30 May 2019

Shıza: a very Russian crime drama


Shıza (Oljas Nýsýppaev) in Shıza

The first Sergei Bodrov film I ever saw was his delightfully-hammy and gloriously-terrible 2005 historical epic Kóshpendiler, a highly-fictionalised account of the early life and career of the military and diplomatic genius Kazakh prince Abylaı Han, which I absolutely will revisit sometime in the near future. Later, as part of the Russian language class I took at Rhode Island College, I saw his 1997 war drama Kavkazskiy plennik, which in my memory stands as a much better film on a much smaller scale, and which I may also go back and revisit at some point in the near future. The film of his that I just watched, the 2004 crime-thriller and coming-of-age drama Shıza (also titled Schizo or The Recruiter in English), co-written and directed by Gulshat Omarova, comes far closer in spirit to Sergei Bodrov’s earlier work than his later. Even though it is set in Kazakhstan, features a Kazakh directress and sports a cast of mostly-Kazakh characters, it is at heart a very Russian story.

The film centres on a fifteen-year-old high-schooler named Mustafa (Oljas Nýsýppaev), who on account of his reluctance to speak and his apparent slowness is given the cruel nickname of Shıza (‘schizo’) at school, and then expelled for getting into a fight. His poor mother (Gul’nara Eralıeva) takes him in to see a Russian doctor who accepts eggs, fish and homemade smetana as payment, who finds nothing physically wrong with him but suggests he may have some developmental abnormalities. He gives him a prescription and a referral to a specialist. Shıza doesn’t want to go back to school, and so his mother’s boyfriend Sakura (Eduard Tabishev) takes him under his wing with the prospect of earning some money. It turns out that Shıza’s job is to scout and recruit ‘fresh meat’ for an underground boxing club, but when Ali, one of the fighters Shıza scouts, dies in the ring, leaving his young son Sanjik and his girlfriend Zinka (Olga Landina) in the lurch. Shıza tries to make it up to them by supporting them financially, but finds himself getting further and further involved in the black-market gambling circuit and its attendant violence.

The setting of the story clearly reflects the recently-gone ‘lawless nineties’, with the bling-laden, open-shirted and sport-blazered, Mercedes-driving criminal lifestyle of the owners of the fight club being a stand-in for the cutthroat grasping of the oligarchs, and the blood-drenched boxing ring itself is something of a metaphor for the anarchic laissez-faire market œconomy, taking its toll on human flesh. These boxing matches are rigged, and unfairly bet on seasoned professionals to beat up on common working-class stiffs – adding an additional layer of realism and meaning to the cinematic metaphor for shock therapy. It also gives you reason to cheer like mad when one middle-aged electrical worker goaded into the ring manages to take down a hulking youth a head taller and nearly double his weight. There’s a certain ‘gangster æsthetic’ that is both sported and mocked in Shıza. The self-awareness with which the fifteen-year-old Shıza starts wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses and steals Sakura’s cigarettes to smoke tells you a lot about the way it was seen to be imported.

More broadly, this is a Kazakh film in which the scenery doesn’t consist so much of the wide open steppe with either its bleak desolation or its romantic potentialities, but instead: heavy industry, switching yards, coal heaps and smokestacks, cranes, factories, concrete slabs, walled bazaars – either that, or half-pre-fab houses with worn wooden fences and outdoor latrines and showers. This is neither the hardscrabble Kazakhstan of a remote Tengri past, nor the swashbuckling era of Kazakh freedom fighters from Dzunghar persecution. This is the post-Soviet society I saw in 2009, which the film presents without sentimentality and treats with an unvarnished realism. (I admit to feeling a trifle nostalgic.) The cinematography actually helps to accentuate the plight of Shıza and his family: Omarova seems to have a liking for high-angle shots that dwarf individuals and even crowds of people against the gigantism of rusting industrial machinery and architecture. The one element of the cinematography that I didn’t particularly like were the plentiful first-person POV shots, which felt comical when the mood called for more serious choices.

I say this is a Russian story, but that’s really owing to the fact that – despite having a Kazakh name – Shıza is an archetypically Russian protagonist. In fact, he mostly speaks in Russian. He sometimes comes close to the загадочная русская душа, the elusive ‘Russian soul’. Despite this being a very modern story with a realist angle, in some ways Shıza is patterned on the Russian мужик of mediæval folklore. He’s quiet, slow, and his speech is often curt and ‘simple’. Many of the other characters call him an ‘idiot’ or a ‘fool’. Like a good Russian protagonist, he cares a lot about his mother and uncle, has an unflappable sense of fair play, and has an instinctive love for orphans and widows. The reasons he’s after money are not selfish. His motivations are fairly transparent, and at times we worry that he might be a bit too naïve for the sorts of work he does – lining himself up to get sold out or backstabbed at some point. But at the same time, Shıza is fairly cagey and observant, and other people tend to underestimate him. He clearly understands more than he lets on about the situations he is in, often times better than the ‘smart’ characters do. In fact, a significant part of the plot involves the way he manages to get one-up on the crime bosses he works for.

The relationship between the young Shıza and the cynical older Russian Zinka is worth commenting on a bit as well. It won’t be spoiling too much to say that the growth in their interactions is handled with remarkable subtlety and grace. Despite Zinka’s first brusque and distrustful meeting with Shıza (‘I don’t have any friends like him’) and her seemingly cold attitude to her foster-son, she is not insensitive to his having gone out of his way to keep his word to her dead boyfriend. She naturally opens up to Shıza, despite the youth lying to her at first about Ali’s demise. She tells him of her dreams of moving to China, getting better wages, settling down with a nice Chinese guy… Handled by anyone else, Zinka might have come off as a crass and caustic character. But Olga Landina’s acting chops are superb, and we get to see convincingly that her character really does have a sweet and kind heart beneath her rough edges. Shıza notices this quite quickly, though, and the romantic turn their relationship takes seems natural and unforced. Ultimately, it’s Zinka he trusts with his mother’s life and his own.

Given that I’m treating Shıza as a Russian crime drama, however, it deserves to be judged as one. If there’s one real flaw I might find with the film, it would be how it wraps up. A lot of time is spent on Shıza’s ‘descent’ into the underworld boxing and his subsequent involvement in progressively bigger transgressions. He does have a redemptive arc, however, and this unfortunately gets a bit short-sold – added almost as an afterthought. Though we do get to see and hear what he does to atone and why – mostly through a sequence between Shıza and Sanjik and later through a voice-over narration – it might have been worth spending a few extra minutes with Shıza’s interior life after the film’s climax and how he deals with what he has done.

Even so, Omarova put out a sterling piece of cinema here, and I would commend it sincerely to the age-appropriate audience. It is, after all, a movie about illegal boxing, so there’s some violence, blood and rear-end male nudity. I do tend to enjoy ‘underdog’ movies generally, and this one has the favourable distinctions of being solid, gritty, well-paced and heartfelt.

Saint Walstan of Bawburgh


Saint Walstan of Bawburgh

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the pre-Schismatic English saint Walstan. Walstan, who was born in Bawburgh a few miles west of Norwich in the year 975 to eldern named Benedict and Bl‎ýð, was a bright young child who became fond of reading in his father’s library. He was struck in particular by a passage from the Gospel of Saint Luke: ‘So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.’ Taking this commandment of our Lord in its fullest possible sense, at the tender age of seven he formally renounced any part of his inheritance, and at the age of thirteen he asked his parents’ blessing to leave their house and undertake a manner of living pleasing to God. Benedict and Blýð, though they were sorrowful to lose their son, both understood his sincerity and also were given to know in dreams by God that he would so choose to leave the world.

As he was leaving the home of his eldern he met two beggars on the road, and he gave to them his rich clothes and changed them for their shabby rags. Thus without any trace upon him of his birth or lineage, he came to the town of Taverham and took a rest from his walk. He was near the fields of a freeholder named Nalga, who needed hands to gather the harvest. Nalga saw him at rest, and offered him work, which Walstan took. He would spend the rest of his days a hired tenant in Nalga’s fields.

