If there has been official discouragement of public reflection on Russia's communist years (at least of their negative aspects; see last week's post), it was certainly swept away for a time by coverage of the life, death, and funeral of Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexii II. Documentaries, commentaries, and panel discussions concerning the late patriarch and his church have abounded. Every single program of those I've watched or sampled over the last six days has included some mention of Soviet-era repression. One fascinating documentary spent much time on Khrushchev's anti-religion campaign, its costs and cruelties.
And this evening on TV included a documentary on Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who paid a high price for his resistance to repression.
In the meantime, I've continued to collect impressions and anecdotal evidence that, whatever may or may not be going on in the minds of some leaders, ordinary Russians are not inclined to paper over this painful history. I vividly remember people reminiscing about their own families last year's after the news carried the story of then-president Putin's visit to Butovsky Poligon, an NKVD shooting range near Moscow, where thousands were executed. In general, my friends address this area of life much like any other: with eyes wide open ("Of course we know what happened--and what compromises our parents needed to make") but with most of their energy reserved for the present and future.
Whether or not Russia as a nation has adequately processed this bitter legacy may not be something we foreigners can fairly assess. (Has the USA adequately processed the near-extinction of some of its aboriginal population? By what devices do we let ourselves off the hook for that?) But one thing I do know: Russians have an enormous capacity for self-criticism. Nancy Ries's fascinating book Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika documents the blunt litanies of Russia's unique deficiencies which are seemingly as traditional as the opposite tendency to extoll mother Russia's unique virtues. I can't count the times someone has said to me, "In this aspect" (fill in the blank: underground utilities, insurance and lawsuits, hiring and firing), "things are underdeveloped here." In one and the same conversation, an artist friend says "Russia eats its children" and "God has given Russia a special grace."
Finally: So much that ends up labeled "Russian" is actually just plain human. I have to keep reminding myself that borders originate in the mind, not in objective reality; and that "countries" are simply a way of aggregating our relationships and mutual obligations. There's nothing magic or sacred about social organization, and there's little if any correlation between our capacity for sainthood or criminality and our nationality. And, I suppose, any claim to national superiority will sooner or later be neutralized by the wreckage caused by that claim.
We are created in God's image, men and women, and this far outweighs the claims of any nation on us. That truth doesn't release us from "seeking the prosperity of the city" where we actually are, however. A proud cerebral disinterest is no more defensible than blind nationalism.
I never met Alexii II, the Russian Orthodox patriarch who died last week, but I did have several visits with another person we're sad to say goodbye to: Sadie Vernon. Thanks to Judy Lumb for providing a link to this appreciation of Sadie. I'll never forget a visit she set up for me about fifteen years ago: she had me visit death row in the old Belize City prison, since closed. I spent time with a man who was facing death by hanging, and whose cell was within sight of the gallows. She and I also talked about the popularity of Belize City's Pentecostal congregations, and how their energy and dedication had something to teach Quakers.
Righteous links: Pray for Zimbabwe. ~~ Alexii II the Peacemaker. ~~ And: video of the funeral of Alexii II. ~~ Books & Culture presents John Wilson's favorite books of 2008.
An e-mail from Lauren Sheehan's list reminded me of what an interesting blues musician she is. Here she is with Terry Robb, another of Portland's best guitar players: