These Are a Few of My Favorite (Russian) Things
Standing against an atmosphere of blind hatred, let us honor Russia’s vast contribution to universal civilization.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has set off a Russophobic frenzy in the United States and Europe. From vandalism targeting Russian restaurants and community centers to bans against Russian teams participating in soccer and Paralympic competitions, many in the West seem incapable of morally distinguishing between Russia’s political leadership, on one hand, and millions of ordinary Russians, on the other.
This is a sadly common wartime phenomenon, and people can be excused for reacting viscerally to a powerful nation attacking a smaller, weaker neighbor, with all the human misery that entails. Still, there’s something especially insipid about today’s social-media-led, H.R.-department-backed anti-Russian drive. Yesterday, it was anti-maskers and Black Lives Matter skeptics getting un-personed; today it’s anyone and anything associated with the Bad Country.
The worst part is the sheer philistinism that demands we banish Russian culture from our bookshelves, galleries, concert halls, and theaters. A Russian conductor has been booted from his job at the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. A Russian opera singer has had her Met Opera dates canceled. Studies in the History of Philosophy, an academic journal, scrapped a special issue devoted to Russian religious philosophy, in light of “the illegal attack of the Russian Federation on Ukraine.” An Italian university postponed a course on Dostoevsky (before backtracking). The city of Manchester is considering removing a Soviet-era statue of the communist thinker Friedrich Engels, who happened to be German.
This is all monumentally stupid. And dangerous. If anything, the war should renew Western interest in Russian history and culture, so we might better understand Russia’s motivations; simplistic, Manichaean narratives won’t do. Down the path of cultural erasure, moreover, lies dehumanization (already, there are calls to treat all Russians as somehow collectively culpable). A serious encounter with the glories of Russian culture might just forestall further alienation.
Where might a beginner begin? As a son of Iran—a nation, I might note, with its own historical grievances against Russia—I’ve only ever encountered Russian literature in translation, whether in Persian or English. I claim no special expertise. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of four Russian art objects that have profoundly touched me over the years:
1. It might surprise readers to know that my favorite piece of modern liturgical music was composed by a Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff, in the Orthodox tradition. I’m speaking of the All-Night Vigil (1915), Rachmaninoff’s goosebumps-raising a cappella ode to the Christian mysteries as they found expression in his beloved Russian soil, in the Russian Orthodox Church of his grandmother (Rachmaninoff himself wasn’t much of a believer). Considered an extremely difficult piece to perform, the Vigil veers between gentle intimacy and crescendoing power and glory, weaving psalm and gospel and Magnificat into an otherworldly choral tapestry.
2. In my most recent book, I devoted a chapter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the liberal West, one he forcefully articulated in his infamous 1978 Harvard commencement address. In it, the former Gulag resident warned that the West had lost sight of the ancient distinction between liberty for good and license for evil, which results in a society that is paradoxically less free, hostage as it is to naked commercial interests and the whims of the selfish. Lambasted at the time as a misguided rant from “a conservative, religious, and terribly homesick Russian,” the Harvard speech proved prophetic. (Needless to say, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago also belong on any list of the best in world literature.)
3. The films of Andrei Tarkovsky demand a lot from viewers, but the patient are rewarded with profound insight and visual delight. I’m especially a partisan of Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), and Stalker (1979). But above all, Rublev. A loose, haunting biopic about the greatest of Russia’s medieval iconographers, it offers, among many other things, a spiritual roadmap for how to rebuild civilization just when all seems lost.
4. Russia’s 19th-century literary masters need no recommendation from me. Tolstoy and the now-canceled Dostoevsky tower high above the rest. If I absolutely had to pick one, I would go with Tolstoy and his War and Peace (1869), the only novel, I think, that captures the whole of life, at both the macro, world-historical and the micro, psychological scales (my God, even the wolves and dogs have an interior life!). Western pundits who are glibly rubbing their hands at the prospect of breaking Russia’s will might recall the scene of Muscovites setting their own city alight during the Napoleonic Wars, lest it fall into foreign hands.
Others might make other lists of the kind (feel free to use the comments section to share yours). The point is to insist on what is true, good, and beautiful in Russian culture and to honor, amid an atmosphere of blind hatred, Russia’s vast contribution to universal civilization.