Nalga had good grounds to be pleased with Walstan, because Walstan was a tireless worker with a good disposition. He also loved poor folk and beggars, and routinely gave away all he had to care for them. Nalga was a fair employer and gave him wages and food and good clothing, but these easily and always passed out of Walstan’s hands and into those of those poorer than himself he met. Owing to this, he often went barefoot as he worked. Nalga’s wife, taking pity on him, gave him a pair of new shoes and an extra share of food. But Walstan did not keep these for himself, instead giving them to two passing beggars, one of whom went barefoot. Thinking that he was belittling their gifts to him, Nalga and his wife became angry at Walstan and demanded to know why he had given away what they had given him. Walstan answered them that the beggars had been sent by God, that God might see whether he loved them more than he loved himself. ‘I shod Christ in the poor man,’ was Walstan’s answer.

Nalga’s wife, still resentful of Walstan, sent the barefoot farmhand to go into the woods and bind and fetch back a load of briars. To do this, he would need to trample them down with his bare feet. He went cheerfully to his task, and his unhurt feet trampled on the briars as easily as if they were rose-petals and leaves, giving off a sweet fragrance, thus seeming for the Lord to win ‘a crown of thorns’. Beholding this wonder, Nalga and his wife fell down at Walstan’s feet and begged his forgiveness. Walstan forgave them and loved them as ever.

Walstan became known over the years for his simple way of life. He prayed, fasted, gave alms, worked and showed a great love to everyone – particularly to animals. God granted his steadfast and humble servant the strength to work wonders. Many farmers brought sick animals to him and he would heal them by the power of his prayers; his prayers were effective for people as well. Though whatever he put his hand to would flourish, he was content to work in his simple way. Never once did word of his high birth reach the ears of his friends and fellow-workers, and despite his eldern living just a few miles hence, they never had an inkling that the holy labourer of Tavenham was in fact their own son. (Consider how swiftly news could travel in small English villages of late antiquity, and then consider for a moment just how hard it was for King Custennin of Alt Clut to keep his identity from being known!)

He continued to be beloved by Nalga and his wife who, being childless, wanted to make Walstan their heir. True to his oath, however, he refused. Only when an angel of God told him to accept did he finally take Nalga’s wife’s gift of two white calves and a small wagon – not out of greed or sloth, but that God’s will might be done.

In May of 1016, as the haying season was beginning, Walstan was reaping with a fellow-worker when an angel came before him, saying: ‘Brother Walstan, on the third day after this shalt thou depart this life in peace and enter Paradise.’ At once, Walstan lay down his scythe and sought out the village priest, and asked him to give him the Holy Gifts on the third day as the angel had told him. On the same day Saint Walstan beheld a heavenly host of angels, with the praises of the Holy Trinity in unspeakably sweet song upon their tongues.

Some hagiographies relate the following tale. On the first day after, which was a Saturday, Nalga went into the cheaping-ground in Norwich, which was then under the sway of the Danish Cnut King. There was at that time a proclamation being cried aloud, that anyone knowing the whereabouts of Walstan – son of Benedict and Blýð, kinsman to Éadmund King of Wessex, should make them known to the king’s men. The Danes were then plotting to take the whole of England, and the proclamation warned than anyone found giving shelter to Walstan without giving him up into Cnut’s hands must pay with both his wealth and his life. After he fared home, he spoke to Walstan: ‘What am I to say to the Danes, when they learn that I have kept you here?’ Walstan was not worried: he told his master that he must tell them the truth. Then he told Nalga about what the angel had shown to him.

On the third day, which was a Monday, the thirtieth of May 2016, the village priest came to Walstan while he was haying. He was working with his scythe up until noon and his final hour came. The priest came to administer the Gifts and found he had no water to wash his hands. Saint Walstan knelt and prayed, and before him there bubbled up a spring of fresh water, in which the priest could laver his hands. Having taken the Gifts, Walstan told those gathered in the fields that after his death they were to set him on the wagon and yoke it to the two white calves Nalga’s wife had given him – and that none should lead them but rather they would go where God pleased. He then besought God that every workman and all livestock fallen ill should gain healing, if they were to ask of it meekly. At that a heavenly roust answered the saint: ‘O Holy Walstan: that which thou hast asked, is given. Come now from thy work and rest!

With that, Walstan gave up the ghost. A white dove was seen to fly upwards. Nalga and the men of Tavenham did as they were bidden, taking Walstan’s body upon the wagon and hitching it to the calves, who then began to wander along the banks of Wensum Water, and then through a wald. They forded at the deeps, and came up the other side with dry hooves. At Costessey Wood where they stopped to rest, another holy well sprang forth with clean fresh water. The calves and those following, waxing in numbers, forged on through fenlands until they came to Bawburgh, where again they rested. Here again, a third well gushed forth. The calves then went up the hill to the church and entered through a gap in the wall which wondrously appeared and then vanished once they were through. There they stood, until Ælfgar Bishop of Elmham came with his monks to hold the Liturgy for the funeral.

The bishop, who knew something of Walstan’s tale already from his youth, sat still as Nalga and the folk of Tavenham unfolded the rest to him. They told him of the many wonders wrought by Walstan, and the Bishop thereafter made a full investigation as to their truth. This done, Bishop Ælfgar allowed the townsfolk to keep the relics and venerate them as a saint’s. Walstan’s relics were interred in the north transept of the church, and many pilgrims and wayfarers came to the church thereafter, and many wonders were wrought and illnesses cured. In particular, Saint Walstan continued to intercede with Christ for sick livestock. Water from the holy wells of Saint Walstan is still sought-after for its curative properties for both human and animal patients. Saint Walstan has, understandably, been considered a particular patron of farmers and gardeners. Having worked in Norwich in college, growing – not hay or briars – but rather mouse-ear cress for the FIBR Project at the University of East Anglia, and now trying to do a gardening project myself at home, I deeply appreciate Saint Walstan’s prayers for me, a sinner. Righteous and generous Walstan, pray to God for us!
O Righteous Walstan, thou didst leave thy home
To labour for Christ in the fields of Taverham.
Through fasting, prayer and great humility
Thou hast gathered many for the harvest of Christ.
The Lord crowned thee as a saint and bestowed upon thee the gift of miracles.
Pray then that our souls may be saved.

28 May 2019

Tulpan: a slice of life on the steppe


Asa (Ashat Kuchıncherekov), a sheep and Boni (Tolepbergen Baısakalov) in Tulpan

The next up on my Kazakh film-watching list (which is rapidly, and blessedly, turning into a Soviet, Ostern and Central Asian film-watching list), is Sergei Dvortsevoi’s 2008 comedy Tulpan (or Tıýlpan «Тюлпан»).

Before discussing this truly sublime and touching cinematic masterpiece, however, let me get something off my chest: Sacha Baron Cohen. Dvortsevoi has stated in interviews that he saw Borat, was not offended by Borat, understood that Borat was at bottom about American and not Kazakh culture. But at the same time he dislikes comparisons between his film and Borat, which were apparently fairly common at the time it came out, precisely because Borat has nothing to do with real life in Kazakhstan. Personally, I didn’t think Borat was that good even as a commentary on American culture. And I’m not sure I can be as gracious to Cohen as Dvortsevoi is in his interviews; since, being from Wisconsin, I think I’d probably take it personally too if the only thing that anybody outside my state knew about it was, say, Ashton Kutcher. Now, I’m not about to support the Kazakhstani government’s bans on Borat DVDs and super-brite active-reflective yellow slingshot bikinis – but the reaction of the government (and a lot of the Kazakh people who watched the movie and hated it) is, on a certain level, completely sympathetic and understandable.

Now, let’s move onto this movie, which is actually – what’s the word? ah, yes – good. Dvortsevoi takes an approach to filmmaking which is probably best summed up as patient observation. He took a camera, went to the set – complete with real yurts and live herds of animals – and just started filming. He had a full script, apparently, of which probably only a fifth made it to the final cut. But it’s clear from Dvortsevoi’s direction and cinematography, which favours long continuous shots and ‘shaky cams’, that even if this method requires a lot of trial and error, the final results that we get to see are entirely worth it.

