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)
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.
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.
P. Tchaikovsky – Pas de Deux (‘The Nutcracker’
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.
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
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.
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 in Brussels)
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.
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/
It was while living in Sheffield that I ended up attending the devil’s ball. I woke up in one of my lucid-dreaming and found myself waiting on the road, somewhere near a Dutch forest. If you are not familiar with lucid-dreaming, let me explain. It is a state when you wake up in your dream and realize that you are no longer dreaming but are experiencing an absolute, magical, parallel reality. Your physical body usually remains in its place, in your bed, but I heard of some shamans who can move their bodies in their sleep from one place to another with a simple power of their mind. They fall asleep in one place and wake up in another.
So, I woke up in my dream, and found myself standing on a recluse road, somewhere in the Netherlands. I just knew that I was in the Netherlands, out of deep knowledge of my mind. I also once woke up in my other dream, travelling on the train, and knew at once that I was somewhere in Switzerland, although the purpose of my travel wasn’t entirely clear, and remains vague to me till today. Why Switzerland I wondered? But on the other hand, I was also experiencing a sense of absolute wonder while looking outside the train’s window. Yes, I could travel in my dream, and yes, I was doing it in reality, not just in my dream. I also sensed that my body wasn’t in my bed, in my cozy house in Sheffield, but indeed on the train, somewhere near Zurich.
While knowing that I was near a Dutch forest (however, I am not sure whether it was in the south or the north of the country), I was also aware at once that I was due to attend a ball of the devil, and visit his residence. I waited for a couple of moments, and a strange dog appeared, who would transport me to the house where the devil lives, deep in the forest, besides many trees, a place that I am not sure how it looks in reality. I didn’t see the house itself and thus, can’t describe it in details.
The flight on the dog, and it was similar to a flight, was exhilarating and magical. I couldn’t help but to think that, ‘wow’, I was really doing it and wow, it was really happening. I also knew that, despite the evidence so to speak, I wasn’t a witch, but strange things keep on happening in my life, and the appearance of the devil in many forms and appearances is taking place in my regular life (and not just in my dreams), with terrifying occurrence. What does he want from me, and why does he chase me – is a question I ask myself on a daily basis.
The dog was of an unknown breed and if I would describe it in more details, the breed was similar to a mixture between pit bull and bulldog, but there was more to it than just a breed. It was obvious that the dog was magical, and that I was experiencing a total emergence into the parallel world.
We arrived at our destination and entered the house, which had different levels. The moment between arriving and entering the devil’s domain was too brief for me to notice more. I can’t say, for instance how the house looks from exterior, but I noticed a few things from inside. It is based in a place where people don’t walk, away from the humans, and one can enter it by invitation only, but I might be wrong about all this, as my impression was that I happened to be there by accident. Who had sent the dog for me was unclear. The devil himself? I am not so sure, as while being inside his house, I had a definite feeling that there was some sort of mistake and I wasn’t really expected there.
On the first floor there was a big bar, with guests exchanging the pleasantries and having some drinks, while in the basement, guarded by bodyguards, was HIM. I was pushed by some invisible force to approach the guards to go the basement, but at the last moment turned away. Was it a higher force preventing me from making the fatal step towards the basement, or was it my own inner strength which banned me from going down, and it was indeed deep, deep down, and I knew instinctively that where was a place from which I would never return.
Instead I approached the bar and ordered a drink (a glass of champagne) but it all became a blur and I don’t remember how I exited the devil’s domain and found myself back in my bed, waking up and knowing with absolute certainty, that yes, it had happened, and no, I wasn’t mad or insane.
(Illustration to ‘Master and Margarita’ of Bulgakov, found on ‘Russia Beyond’ website. The great writer depicted the character of the devil in an unusual and interesting way, while also describing a ball where Margarita acted as a hostess)
I finished my last post promising to tell you about how I met the devil as depicted in the scariest Christian stories. However, since then I remembered that I had encountered the character way before in the 90s in Russia, much earlier than that time he appeared to me and my friend, and before I once saw him in one of my lucid-dreaming experiences (and where he showed how he really looks, and he can take many forms and appearances).
