19 June 2017

The response of the awakened East


Reading the second of Blessed New-Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky’s Ways of Russia essays, I am struck immediately by two impressions. The first is that he imbibed some of the more controversial elements of the Slavophil historiography neat. He is convinced that Russia is the spiritual (and material) descendant not of mediæval Greece alone, but of the pre- and proto-Slavic Iranian-Scythian culture. This conviction he takes straight from leading Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov. He finds in this legacy a source of great, but raw and untapped, spiritual and creative energy, one which the actual Slavophils failed to unearth and use fully. The second impression is that – along with Berdyaev – he wants to retrieve the key insights of the Slavophil legacy, and even retain the civilisational ‘messianism’ for which they are subjected to much scepticism, but (particularly confronted with the rise of the Bolsheviks) without the optimistic assurance in Russia’s destiny which has led them to be charged with a certain degree of nationalistic naïveté. He believes that the Eastern character of Russia, together with its post-Petrine openness to the West, will combine and reconcile themselves in a grand synthesis within the Russian soul. Then – and only then – will Russia have its ‘new word’ to speak to the world. But the moment for that synthesis is ‘not yet’, and ‘not soon’.

Saint Ilya takes a very long view of the history of civilisation. In order to shed meaningful light upon the ‘reawakening’ of the East in his own day, he draws on the clashes between East and West going back to the Classical world and the conquests of Alexander the Great; he stands in awe of the civilisational heights to which Classical Greece ascended; and he understands that even the spiritual life of the Greek-inflected West has not yet been fully finished or played-out. At the same time, his sympathies are clearly with the civilisations of the East. He is convinced of the ancient vitality of the Indian and the Chinese lifeways: ‘Their accumulated values were so great, their spiritual foundations so deep, that only for a short time did they submit to the influence of the West’. In his view, ‘Christianity’ itself ‘is the response of the awakened East to spiritual enslavement by the West’. He notes and applauds the ‘revival’ of traditional spiritual culture that is still taking place in both the Near East and the Far East:
There is work to clear the layers [of dust] from religious and philosophical systems from their periods of decay; to learn old art, old literature, to revive them to newness of life. Just as with the renaissance in the West, a renaissance in the East is not only a rush for the new. First of all it is a return to the classical period of the past, it is immersion in the fountainheads of the national spirit. As yet there is no genuine spiritual creativity. But it will happen; it must… The awakened East creates its own, reveals its soul, reveals its understanding of the world. ‘The Night of Asia’ is passing. The ‘one’ ‘universal’ civilisation is being torn apart before our eyes. To shreds. The world again becomes diverse and colourful.
He even cites Gu Hongming in the defence of this ad fontes project of renewal! And he identifies the creative genius of the Russian people with the Iranian-Scythian earth out of which the Slavs sprang. Saint Ilya passes harsh judgements upon the Greece of Alexander and the Western colonial powers who seek to build a ‘universal’ civilisation – seeing in the pretensions to universality and globalism, no matter how well-intentioned, the signs of creative exhaustion and civilisational decay. For him, the unrooted, atomistic bourgeois liberalism of the modern West, much like the all-homogenising pretensions of the Imperium Rōmānum, is a lawless impulse which can never rightfully be realised.

But it would be a mistake to characterise him as a narrow nationalist. (Small wonder: Saint Ilya detested fascism with a vengeance, and gave his life in solidarity with the Jews under fascist oppression.) In Saint Ilya’s thinking, Russia’s placement on the world stage, situated on the basis of the old, Eastern Iranian-Scythian culture and in constant contact with the Black Sea outposts of the Greek and Latin West, gives it a unique and uniquely-cosmopolitan outlook. Russia is marked with certain Iranian civilisational principles: a ‘solar’ monotheism (matched with a ‘solar’ monarchism); personalism; a communitarian ethos; a preference for the spoken word, the слово. These characteristics – so precious and so needful in Saint Ilya’s thinking – were, ironically, reinforced both by contact with Byzantium and by contact with the Mongols; only to be buried in their penultimate expression in the Petrine reforms. ‘Now,’ Saint Ilya writes, ‘[the old Eastern culture] must be sought in the very depths of the life of the people.’ But they can be brought out, ironically, only with the help of interaction with the intellectual ferment of the West, to ‘adapt some of the Western spiritual conquest to the Eastern worldview’. The clashing interactions of the Iranian-Scythian and the Byzantine-Roman worlds which birthed the kaleidoscopically colourful, brilliant and in many ways deeply radical culture of Kievan Rus’ where the two overlapped, are not things to be thrown aside thoughtlessly, either in the name of universalism or of parochialism. If an all-embracing, all-expansive, rootless globalist homogenisation is the sign of spiritual death of civilisations, no less so is the externalised, self-isolating homogenisation of the modern nation-state. Instead, the primary cultural ferment happens locally, on the borders, on the peripheries, in the ‘wilderness’. The product of Black Sea localisms and Silk Road transnationalisms, buffeted by Byzantine, Mongol and Polish colonialisms, the Russian civilisation has the potential to unite within herself the civilisational principles of West and East—but, as Saint Ilya was speaking, ‘not yet’.

The questions Saint Ilya asks about the ‘ways of Russia’, and his subsequent historical and cultural analyses, find some ready parallels in the Sinosphere not only with the slightly-earlier eclectic conservative radicalism of Gu Hongming, but also with the Daoist-inflected neoleftism of Wang Hui. This should not be a surprise, since they approach many of the same questions about the destiny of their respective cultures, from a counter-hegemonic perspective conditioned by long historical awareness. But in Saint Ilya’s thinking, a somewhat Tolkienish turn is taken in that the grand civilisational narrative begins from very local sources, even sources most scholars would think unworthy of note! He writes:
Only in adjacent areas was a mixed Scythian-Hellenistic form of culture created. The closer to the Greek cities and shores of the Black Sea, the stronger the Hellenic influence. The further into the interior of the country one went, the stronger the influence of the East…

This culture is weak, ‘provincial’; it did not create large independent values. It cannot be compared, not only with the ‘great’ cultures of the Near East and of Greece, but even with the smaller Hellenised cultures of Western Europe. But its importance for the history of Russia is enormous. It was the cultural foundation for the civilisation of Kiev. Scythia helped organise the Kievan state. When the movement of peoples in southern Russia ceased and a certain calm was established, the old culture revived and served as midwife to the new Kievan civilisation.
Some very interesting historical and cultural insights from a profound New Martyr of the Orthodox Church. He offers a Slavophilia shorn of Katkovite expansionist and triumphalist dreams; a Slavophilia of the margins of civilisation; a Slavophilia that looks to ‘peaks in the distance’ from the standpoint of a Russia-that-was. Even if the liberal perspective would no doubt judge Saint Ilya Fondaminsky as far too fond of what it would no doubt term ‘Oriental despotism’, he nonetheless argues with passion for a renewed culture, a just culture, that can draw from Oriental sources.

1 comment:

  1. The fatal flaw in Russian culture is the same as in that of all great empires. Those who lead them conflate virtue with wealth. The leaders delude themselves into believing that those who support them are virtuous and because they are virtuous they deserve both wealth and power. Then: anyone who would oppose them must logically be evil. From there it's a short step to imposing their will on others and eliminating opposition by force. They lose popular support and their societies, based on flawed, unChristian precepts, come apart at the seams. That is the cycle of all great worldly empires; those of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Mongols; the Ottomans, the Spanish, English...and I'm sure I've forgotten a few. Communism was an attempt to end those empires of greed. It failed because of its implicit faith in the perfectability of man, without God.

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