The storyline is actually fairly simple and spare. Asa (Ashat Kuchıncherekov), a Russian navy vet who is returning home from Sakhalin to his home on the Kazakh steppes, is staying with his sister Samal (Samal Eslıamova) and her husband Ondas (Ondasyn Besıkbasov) and their incredibly-cute children. He dreams of getting his own yurt, his own flock and his own ranch – but before he can get any of those things, he has to get married first. The only eligible bachelorette for miles around is Tulpan, whom Asa courts… but to little avail. (Tulpan thinks his ears are too big.) The film centres around his continuing efforts to woo Tulpan and to adjust to life on the steppes with his extended family.

A lot of the humour derives from the incongruities of life in rural Kazakhstan. The vast, bare, scrubby steppe with not a single landmark in sight, and the comparatively-tiny people working to make a home in it, themselves provide a source of irony. This may seem like a really odd comparison to make, but Dvortsevoi’s penchant for long, flat candid shots of the characters on the steppe produce a deadpan form of situational humour which reminded me more than a bit of some scenes from James Gunn’s Super. This is punctuated and driven home by the children of Ondas and Samal’s yurt. The adorable Nuka, who rides around on a stick as if it were a horse and dreams of going to Almaty, at times seems to provide a similitude to Asa’s dreams and wishes. His older brother Beke has a photographic memory, which he shows off by repeating for his father’s benefit, line-for-line, the news headlines he hears from state-owned media, broadcast to his treasured portable radio – which often have to do with the great plans for Kazakhstan’s œconomic development and modernisation spearheaded by the Big Bread himself, or else with news about parts of the world that may as well be on another planet. The middle daughter, Maha, entertains herself by singing – in a clear and pretty voice that isn’t always appreciated by the male members of her family – Kazakh folk songs. Asa gets on well with another local chap, the vegetable-peddling, Jeep-driving and Page 3 girl-loving Boni (Tolepbergen Baısakalov), who seems to embody a love of the West that doesn’t quite match his understanding of it. His favourite song, for example, is Boney M’s version of ‘Rivers of Babylon’. Samal, Asa’s sister, seems to be the most grounded character – patient and sweet, whom nonetheless we see most of the time in (or tired from) household chores or in attempts to supplicate her husband or keep her brother from arguing with him.

Asa himself doesn’t quite seem to fit in, having a big-city background, and he cottons on early to the fact that Ondas seems to resent him slightly. He tells outlandish tales to his prospective in-laws about his naval adventures – in particular those involving man-eating octopi. His dogged pursuit of Tulpan might come off a bit too strong and even stalkerish given that he knows very little about her (and never even sees her face; nor do we the audience!), but Asa is a wholly sympathetic and endearing character, and that comes off particularly in his kind and gentle treatment of animals, of which this film features many and sundry. Asa clearly loves Tulpan’s parents’ kitten, and he looks after his brother-in-law’s flock for him – albeit not particularly effectively at first, since he loses a sheep. We learn that Ondas’s flock is in bigger trouble, too, since the ewes are having stillborn lambs. (This prompts a visit from a hand-rolled cigarillo-chewing veterinarian who arrives with a sick camel in his motorcycle sidecar.)

The most touching part of the film is when, after a heated argument with Ondas, Asa storms off onto the steppe to find a ewe in the middle of a painful birthing. This is filmed live in one long continuous shot. With no one else in sight or earshot, Asa is forced to help the ewe give birth, and one can’t help but cheer as Asa not only successfully delivers, but that the lamb is apparently alive! (There’s definitely a note of All Creatures Great and Small in this film’s appeal, though the steppe is a good deal brighter than a barn with BBC-standard lighting.)

It’s very difficult to do justice to Tulpan in writing. This is essentially a slice-of-life film (it would be wrong and misleading to call it a documentary; it’s a crafted, scripted story which often feels like one) whose appeal is consistently understated even in its most glowing reviews, precisely because its content was often so jarringly unfamiliar to Western audiences at the time it was released. But of all the Kazakh movies I’ve reviewed to date, this one not only ranks easily among my favourites, but it’s also the one which left the deepest impression on me. I would most heartily recommend it.

An updated trichotomy of Russian political theology


I wonder if this isn’t something I should flesh out into a fuller-length academic paper, but here it goes. One of the things that kind of gets my goat about online discussions of ‘convertodoxy’ (to which, as an Orthodox convert not uncritically sympathetic to Russia, I tend to react a bit defensively) is that Russian Orthodox political theology is presented as something of a monolith. Part of the reason that I react defensively is because I deliberately try not to be a ‘that guy’ convert. But another thing that annoys me is that even though much of the ‘convertodox’ impulse is (purportedly) guided by Greek authors like the late Fr John Romanides, and even though Fr John Romanides’s most convincing scholastic critics within Orthodoxy came from the Slavic and particularly the Russian tradition, for some reason all of the pathologies of Western ‘Convertodoxy’ all get pinned on Russia.

I say ‘for some reason’, as though I’m being coy. I know very well the cause, unfortunately. This has to do with the political perception that Russian Orthodoxy is somehow singularly in a ‘special relationship’ with a particular brand of reaction in the United States, both theological and political. And this political perception is common among both hostile commentators of the Russiagate variety, and sympathetic reactionaries of the Charlottesville variety. Never mind that our current crop of political reactionaries are, generally speaking, anything but theologically conservative. But even on its own merits, this perception is misguided. As I said back in 2016 and have been saying ever since, any idea that Russian political life or Russian church life is engaged in some kind of ‘bromance’ with Trump specifically or American conservatism generally is pure fantasy. The collapse of the Russiagate story and some recent Pew polling data, in fact, both seem to demonstrate that this is the case on both sides. And my own interactions with Russian Orthodoxy, both in the Rodina and in the various diaspora communities, demonstrate a tradition which can in fact be far more diverse politically than the American electorate itself.

Drawing on this experience, and noticing several broad trends within the various Russian Orthodox communities – the reason for the plural to become apparent momentarily – I feel a need to ‘sketch’, the same way the religious historian GP Fedotov did, a kind of historical-political-theological trichotomy of Russian Orthodox social thought. Fedotov remains immensely invaluable, as sensitive as he was to what he called ‘historiosophy’, the inner workings of Russian spiritual life as it played out in history. He was able to diagnose, through Russian treatments of political violence and sex, three distinct theopolitical strands that emerged from the Kievan Rus’ polity. He identified these strands with the ecclesiastical centres of the Rus’ after the fall of Kiev: Novgorod, Moscow and Galich. And he clearly sympathised most ardently with the Novgorodian strand of Russian spiritual life, which he felt most jealously preserved and transmitted the radically-charitable legacy of Kievan Rus’ spirituality. Fedotov held that Galich became too westernised through its contact with Poland-Lithuania, and began adopting various Western styles of thought and sanctions of political violence; and he began to suspect that Moscow had developed an internal cynicism and a too-easy adaptation to the ugly realities of political power. As I’ve said before also, Fedotov’s typology is typical of the diaspora Russian left-liberal views of his day and age, who were quite fond of Novgorod and sceptical of ‘Muscovite’ theology. But given the rather surprising rôle-reversal of Novgorod (along with Saint Petersburg) and Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union, and also the post-Soviet travails of the Russian Rodina and the diaspora in the years since 1991, Fedotov’s trichotomy stands rather badly in need of an expansion and update. Allow me to put my cards on the table, then, and I invite all thoughtful and constructive critique particularly from my Russian friends who are more knowledgeable and more attuned to these cultural shifts than I (a convert observer with novice Russian language skills) am.

I notice three very distinct ‘styles’ in Russian political theology, which can be drawn like elliptical orbits around a single common focus. The first orbit is that of the Rodina itself, in which fall both Novgorod/Saint Petersburg and Moscow – the chief concern of the Rodina’s political theology is the problem of suffering. The second orbit, drawn around the Rodina in all directions but elliptically sweeping westward, is the near diaspora. The near diaspora is concerned with the problems of minority politics, and with the unique problem of composing plurality-minority populations in Eastern and Central European post-Soviet polities which belong to a ‘bigger’ civilisational world. I would liken them, in many respects, to the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and Indochina, because the key concerns are soft power, civilisation and the retention of modest gains in social welfare and political rights. It is in the near diaspora, more so than in the Rodina or in further reaches, that the idea of the Russkiy Mir draws the most serious and careful attention. The third and broadest orbit is what I call the far diaspora: these are the people whose cross, whose podvig, is to deal with being ‘rootless’ and thus free and existentially-untethered in Mother Maria’s sense of the word. Some in the diaspora deal with this rootlessness in far healthier ways than others. I would not characterise the entirety of the far diaspora this way, but it is mostly in the far diaspora that you see the extremes of white émigré politics both reactionary and liberal; it is here that you see the most craven forms of liberal gharbzadegi and the most intriguingly-contorted forms of transferred nationalism for ‘Holy Russia’.

