THE ORTHODOX CONTENT IN SLAVIC LITERATURE

by Andrew J. Sopko, Ph.D.

 

Historical Background

From the time of their conversion to Christianity, beginning in the ninth century, the Slavs were given not only their first written language but also the potential to create an indigenous Christian literature of their own. The Byzantine Christian literary inheritance which was imparted to them through the writings of the Fathers and lives of the saints was multifaceted in its emphases. At its center stood the reality of God, manifested in his personal relationship with the created order and with man in particular. The fact that man often rejected his legitimate relationship with God became the contrasting theme of this literature. But despite man's indifference and denial, God's presence in the world, especially through Jesus Christ, gave the created order a greater credibility and limitless potential. The world was something that could be believed in for "it was very good." One could suffer for it because of its Godrootedness, just as one could also be sanctified in it for the very same reason. These themes recur again and again in Slavic literature through the centuries and especially in its contemporary manifestations.

Russian literature, through its sheer bulk, has presented these themes in countless ways. Beginning in the medieval period (1000-1700), hagiography and the chronicle reflected Christian values and especially the divine purpose for the existence of man. In the chronicles, the role of divine providence in the lives of persons and states is stressed. As cruelty and injustice increased through the centuries, however, the more optimistic tone of earlier times changed, particularly during the so-called "Time of Troubles" and catastrophes came to be viewed as punishment for sin. By the eighteenth century, a baroque influence had entered literature through the westernized theological academies. Emphasis on the transitoriness of this world, misfortune and disillusionment once again repressed the earlier optimistic (and more "orthodox" approach) to such an extent that even a great saint and ecclesiastic such as Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) was influenced by it. Classicism came next, reaching its summit with Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837). While his greatness in the development of the Russian literary language can hardly be denied his belief that literary art stood higher than any morality or ethics once again demonstrates a continuing departure from the Orthodox ethos. In like manner, Mikhail Lermonts (1814- 41) pessimism about the senselessness of this life speaks for itself, although his psychological approach became a model for later Russian Orthodox writers.

 

Nikolai Gogol

Russian literature had travelled far from its original intentions and this situation was almost single-handedly rectified by Nikolai Gogol (1809-52). In his writings, there is no life for man except in God. Only through a relationship with God can man find his true place within the created order. Most readers of Dead Souls think that the title refers only to the names of the deceased serfs which the swindler Chichkov uses in his transactions, but it also refers to the "living" characters who have turned from God and chosen the devil. The world's inherent goodness falls prey to the devil through man's folly. Marl's own mediocrity and inconclusiveness, best represented by Klestakov in The Inspector General, makes the devil's work infinitely easier. As the eternal medium of banality, the devil is able to obscure totally the true meaning of the world for man and makes even the most ordinary objects and situations a tool for his ends (The Overcoat). Even such a noble enterprise as labor for artistic perfection can become demonic. Thus, the Pushkinian view of art's supremacy over morality is denied by Gogol, along with the strictly contemplative lifestyle that accompanies its manifestation. While Gogol did not reject the contemplative life outright, he knew that it must be accompanied by activism. This would, of course, bring suffering, but it would also eventually bring the sanctification of man and the world, no longer influenced by the devil.

 

Lev Tolstoy

The nihilism of Ivan Turgenev's (1818-83) Fathers and Sons, the boredom of Ivan Goncharov's (1812-91) Oblomov, and most of all the social disinterest of Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) obviously do not fall within the Gogolian context. Tolstoy, so often presented as the quintessential Russian author, is actually one of the least Orthodox in his approach. "In all his talk about love and God, it is a little hard to know what he means by either" (Edmund Wilson). In his search for the meaning of life, he turned to his own brand of religion, reinterpreting the Gospel Words of Jesus and satirizing the Church's presentation of Christianity. While it must be admitted that Tolstoy's characters often find meaning in helping each other, there is little to guide them Outside their limited moral context. Like their creator, they have no conception of the community of humanity, nor do they conceive of nature as anything more than an impersonal force much as in paganism.

