J’adore la langue franҫaise

You need to fall in love with a language in order to master it and to have the desire to speak it fluently.
I fell in love with the French language when I was thirteen, and living in Moscow. I was attending a linguistic college, but I was more interested in socializing rather than studying.
But then one day I met a new teacher. My mum sent me to her. It was a private tutor. I liked her as soon as I saw her. She opened the door to a very messy apartment, full of dogs, books, and all kinds of rubbish.
She sat me on the chair, and produced a cake, and then she started to talk to me, in French.
“I lived in Montpellier,” she told me. “I lived there for seven years. It was a town of magic, not far from the sea, with different colours, interesting people, and great food.”
I thought I couldn’t understand French before I met my new teacher, but when she was talking, I could follow her. Maybe it was the way she was describing Montpellier, or maybe it was her cake. It was delicious, and I liked being in her cosy apartment. Everywhere I looked, there was stuff. Pictures, candles, interesting books, some antique, two beautiful dogs.
I fell in love with the French language during my first lesson with her.
And this love stayed. When you fall in love with a language, you enter into a parallel universe. You enter into the field of that language, the magic of its particular music. 
When I speak French, I am a different person. I am more romantic, I am shyer, I discuss random things: books, music, philosophy, Russia. I start thinking in French when I speak it, and I like the sound of it in my own head. The voices I hear are in French. They sing to me a very beautiful music.
French language is a language of music. If I would assign a piano concerto to it in its quiet mood, it would be Chopin Nocturne op.9 No.2, and something like Stromae (incredible Belgian singer) in expressing the language when one wants to dance.
Pourquoi pas?
I see the colour blue in French, just like in that movie (Les trois Couleurs: Bleu) with beautiful Juliette Binoche. I see the beauty of Sophie Marceau, la Tour Eiffel, Le Louvre, and the philosophy of Michel Foucault. I see my favourite writer, Amelie Nothomb, and the town which I love the most, Brussels. I see the marvel of my favourite painters, the impressionists. I hear prefect French when I listen to Zazie.
The French language is like a flower, it is delicate, it is fragile. One needs to approach it with care. When I first came to Brussels to study, at the age of nineteen, I remained silent for the first six months. I started to talk only when I judged that my French was perfect enough to start self-expressing. French is the sound of love, it is the sound of romantic adventures, of people who love discussing serious things, who love great food, good wine, and self-criticism.
La langue franҫaise est une langue d’amour. (French is the language of love)

I love the French language. J’ adore la langue franҫaise.

(I love French language)

Dima, ou es tu?

I was sixteen, and still studying at school. On the day when I encountered Dima I was taking the Moscow’s underground to deliver myself for a photo session at a modelling competition. It was the time, which lasted for a year at most, when I was dreaming of becoming a model. In other words, I was completely, totally insecure in both my body and my head.

When I entered the wagon at one remote station in our beautiful underground, I immediately spotted Dima. The guy was charming, had dark hair and was laughing in a very sure way with two girls sitting next to him.

A cute guy and a student, I sighed. No way a person like him will ever notice my presence. I was wearing a terrible fur cap (to safeguard my hair for the photo session), while the only piece of style in my wardrobe was limited to the boots, which half of Moscow was wearing at that time. It was the period when limited pieces of fashion were attacking Moscow shops in masses. I might have skipped the rainbow coat (worn by the other half of the city’s population) but I had the boots. I sat next to the guy, however, as there was a vacant place. Taking out of my suitcase a book, I tried to loose myself in studying French grammar – the subject I was supposed to know perfectly, while attending a privileged linguistic college in my native town.           

“You speak French?” I heard a second later, and to my greatest amazement, this comment was coming from the cute dark-haired guy. He turned away from his fellow blonde student girlfriends and was looking intensely at me.           

“Yes, professionally,” I gave the most stupid answer, while removing my fur cap with my right hand and hiding a pimple on my check with my left.           

“Interesting,” the guy moved closer to me to look at my book. “Where?”           

“At the University,” I said in a confident way, while trying to adjust the position of my face in such a way that he wouldn’t notice my pimple.           

“Which university?”Despite the fact that I was only sixteen (and still at school), and blessed with pimples I knew which were the best universities, at that time, to learn French in Moscow.          

“The Institute for Foreign Languages,” I said proudly, forecasting my future at that moment, as it’s exactly where I landed for a year before moving to Brussels, let me think … two years later?   