Allow me to explicate some. My interactions with the thought of the Rodina have been largely through my friend Paul Grenier and the intellectual and religious circles he moves in in Moscow – and that includes also my colleagues and elders at Tetradi po konservatizmu. The works of Boris Mezhuev, of Aleksei Osipov, of Aleksandr Shchipkov – are incredibly and delightfully diverse, energetic, effervescent. The fact that they seem to defy conventional political classification, that they are equally willing to engage deeply and charitably with both Marx and de Maistre, is even better. But if I were to draw a single thread of commonality that could engage them all, it would be this: they are attuned with particular sensitivity to theologies of suffering.

One could argue with some justice that, in its roots, all Russian theology has been concerned with suffering for a long time – for example, that the preoccupation with suffering and its meaning was a hallmark of the literary theology of Dostoevsky. This is true and this is valid. There’s no question but modern Russian theology is self-aware in its debts to Dostoevsky. I hate to be too reductive here, because any too-pat characterisation I may make of the great philosophical minds I mentioned above would be insufficient. But the modern theology of the Rodina, even and especially in its more conservative and nationalist forms, all takes place in the light of the suffering of the 1990s, just as the ‘death of God’ theology in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s was a reaction to the horrors, devastation and heinous crimes of the Second World War (which also still shapes Russian theology).

It strikes me, particularly when reading the work of Mezhuev and Shchipkov, that the focus on suffering has this much more proximate catalyst. Whether we like it or not, neither Saint Basil the Great nor Vladimir Lenin rank high on the list of reasons that political thought in the Russian Rodina still so heavily rejects capitalism. Russia is not quite well-catechised enough to appropriate Basil in its spiritual vernacular, and the lingering Orthodox wariness of Marxism is well-grounded. Instead, capitalism in Russia is associated viscerally with shock therapy and the 1990s: gratuitous comfort and ease for a few; gratuitous starvation, alcoholism and despair for the many. Russian theology cannot help but reject capitalism; their experience of capitalism has been as an experience of a visitation by Antichrist.

In the near diaspora, Orthodox theology becomes a little stranger. We start moving away from the sufferings of ‘the people’ (that is to say the thede or the ‘narod’) and start moving toward specific experiences of the Orthodox as an abandoned ‘nation’ (‘natsiya’) in search of a broader civilisational belonging. The rejection of capitalism is, in most instances, still there – more on that later. But the questions of communal and cultural rights become more pressing concerns. In fact, even the term ‘near diaspora’ is something of a misleading moniker on my part; these people do consider themselves to be part of the Rodina, because they are Russian and they did not move: only a border happened to shift around them and they suddenly found themselves part of another polity.

This experience is particularly endemic to the Carpatho-Rusin people, whose long history goes something like this. The Rusins were, alongside the Bulgarians and the Serbs, among the first Slavic Orthodox peoples. At first they were Croats who were proselytised by Saints Cyril and Methodius whose feast we celebrated just this past week. Then they were incorporated into the Rus’ after the baptism of Saint Vladimir, and took for themselves the name of Rus’ which they have held ever since. They were conquered by the Poles and subject to Polish servitude, taxation, drudgery and abuse. They were conquered by the Hungarians and incorporated into the Habsburg Monarchy – and continued to be subject to servitude, taxation, drudgery and abuse. Many left Austria-Hungary for America, where they became miners, factory workers and union activists. The Rusins were incorporated into an independent Czechoslovak state of their own will, and got a much better deal œconomically, but no political autonomy. And then they were largely incorporated into the Soviet Union (and many sent to Siberia) or subject to Operation Vistula by Communist Poland. And now the Ukraine abuses them, oppresses them, tells them they are Ukrainians (albeit ‘uplanders’), and forbids them to speak their own language in school.

The Carpatho-Rusins present us with a rather extreme example, and the cultural politics of central Europe complicate matters for them to the point where I tend to consider them sui generis. Indeed, the question of whether Carpatho-Rusins are in fact Russians is a politically-contentious one. But at a certain level, the experience of the Carpatho-Rusins is paradigmatic of near-diaspora Russians generally in the post-Soviet world order: the people who didn’t move, but simply found themselves on the wrong side of a border (or four or five, in the Carpatho-Rusin case). Their passports were no longer valid. Their language was no longer taught in schools. Their pensions started to evaporate. Their freedom of movement was restricted. Their livelihoods came under attack with the imposition of capitalism. Their loyalties were subject to question. This situation, to varying degrees, describes Russians not only in the Ukraine, but also in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and the Central Asian ‘Stans’. Belarus and Kazakhstan present special cases wherein authoritarian governments guided by post-Soviet ideologies heavily curtailed Russian political rights, but historically kept their cultural, linguistic and religious communal integrity intact by sustained effort and political will. But in the other polities, democratic ideology has come into direct conflict with humanitarian praxis.

As a result, the idea of the ‘Russian world’, the Russkiy Mir, has a very different meaning and connotation for the ethnic Russians living in post-Soviet states, than it does for ideologically-Atlanticist strategists who analyse it as empire by other means. In Slovakia, the Rusins tend to embrace the left-populist politics of the Direction party. Ethnic Russians living in the Baltic states tend to embrace various forms of centre-left welfarist and green politics. And in Belarus and Kazakhstan, ethnic Russians and Russian Orthodox Church structures tend to be quietly supportive of their respective governments.

In terms of what this means for the political theology of the Russian near diaspora, it also tends toward a kind of anti-capitalism. But there is mixed into it not a meditation on suffering and loss (though some of these populations have indeed suffered greatly), rather a concern for shoring up various forms of political and œconomic security for vulnerable populations. The anti-capitalism of the Russians, including the Russian clergy, in ex-Soviet and Eastern European lands tends to be slightly more Western-leaning and slightly more petit-bourgeois in its fixations. They are happy to engage with Russkiy Mir thinking as a way of building solidarity and as a way of affirming continuity with the Russian civilisation; but they are also wary enough of gæopolitical games that – as in the case of Latvia’s Russians – they can and do distance themselves from the Russkiy Mir project when pressured. The civilisational-loyalty of the near diaspora is by no means absolute or non-negotiable.

And then we get to the far diaspora: the Russians who actually did leave the Rodina in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries either on account of Tsarist or Soviet persecution, and acculturated themselves in varying degrees to Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan. The political theology of the far diaspora is characterised by both genius and madness; both heroism and cravenness; both revolution and reaction; extreme Westernism, extreme nationalism; both nihilism and sublime personalism. The ‘Odinic wanderings’ of the Russian exiles have produced, if I may borrow the imagery from Tolkien, both Sarumans and Gandalfs. Far diaspora theology is, like the diaspora community itself, blown apart in a number of senses – and the keenest and most compassionate (but by no means uncritical) observer of the spiritual plight of the Russian diaspora was herself one of its most scintillating spiritual geniuses, Mother Maria Skobtsova.

Again, it is not and never has been my desire to ‘diss’ the far diaspora. Indeed, the fact that Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others are being read with rapt attention by clerics, monastics and religious scholars in the Rodina itself should be indication that there is a great deal of spiritual wealth and new life that has grown from this uprooted population. The far diaspora has indeed produced these beautiful blossoms of great creativity and spiritual vigour. But—this population has also been responsible, to an extraordinary degree, for a great deal of spiritual distortion, auto-orientalisation and thoughtless reaction, even and especially if that reaction is of a ‘liberal’ variety. The inability of certain segments of the Russian diaspora to accept the ascetic burdens of rootlessness (that is what they are!), has led them to entrench and embattle themselves against imaginary dæmons that still haunt their exilic past.

