Archpriest Christopher Hill

Aspects of the Christian Life in the realm of the personal as reflected in Twentieth-century Russian literature

The first novel I read in Russian from beginning to end, nearly forty years ago in the summer of 1980 when I was sixteen, was Vera Panova’s Seryozha. At the time, being an English schoolboy, I had no experience of everyday life in the Soviet Union, but what struck me was the author’s ability to convey in familiar and loving detail that which communist ideology had tried to eliminate – the realm of the private and the personal. Although set in a country and culture very different from my own (I had to dig into an encyclopedia to find out what exactly a collective farm was), the experience of life as seen through the eyes a five-year-old Russian boy was described in such a way that I came to realise that it is precisely the domain of the private and the personal – the everyday – that transcends the historical and social: a perception of life which is profoundly Christian. Panova, as far as I am aware, did not, in her writings at least, speak of herself as a believer (although in the 1960 film version of her work there is an interesting scene, not present in the novel, where Seryozha and some older boys discuss life priorities in a derelict church bell-tower, where the bell has been intriguingly retained as a fire alarm), and yet I found her treatment of the personal and the everyday at the very least distinctly ideologically incorrect from the standpoint of Soviet literary officialdom.

As a non-native speaker of Russian, I have constantly found it a problem to translate the English words and notions of ‘private’ and ‘privacy.’ When I was a student in the city of Voronezh in the 1980s and shared a room with four other students, I often rued the absence of ‘privacy,’ my ‘own space’ where in my ‘bourgeois’ perception of life I could ‘do my own thing.’ The ‘collective’ was most certainly not for me. The closest word I could find in Russian for ‘privacy’ was уединение – ‘solitude’ – which resounded too much like the monastic life and was most certainly not what I was seeking. Thus, after my limited experience of everyday life in Soviet Russia, Panova’s exaltation of the private and personal domain over the social seemed to me all the more extraordinary.

I recall one conversation with a bishop who was asked whether it was appropriate at all in any circumstances to remove one’s cross. Surprisingly, he answered that he himself removed his cross every evening before going to sleep and left it on his bedside table so that, upon waking, he would be reminded of Christ’s words in the gospel: “If any want to become my followers … let them take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9.23). It is precisely this word ‘daily’ that the bishop wished to emphasize – the time-span and, by implication, the circumstances in which we work out our salvation, and I would suggest that this vision of where God acts – in the everyday, in the realm of the personal and the private – is one that we encounter in some of the great works of Russian literature in the second-half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps we encounter this vision implicitly in Panova’s Seryozha. We are certainly in her novel introduced to the place – private life – where for a Christian salvation is enacted. But perhaps the greatest work of twentieth-century Russian literature where this vision is made explicit is Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece Doctor Zhivago. It is not difficult to understand why Pasternak’s novel elicited condemnation on the part of Soviet censors. The overarching theme of the work is the fate of the individual and the primacy of private life against the background of historical transformations – in the instance of twentieth-century Russia violent change in the form of revolution, persecution and war – and it is this exaltation of the individual over the collective that went against the grain of official Soviet ideology.

The people depicted in the novel, most notably the eponymous main character, are not heroes in the conventional sense of the word. They are for certain flawed, yet elicit sympathy. They are above all human. And it is the human, or we may say, the private, the personal, the realm where people can truly be free, which is vindicated by Pasternak. He believed that the incarnation of God, the assumption of God of all that is human, indeed of all that is created (as the poems at the end of the novel make clear) in the person of Jesus Christ was the only truly revolutionary event in history. The author does not compel the reader into concluding that social and historical circumstances have no have relevance; they are viewed as the crucible in which the need to communicate individual experience and to add creatively to one’s and others’ lives becomes paramount. The crimes of the Soviet system, the invasion and corruption of the personal domain by the overwhelming presence of the state are not to be a cause of pessimism. Pasternak offers us from within the tribulations of individuals (he did not seem to view nations or communities as entities which could suffer) a vision of hope which is deeply Christian. The eternal and immortal, for Pasternak, are not human constructs; it is in the domain of the personal and the human that they are attained through the cultivation of one’s creative potential. This is best exemplified in the fate of Yuri Zhivago whose creative path – his everyday ministry – as embodied in his poetry and spiritual integrity may be seen as a sacrifice akin to that of Christ’s, thus rendering him a citizen not of earth but of the divine kingdom.

There are other works of Russian literature which are informed by the same spirit – I am thinking of Akhmatova’s poem Requiem and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago – but I believe that of all the works of twentieth-century Russian literature it is Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which best conveys the primacy of everyday ministry in its broadest sense, that is, the simple embodiment of Christian values that are generated by the Spirit within the human person in a personal encounter with the living God.

On a personal note, I can say that Russian literature has played and continues to play a decisive role in my own personal spiritual formation. Reading again passages from some of my favourite authors – Dostoevsky, Pasternak, the religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov) – I am struck time and again by a vision of Christian life and service lived out in the context of the everyday and personal. We learn from these authors that there is a vision of Orthodox Christianity which emerges from an anthropology based upon the dignity of the human person and not from constructing from Orthodoxy a moral codex of do’s and dont’s. These were authors who strove to glimpse a world and, more importantly, the human individual transfigured by God’s glory and in which we are spiritually and morally transfigured by serving God in our everyday private lives. It is a vision in which human dignity and freedom are upheld and in which the Spirit speaks to the individual. It is above all a vision of spiritual values. Values are precisely that – something we value and cherish, something which we hold to be sacred and inviolable. Values cannot be dictated from without; they come from within, and it is here that I would like to connect my reading of Russian literature with metropolitan Anthony’s understanding of dignity and values.

I think I can safely assert that metropolitan Anthony was an intensely private man. Gossip and the unseemly dissection of others’ private lives were distasteful to him. Indeed, I recall him saying in my first encounter with him that curiosity is a sin, only later in life having a better understanding of what he meant by this. I recall too how on many occasions he would speak not so much about our faith in God, weak and imperfect though it is, but of God’s faith in us. God’s belief in the human being is rooted in the veneration of human dignity, that is, the image of God. The relationship between God and the human person determines the relationship between human persons themselves. We live in an age where the domain of privacy and the everyday – the places where our service to God is realized – is being eroded and where genuine authority is frequently displaced by authoritarianism. This erosion of the private domain and the emergence of false authorities (alas, this can happen too in the church) confronts us with many challenges. I believe that two my greatest teachers outside of the gospel – Russian literature and metropolitan Anthony – can  still provide us with a vision of how to confront these challenges.

Thank you for your attention.