It is easier to write about it than talk, because people simply stopped believing in all that stuff, and it’s every day that I wonder how the Christianity survived till today, as everything in it can be judged as ‘delusions’ and according to the psychiatry, all Christians should be proclaimed as insane. I once read a psychiatric article where it was hinted quite clearly that Jesus had suffered from psychosis and exhibited all signs of being a bipolar. Needless to say it wasn’t a nice read, as for yet another time I started to doubt my own mind and my own sanity, because I believe in Jesus, and have seen the manifestations of parallel world many times. Denying this truth to me (and other people) is denying the whole reason of any existence based in spirituality, and once I tried to live a life denied of it, I stopped to see the aim of any life, or at least a life, based in some meaning. How can we wake up and not believe in Jesus, is a question I decided I don’t want to explore any longer. I have to add here that my own ‘search’ for Jesus took a long time, and not because I failed to realize until recently that Jesus is always around, but because I have been obscured by the presence of the devil almost my entire life. Yes, he is constantly around, and yes, I’ve met him and know for sure that he is as real as a glass of nice red wine I am drinking right now, while writing this post.
The problem with the devil is that he made his appearance in my life way before I received baptism in the Russian Christian Church (on my own accord, at the age of twelve), and hasn’t left me since, in terms of his presence. He appeared many times in my life, and I do wonder as to why he is so much interested in my persona. Do I have an interesting soul? Is it because I am indeed a holy fool (a concept to which I will come back again and again) or is it because I can contribute to humanity and he tries to ban me from doing good works? But I will try to quiet my ego for now and go back (in my mind) to that first time I met the devil in my life.
I was three years old then and was sleeping in my cot, on the sixteenth floor in our Moscow’s apartment. We lived on the top floor, and as was established later, the apartment was chased by the spirits or something similar, and my step-mother would discover some sort of insects all the time under the flower pots years later.
I woke up from a dream because I literally sensed a presence and then I glanced at the window, I saw HIM. He looked like a total monster from hell, with horns, and terrifying eyes, and I knew at once that it was the devil, and that he was interested in me.
Interestingly, I didn’t panic or anything like that at that point because, even at the age of three, I knew that there was no point in panicking. If I started to cry, the parents would arrive and tell me that he wasn’t real and that I had simply had a bad dream, and therefore, I did the opposite of child logic. I stared at him without crying and told myself aloud: yes, he is real, and what you see is not your imagination.
I also forgot that vision till later in life, but I had to resuscitate the memory once I had met him on that bench in Moscow, overlooking the church. You might ask me, but how do you know for sure? And the only answer I have, is that yes, I know, and the truth runs sometimes deeper than anything else. It is the whole core of your being which tells you that what you see and hear, while not visible to everyone else, is happening in reality. I also learned from experience that people simply don’t want to believe in uncomfortable truth, because once they do, the only remaining path is to embrace Christianity and pray for the return of Christ. And the path of a true Christian is indeed much harder than anything else.
I met the devil several times later in my life and will tell you more about the encounters. You don’t have to listen to me, of course, and you don’t have to believe in me, but I am sharing you my story from a vintage point of view of hexagram number 41 of the Chinese I Ching, line nine in the second place. The text of the oracle says: “…without decreasing oneself, one is able to increase to others”, which means that I share the story from the position of personal truth. You might believe and hear and see, but it’s obscured by what others reply to you in return. Jesus is real, and so is the devil, and the fight between good and the evil is taking place now on earth as never before.
In the next post I will tell you about how I attended the devil’s ball. It was during one of my lucid-dreaming, just for those who might start saying, but is she insane? All these whispers (implying insanity) are just whispers of the devil preventing so many of us from saying the truth, according to my gypsies cards (demons, card 47, in straight position). But I studied all the enemy tools (including all Tarot cards and oracles) for years, and therefore, yes, I have the tools and the courage to say the truth as I see it, and not as others tell me it should be.
Wilhelm, R. (1967). I Ching: a book of changes. Penguin.
Touchkoff, S. (1992). Russian Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards. Harper San Francisco.
(the fool in Tarot cards is, of course, showing us the path of a Holy Fool, it is all real, and it is all based in reality. Tarot cards taught me many lessons, and I am grateful for that)
There is a reason as to why I go back to the 1990s in Russia so often on my blog, because it was exactly at that time that devil made his appearance in my country. The Christianity was proclaimed as official religion, and he, quite, obviously, couldn’t miss the opportunity to battle for a few remaining souls.
