by Nancy Seifer
On Monday morning, August 19, 1991, I was awakened from a deep sleep by my Moscow hostess and her neighbor. With tears in their eyes, they broke the news of the coup, informing me of Gorbachev’s “disappearance” and the state of emergency declared by the junta. As I struggled to prepare myself for what might unfold in the hours and days ahead, a deafening roar rose up from the street below. An unending column of army tanks filed slowly by, a menacing signal of this dangerous new reality.
There are few who would argue that the foundations for a Western-style economy or democracy exist in Russia
I searched for clues to interpret these events. Remarkably, the activities of daily life seemed to proceed virtually without interruption. Even as the tanks rolled by, people walked their dogs, waited in line for groceries, or rushed to catch the trolleys and buses that shared the boulevard with the tanks. The metros were as unfailingly punctual as always, arriving every two to three minutes. Inside, with few exceptions, passengers wore the habitual blank expressions reserved for public places in a police state.
By early afternoon, a small crowd had gathered at one of the Kremlin gates. Several women gesticulated angrily at the young soldiers perched atop the tanks stationed there. The atmosphere was tense and suspenseful, but there was no sign of panic. Neither was there any indication, as yet, of substantial resistance to the junta. My own sense of foreboding about the threat to the hard won freedoms of the glasnost and perestroika years was not reflected in the faces of Muscovites. Something else was present. Perhaps, I thought then, this was just the result of battle scars from centuries of change at the top with no improvement in the lives of those at the bottom.
That afternoon, still searching, I interviewed Renita Grigoreva, a much lauded, Moscow feature-film director whom I had met weeks earlier at a conference in Siberia. Renita’s home, where we talked, is a large suite of newly-renovated rooms in a 19th-century palace. When I arrived, preparations were underway for a festive meal to celebrate Transfiguration Day, a major Russian Orthodox holiday. The irony of the coincidence of the two days was not lost on Renita’s guests. But beyond that, like Muscovites in the streets, none of them seemed concerned with events taking place only a few hundred yards away at the Kremlin. I had the sensation of entering a timeless realm where what mattered was the broad sweep of history; the invisible evolutionary currents and tides that move human history forward.
In Renita’s view, the coup, about which she spoke only briefly to satisfy my interest, was not really news at all. This was no more than a power struggle among leaders molded by the old system who were fighting over its spoils. “They are of one body,” she said, “two sides of the same coin. They know it’s impossible to go back to the totalitarian system, so they are struggling to divide the pie. But this is only what appears on the surface. The real forces that decide the course of history are deep inside and have roots deep in the past. In time, new people will appear.”
Like so many Russians, Renita, who is in her early 50s, speaks with authority, as one for whom Dostoyevsky, among other Russian philosophers and seers, has been a spiritual teacher. Her round face lights up when she talks of a new generation of Russians, “new people with a new spirituality.” She believes that Russia’s mission, Russia’s eventual contribution to the planet, is to embody the transcendental in life, “to demonstrate a living relationship between man and earth and God,” which she sees as the basis of a universal religion. Supporting her belief she cites Dostoyevsky, whose last words, she says, “as he lay dying were about this new religion that would one day make all men realize they are brothers.” [sic]
As I left Renita’s apartment after three and a half hours, I again confronted the reality that an ominous and world changing event had taken place that morning. Yet those hours with Renita had altered my perspective. I had glimpsed a key element of the Russian soul – that timelessness and otherworldliness whose negative aspect Chekhov so poignantly depicted as the tendency toward worldly inaction. Walking through the streets of Moscow where life was nearly indistinguishable from the day before the coup, I wondered if this trait was partially responsible for the apparent lack of resistance to the junta’s threat of restoring dictatorship.
I remembered Mikhail (Misha) Shishin, a bearded, young professor of art history at a university in Barnaul, a small town in southern Siberia, thousands of miles from Moscow. Two weeks earlier, after a discussion of the local food shortages, he had presaged to Renita: “People who speak only about the economic crisis are making a big mistake. The more important problems are of a spiritual nature,” he said. “What economists dream of is to bring Russia to a level of development compared to America, but it will never happen. The path of Russia is different. The only way we can emerge from this crisis is by implanting in our children the seeds of a new consciousness, a spiritual consciousness. They will be the new Russians.”
Central to this new consciousness, in Misha’s view, is the idea of “sobornost” – the fellowship of individuals within a collective body – a concept deeply woven into the fabric of centuries of Russian life. Misha said, “For people with a Russian consciousness, the whole idea of communism took on nearly mythological proportions. In some way, you see, our consciousness is more Asian than European; it has more to do with collectivism and community than a sense of individualism.