In some cases, this has meant locking themselves into an eternal Manichæan battle with the ghosts of long-dead Soviets, whom they now see lurking behind the façade of Western liberalism and progressivism. Sadly, commentators like Rod Dreher at The American Conservative seem to be bent on uncritically amplifying the voices of this particular subset of white émigré thought. In other cases, like that of the editors and commentators of The Wheel (Hovorun, Leonova, Denysenko et al.), this has meant mimicking Michael Ignatieff’s full-on embrace of Western liberalism and all of its gæopolitical accoutrements, as the only weapon to hand able to halt the advance of Stalinist Putinist ideology. Even though these two groups – the extreme white émigré reactionaries and the extreme white émigré liberals – are always at each other’s throats on social media, the irony is that they resemble nothing so much as mirror-images of each other. They exemplify the same sorts of narrow ideological stridency; the same blind, hostile reactivity; the same ressentiment. Both white émigré groups even exemplify – despite a superficial support for Israeli statehood claims – the same dank, telltale whiff of anti-Semitic conspiratorial thinking when the subject turns to ‘cultural Marxism’ or to post-Soviet Eastern European nationalisms. Fundamentalism and high modernism always were two sides of the same base coin.

Again, I apologise to my readers – particularly those for whom Russian is a first language and who are better-acquainted with the source material than I am – if what I say here is off the mark. I am attempting, after all, to describe various broad cultural and political trends from an ‘outsider’s’ (or, at best, ‘far diaspora’ myself) position. There are, I’m quite sure, distasteful and unhealthy trends in both Rodina and near diaspora intellectual and political life that I’m missing. I’m also open to the distinct possibility that I’m overstating my case, and that continuities exist between all of these communities that this trichotomy doesn’t account for.

Even so: the tendencies of the spirituality of the Rodina (Patriarch Saint Tikhon and the various catacomb saints of the Russian mainland), of the near diaspora (Saint John of Riga; Saint Iov of Ugolka) and of the far diaspora (Mother Maria; Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco), all display very different spiritual trajectories and styles, and some form of more careful differentiation is needed in light of this divided history. It simply won’t do to speak of ‘Russian Orthodox political theology’ as though it were a monolith – but it also won’t do to concentrate solely on ‘far diaspora’ thought as though the Russian heartland and mainland herself were spiritually inert; still less to attribute the various illnesses and hangovers of ‘far diaspora’ thought onto Russian political theology as a whole.

27 May 2019

Otyrardyń kúıreýi: a Cassandra tale of power and pride


Unju (Doha Qydyralıev) in Otyrardyń kúıreýi

One of the seminal pieces of independent Kazakh cinema is the 1991 Otyrardyń kúıreýi (Отырардың күйреуі, The Fall of Otrar), directed by Ardak Ámirqulov. A sprawling, nearly three-hour-long historical epic, filmed mostly in black and white with a few sparse splashes of colour, Otyrardyń kúıreýi narrates, from a Qypshaq point of view, the fall of the city of Otyrar in Horezm to the Mongols under Sh‎yńǵys Han. This story also serves in part as the basis for Jin Yong’s historical wuxia novel The Eagle-Shooting Hero, but Ámirqulov’s focus is very different than Jin Yong’s.

Jin Yong, at least when he was writing the first book in that trilogy, was doing so from the perspective of a patriot, and his characters – particularly Guo Jing and Huang Rong – are exemplars of heroism. On the other hand, a certain wan pessimism hovers over the heroisms of the characters in Otyrardyń kúıreýi. The indubitable bravery and self-sacrifice of the main character, Unju (Doha Qydyralıev), is repeatedly met by his own shah with mockery, disbelief and a series of cruel tortures. And when Unju’s lord Qaıyr Han, the governor of Otyrar (Tuńǵyshbaı Jamanqulov), who basically sacrificed Unju politically to Shah Muhammad (Ábdýráshit Mahsudov) to save his own skin, is forced into making a brave stand from the walls of his city against the mighty and wrathful Shyńǵys Han (Bolot Beıshenalıev), we already know – or can easily guess – the doom awaiting him and his son. One scene in particular demonstrates Ámirqulov’s fatalistic outlook. One lone Qypshaq hero rides out from Otyrar to a single combat with a Mongol knight as Qaıyr Han watches from the walls; the Mongol taunts him about how he is about to die. Instead of the honourable joust the Qypshaq is expecting, though, four other Mongols ride up behind him, shoot him in the back with an arrow, lasso him from his horse and drag him in the dust behind them.

The entire film is shot in black and white, with only occasional sploshes of colour thrown in for effect, particularly around blood and fire, lending the film its epic – and at times dreamlike – quality. The cinematography choices (and, indeed, the sets) are deliberately claustrophobic, as though we are watching from the point-of-view of a prisoner or a victim of circumstance – much of the action in the first half of the film takes place in dungeons, cramped courtyards, halls, bedchambers, houses and crowded streets. The camera forces us to watch as various bodily tortures and executions are visited upon the victims of state violence – burning, branding, crucifixion, impalement, tongue-cutting. The world shown to us in Otyrardyń kúıre‎‎ýi is uncompromisingly cruel. Only a few brief glimpses of kindness and redemption that are shown to us, and these are emphatically not the result of brave last stands. In the end, only the weapons of the weak seem to be effective, and what little grace there is appears to be arbitrary.

Unju, the noble, selfless and brutally-honest Qypshaq ‘arrow of Allâh’ who served seven years as a scout among the Mongols, spends most of the film attempting to warn his superiors about the Mongol threat, but – like the Cassandra of distant Greek antiquity – he is constantly disbelieved, and he is subject to various tortures and punishments as a result. (The queen mother, who apparently owed Unju a favour, takes a different tack: telling him to save himself by lying, then sending him a Chinese girl to sleep with while keeping guards and spies posted around him.) Despite all this ill-use, even ending up exiled and stripped of his warrior rank because of his persistence, Unju keeps coming back to Qaıyr Han and Otyrar to try to save his people from their own destruction. We get to see the people he cares most about – in particular his old Russian servant who still dreams of going free.

But Shah Muhammad and Qaıyr Han continue to be guided primarily by an overbearing pride. They not only fail to heed Unju, but they also repeatedly antagonise and continually underestimate Shyńǵys Han: first by ransacking the home of his caravan-merchant Yalbach (Záýirbıı Zehov); then by seizing the caravan itself, which Qaıyr Han is shown to do not out of greed but out of defiance against the Mongol leader; and finally by killing one of Sh‎yńǵys Han’s envoys and branding the other two. A war seems inevitable as Qaıyr Han is sent back to see to Otyrar’s defences. Much of the latter half of the movie treats the siege and sack of Otyrar itself. One really has to admire, despite the washed-out, sepia-toned black-and-white choice of production, the technical side: the props – horses, weapons, armour, blood, pyrotechnics – and effects that clearly went into this hour-long epic battle scene.

Because this film is historical epic, and also about as true to actual historical detail as one can reasonably expect from a film adaptation, we already know how it ends. But strangely enough, despite our basically following the perspective of Unju from the beginning and not really having reasons to feel any sympathy for Qaıyr Han (a cruel and cowardly tyrant for most of the film), toward the middle and the end he starts to take on a more human aspect, particularly toward his son whom he clearly loves. Also, despite his tyrannical order – and gruesome example – to cut out the tongues of any in Otyrar who murmur that Allâh has turned against him after the mosque falls, we start to sympathise more with the man himself. At the end, as Qaıyr Han himself takes up a sword, berates his dead troops and fights a one-man last stand, we can’t help but be dismayed when the Mongols capture him and drag him before Sh‎yńǵys Han to meet the end he’s earned. He is killed by having molten silver poured onto his face in a death-masque.

We at last see Unju riding through the ruins of his city, and he finds his old Russian servant, who was at the gates when the Mongols rode in. He lived because the Mongols thought he was the one who opened the gates, and they gave him a gold tablet they used to recognise their agents. He gave this tablet to a blind young Qypshaq girl who lived near Unju’s house, so she could save herself. Unju visits the ruins of a mosque and mulls over the irony that he was ready to be martyred for Otyrar but ended up surviving; and that Qaıyr Han who sought to save his own skin was martyred for his city anyway.

