Christianity Returning to Philology: A Nine-Day Trip to Moscow, 4-13 December, 1994


I came to Russia by invitation of Moscow University to take part in a conference sponsored jointly by the Center of Humanities, Moscow University and by the Moscow Patriarchy, entitled "19th Century Russian Literature and Christianity." I did find out on my first day, however, that no appropriate reservation had been made in the University hotel, and so I spent my first night in the three-room (not three-bedroom) apartment of my friends. Misha and Marina, newly married, had a baby and lived with her parents, a semi-paralyzed father and an all too capable mother. So, on my first morning in Moscow I woke up to the crying of the baby, and heard the grandmother's voice cooing and whispering to the child. An unusual sound, I thought, so habitual in Russia and so extraordinary among the Western middle-class. Looking back at my twenty years in Canada, I felt slightly jealous. An unwritten rule of North America is to do it all yourself and to prove to your parents and the world that you are totally in control ... Meantime the Muscovites around me were preparing for another day.
As my friend drove me to the University, I was struck by the sight of a city which in my childhood had always promised unquestionable delights and where, with the certainty of the born Muscovite, I knew how to catch buses, change metro stations, and run down the escalators in the underground with impressive speed. As familiar as the city was, I was constantly making mistakes in identification.
My friend was telling me his tale. His grandmother, he told me, always had fifty thousand rubles in the bank (big money up to four years ago). She had always wanted to buy him a car, and he had always refused. Now, fifty thousand rubles will pay for two and a half teapots. The combined monthly pensions of his parents-in-law do not even come to 80 thousand, he said, so they are always nice to him even if he comes home late, for in his taxi he can make this money in two days. We stopped to fill up. After waiting for half an hour (a very short time he assured me), he got out of the car to pump the gas. The gas attendant would not serve him, not even to clean his car (too old a model, possibly no tips). The cause of inflation? I asked. "Total corruption on all levels of the government," he answered. An old Regime without the mask of Marxism is merely a plutocracy. Still, he said, the children of the élite will get education in the best universities of Europe and then will come back and "buy order." I then tried to remember whether such a process was ever possible, according to what I had studied in political science in the West. I drew a total blank.
Moscow University was clearly holding the conference on a shoestring. The Moscow Patriarchy was not, after all, contributing financially, but preferred instead to donate the money for the reopening of the Chapel of St. Tatiana, a University home church closed for nearly seventy years. "Can I, please, have my copy of the conference program?" "No, the program will be given out only tomorrow." Several foreign professors laugh, but I still insist: "What if I have to give my presentation tomorrow? It cannot be? Let us check the copy which is about to be printed." What a surprise! My presentation is tomorrow at the plenary opening. I do not really panic but just go cold, which can be attributed to the lack of heating in the building. Well, perhaps I do panic a little bit, thinking of myself speaking in Russian in the big auditorium with a capacity of seven hundred. I have lectured in Russian only once before, and I know that I have not yet reached in Russian the abandonment of the experienced formal lecturer, an abandonment which is the result of many lectures given in front of bored students whom you must-should wake up, or you will exhaust yourself and them. Misha, who comes to check on me, ascertains my mood in one glance. "You have to take something immediately to calm yourself down." "I don't take pills." "Who's talking about pills?" he says and takes me out of the university. We walk ten paces and stop at a kiosk. "How's the Stolichnaya?" he asks the two male kiosk keepers. "Not bad. We're trying it right now," they say. "Just have a taste..." So Misha and I drink a small glass of vodka and he complains that I sip it rather than throw it back in one gulp. All three men decide that, by sipping, I spoil the drink. Later, in the hotel, I still have to wait for three hours (the reservations have to be properly confirmed by someone from the university who is still about to arrive). Finally, I am in my room and can make all the phone calls that will connect me with the voices of my childhood. But the telephone does not work: I hear them, they do not hear me. I am too tired to travel anywhere. The black and white TV is filled with commercials and American Westerns. On the news there is something completely unclear about Chechnya. Still, there is almost hot water in the shower; hot tea you can buy on the floor from an old woman who is overseeing us all. I am a Canadian; a tip is easy for me. Thus, I am clearly her favorite, and for me it is only thirty cents. I look through tomorrow's lecture and then I sleep, thankful for harsh but clean white linen.