 “Oh …” I could see that the guy’s interest in me was growing. Which was fine by me, as never in my life had a guy like him talked to me for such a long time, and yes, he was the cutest guy I had met so far.           

“Well …” he continued, “I also study French, at the University for Foreign Relations.”

Not only was he cute, he was also smart. At that time the institution he was attending was renowned as the ‘hottest’ place to get your degree.           

“Really?” I said. “I love French. It’s the love of my life,” I lied, since the biggest love of my life at that period was George Michael and Wham!           

“My name is Dima”, said the guy, while trying to hold my gaze for more than two seconds. It was exactly what I was trying to avoid, as my biggest problem at that time, apart from pimples, was that I was blushing on every possible and impossible occasion.

“My name is Ekaterina,” I answered, while wondering what on earth Dima saw in me, as the look on the faces of his two fellow girlfriends was suggesting that they were asking exactly the same question, and not in a very pleasant way.

“Voudriez-vous diner avec moi ce soir?” the eyes of Dima were really too close to mine this time.

I blushed. The thing was … I didn’t understand a word of what Dima had said. In perfect French. I was so blown away by his intense stare that it didn’t occur to me that I should also use my brain and my ears.           

“Fuck!!!!” was my answer in perfect Russian, when I noticed the name of the underground stop. “I missed my station!”And without giving it an additional, mature, balanced thought I literally jumped from the train.

And only on the platform seeing the departing train and Dima in the train looking (sadly?) at me did the meaning of his sentence entered my teenage brain. “Would you like to have a dinner with me tonight?” This was what he had asked me in French.

Born in Russia. A boy, a book, and The House of Artist

When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.

What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.

I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.

It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.

There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.

Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius.
One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.

“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.

Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.

Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.

I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.

My Moscow

Let’s make a break in psychiatry and return to Russia for a bit, my country, my native land.

I was born into a truly picturesque environment, I was born in Moscow. If you ever plan a trip to Russia, I really advise you NOT to miss that place. Moscow has the true Russian architecture, with its magnificent Kremlin, decorating the central space. There is also a mausoleum of Lenin there, something I never visited and never will, but let’s ignore a small negativity of the legacy of some Egyptian traditions to mummify a dead body, and move on towards the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed,  known as St. Basil Cathedral, and also as Pokrovsky Cathedral, built from 1551 to 1561 on the decree from Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.

The Cathedral is more than magnificent, it is truly, I feel, a symbol of Russia and of Russian Orthodox Christianity. It stands tall and proud across the Moscow river, and when you drive past it at night, you land up in a magical domain, once you see it illuminated, like a star in a beautiful night. It shines by its beauty, and it shines its Christianity. It is a partial museum now, and when on a visit there, I always felt that it should be restored as a proper church. I know that from 1991 Church services restarted there, which is a blessing, of course.

The grave of the Russian Saint, Saint Vasily is there, the Russian Holy Fool (read about holy foolishness on my post here), and it has a shape of a bonfire, a design that is totally unique and as Dimitry Shidkovsky, described in his book ‘Russian Architecture and the West’, “It is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century…a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design.” (2007, p. 126).

Moscow is full of magical, unexpected places. It is a unique combination of old and new, where almost each corner presents something wonderful and unique, and is truly Russian. If I return to Russia as a tourist, I will start with Moscow, and then proceed to the golden ring, and definitely not miss Suzdal, a city full of churches, but let’s take a walk in Moscow first.

My favourite place to hang out was always the Old Arbat and then walking towards the Kremlin across the bridge, right down to the Oktiabriaskaya underground station. Or turn right after leaving the Arbat and walk through the boulevard park towards Ostozhenka, where the Linguistic University can be found (former Institute of Foreign Languages, where I studied for a year, before moving to Brussels to continue my other degree in languages there). The Old Arbat is a pedestrian street, favourite of the artists, and vagabonds. It always attracted weird crowds of people, and that’s maybe I loved it so much. I felt like a part of the crowd of interesting, unusual people, of artists, painters and performers. My other best friend, Sergei, would often take me there, and we would chat and drink with his friends of the University of Film and Cinema (BGIK) where he studied to become an actor.