There is a fatalism and a definite undertone of political subversion to this film – notable particularly in the treatments of the court of the sadistic, torture-happy Shah and of Qaıyr Han’s heavy-handed despotism – that mark it out as a product of very late-Soviet glasnost’. It’s as though Ámirqulov fancied himself able to see the writing on the wall, and the result is a surprisingly-thoughtful meditation on timeless political realities. In an additional twist of irony – it’s very clear from the film that if Ámirqulov ever considered himself a patriot, it was in a starkly-realist sense, without any romantic or idealistic illusions – the grim political end he foresaw in his parable-laden treatment of his homeland’s distant history, marked the decisive creative beginning of a national cinematic vernacular for an independent Kazakhstan. The only complaint I have with Otyrardyń kúıreýi is that the copy I watched was overdubbed in Russian; and I’m not a particular fan of that method. However, it’s nonetheless a uniquely powerful film, and very easy to see why Otyrardyń kúıreýi is considered a masterpiece and a touchstone of Kazakh cinema; and also why it was particularly beloved by Martin Scorsese. This film can be pretty hard to take, but it is definitely worth the nearly three-hour sit-down time.

26 May 2019

Our father among the saints Augustine of Canterbury


Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Tomorrow in the Orthodox Church, we venerate the gentle, humble academic historian whose writing was actually the most successful in leading me into the Church – I mean, of course, the Venerable Bede. Given that I have spent much of the last seven months with Bede once more in my project of the hagiographical treatments of various pre-Schismatic British, Welsh, Irish and Lowlander saints, it would seem a mark of ingratitude if I passed over his feast day in silence. Bede was a remarkably important figure in English letters and, even if one may see a certain ideological bent to his writing, was well ahead of his time in his proto-Rankean active pursuit and use of multiple (and particularly primary) source materials and his critical eye on past historical events. More than that, though, he was the ‘real deal’ in terms of holiness. He didn’t blow his own trumpet. Stern with himself and mild with others, a man who genuinely valued peace and contemplation, his accounts of the lives of past saints often reflect the virtues he successfully cultivated in his own life. Holy Bede, sweet and gentle teacher of the English folk, we sinners entreat your prayers to Christ for our salvation!

His feast day meetly follows upon that of a most distinguished Italian Benedictine : Augustine, the father of Bede’s order in Britain who, with justice, may be considered the singular and most important father of English Christianity. Saint Augustine’s early life is relatively unknown. We know little of his youth or upbringing except that he was a resident of Rome and thus probably Roman himself, and that he entered the monastic life in the Abbey of Saint Andrew (today the Chiesa di San Gregorio Magno al Celio) which had been established by the holy Pope Gregory Dialogos out of his own inheritance.

He was probably quite close to Pope Gregory, being trusted enough to be made prior of Saint Andrew’s. In 596, after Pope Gregory had formed the conviction to embark on the commission to the heathen Angles and Saxons and Jutes who had settled in Britain, Augustine was chief among the monks selected to carry out this mission. The reputation of the Teutonic peoples of the north was well-established: it was known to the monks that the people of England were rough in their manners, fell and baneful in their hearts. Moreover, the monks were worried for their safety in crossing the waters of the English Channel. By consensus, the monks of the Gregorian mission sent Augustine back to Rome to deliver to Pope Gregory their request to be recalled from the mission. The letter that Pope Gregory sent back to them by Augustine, as recounted by Holy Bede, was to this effect:
GREGORY, Servant of the servants of God, to the servants of God. My very dear sons, it is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it when once begun. So with the help of God you must carry out this holy task which you have begun. Be constant and zealous in carrying out this enterprise which, under God’s guidance, you have undertaken: and be assured that the greater the labour, the greater will be the glory of your æternal reward. When Augustine your leader returns, whom We have appointed your abbot, obey him humbly in all things, remembering that whatever he directs you to do will always be to the good of your souls. May Almighty God protect you with His grace, and grant me to see the result of your labours in our heavenly home. And although my office prevents me from working at your side, yet because I long to do so, I hope to share in your joyful reward. God keep you safe, my dearest sons.

Dated the twenty-third of July, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our most devout lord Maurice Tiberius Augustus, and the thirteenth year after the Consulship of our said Lord. The fourteenth interdiction.
Augustine having delivered this letter to his brother-monks, they continued heartened on their journey to English shores. (Pope Gregory also managed to secure along their way the assistance and hospitality of the Archbishop Ætherius of Arles for his monks’ benefit.) Once there, Augustine and his fellow monks from Rome had their famous meeting in the open at Thanet with Æþelberht King and his retinue. (Noteworthy is that Bede recounts Augustine’s procession in Thanet ‘carrying a silver cross as their standard, and the likeness of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board’!) , They also received much-needed aid from Æþelberht’s devoted wife Saint Berhte, who gifted them provisions, as well as the old Roman chapel she and her bishop Léodheard had for their personal use.

Saint Augustine remained in contact with Pope Gregory after this successful foray into Kent. He apparently wrote the Pope with a long list of questions about church administration and pastoral ethics, with particular attention to questions of how the church should address problems of cleanliness, marriage and sexual relations. Pope Gregory’s answers are a very model of pastoral understanding and what we Orthodox types nowadays somewhat pretentiously call ‘οἰκονομία’, or œconomy. He advises the English mission to follow the Book of Acts and share all property in common, but also makes provision for married clerics and allows Saint Augustine to appoint his own bishops. He advises Saint Augustine to select from the various different Liturgical settings (Roman, Gallic and British) based on what resonates with the English faithful; he gives Augustine authority over bishops in Britain, but emphatically not in Gaul. He provides a broad latitude for Saint Augustine to punish church-robbers but with a clear preference for mercy and charity for those genuinely in need. He allows for double in-law marriage and (more reluctantly, as Roman law permitted it) first-cousin marriage, but absolutely forbids other forms of incest. He gave similar guidance on other matters of sexual ethics and cleanliness – and did not forbid women to come to the chalice during their periods or after childbirth, or forbid baptism to expecting mothers.

Pope Gregory continued to take a keen and personal interest in the success of his mission to the English. He sent Saint Augustine an omophor rather than having him come to Rome to get it; and he also sent an additional four monastic clerics to aid Augustine in his labours: Mellitus, Paulinus, Justus and Rufinianus. Upon hearing that Saint Augustine was working wonders among his English flock, Gregory at once wrote him a stern letter warning him not to let it go to his head. Saint Augustine also established the Priory of Christ Church (now part of Canterbury Cathedral) and the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul (later Saint Augustine’s Abbey) which was later consecrated by Saint Laurence. The first abbot of this Benedictine community, a holy man named Peter, was caught at sea and drowned off Ambleteuse, where he was unceremoniously buried by the locals. After a light appeared over his grave, however, the men of Ambleteuse took up his poor remains and translated them to the church at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he now rests.


Saint Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Saint Augustine’s efforts at reconciling the English with their British (i.e. Welsh) neighbours were considerably less successful. He called a meeting at a place Bede calls ‘Augustine’s Oak’ on the marches of Hwicce, which nowadays probably lies somewhere in the vicinity of Gloucester. Among the issues discussed were the Easter dating issue; the laxity of Welsh missionary efforts; and possibly also church administration. Saint Augustine does not appear to have been very politick in his arguments, because the Welsh bishops refused to yield on any point. In frustration, Saint Augustine asked the British to bring forth a sick man so that a wonder from God might change their mind; they brought out a blind man whose eyes Saint Augustine promptly healed. The Welsh bishops then acknowledged Saint Augustine’s holiness but would not concede in any particular to his demands until they could confer with their own people.

A second synod was thereafter called – the infamous Synod of Urbs Legionis [Chester] which, from a standpoint of church unity, was an even bigger débâcle than the first meeting had been. Alas that Saint Augustine had not heeded better his letter from Pope Gregory cautioning against pride! The Welsh bishops and monks who met with Saint Augustine were deeply offended when the bishop did not do them the common brotherly courtesy of rising to greet them on their arrival. Saint Augustine thereafter pleaded with them on the issues of the Easter date and proselytising the English, but the damage to his own cause had already been done. The synod ended acrimoniously, with Saint Augustine shouting threats at the Welsh that the heathen English would attack and destroy them for their stubborn arrogance. (It so happened a good while afterward, that the heathen king of Northumbria Æþelfrið destroyed the Welsh armies at Chester and slaughtered nearly twelve hundred of the monks of Bangor.)