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky

There is certainly an obvious contrast between Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81). Where the one never saw anything below the surface, the other observed everything from a spiritual plane. Rather than just a biological process, Dostoevsky saw man as a microcosm and continually raised questions concerning man's relationship with God and the cosmos. Life is tragic for him, but only because man is not what he is meant to be. Man can struggle with God because he is free and it is this freedom which enables him to experience life tragically. Characters in Dostoevsky's works who insist on asserting only their own egos imagine countless atrocities; some are even led to commit, not just murder, but suicide and deicide. In The Possessed, Shatov, in his dementia, wants to raise the people itself to Godhead. Kirillov advocates that, through suicide, each individual can become God, for he mistakenly equates God with man's fear of death. Finally and most tragically, Stavrogin hangs himself, not because he hopes to become God by so doing, but because it is his only solution to having betrayed everyone and everything.

The affirmation of creation stands at the center of Dostoevsky's work. Father Zosima, the spiritual director in The Brothers Karamazov, was so concerned with God that he had to be concerned with men and the world. When man answers yes or no to God, his response reveals his attitude to creation as well. When Sonia asks Raskolnikov to confess before the people in Crime and Punishment, she also requests that he kiss the earth. Maria Timofeyevna tells us rather naively in The Possessed that "God and Nature are the same thing". In a conversation in The Idiot when Prince Myshkin is expected to speak on spiritual values, he calls himself a materialist. And most revealing of all are the words of Zosima's brother on his deathbed, "Life is a paradise but we won't see it; if we could, we should have heaven on earth the next day."

Suffering unites all men in Dostoevsky and even those who cause suffering may unknowingly aid in dignifying the victim. In The Idiot, the prostitute Nastasia Filipovna, thinking herself unworthy of Myshkin and not wishing to corrupt him, goes instead to Rogozhin. He kills her but as he does so, he shows a compassion which he never displayed towards her in life. Unknowingly he ends the constant cycle of indignity which she has suffered. In various situations in Dostoevsky, the relationship between male and female is presented almost in terms of salvation. Salvation means sanctification, an existence totally transparent to the will of God and this is the final and highest reality Dostoevsky describes. It is not socialism but the communion of saints which provides the surest manifestation of the Kingdom of God in a tragic world. Myshkin, a fool for Christ, instead becomes the image of Christ. Alyosha, whose love for Christ knows no bounds, carries that love into the world when Zosima sends him from his cell. Even the death of a saint does not separate him from the earth, as the eternal remembrance given little Ilhyusha by those admirers who were once his detractors in The BrothersKaramazov demonstrates.

 

Anton Chekhov

Despite its pessimism Anton Chekhov's (1860-1904) work conveys man's capacity to love his neighbor. Although he sees life as senseless, he also recognizes in man the capacity to strive for perfection and the ability for self renunciation. Unfortunately, part of the blame for the senselessness which Chekhov and more radical writers saw in life must fall on the Russian Church. As Berdyaev observed, the Church often "relegated spiritual life to another and transcendent world and created a religion for the soul that was homesick for the spiritual life it had lost." Confusion in the proclamation of the church's message brought confusion to the spiritual content of literature. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the rise of Symbolism and Acmeism. In its earliest manifestations, Symbolism was an escapist movement. According to many of its adherents such as D.N. Merezhkovsky (1865-1941), a synthesis between a corrupt, material world and eternal values was not possible. A younger generation of symbolists, including Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), Aleksandr Blok (1880-1920), and Andrei Beley (1880-1934), tempered this view under the influence of Vladimir Solovyev's thought (1853-1900). They hoped for and wrote about an imminent end to the ongoing conflict between Christ and anti-Christ which would bring a synthesis of the two "worlds". Acemism considered such a view wishful thinking, and its chief poets Mikhail Kuzmin (1895-1936), Osip Mandel'shtam (1891-1938) and (at least in her earlier career) Anna Ahkmatova (1889-1966) sought to emphasize the autonomy of the here and now above all else.

 

Andrei Bely

Because of the admixture of theosophy, gnosticism and other such ingredients in these movements, discerning Orthodox content can be a difficult task. Of all those to be considered, Andrei Bely emerges as a particularly worth successor to Gogol and, in some ways, to Dostoevsky. Bely warned how the devil uses the isolated objects of reality to confuse man about the world's true nature, just as Gogol had. In Petersburg, the characters fragment reality, failing to see that the visible and invisible worlds interconnect, thereby acquiring their meaning. The crisis in contemporary civilization stems from the conflict between man's rational and non-rational activities and self-transcendence will be the only way to overcome the conflict. Suffering "crucifixion," as Korobkin voluntarily does in the first volume of Moscow, brings insight; for the two are interconnected. Refusing to give up a discovery which could destroy the world, he is tortured. In the second volume, Masks, he is "resurrected" and Gogolian activism is introduced. Paradoxically, his decision to destroy his discovery causes another's death. While he has learned, like Father Zosima, about "the responsibility of each for all, his action is as disastrous as Myshkin's" (J.D. Elworth).