The Old Arbat has many interesting cafes, where one can get a good impression of how Russian people eat. It is always a nice warm meal, very delicious, as how pancakes, pastries, delicious porridges, fresh bread from the oven, and the incredible influence we got as legacy from Georgia and Armenia, can not taste good? Tea is more popular than coffee, and drinking tea is a proper ritual. If you are invited for a tea to the Russian family, except a feast. People in Russia, and my native town, are extremely hospitable. You will need to go on a diet, I guarantee you that. Russian host will bring everything he or she has on the table. Last time I was back in Moscow, my best friend, Masha, prepared a table that an army could eat. She made me my favorite meatballs, numerous salads, pastries, and a cake. My other best friend, Anya, made for me a special chicken and a salad of shrimps under the mayonnaise, that is now my signature dish if I am hosting.

I used to love walking in Moscow. I would spend days on it. After finishing my classes at the University, I would walk towards the Park of Culture, and admire the tress, and the lake, and then walk towards the Crimea Bridge and admire my native city. From the Crimea bridge that connects the underground station of Park of Culture and Oktyabriaskaya, one can get a glimpse of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and see the House of Artist, where I used to attend lessons in drawing, and that always has interesting, unique expositions.

Moscow is huge, and as a whole, does reflect well the Russian culture. It has churches with bells, numerous parks, incredible underground station, and people that read. One of the most amazing book shops, called Dom Knigi stands proud on the New Arbat, and if you are lucky one day to travel on the Moscow’s underground station, you will get the impression that you travel in a moving library. Everyone reads. Rides are long to connect people who go to work or to study, and they use this time with wisdom: they read.

At night the center is illuminated and if you do believe in magic, you will notice, that you are indeed in a magical land. I left my native, my beloved city at the age of nineteen to study in French in Brussels, another city I fell in love with. But I will tell you more about Brussels in another post.

(a view of Moscow with my best friend, Masha)

P. Tchaikovsky – Pas de Deux (‘The Nutcracker’

Holy-foolishness in Russian culture, from holy fool to the modern god-driven eccentric (Part One)

Holy-fool was a well-known ‘character’ in Russian culture. A firm image of the mediaeval times of the old Rus, he was a ‘wondering’ Christian, a mad in appearance vagabond who would renounce the world for the sake of Christ. The justification of the ‘holy fool’ can be found in the Bible, and 36 known holy fools of Russia were proclaimed as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The interest in the phenomenon of ‘holy-foolishness’ has been growing in Russia in the past years. This can be explained by the turbulent times that the country has experienced before and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, by the uncertainty on the political and economic levels, and by the phenomenal rise of the Christianity. The ‘Holy-Fool’ has become an image of Christianity but also a peculiar symbol of Russian culture, where nothing is certain, but one always believes in the fate of God, and in something more profound than the materialism of this world.

This character has found a new profound interest in both Christian and academic literature, but also in the modern cinema, and even music. The films of Lungin (Taxi-Blues, the Island) burrow and even base their story line on the Russian ‘Holy Fool’. Looking at these movies and the actor who played the main role in both movies, Pyotr Mamonov, this paper argues that the character of ‘Holy Fool’ is still alive and present in the modern days in Russia, re-adjusted, however, to the current age and current discourse on madness and eccentricity.

Who is a Russian Holy Fool?

One of a very known visual symbols of Russia is the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil), which is situated at the prominent place on Red Square in Moscow. Also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral, it was built from 1555 to 1561 under the reign of Ivan The Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The Church was erected over the grave of Saint Vasilii, who was a very known local Russian Holy Fool, ordained as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1580. “Thus, in a sense, the main symbol of Russia may be called the Cathedral of the Holy Fool.” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153).

But who was the Holy Fool, and why is it a particular cultural phenomenon of Russia, being depicted in paintings, books, and more, recently, in movies, and seeing a renewed interest in it in the past few years?

The origins of Holy Fool are embedded in Eastern Orthodoxy. It originated in monastic tradition of Byzantium and Rus, and became a recognised cultural phenomenon in Moscovite Russia in the sixteen and seventeen centuries.

The Holy Fool could be either a female or male person, wondering the streets of Rus, often naked or semi-naked, and acting often weirdly. The Holy Fool would confront the public, laugh at it, and expose the absurdities of this world. The Fool was ‘Holy’ because he was not just a simple vagabond, without a particular aim for his wonderings, but acting in the name of Christ, being a very religious person, spending considerable time on praying.