Next day, I check the hours of the conference with disbelief: from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and from 4:00 to 8:00 pm everyday. The first day starts at 9:00 am, and my own lecture is at 6:00 pm. As the session opens we are welcomed by the Head of the Philological College and an Orthodox Priest, who simply forgets that he promised a lecture and speaks generally about the importance of the church's leadership over philology. I silently reflect that it used to be the leadership of the communist party. The lectures bring more disbelief. Previously, for so many years we heard over and over again that the greatest effort of Russian literature was to grow, nourish, and produce the perfect, radical atheist. Now, I discover that this major revolutionary effort has resulted in the emergence of the orthodox believer, content with everyday reality. Slightly astonished, I mentally return to my own impending lecture and my emphasis on the merging of pagan, pantheistic images with those of Christianity as a singular feature of Russian Literature. With every lecture that I hear, I get more and more worried, so sweet and wholly orthodox has every Russian writer suddenly become. Then unexpectedly comes the brilliant lecture of Professor Strada (Venice, Italy) who holds that the peculiarity of Russian Christian themes lies precisely in the fact that literature on the whole stood apart from orthodoxy, but like no other literature, thematized and problematized Christianity, which gave it spiritual depth, but also ultimately creative freedom. Upon his wide shoulders I can pass quite easily. I have no idea how my lecture went.
The next two days bring a mixture of emotions: great pleasure at being in Moscow University, and anger at the coldness of the auditorium, the smells of the cafeteria, and the constant mixture of luxury and dilapidation. These are also lonely days. My Russian colleagues smile at me, but make little contact. I, on the other hand, am slightly shocked and embarrassed by their newly found religious zeal. On the third day at 5:00 I finally hear a truly brilliant lecture. Only I cannot decide whether it is in Russian, English, or Italian. I also do not understand why it is given by Medea and Patroclus, and why everything around me is so dark blue. Puzzled, I wake up and find a few of my new colleagues observing me with a mixture of enjoyment and envy. A few even wink at me! Although mentally I suppress the horrifying thought that I may have been asleep with my mouth open, I know that I have finally succeeded in making close intellectual rapprochement. Indeed, immediately after the lecture I receive a written invitation to chair the meeting of the last day and to be one of the final speakers of the conference. In my tiredness, I attribute my success to the sweetness of my dream. If I had only known, I should have fallen asleep with my mouth open long ago.
Meantime, the conference continues to surprise me with its all too real religious revival. The hardest to assess is the authenticity of what is happening around me. Former Soviet officials are now speaking about Christianity, presiding over an occasion they cannot direct or judge, and whose subject matter they have been taught to criticize throughout all their educational training. The visiting orthodox priests are obviously suspicious of the University types, and this breeding ground of pride and scientific idolatry. The religious rhetoric of the speakers is reflected in a few centers of intensity in the audience: somber, energetic, bearded young men who obviously know the orthodox liturgy and have discussed the New Testament in groups of similar somber intensity. They are now surrounded by young girls in heavy straight skirts and sweaters with open, unprotected necks, with long braids and high melodic voices. The girls are obviously not rich, and they occasionally run to the microphone and ask the audience to understand how God loves the earth and how the whole universe is filled with love. I, for my part, am not fully entering intot that mood. All of us, nevertheless, share the memory of a suppressed, hounded and destroyed intellectual tradition, which is now finding its way back into philology: Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Soloviev, Propp, Bakhtin, Vygotsky. Have we got rid of them, so that now we should try to glue together, the broken pieces of the past without ever breathing one word of apology? We are all slightly out of our roles, and while I participate in what is around me, I wonder whether this dislocation is, indeed, the single inimitable characteristic of a major historical shift. Mentally I search for the books I've read to give some mental focus to what I see, and one more time I draw a blank among a considerable chorus of quotations.