This unfortunate episode left a long divide between the British Christians who kept to their own rite and calendar, and the English Christians who held to the Roman rule. However, Saint Augustine did many other things to establish Christianity among the English people. He helped Æþelberht King draught the first written code of laws for the English folk, and also established a school to promote literacy. As among the last acts of his earthly life, Holy Father Augustine consecrated Mellitus and Justus as bishops to rule in his stead – Mellitus in London, and Justus in Rochester. When Saint Augustine blessedly reposed in the Lord on the twenty-sixth of May, 604, he was laid to rest at the threshold of the new and yet-incomplete abbey he had commissioned; after the abbey was properly consecrated, his relics were translated inside and interred under the north porch in a seat of honour. Holy Father Augustine, wonderworker and first-called among the apostles to the English, we ask your prayers to our Lord Christ that our souls may be saved!
Sent forth by thy master the great Gregory,
Thou hast marched with the holy Cross and the image of the Saviour,
Baptising the multitude with the clear waters of faith into the spiritual flock of Christ.
As thou hast enlightened and hallowed the English land,
Sowing the seed of heaven in the earth of Kent,
So do thou now enlighten and hallow us anew,
O thou boast of Canterbury, holy archpastor Augustine!

25 May 2019

Venerable Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne


Bishop Saint Aldhelm of Sherborne

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate the West Saxon monastic and hierarch Aldhelm, who was the abbot at Malmesbury Abbey and the bishop of Sherborne and Sarum [Salisbury] in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Praised by Holy Bede for his scholarly learning and having the devotion of England’s saintly Ælfræd King (who committed his life to writing), Bishop Aldhelm was – no small feat! – no less beloved by the people than by kings and clergy.

Born around 639 in the West Saxon lands, probably to Centwine King of Wessex whose family had been converted by Saint Berin of Dorchester, Aldhelm was placed under the care and tutelage of the Irish monk and hermit Saint Máel Dub for a full fourteen years, from whom he acquired a firm grasp of Latin, astronomy, law, mathematics and a lifelong love of learning. Later in his monastic career, Aldhelm would journey to Canterbury to become (alongside Saint John of Beverley, it seems) a student of the African monastic scholar Saint Hadrian, who tutored him in Greek and Hebrew (and who unfortunately also seems to have imparted to him a certain turgid prolixity of style). Upon his return to Malmesbury – so called afterwards because it was the burial-place of Saint Máel Dub – the monk Aldhelm was elevated to the dignity of Abbot of that community of monks, as well as to that of headmaster of Máel Dub’s monastic school.

Aldhelm soon thereafter won from the nobles of Wessex the right of the monastery to elect its own abbot, and also imposed the regularity of the Rule of Saint Benedict on the way of life at Malmesbury – along with the radical hospitality and care for the poor that that entailed. He established several other churches and monasteries – most in Malmesbury, but some a bit further afield. In Frome, with the help of some former brigands who became his monastic disciples, Saint Aldhelm established a Benedictine monastery (now sadly lost), and in Bradford-on-Avon Aldhelm established the still-standing Church of Saint Laurence and its associated Benedictine House. He kept a very stringent ascetic discipline and fast for himself, but was lenient and understanding of others – particularly lay folk.


Church of Saint Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon

Aldhelm earned for himself the reputation of a formidable scholar, the greatest English scholar prior to Saint Bede, and he was particularly respected among Irish princes and monastics – possibly because of his Irish education under Saint Máel Dub. He was a poet who wrote in Latin verse (very possibly the first lettered Anglo-Saxon so to do). He carried on lengthy correspondences with his tutor Saint Hadrian, with Bishop Hloþhere of Winchester, with the Cornish prince Geraint and several others. Saint Boniface kept several of Saint Aldhelm’s letters. One particularly important letter on numerology and rhythmic metre, Epistola ad Acircium, was one addressed to the half-Irish Ealdferð King of Northumbria – who was also Saint Aldhelm’s godson. Aldhelm wrote the Latin De laude virginitatis in praise of Abbess Hildalíþ of Barking and for the edification of her monastic pupils. His verse works include songs in praise of virginity, a rhythmic song describing a journey through the English West, and a compilation of Latin riddles (the Enigmata) of the sort popular in Anglo-Saxon verse.

Despite all this learning, he did not let it go to his head, nor did he hold himself aloof from the folk. He spoke plain English with the people of his parish, and did not look down on them. In fact, in order to encourage the wayward and lazy among them to go to church – so the tale goes – Aldhelm would stand on one side of the town bridge in Malmesbury and preach in the open in an energetic and diverting way, playing his harp, meshing popular folk songs and hymnody, tales from the Gospel and even tomfoolery and joking, all in the hopes of getting the common people to come to Church. In this way he was able to gather a great throng of hearers around him, and thus to give to them a basic but strong and lasting understanding of the Faith. Saint Aldhelm was a firm believer in using an easy and gentle hand to guide people in the door.

He was also – as might be expected from a churchman of distinguished family background – fairly involved in politics both sæcular and ecclesiastical. He accompanied Cædwalla, the heathen king of Wessex, on a journey to Rome where he was baptised by the Syrian Pope Saint Sergius I. He took an active part in the controversy over the Easter date, possibly being a participant at the Synod of Whitby, and his letter to Geraint shows rather unequivocally his pro-Roman stance on the matter. However hard his words were to Geraint and the other followers of the British-Celtic method of calculating the date of Pascha, he nonetheless was ever willing to extend olive branches and favour conciliation with any who recanted their errors. Eventually, and largely through Saint Aldhelm’s efforts, the Cornish princes and clerics came around to the use of the Roman date for calculating Easter.

Aldhelm was later appointed, against his will, to the newly-created Bishopric of Sherborne. (Upon the repose of Saint Hædde, the bishop of Winchester, his vast diocæse was split in two by mutual conciliar agreement, with seats in Winchester and Sherborne.) Though he was sixty-six years of age at the time of his consecration, he took to his new post with an unmatched zeal and energy. He traversed his new diocæse proclaiming the Gospel; helped the poor, the sick and the oppressed; founded and consecrated the monastic Cathedral at Sherborne; and all the while continued as Abbot to manage the monasteries in Malmesbury, Frome and Bradford-on-Avon, while also providing guidance and advice to other abbots in Glastonbury and Wimborne.

This vigorous activity took its toll on the elderly monk’s health, and Aldhelm’s health began to wane in 709. Knowing his earthly end was near he took leave of his fellow monks and the lay-folk he dearly loved, and asked them to keep themselves in peace and love with one another when he had gone. As he was faring in Doulting, the ailing Saint Aldhelm asked to be taken into a local chapel, where he was wont to pray by himself quietly. He sat beside a well nearby – later known as Saint Aldhelm’s Well – and there drew his last breath at the age of seventy.

Saint Aldhelm’s dear friend Saint Ecgwine, who was then Bishop of Worcester, was given to know of his friend’s death in a dream. Bishop Ecgwine hurried southward to Doulting, and there took his friend’s relics in procession from Doulting to Malmesbury Abbey, stopping along the road to rest every seven miles or so and each time erecting a cross where they stopped: Doulting, Frome, Westbury, Bradford-on-Avon, Bath, Colerne, Littleton Drew and Malmesbury. Along their road, whenever ailing and troubled folk touched the casket carrying Saint Aldhelm’s relics, they were healed and consoled. He was interred at the church of Saint Michael at Malmesbury Abbey, which had been his favoured home for most of his blessed life.

This gentle monastic scholar and folk-poet of the English southwest was glorified locally as a saint almost at once upon his repose, and the holy well at which he gained to the life æternal became a popular pilgrimage site at which many wonders were later wrought. His memory was later exalted by the attentions lavished upon his relics by his Wessex kinsmen, Æþelwulf King of Wessex and his son Saint Ælfræd, and his scholarly works – at least those in Latin – stand in their own right as testament to his scholastic and spiritual achievements. Holy, venerable and God-bearing father Aldhelm, ever-merciful upon those who need mercy, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
Like Samuel of old thou wast afire from thy youth
With spiritual desire for wisdom divine, O venerable and God-bearing hierarch Aldhelm; For this cause thou didst tread the narrow path of life unto Christ,
Making Malmesbury a worthy monastic abode,
A haven of stillness where thou didst struggle in ascetic labour for many years.
Wherefore,as thou now beholdest the face of Christ in the heavens,
Entreat Him in behalf of us who honour thy holy memory with love.