The justification for acting in the name of Christ can be found in the Bible. We can witness two different interpretations of foolishness in the Bible. Thus, in some instances, the fool is defined as someone who has no wisdom, and foolishness is considered to be a sin. However, another interpretation can be found in the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, where he says that the wisdom of this world is not real, and the true wisdom can be only found in Christ. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (Corinthians 3:18). And in another passage, we can read the following: “We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are dishonored. To this very hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.…” (Corinthians 4:10).

This interpretation of a Fool who is a Fool for the Christ’s sake formed the basis for the tradition of a Holy Fool in Orthodox Christianity. (Heller & Volkova, 2003).

The Holy Fools acted for ‘Christ’s sake’ by first, showing the same humility as symbolised by the Cross, and secondly, by trying to influence others to go back to Christ, by exhibiting the contradictions of this world. The Holy Fools would often take gifts as beggars from wealthier parts of the population, to immediately give it back to the poor. It was a sort of militant edge behaviour, the holy fools appeared as humble, but at the same time, refused to abide by the rules of this world, often confronting the tsars and the powerful, and laughing openly at their short-coming and deeds.

Saint Basil, whose name is now associated with one of the most known cathedrals in Russia, was one of the Holy Fools, and he is probably one of the most famous ‘iyurodivy’ of Rus, a Russian word for ‘Holy Fool’, having its origins in ancient Greek word ‘iurod’, which meant ‘stupid’, ‘mad’. In Russian language, ‘iurod’ means ‘the ugly one’. In reality, the Holy Fool would only appear as mad, walking on the streets and pointing towards the sins of this world. His exterior appearance, of being indeed dressed in ugly clothes, or no clothes at all, served as a metaphor for humanity’s sins, and for failure to go beyond the materialistic domain towards Christ, and seek spiritual gains, rather than earthy ones.

“The fool’s naked, dirty, ugly, strange and indecent appearance has a metaphor for humankind’s soiled, ‘naked’, sinful soul that has lost its ‘wedding garments’, its innocence. Becoming insane, becoming ‘a fool’, humanity has lost its divine likeness and lost its God. The holy fools look the way human beings really look in a spiritual sense. They become spiritual symbols – strange and almost disgusting in appearance, but tragic and attractive from a spiritual point of view. The holy fools’ disgraceful behaviour carried the message of judgement. Those who understood the message started to cry; those who did not laughed at the fools and threw stones at them” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 155).

Thus, holy-foolishness was considered as a spiritual gift.

Saint Basil, or Basil the Blessed, was born to serfs in a village near Moscow. He was first an apprentice shoemaker, exhibiting often weird behaviour. He would steal but then immediately give it back to the poor, pointing towards the problems of inequality and the burden of life of those in need. He would walk around naked and put chains on himself. Typical of holy-fool’s behaviour, it was odd, and controversial, but with deep meaning behind. Signs of visible madness were glorified and considered as a symbol for sanctity.

Basil the Blessed was a holy-fool who started a real following of holy-foolishness. In the sixteen century, they became popular figures, adored by laypeople, who looked at them as a link between God and earth, as a spokesperson who had gotten his voice directly from God. They were viewed as figures of authority, who could even oppose the tsar.

However, by the eighteen century holy-foolishness started to be used for gain or entertainment, and even, in order to advance one’s causes. Some authors would write stories around holy-fools for the purposes of lobbying for various interests or in order to undermine the political power. Some vagabonds and poor people would also fake madness to appear as holy-fools to obtain favours and monetary gains. As a result, by the eighteen century the figure of holy-fool started to be associated with charlatans, and the Church didn’t look favourably at holy-foolishness. The image of holy-fool became compromised.

It was Peter the Great who outlawed holy-foolishness in the beginning of the eighteen century, and holy-fools were persecuted.  Peter the Great saw holy-fools as mostly scandalous figures who wanted attention and had little respect for the Church and authority.

“Any sensible person can see how many thousands of such lazy beggars can be found in Russia…who devour the labour of others with their impudence and their feigned humility…and who drive ordinary simple people insane…They slander high authorities, yet they themselves take on no Christian responsibilities. They go into church but think it has nothing to do with them, so long as they can carry on their shrieking in front of the church.” (Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, 1879, p. 30.) And the example of such a monstrous act can be found as recently as when the Pussy Riot entered and sacrileged the Russian Orthodox Church (as it seemed), built on tears and real suffering of the whole Russia, trying to deal with the impossible. My beautiful native land. They dared to enter, I totally avoid that church.