During the long hours of the conference I think of one more phone call I need to make -- to Fr. Khmelnitsky, one of Moscow's few Russian Catholic Priests and an editor of a new periodical Truth and Life. And, thus, among the disorder of the days, we finally meet on Saturday, in a flat in the middle of Moscow, which has been turned into an editorial office. Fr. Khmelnitsky is a very Russian Catholic Priest: a man from a Jewish atheist family with a Ph.D. in Oriental studies. A desire for moral order transcends even the chaos of his surroundings: the issue is being prepared while his colleagues in the magazine come to work for social relaxation and numerous smoking breaks, during which they discuss the fate of Catholicism and Salvation History in the Russian Orthodox tradition. At present there are two tendencies in the Russian Orthodox Church: one extremely nationalistic and anti-Catholic and the other more tolerant and temperate. According to Father Khmelnitsky, the Moscow Patriarchy is taking a middle road, and all is helped, of course, by the clear realization that the Catholic church will never be able to spread in Russia and receive thousands of new students. A bigger threat to Orthodoxy, in fact, is posed by the Protestant Churches, which operate right now in Russia on an unprecedented scale, feeding and sheltering the needy. Fr. Khmelnitsky himself just hopes to maintain and develop his publishing house, but better technology is needed and he tries with all his considerable organizational skills to fill out applications to Western Catholic organizations, requesting financial help.
I am also making contacts with my old girlfriends and my family's friends. Almost every story is a story of desperate endurance. Kostya, the violinist, cut a record two years ago. The raving reviews were ready, but for some reason the record was not printed for several months. He was told not to worry; the waiting was routine, but he was then asked to guarantee that every musical store in town would sell 2,000 copies. Otherwise, the record would not be printed. So his soloist career is on hold, and the Gnessin academy where he is doing his doctoral work is steadily losing its virtuoso musician-teachers who all get contracts in the West.
Olga's house (two rooms and a kitchen) has become a ground for money-making servitude, so that she and her husband can pay for their children's music lessons and save just a little to get away in the summer. Like a machine, she gives English lessons, feeds, cleans, walks the dog and suffers headaches. But the children look at the world with inspired tender faces, their minds filled with music, math, literature. I understand these children almost better than I do my own (a click of jealousy, and possibly frustration). For the first time in my life I understand Eliot's until-then-irritating phrase: "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle tree." I hope this family can hold on just a little bit longer with its schedules, lessons, music, and crushing vulnerability.
Still, we are all in the grip of history, and the city is filled with apprehension about Chechnya. On the 13th of December, war is finally announced. I spend my last day and a half with my other friend, her two children, and her husband who is a member of the Russian Human Rights Committee, which is connected to the Democratic "Apple" Party represented by Yavlinsky. The phone constantly rings. Her husband smokes, her children study, her daughter sings and plays the guitar; the walls of the kitchen by midnight are covered with cockroaches which come from the apartment underneath.
Sitting well into the night we talk much about the past and a little about the future. We all understand that the war in Chechnya will once again repeat what has crushed the personal lives of Russians for so many generations: the hopeless acts of murder by people who have been stripped of the dignity of choice. In that state impossible acts of cruelty become everyday reality: people can be locked up in freezing cells, forgotten for years, bitten by angry rodents and parasites. On the last day in Moscow, seeing my old and new acquaintances, I no longer think. My mind has become like my impression of the Moscow streets: every corner is a memory, but I do not know whether we are heading East, West, or South. The drive to the airport is worrisome. The second day of the war with Chechnya means that military trucks are on the roads. We pass militiamen, soldiers, market places, babushkas selling crafts, kerchiefs, paintings. And then I am in the airplane, being served by the most efficient French stewardess, who is clearly irritated by the Russian Mafia types all flying first class. I know that she cannot place me. In ten days, I lost any suggestion of Western glamour, and yet am too un-Russian in my total carelessness about my appearance. In order to collect myself, I try to find one image which can unite or at least balance all the contradictory and quickly changing emotions associated with an already lost Russia (we are already flying over Western Europe). Many days later, already in Canada, I finally find that image: the first quiet morning of my visit when I woke up in the house of my friends, to the sounds of the grandmother and the baby, the former maintaining some semblance of order, and the latter too young to speak or walk