«What Is Truth?» A debate at the dawn of the Russian Revolution
Exhibition organised by Fondazione Russia Cristiana
The confusion that today dulls consciences, the unexpressed but dramatic questions that lacerate and erupt into social and political conflicts, were experienced with great intensity by Russian society as well, especially in the thirty years that preceded the 1917 revolution. The ghosts of social utopia, terrorism, anti-Semitism, ambiguous prophetism and eschatologism conveyed religious upsurges from various levels of the society of the time towards catastrophe, giving origin to an historical phenomenon without precedence: the totalitarianism.
Other elements were also profoundly rooted in Russian society and culture however, which immediately represented, both in those tormented times and afterwards, during the Soviet era, a chance to recover and go beyond ideology. In the centuries-old history of Russian Christianity, culture lived the experience of truth as an integral and concrete unity of truth, good and beautiful. A unity that can, at any time be betrayed and recovered: an occurrence that appears evident between the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century in the crisis that exploded in the revolution, on the one hand, and in the Christian rebirth on the other.
The first section of this exhibition, entitled «The Tolstoj case», tries to grasp the laceration of individual conscience through the personality of the «great old man», around whom all the problems of the age seem to gather.
Lev Tolstoj (1828-1910) was not only a world famous novelist, but the spokesperson of questions that agitated large sections of the society, the promoter of a new social project (farming communes that aimed at recreating the face of the society of the time) and a new ethical spirituality, a lay religion inspired by Christianity but determined to stay away from the historical figure of Christ and above all deny his divinity.
Tolstoj’s stance has an explosive effect on the intelligencija of that period, disgusted by the institutional Church, reduced since the age of Peter the Great to a sort of «Ministry of cults» and unable to say a live word. Even a holy priest and vicar like Ioann di Kronštadt (1829-1908), a «hero of popular faith», failed to make a mark on culture, even though he had a large following among the people and emphasised the importance of evangelisation, something unusual in the official Church of the time – the anathemas thrown at Tolstoj and his claim to represent the master of the Russian people by showing the danger of that «false Christianity» of which the writer was the emblem, but also the powerlessness of the traditional Church to contrast him.
When, in 1901, the Holy Synod declared – quite rightfully – that the theories professed and spread publicly by Count Tolstoj were heretic, and therefore excommunicated him, Russian society answered by turning out mainly in favour of the writer and against the Church organisation.
A teacher of the theological Academy of St. Petersburg, Vasilij Uspenskij reported Tolstoj as saying: “The whole of society repudiates the Sacraments and that which the Church preaches in its dogmas”. This is not true. What is true however is that we are all familiar with the type of thought that brought Tolstoj to excommunication».
Tolstoj’s position was first overcome through a new encounter between faith and culture, between faith and reason in the hermitage of Optina. The experience of the Optina starcy, who rediscovered the writings of the Fathers and their integral Christianity, became a pole of attraction both for the ordinary people and for the intellectuals. Dostoevskij and Solov’ëv were constantly fuelled by it. Tolstoj died – emblematically – in a mail station, after a dramatic attempt, that failed because of pride or fear….to knock on the door of the hermitage – the rift between the man of faith that came about through reason on the threshold of the mystery, and the rationalist who, though making out something, was not prepared to accept.
The second section of the exhibition entitled «L’Apocalisse russa» (The Russian Apocalypse) testifies the spread of the human position exemplified in Tolstoj, his always invading new areas of social mentality and costume, developing into phenomena like terrorism and anti-Semitism, which generate political and ethnic massacres. In 1900, Vladimir Solov’ëv wrote his Legend of the Anti-Christ, in which many people read a personification of Tolstoj; in the same years, the sinister figure of a “false prophet” appeared in Russian history, Grigorij Rasputin, on whom initially converged the hopes of leading members of the clergy, as well as – until the end – of the imperial family. «The Rasputin phenomenon is not scary because a man like him existed, but because he was an expression and certainly a “result” of the centuries-old eclipse of the great and demanding idea of saintliness in the Russian religious soul», said Sergej Fudel a few years later.
If this «great and demanding idea of saintliness» had found initial expression in the experience of the Optina hermitage, in the apocalyptical years of the revolution, it translated into a power movement of Ecclesiastical rebirth, which ended with the Council of 1917-1918 and generated the conversion to the faith of scholars and men of culture who, until just a short time before, had opted for Marxism with conviction (Sergej Bulgakov, Nikolaj Berdjaev and so on). A «streak of blue in the dark sky of today»: was how contemporaries welcomed Pavel Florenskij’s work, Column and foundation of truth (1914), in which faith was rediscovered and re-presented as the height of reason.
The third section of the exhibition, «Messages from km 101», is a kind of epilogue: it takes its cue from the writings which, from km 101 (those who had passed through the Gulags could come no closer to Moscow), one of the many former inmates sends to family and friends. Essays, letters, memos, which circulate in the samizdat (in often anonymous copies or under pseudonyms), to inform the young generation what their fathers have seen and heard during their lifetime, giving voice to the testimony of the «just» who have experienced the years of the revolution and hard labour, and transmitting the warmth of the «Church walls» on the world frozen by ideology.
Sergej Fudel’ (1900-1977), the author of these writings, is in some ways the symbol of this emerging of a path through the frozen and bloody mists of decades of persecutions and horrors; his work is not the result of a concern for denunciation, but rather of the urgency of giving voice to the experience of truth of the troubles of the previous decades, of a desire to state that truth is the meeting with the «Living», that reveals to man his real face and gives him eternal hope.