Peter the Great moved the capital of Rus to St. Petersburg in 1712, a city he had named after himself. He is famous for his reforms and for ‘Europeanizing’ Russia, where after his numerous visits to Europe, he introduced radical changes, including in architecture, where his love for baroque architecture can be seen across modern St. Petersburg.

Interestingly, despite the ban of holy-fools, some of them survived the reign of the tsar, like was the case of a famous holy-fool, St. Xenia, who lived in St. Petersburg in 1731-1803, and achieved a considerable cult following. As other holy-fools, she was a highly controversial figure. Widowed at the age of 26 she renounced all her possessions, including her house, and would wonder the streets of St. Petersburg, dressed in her late husband’s clothes. As other holy-fools, she would beg for money and goods, to immediately give it back to the poor. She appeared as if she had lost her mind, due to the death of her husband, and insisted that others called her by the name of her late husband, Andrei Feodorovich. However, “These eccentricities were not indicative of a loss of reason, however, but signified a complete disdain for earthly goods and human opinion, which places them at the center of existence. Thus, Xenia of Petersburg took upon herself the difficult podvig (feat) of foolishness for Christ’s sake. (Orthodox Christianity).”

Xenia would spend all her might on praying, going into a field, where she would stay awake in order to communicate with God. Once a new church started to be built, in Smolensk cemetery, Xenia would secretly transfer bricks at night, to help to build the church.

Thus, despite the official ban on ‘yurodiviis’, some of them still prospered, and St. Xenia was a popular figure during her life, attracting adherents of her renunciation of earthly goods, and seeing her as a noble representative of the tradition of holy-foolishness. Her popularity during the time of persecution clearly demonstrated the fascination of Russian society with the boundary between the ‘normal’ and bizarre, where some things could never be explained, and were in the hands of the spiritual domain.

Holy-foolishness in Russian folklore and literature

The holy-fool and holy-foolishness could always be found in Russian folklore and Russian literature. One of the most famous characters of Russian folklore is Ivan the fool, who can be called as a genteel equivalent of holy fool in folklore.

Ivan the fool is usually the youngest brother of three, born in a peasant family. He is presented as  simple-minded at the start of the story, but it appears later on that he is actually the smartest of all three brothers, because he thinks with his heart, rather than his mind, where his wisdom is more spiritual rather than earthly one. He ends up being deceived by his brothers, because he voluntarily gives them his possessions when they struggle, being always kind and caring, and never greedy. Ivan the fool has a heart on his sleeve, and ends up fighting villains, where one can see a parallel with the fight between the good and the evil, as in the Bible. At the end of the story Ivan the fool is always a winner, rewarded with love of a princess and half of the kingdom, and where his simplicity emerges as deep spiritual wisdom.

Ivan the fool, as holy fool, symbolises important traits of Russian culture, such as deep intuition, belief in the unknown and that things always turn out for the best. It is intuitive reliance on fate, on God’s will.  Sometimes, Ivan the fool appears as lazy, but his laziness is a disguise. He is simply not interested in pursuing accumulation of materialistic goods like all others around him, and is looking for things that belong to the domain of the heart, such as love, kindness, compassion, justice for wrong-doing. All stories around Ivan the fool also contain the element of grotesque: chimneys can start walking and talking, pots can sing, carpets can fly. This element of absurdity, of laughing despite the seriousness of a situation, is a trait of Russian culture, where holy-foolishness, and ‘foolishness’ as such is embedded in deep spirituality, but presented as ‘laughter’ and ‘spectacle’ to bring the maximum impact about some causes. If holy fool was acting in the name of Christ, to point out to the short-comings of the human nature, Ivan the fool acts in the name of universal goodness, and appeals to the heart, to the moral qualities of his public. Ivan the fool appears as ‘fool’, as slightly ‘stupid’ to show humility. Holy-fools would adopt the same attitude: “The urban fool becomes an apostle of the crucified Christ by living within the city as a vagrant and an outcaste. He or she assumes a guise of madness in order to be misunderstood and persecuted. The fool behaves in an uncouth way in public places to earn rebukes and blows. Thus the fool humbles his own pride and exposes the pride of those who subject him to rebuke. When failed Christians increase their own separation from Christ by persecuting the fool, they unwittingly enter into a provocative scenario aimed at opening their eyes to spiritual Truth” (Hunt, 2011, pp. 3-4).