During my travels throughout Russia, people I spoke to often brought up Nikolai Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher who lived from 1874 to 1948, and who is seen as the ultimate authority on the subject of the Russian soul. In his autobiography, written at the end of his life, he wrote:
“The Russian people are informed by a peculiar, instinctive tendency to collectivism – a collectivism… which should not be understood primarily in political or sociological terms. It would be more accurate to speak of a tendency to communism …implying as it does not a mere collection of people, but their communion with one another. We never experienced individualism in the western sense of the word…but this did not prevent us from deeply appreciating the problem of the relationship between personality and universal social harmony. No one, in fact, has stated this problem with such power and understanding as …Dostoyevsky or Belinsky. ..But Russian practice was, more often than not, illustrative of distorted and falsified ‘sobornost’. Thus Russian communism is a travesty of’sobornost’…as it subjects the creative freedom of man to the demands of a collectivized and mechanized society. And the Russians go on dreaming of ‘sobornost,’ which would embody the integral unity of freedom and communion in religious, social, political and cultural relations.”
Misha Shishin has committed himself to realizing a piece of the ongoing Russian dream. Now in his mid-30s and the father of two small children, when he is not teaching art history he publishes philosophy books that were not available under the Communist regime and teaches children Russian and world culture in an after-school program. He sees it as a way to dig out of that cultural and spiritual devastation left by the Communist system. For him it is a personal challenge to build a bridge between his inner world and “that other world which I always saw as existing outside of me.”
“I’m a dreamer, like all Russian people,” Misha said. “Our reality is a world of dreams that exists – somewhere. The world that we see outside seems to be so unreal, so unfamiliar. The life of material things is like the stage set in a theater. Inside of us we know that it isn’t real, that something different is needed.” Communism took roots in Russia, according to Misha, because of this national trait. “We fell in love with the dream that we would have a society which will be just, where everyone will be equals, where we will live in harmony. But it was just another dream, a fairy tale.”
In this post-coup, post-Communist era, no one I know is willing to predict Russia’s future path. Despite Boris Yeltsin’s ongoing homage to democracy, and Russia’s recently won acceptance into the Western world’s most influential financial body, the International Monetary Fund, there are few who would argue that the foundations for a Western-style economy or democracy exist in Russia. In a recent article in The World Monitor, the Christian Science Monitor’s monthly magazine, Georgianne Geyer points out how unrealistic it is to expect that Western values spawned by hundreds of years of history – values such as individual initiative, self-reliance, freedom and responsibility that form the bedrock of our political and economic institutions – can be instantly transplanted in Russian soil.
What is organic to Russian soil is “the idea of the common welfare,” in the words of Natalia Borodina, a leading economics journalist in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s major city, who remains committed to “the noble purpose of the communist idea” even as she seeks to learn about American finance. Western observers may well have confused the evils of totalitarianism with the ideal of communism in their assessment of the failure of the Communist state. In their rush to help Russian politicians and native entrepreneurs create a capitalist economy, and in their assumption that an unregulated competitive market system is Russia’s sole alternative, Western economic advisors and business people seem not to have perceived the importance which many Russians still attach to the ideal. In a call to the West to overcome old stereotypes, Mikhail Gorbachev recently wrote, “…the Stalinist model is dead, and, I would add, thank God. ..(but) the idea of socialism lives on.”
Similarly, the Western media have focused on the dramatic transformation of the Communist elite into a new entrepreneurial class, largely ignoring another force that is, simultaneously, profoundly reshaping Russian life: An exploding interest in spirituality. Six thousand Russian Orthodox churches have reopened in the last three years, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning Russian expert and journalist, Hedrick Smith. The Baptist religion is flourishing along with other branches of Protestantism, and untold millions of copies of the Bible have been sold and distributed. In the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large cities, books on Hinduism, Buddhism, Krishnaism, and other religions are for sale everywhere. Posters advertise lectures and seminars on metaphysical, esoteric and occult subjects, along with every conceivable form of healing, psychism, and UFO cult, as millions of individuals search, in their own way, for a higher reality.
“The greatest question for Russia,”Nikolai Berdyaev said a half century ago, “has always been what to believe.” In the eyes of many Russians, the current crisis is above all a crisis of belief. Sergei Obratsov, now in his 80s, the founder of a popular puppet theater and a beloved Moscow cultural figure, had this to say in a recent newspaper interview:
“For me, our present time is the most difficult time in my life….The lack of faith has brought us so much pain….For a very long time we believed in communism, I too believed in it although I lived my whole life without becoming a member of the Party. Theidea of communism is, at its essence, a very beautiful one. It is not a new idea, its roots go back to the very distant past. To a great extent it reflects a very old Christian belief about goodness, charity and compassion. But it was so distorted that the idea itself turned into the cause of a great deal of evil. In the end, we no longer even believe in communism.
We believe in almost nothing now, and because of this, life is very, very difficult for us.”
In the short run, unfettered market forces will surely leave their mark on the Russian landscape. But it is hard to escape the impression that they will be the least profound of changes that will overtake this vast expanse of the earth. In the long run, the products of the marketplace simply will not be enough to satisfy the Russian soul. Out of this historical crisis will emerge, if not a universal religion as many have predicted, at least another idea, another belief, another article of faith concerning the interrelatedness of humankind.
Nancy Seifer is the author of Face To Face With Freedom: A Glimpse Of The Russian Soul During The August Coup (Freedom Press, N Y, 1991), and Nobody Speaks For Me!: Self Portraits Of American Working Class Women (1976). She is currently at work on an oral history book about Russians.