I could watch what was happening in my country from a vintage point of a teenager, which helped me somehow, because it is much more difficult to survive the battle between good and evil when you are an adult. The mundane daily responsibilities don’t allow space for any deep philosophical inclinations, and then, of course, it is hard to believe in anything, yet, allow oneself any ‘magical’ thinking, because one is always at risk to end up on the radar of the psychiatrists. The psychiatrists rule the world based in normality, and no one dares anymore to proclaim loud and clear: yes, there is the devil, and yes, there is God, and Jesus was real.
Back in the 1990s in Russia I met the character, the devil, on numerous occasions. He was lurking around, and once when I was with one of my best friends, he announced himself around us, right when we were admiring the visitors to a local church. My friend Anya and I were skipping a class in algebra, and were sitting on the bench on the hill, above a Russian Orthodox Church where some people started to go because Christianity had seen its return, and people didn’t have to hide anymore their faith in secret.
It was an interesting development for both me and Anya as we had grown up in a country without any religion. The Soviet Union’s doctrine was based on absence of any belief system, besides the building of a communal goal, with stuff like ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ considered to be absolute madness, and where those who had dared to proclaim otherwise, were deemed to be mad, and had to undergo a psychiatric treatment. Interestingly enough while I live now in a so-called free society, the mantra that you can believe in anything you want as long as you remain silent, is truer than anywhere else. You are proclaimed as insane immediately if you start talking about God and the devil, and especially if you hint at the fact that you see their manifestations in a daily reality.
So, Anya and I were watching the church with deep curiosity, it was indeed totally beyond any logical thinking. How come, we both wondered, that a country of absolute atheists suddenly turned into zealous church devotees?
“Look, even young people go now there,” I made a remark to Anya, and she nodded to me an agreement, noticing as me, a couple of what looked like students entering the door of the church.
“And I still remember how the doors to the same church were totally closed in the seventies,” we both jumped from fright as we hadn’t noticed the man, sitting now next to us on the bench, approaching us, let alone, materializing himself, suddenly on the bench. But here he was, wearing an interesting red hat, and staring longingly into the distance at the church, furtively giving me a wink in the process, locking his eyes with mine for a brief moment.
A though immediately entered my mind that he was the devil, and I allowed it to remain there, because I was still a teenager, and radical thoughts and visions are more tolerated when you are still at a precarious age. I haven’t yet reached the years when you learn that weird thoughts are not allowed, and that the psychiatry as an institution has the reins and power to silence all ‘different’ individuals once and for good. All those that have seen the devil, met him and know that he is real, are sitting behind the psychiatric bars. Since I am not there, I decided that I have the liberty to say whatever I want, and therefore, I am taking this opportunity to reassure you that everything ever written in the Bible is totally real, not that I had read all of it, due to the difficulty of the scripture. But I live the stories written in it in real life, and manifestations of it and the truth, reach me on a daily basis, usually in my dreams.
And so I allowed the thought to remain there and it was scary but at the same fascinating. Oh wow, I thought, it isn’t all fables and just stories then, is it? Here he is, the devil, and once I permitted the thought to stay there, it took that definite proportions when you realize that perhaps, magic is all real, and I was blessed (or cursed) to see and witness the manifestations of it in my daily reality. It was also interesting to observe that Anya jumped from fear and started to run away, while I remained sitting on the bench for another good couple of minutes, to (and I realize it only now) come to terms to my ‘raison d’etre’ from now on. Yes, I would be chased by the presence of the devil my entire life, and it’s only with experience that I learned that the only way to fight him is via Christianity and belief in Jesus.
Amazingly enough we didn’t talk with Anya about that particular manifestation of the character. I think that like me, she realized the significance of the presence of the man in the red hat, but it was too scary to admit the reality as it is: yes, the devil is real, and he is chasing the earth for a few remaining souls.
It was also the same year that I went to receive baptism and became a Russian Orthodox, embracing a difficult and run with obstacles life. Because the life of a true Christian, the life of a Holy Fool, is one of a martyr, and I ended up fighting with the devil my entire life.
Having met the character many times since that first encounter, I will tell you more about him from now on. He is a great manipulator, and uses clever tactics to lure one into his kingdom. He can also take different forms, and only once I saw the real him, as depicted in Christian scary stories, when I was lucid-dreaming in my sleep.
But this is a tale I will share with you next time.
(Saint Nicholas of Pskov – Russian Holy Fool)