Holy-foolishness can be traced also in later writings of Russian authors, where parallels can be drawn between holy-fool (and also Ivan the fool) and usually the main, more modern character. One such character we can find in Dostoevsky’ ‘The Idiot’, where it is often argued that the main protagonist was based on ‘holy-fool’.

The parallels indeed speak for themselves. The main hero, referred to as ‘the idiot’, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshki, comes to St. Petersburg from a Swiss village, where he spent four years in a mental institution. He is presented to us as simple-minded, with an open good heart, which leads to believe those around him that he lacks intelligence. He is deliberately positioned in the middle of an earthly society, the elite of St. Petersburg, driven by greediness, materialism and conflicts. The readers are left to see whether such a character can survive. The idea, as Dostoevsky explained in one of his letters to his friend, was to “depict a completely beautiful human being” (Mills Todd, 2014, p. xxiiii).

Prince Myshkin has a passionate Christian soul, is very kind, and innocent. His life and character have many details borrowed from the lives of holy fools. He even speaks weirdly, and is often called by people around him, ‘the idiot’. Like a holy fool he emerges as a controversial figure, that invokes deep emotions of our psyche. Unlike the holy fool though, he doesn’t play on laughter but rather on pity, where the aim, nevertheless, remains the same: he appeals to those who understand the deep spiritual meaning of life.

We can find the theme of holy-foolishness in many other writings, as well as paintings. The fascination with holy-foolishness is embedded in Russian culture and character, where Russian people were always driven to explore the line between sanity and insanity.

(Continuation on the theme can be found here, here, and here)

References

Mills Todd, W. (2004). Introduction, The Idiot. Penguin Classics.

Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, I, St Petersburg, 1879, p. 30.

Orthodox Christianity (2019).  THE LIFE OF ST. XENIA OF PETERSBURG, at: http://orthochristian.com/44559.html

Born in Russia: Somebody that I used to know

We never forget about our first love, do we? Some of us are lucky and their first love is the love of their lives (the story of my grand-parents), but most of us either search for the one (real love with sparkles), or settle for the mediocrity, such as ‘settling’ with someone for the sake of being settled, or looking for someone who can provide (women) or clean the house (men).


I will never forget my first love because he was a very interesting guy, and I can’t forget him because he gave me confidence. Confidence that I wasn’t that bad-looking, was ‘datable’, and could get the best guy on earth if only I wouldn’t ruin it, like I did with him, something which, unfortunately, stayed with me till the day. 
Present me with ‘the one’, and I will find a reason to ruin it.
Misha wasn’t the best guy on earth but he was definitely the most popular guy at our school. I was fourteen when I met him, he was sixteen, joining our school to finish final year after having lived on the other side of Moscow. His mother was our teacher in chemistry.
He soon became the talk of the whole school, among both girls and boys alike. Not only he was very good-looking, funny and smart, he was also different from everyone else. Like, for instance, he didn’t give a damn about any rules and would smoke a cigarette right at the entrance to the school, where his mother was giving classes and where he was supposed to study. I didn’t pay any attention to him (apart from making a mental note that I should dare an act of smoking right in front of the school when I reached my final year, instead of hiding behind the entrance at the back at that time), because there was no chance he would ever notice me. Why should he? I was two years younger, in a class that older boys usually ignored (too studious, etc…not me and my best friend, but he wouldn’t know), with pimples, having a weird hair-do, wearing terrible clothes, and not the prettiest girl in the school. Probably, the opposite.

(me at that time)
But it was me he addressed once we approached the entrance of the school with my best friend.“Got any lighter?” he asked me, and I was so shocked by the request (more like by the fact that he was talking to me) that I answered the first thing which came into my mind, which should be a lesson to hold my tongue in the future…to no avail.
“Not on me at this moment, unless I try to push it out of me”.
I, obviously, thought about my reply for the rest of the day, and days after, because I couldn’t believe that I could be so stupid. I also reckoned that I had turned totally red when I had spoken, which was another disaster. It wasn’t anymore about just paying attention to Misha, it was about thinking about him all the bloody time from that moment on. Soon it became the talk of the whole school, Misha and me. Girls from my class would run to me and whisper into my ear: “We heard Misha discussing with other boys whether Ekaterina should become his girlfriend!”Misha himself would come into our class, for some reason during maths, when the whole class was waiting in fear for the appearance of our scary teacher in maths, with on one occasion, his own mum, a teacher in chemistry, coming in, in order to drag him out back into the corridor.