 

Aleksandr Blok

The apocalypticism of many of the Symbolists eventual became identified with the Bolshevik Revolution. The millenarian character assigned to it is best summed up in Aleksandr Blok's The Twelve, where Christ himself leads the revolutionaries. Before long, however, disenchantment set in and many writers did not look upon the course of events as either good or evil but merely as a process beyond human control. This attitude carried over into a novel such as Mikhail Sholokov's (1905-1984) Quiet Flows the Don, which basically states that the activities of men are subordinated to the judgement of nature. Such a position obviously does not fit into the Orthodox view which rejects all philosophies of natural determinism.

 

Boris Pasternak

The reassertion of Orthodox attitudes in Soviet Russian literature came only with Boris Pasternak's (1890-1960) Doctor Zhivago, which sees the coming of Christ as the only true revolution in human history. At the very beginning of the novel, Pasternak presents a parable which shows that the Russian Church had not always succeeded in continuing that revolution. Just like the corpse of Zhivago's mother, the church has become a body without a spirit. Later, Zhivago's guardian Nikolai, who personified the religious intelligentsia of the turn-of-the-century that tried to give the Church new vitality, speaks of immortality as a stronger word for a life true to Christ. The theme of a transfigured world is thus introduced with Holy Week as the central theme of the story: the moment Zhivago picks up a beam for firewood from the rubble of the revolution, his passion begins, continuing through his medical practice in the service of others, culminating with neglect of himself in abject poverty. In this way he personified the Christian ideal of self-emptying, setting not only an example for tragic Russia but also providing an image of the proper relationship between God, man and creation.

 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn's (1918- ) realism has aimed at reducing all optimistic and utopian illusions in order to replace these with a true concern for humanity in all situations, especially negative ones. The dismissal of God from the world is the root cause of our misery. In The First Circle, when the young girl Agniya visits an old, deteriorating church in the Moscow suburbs, she laments the loss of the old values in the wake of the revolution. Because of the rejection of the divine order, the human order suffers a similar fate. In the same novel, the prisoner Sologdin personifies these old values. Although his views may result from archaism rather than from Christianity, he realizes that the way a person lives teaches truth rather than abstract ideologies. Such sensitivity also leads to a recognition of the true nature of the created order. In The First Circle, Kondrashov-Ivanov insists that man is not determined by nature nor any other aspect of his environment. Nonetheless, nature itself still awaits man's proper cooperation for he has yet to see its integrity, as Kostoglotov does during his remission in Cancer Ward.

For Solzhenitsyn, Good Friday pervades not just the prison camps and the hospitals but all of history (August, 1914). There is no other place for change to occur. Nerzhin leaves the relative comfort of "the first circle" for a much worse camp in order to discover the truth; the "truly cured" patients leave the cancer ward to live positively, although their disease might reappear at any time. With crucifixion comes true detachment from all circumstances and an attitude which embraces reality. Only this can "build up" the earth. What the prisoners and the patients experience in their sufferings together might be termed a sanctifying calm. The fraternity created by the shared mental anguish of the prisoners in The First Circle might make them a "church" but it is the added physical anguish of The Gulag which transforms prisoners into saints. Out of the most distorted reality can come divine reality. And this reality can be demonstrated not just by ardent believers such as Alyosha in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but by Ivan himself, who dearly does not share Alyosha's beliefs.

 

After Solzhenitsyn

With the departure of Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet scene, other authors have been left with the task of calling attention to the traditional values. Such writers as Vladimir Tendryakov (1923- ) and Vladimir Soloukhin (1924- ) are particularly noteworthy in this respect. Tendryakov emphasizes the countryside as the chief locale for these values, while Soulkhin stresses their Christian foundation. Official displeasure with many Orthodox-oriented writers has led to a great increase in underground (samizdat) publication. What the future holds for such writers, when they incure the Party's displeasure, is difficult to predict. The rehabilitation, however, of a writer such as Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), whose Master and Margarita was published long after his death, demonstrates that attitudes do change. The novel's subplot concerning the passion and death of Christ, is so symbolic of Russia's own suffering, has now evidently become acceptable.

