occasionally, we would call total strangers, but usually we called our friends (no number recognition was available back then).
“Hello, this is radio ‘Love’ calling you live! I am Svetlana Rudnikova, the presenter of ‘hot hour’!” I would, obviously, change my voice, with Sergei standing next to me, playing real radio, to appear as genuine as possible.
“Oh my God!!!!” a hysteric answer would usually follow on my introduction. “Radio ‘Love’! Really?!!!!”
“Yes! And you are our lucky winner of today to choose a song!”
We would do then a small chit-chat and then conclude with a line: “Tune in now to listen to your song!” Before hanging up.
The radio itself (the ‘Love’ radio), the real one, was, on almost all occasions, playing something completely different from the ‘lucky’ choices of my friends, and Sergei and I, would patiently wait before re-dialling the number ten minutes later. Sergei was the one talking, during our ‘repeat’ call.

“Hello Nastenka, this is radio ‘Love’ again on the phone!” He would listen to the reply (mostly complaints about not hearing the song which had been ordered) before proceeding to our ‘reveal the prank’ line.

“It isn’t radio ‘Love’! It is me, Sergei and Ekaterina, having a blast! We are at Ekaterina’s flat now, join us for some fried potatoes and vodka!” We would both laugh hysterically, hang up and wait for our friend to join the party. One week I was hosting, as a result, the entire faculty of acting from a famous university of film-making of Moscow. They all came to a party after our prank call, with Sergei studying at that time at the same faculty. He was a born actor, you see.

But the best bit was when radio ‘Love’ did play a song, ordered by my friend, Nastenka. It was something by The Queen. She had no doubts, whatsoever about the authenticity of the call. And even if she did laugh when we called her back and revealed the prank, I could hear disappointment in her voice, and till today, regret that call (the ‘reveal the prank’ one).
We shouldn’t have done it, but it helped us to live on.

(image found online)

Is Russell Brand an ideology?

The question of whether Russell Brand can be an ideology was brought up by one of my students in media studies one day, several years ago, when we were discussing the ideology. In order to help and bring you into the picture, ideology is a set of beliefs hold by an individual, group or society taken as granted, but which might not be true at all.

For instance, to give you an example, when I was born, on the 10th of July (which is a month of cancer) during the year of Dragon (I prefer to keep my age as a secret), it was in the socialist country of the Soviet Union, which was busy building communism at that time. I wasn’t questioning the ideal, of course not, because it was and still is, the best system that a society can have in utopia. To each, according to their needs, as Marx would say. In reality, however, this system is the absolute opposite of truth, since humans are too greedy to be able to ever make it happen, and some make more efforts than others, and thus, do deserve more. But everyone should have an equal chance, yes, certainly so!

Moving back to the UK, or most other countries in the west, we live in the capitalism, which is presented to us as the prefect structure, since we can all try to make money, appear on the X-Factor (in theory, of course) and try to lure beauty industry into believing that we are the next top model. Do you understand? We are sold some kind of utopian dream, that is hard to find in the reality of our daily lives.

And so, when the student asked me about Russell Brand and whether he can be analysed as an ideology, I have to say, I was smitten and for a couple of seconds even lost my voice.

My first (internal dialogue) reaction was: WHAT? Followed by (still internal dialogue), I have no ‘f’ clue, and then arriving at the obvious conclusion that most of my students are simply geniuses.

I mean, who could ever think of Russell Brand as an ideology? He is a Brand, not an ideology!

But, that question had been chasing me for the whole week then, to an extent that I researched it rigorously. The thing is, I was curious about Russell Brand before, because I remember that day when I was skipping some boring presentations at a conference, and since no other interesting shops were in the proximity I went to the local academic bookshop. And here it was, that ‘Revolution’ book by Russell Brand, occupying the most prominent place, at the centre of the shop, storing hundreds of copies.

In all honestly, I was surprised to see it because I knew of Russell Brand as a comedian, and seeing him getting into politics with some hint at Marxism, stopped me on my track and I almost bought the book, but then remembered that I had to go back to the conference and a bag of purchase from a bookshop would betray me as the biggest procrastinator.

However, I did subscribe to his channel on Youtube and watch him occasionally, because I do find him funny and he has quite refreshing and interesting view on politics. As quoted from Wikipedia, “British commentator Joan Smith dismissed Brand as the “canny self-publicist” who indulges in “waffle about ‘revolution'” as “one celebrity, I’m afraid, who’s more idiot than savant.”

But I disagree with such criticism! It might be that Joan Smith is an idiot herself. For instance, if Russell Brand actually voted (he encouraged sabotaging elections for a number of times), he could indeed become an ideology, especially if he delivers on his promise ‘We’ve got to do something’ and does shake up the current prevailing thinking that we live in some sort of democracy. He is also a very nice and kind man, and all the money from the book (Revolution) went to charity. And looking at his date of birth, 14th of June 1975, he has all the chances to become a politician. His year of birth is the Rabbit, and according to the Chinese, rabbits can make great career in the political sphere. His month of birth represents Gemini, who are natural leaders and end up with a lot of followers.

So, yes, let’s watch this space in terms of Russell Brand becoming a leader of some new political party.

I do strongly advise you to listen to him on his Youtube channel, and especially his views on the current Corona crisis, are intelligent and well-thought. It is also funny to listen to him, because he does remind us of the obvious truths that we can simply observe, when we aren’t sure about the facts, distorted to us by the current media landscape. On the question of whether there is a climate crisis, Brand subtly reminds us that ‘’it is getting a bit hot for January’’.

I like Russel Brand.

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)