I became the best pupil in chemistry. Well, I had to, since I fancied the son of the teacher. It took me a month of sleepless nights but I arrived. The teacher (the mum) was so impressed that she didn’t drag Misha from our class in maths next time, once she saw that Misha was chatting to me, with the whole class (mostly girls) watching the scene in total bewilderment.
All nice and rosy until Misha invited me on a date. The idea was to spend the Easter together. It was weird, but never mind. After that, I find it boring when someone offers a normal date. A dinner and a drink? Thank you very much but I rather spend a night marching five kilometres in Moscow. That’s what we did, with Misha. We met in the centre and just walked and walked until we reached my apartment, five kilometres further, where my step-mother was pouring my dad some vodka, keeping him away in the kitchen, so that he doesn’t kill Misha the moment he meets him. At two o’clock in the morning. We went to the living room. My step-mum brought us some cakes, tea and other treats, closing the door behind and managing to continue calming my dad. Misha was supposed to sleep where I was, in the same room, not that anyone would sleep with each other, which was the main concern of my dad, and he made sure to visit the toilette every five minutes for the rest of the night, making sure that no one would get any sleep in any case. In retrospect I realise now that it was a perfect moment for me to loose my virginity, with a guy with whom I was in love and who fancied me back. But no, I pretended to be an idiot. The moment when we finally ended up in the room together, I became so shy that for some reason I decided to ransack one of my cupboards and drag out my collection of barbies (two dolls) and show them to Misha. I still remember the reaction on his face. It was that unclear stare, a stage in between ‘shall I laugh, or run home?’ All transport was sleeping with the rest of Moscow’s population, making running impossible. But he should have laughed. He didn’t.

He then kissed me good-night, asking whether he could kiss me on the forehead. I said yes, without kissing him back on the lips. I was waiting for him to fall asleep for the rest of the night, but he never did, and we both lay there awake, regretting the lost opportunity. 
Misha dropped the talk about the possibility of me becoming his girlfriend after that night, and maybe for a good reason. Last time I checked he is now a spiritual yogi somewhere in India. Great, but I prefer more comfort in my daily life.

Still, while Misha looked exactly like that singer Gotye, he isn’t just ‘Somebody that I used to know’ (which is, ironically, a favourite song of my dad). I named my son after him. As they say it, first love never dies.

Born in Russia: my summers in a Cossack village

I had beautiful summers in Russia. Children are quite lucky in Russia as they get three months off during summer months! It is a nightmare for the parents, but total delight for the kids. Three full months of fun, three full months of the joy of childhood, freedom and exploration!
I was sent each summer to my grand-parents in the south of Russia, right at the border with Ukraine. It was a small Cossack village, quiet, remote, and oh my god, so peaceful! One could go out at night and hear only the sound of an owl, and see the stars far away in the sky.
My grand-parents had a farm, and it was the best farm in the village. Both of them survived the hardship of the area of Stalin, both of them returned to the house which had been confiscated by Bolsheviks at some point, and rebuilt everything from scratch. 
They built two houses instead of one, created a bathhouse, planted a vineyard, had three cows, several chickens, and lots of fruits and vegetables in a big garden. We even had watermelons.
My grand-parents would wake up at five in the morning and go around with their tasks. My grand-dad would milk the cows, while my grand-mum would make breakfast. It was a feast every day, especially when we, the children (numerous cousins) would come for the summer.
Pancakes, pastries, cakes, we would devour it in the morning before proceeding to help around the farm. It was organised to perfection. We had to do several tasks, each of us in the morning, before getting free time till the rest of the day.
My cousin Olga (same age as I) and I would usually take out the weed. We would work around the field of strawberries, sing songs, eat some strawberries, spot occasional snakes in the grass.
At twelve we would have lunch, usually some soup and a salad, sitting around a big cheerful table in the garden with apple trees. After lunch my grand-mum would take out some sweets and give one to each of us. We never had more than two sweets a day. It was hard to get them in the shops, and eating too many sweets wasn’t encouraged. Instead, we would get lots of fruits, and fresh milk from the cow.
In the afternoon, Olga and I would go down to the river. Calling it a river is perhaps a big word, it was a tiny, narrow, patch of water, surrounding the village on one side, with vipers liking it as much as us. But as children, we weren’t afraid of the snakes and would dare to go for a swim. We would build castles out of stones, run around the river, meet with other children of the village, play games. We would go back to the farm for the dinner (potatoes, eggs, vegetables, and chicken once a week), and then would go out again for the night. It was a party in the park every night.
Boys would bring their guitars, we would make a fire, and sing till late at night, usually with my grand-mum coming to fetch us, to send us to bed.We would return to the house, drink some milk and eat some fresh bread, and fall deeply asleep, to wake up the next morning to another beautiful day.
If I think of happiness, I always have the image of my summers in Russia. It was pure happiness, because it was so simple.

my younger cousin and me

The Abbey in Brussels and the devil next to it

It was while I was living in Brussels that I couldn’t enter the abbey.