 

Bulgarian Literature

Due to historical circumstances, Bulgarian and Serbian literature have not enjoyed the same continuity as their Russian counterpart. Although a Bulgarian bishop such as Constantine of Preslav (ca. 900) stressed the need for a vernacular Christian literature from the very beginning, five hundred years of Ottoman domination brought his nation's literary development to a halt. Written hagiography and chronography gave way to completely oral genres passed from generation to generation and it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that an indigenous literary tradition was revived. Past suppression and isolation have limited the scope of contemporary Bulgarian literature but it still retains Orthodox content. Many of its stories and novels revolve around rural and village life with particular emphasis given to the centrality of the Church in people's lives. A short story such as Elin Pelin's (1877-1949) All Souls' Day provides a good example. While cosmopolitanism may not be an ingredient of this literature the themes of marl's and nature's dignity are ever-present. Yordan Yovkov's (1880-1937) work incorporates not only the spirituality of the common man but also the part animals play in helping humanity fulfill its "natural role". The necessity of active suffering can also be found in Yovkov's Heroes' Heads (where revolution and renewal of nature in spring parallel each other) as well as in the work of an author such as Konstantin Konstantinov (1890- ).

 

Ivan Vazov

The greatest work of contemporary Bulgarian literature remains Ivan Vazov's (1850-1922) novel Under the Yoke. In describing the town of Byala Cherkva during an unsuccessful uprising against the Turks, he gives a profoundly Orthodox presentation. Ognyanov, the chief rebel of the story, is seen not as an ideological warrior but as "inspired by God" to serve the people as an "apostle". Even the monks of the story are activists in the best sense of the word. Abbot Nathaniel leaves a church service in order to help Ognyanov and Father Yerotei views his sacrifices for the schooling of ten boys as sacramental. The greatest self-denial in the story, however, belongs to Ognyanov's fiance Rada, who eventually dies with him. But despite all the terrible machinations of man described in the course of the action, nature retains its divine beauty, a fact to which Ognayanov himself calls attention.

 

Serbian Literature

Until the end of the medieval Serbian state, not only hagiography but also royal biography formed an important part of Serbian literature. An emphasis on the great deeds of Christian rulers passed into epic poetry, particularly the legend of the battle of Kosovo (1389). Here, the necessity of an active campaign against evil is maintained even if suffering and destruction are the outcome. Following five hundred years of Turkish occupation, this theme has been reiterated in contemporary Yugoslav literature, some of whose best authors hail from Bosnia. The Bosnian Peter Kocic (1877-1916) has written stories which stress that man's fate is not decided through natural determinism. In Through the Storm, he presents the character of Relja Knezevic who, although he has lost everything through natural disaster, still retains faith in God. Even when he is killed at the end of the story, Relja is still able to transcend the situation through an act of love. A suffering love need not be flamboyant but can also be quietly faithful, as in The First Morning Service with Father, by Serbian writer Laza Lazarevic (1851-1891). In it, a faithful wife and mother demonstrate true sanctity that brings a dramatic change in her gambler-husband's life.

 

Ivo Andric

Personal ambition as opposed to the dignity of creation emerges as the chief theme in the works of the greatest contemporary Yugoslav author, the Bosnian Ivo Andric (1892- ). Both in his short stories, especially The Climbers, and in his magnum opus, the novel The Bridge on the Drina, this theme is reiterated. Creativity, a gift from God for the earths enhancement, becomes demonic when used only for personal ambition. In The Climbers, Lesko struggles to put a cross on the church building, not to beautify it but to put himself in the limelight. In doing so, he climbs not towards God but towards a very different goal. For Andric, suffering and martyrdom also possess a creative purpose because they display man's true nature. In The Bridge on the Drina both man and nature suffer together simultaneously, the villagers are recruited for forced labor on the bridge and the trees of the nearby forest are felled to provide scaffolding. Because the bridge will also become a vehicle for exploitation by its Turkish builders, both Radisav's sabotage, for which he is executed, and the weather conditions which slow down the work are viewed as divine judgments by the villagers. Despite such events, the bridge is completed and evil seemingly triumphs. The artillery of World War I eventually destroys it, so it is only a greater evil that replaces it.

Andric shows that as the century has progressed, so has the intensity of evil: the very existence of man and the earth now hangs in the balance. Many of the emphases in Andric and in all Slavic literature are again needed in today's world literature, not to bring us further despair but to awaken us to how we can put our present dilemma behind us.

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