The abbey in Brussels is a truly beautiful view. It is spread on top of the lakes, called ‘Les Etangs d’Ixelles’, a really impressive construction, consisting of several amazing buildings, a church, and a beautiful park. I always wondered as to why not that many people walked on the grounds, but now I feel that maybe there was a reason. The abbey is meant only for those who truly seek, and so are her stunning grounds.

I had bought an apartment in Brussels, which was almost overlooking the abbey. One could see it from my balcony and it was a minute of walk away, across the ‘Avenue Louise’ with its posh shops and fancy restaurants. It is among my favorite areas in Brussels, a city where all together I spent six years in total, first as a student, and then as a headhunter in a really nice and good company which would find candidates for jobs that no one else could.

The apartment turned out to be a rather sad affair. There were constantly some problems with the structure of the whole building, with pipes bursting, and strange sounds coming at night. I also had there quite weird dreams, and once I moved to the apartment, construction works started to take place on my street, but this is something I seem to attract in my life. Once I move somewhere and try to call it home, big, complicated works follow my place of residence.

Tired of all the works and constant sounds I run one day out of my house, literally seeking some help. It was logical in my mind that a place of respite should be the abbey, and that I could do with staying there for a while, and the church is a nice place to be, for which my soul constantly cries in my sleeps and also my daily reality. Once I moved to Brussels I had a terrible dream with my soul longing to be in The Cathedral of Saint Vasily the Blessed in Moscow, and it was devastating to wake up and realise that I was, geographically speaking, too far away, and that there was something, or rather someone preventing me from entering the church. That someone is the evil or maybe just a bad person, who knows? But it wasn’t the devil, as depicted in the scary Christian narratives. He looked more like a man, who, by some terrible mistake, got in charge of a church, while he shouldn’t. Little but like the Vatican, which is, of course, a terrible truth to admit.

saint vassili

I took my bag from the apartment and precipitated towards the abbey. I was aiming at the church directly, but now I think that maybe instead, I should have knocked at the door of one of the abbey’s buildings and asked for immediate help. But I started to run towards the church and when I reached its doors, there was an angry man in front, with a dog next to him, and to whom he was throwing peaces of bread.

“Here, take it, take it!” the man was shouting at the dog and I pitied the dog as it seemed that the creature was under some sort of a nasty spell.

The dog run towards me when he saw me, licking my hand and obviously, wanting to stay next to me, but the man summoned the dog back towards him, and remained standing, guarding the doors to the church and swearing at me.

“You – dirty woman!!!” He shouted at me again and again, and I couldn’t proceed to the doors, enter the church and ask for help, while I was struggling and there was no one around and even birds stopped singing at that moment. It was just me, and the evil man with the poor dog next to the church. And for a brief second I felt that this was an entrance to the Vatican metaphorically speaking, hidden in the alley in Brussels. Brussels is a complicated city, with different languages and cultures, and where the administration of the European Union takes the whole geographical area, with a train travelling from Brussels to Starbucks transporting the employees for some sort of a meeting, on a regular basis and on enormous budget. The corridors of the administration of the European Union are not an easy task to grasp for any mind, and if I would compare it to a book, a novel of Agatha Christie comes to mind, or maybe Proust’s ‘A La recherché du temps perdu.” It is a long, complicated read, similar to the administration of the European Union, even if, of course, it is a cause for good, and it was created to avoid another world war.

Who was the man, I still wonder? There was such a strong negativity around him that there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t pass him and was stopped from entering the church, a beautiful, quiet space, hidden on the grounds of the abbey. Desolated and scared I walked away like a bitten dog, and proceeded to march towards the lake, and then up towards la rue d’Ixelles, and my soul was crying and so was I.

la cambre abbey Brussels

(La Cambre abbey in Brussels)

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