23 May 2019

Ulzhan: an unlikely treasure-hunt


Ulzhan (Ayanat Ksenbai) and Charles (Philippe Torreton) in Ulzhan

Much as I have problems with it as a vehicle for imperialist self-definition and propaganda, there’s still something oddly compelling to me about orientalist art, when it is done in a self-aware way. Even after taking Said’s critique into account, Frederic Arthur Bridgman paintings can have a certain charm when their seeming-romanticism and even kitsch gives way to a hidden complexity, an exploration of the ways in which ‘West’ and ‘Rest’ are more alike or on the same wavelength than not. The 2007 French-German-Kazakh film Ulzhan seems to fall into this category.

To be sure, Charles (portrayed by Philippe Torreton), Ulzhan (Ayanat Ksenbai) and Shakuni (David Bennant) start out essentially as Western-movie stock characters – and the argument that they don’t particularly progress or grow seems to be a valid one: Charles, the mysterious stranger with a troubled past; Ulzhan, the supportive and selfless prairie schoolteacher who falls for him; Shakuni, the oddly-dressed vagabond who may be more than he appears. And at times one feels like the film tries to touch on too many themes, tries to be too many things at once. Yet despite borrowing from Westerns (and Osterns), neo-noir, road films and magical realism – its complex and often-frustrating story as it moves from a gritty realism of oil rigs, private security firms, dive bars and Soviet apartment blocks into an otherworldly shamanic venture into the realm of death. This broad arc, coupled with the vast backdrops of the Kazakhstani steppes, in the end create a mesmerising and oddly-compelling film.

In a certain sense, the character of Shakuni himself – a mercurial half-Kazakh, half-diaspora Soviet German fluent in French who embraces an eclectic mélange of Indian, Chinese and shamanic religious thought and acts as something of a medium for Charles and Ulzhan – is something of a writer/director avatar in the sense that the film tries to do something similar to what he does. One can argue that the film is tasked with relating certain shamanistic insights into questions of life and death and purpose through a ‘Western’ story structure and medium. But Shakuni himself seems to be a rather incomplete and not-quite-credible character, however entertaining; and the same could be said of the film itself.

Warning: spoilers to follow.

At the border of Kazakhstan, a frumpy Rich Hall dead ringer with a similar heavily-jowled middle-aged charm (but without the deadpan-snarky wit) appears in a car and presents his papers: Charles, a Frenchman. After driving off, he abandons his car, takes out his effects and starts hitchhiking over the steppe, though he refuses rides from everyone he meets. He goes off-road and finds himself in a town with a dimly-lit cowboy-themed nightclub. He drinks vodka, goes to a party in an apartment, and has awkward drunk bathroom sex with Olga, a Russian bar bunny from the club. He wakes up half-naked and hung over with all of his papers stolen, but the one thing he seems to care about – a canister with a map, a scrap of paper in a foreign script, a crumpled photo of a woman with two children and a postcard – he eventually finds, to his relief.

Charles continues walking, but gets chased and arrested by several Kazakhstani rent-a-cops near an oil rig; when he can’t present his papers to their supervisor he is accused of working for Halliburton or Gazprom, and spends the night in a makeshift trailer-prison. His identity is eventually confirmed by the French consulate in Astana, where he is sent via helicopter to pick up his new papers. Charles spends some time marvelling at this glittering, Las Vegas-type construction in the middle of the desert, with no towns or villages around. The French consul takes him to a lingerie / fashion show, but a visibly-uncomfortable Charles picks up and leaves after a few minutes, then keeps walking – no papers in hand. In an old abandoned building he has his first surreal, unlikely meeting at night with an odd-looking character, Shakuni, who seems to speak perfect French.

Passing through a town Charles sees a small herd of horses and asks whom they belong to. He is pointed to the school, where his odd appearance and fluent French make him an instant hit among the schoolchildren – though Charles answers their questions, one of the children in particular seems to make him sad and wistful. Their schoolteacher, Ulzhan, comes out and takes him back to her place for dinner, and we learn a little more about Charles’s backstory and his destination: Khan-Tengri, a tall mountain which is held sacred by the old shamans. Ulzhan’s mother tells him that is where they go to die. Charles buys a dapple-grey from Ulzhan, and sets out again on his journey – only to find that Ulzhan has been tailing him. He tries several times to send her back, but she keeps returning to him: in one instance even bringing back his horse and saving him from a sandstorm. Along their journey they visit an abandoned kolkhoz, as well as a nomadic village (where they witness Shakuni perform a yurt-blessing), an abandoned holy site with Buddhas carved into the steppe rocks, and a lone painter doing landscapes replete with mushroom clouds, at a radioactive nuclear weapons testing site. Charles tells Ulzhan that he has with him a fragment to a map, that shows the location of a buried treasure, left by the Chinese Nestorians on Khan-Tengri after the Tang Dynasty.

It becomes clear at several points, but particularly at the nuclear test site, that Charles has something of a death-wish. He goes charging with his horse onto the site. He also gets into a fight with two knife-wielding hoodlums over a dead Kazakh’s briefcase containing old letters from World War II – which he confides to Shakuni that he enjoyed. Ulzhan, fed up with Charles’s daredevil antics, correctly guesses that his coming this far, and his going to Khan-Tengri, has more to do with his dead wife and children than it does with his buried treasure – but she continues to stay with him despite suspecting he has come this far just to die. Shakuni stays behind with the dead Kazakh and his widow, and Charles and Ulzhan make their way up Khan-Tengri alone.

Near the top, Charles throws the saddle-bags off of his horse, abandons it and goes off on foot. Ulzhan takes the horses back down the mountain, but not before she silently hugs him. Charles, near the peak, takes out the postcard and the picture of his dead wife and children and lays them under a rock. He turns back to see Ulzhan tying up his horse and leaving it for him before disappearing from sight – offering him the choice to stay and die, or follow her and live. But in the last shot of the film we only see him sitting down on the mountain and weeping.

End spoilers.

Again, I have to wonder if the character of Shakuni isn’t supposed to represent in some larger sense the project of the movie overall: the overly-expressive half-German, half-Kazakh vagrant-hustler with his embrace of ‘dharma’ and shamanic lore. The characters are guided liminally out of a ‘realist’ situation and into the realm of the symbolic, where the dead and the living seem to talk to one another and even the difference between them is not all that clear. Indeed, it’s not all that clear that the ‘night life’ Charles experiences on his arrival in Kazakhstan (or the lingerie show in Astana, for that matter) is in fact ‘life’; and the figures of Charles’s dead family accompany him all the time, right to the very end of the film on the slopes of Khan-Tengri. The conversation Ulzhan and Charles have in the kolkhoz seems to underscore this point: if the life under the Soviets was a ‘zoo’ and life under capitalism a ‘jungle’, how are human beings supposed to live?

As with the other Kazakh films I have been watching recently, the scenery seems to take centre stage. But rather than being a broad expanse suitable to dreaming of the stars (as in Baikonur) or a climate both literally and metaphorically hostile to human life and comfort (Kelin), here it seems to underscore the peculiarly-Gallic preoccupation with a lack of meaning and direction and the difficulty of choosing life over various forms of apathy, despair and death. Again, though, the problems of this being ultimately a piece of orientalist art (in Said’s sense) come to the fore. Asian landscapes and Asian characters form a backdrop for telling a quintessentially-European story. Still, the fact that they seem to have gotten the gist and purposes of the elder shamanic tradition mostly right, with Charles’s personal tragœdy forming the basis for the entire quest, shows that the writer and director seem to be taking their thematic material seriously.

Again, I feel like this is a case of a 100-minute movie trying to do too much and be too much: as a latter-day Ostern with possible shamanic undertones, it almost works. But our protagonist Charles spends most of the film as a sullen, unlikeable grump, and he only starts to become an interesting character when the film is two-thirds over. We never learn that much more about Ulzhan than when she is introduced to us. And Shakuni – even though his backstory is fascinating and plausible – almost feels like a sketch or a caricature more than an actual character. I think I get what the filmmakers were aiming for with their cultural commentary, but the jury’s still out – at least for me – on whether they managed to succeed, or whether the thing collapses into a pretentious mess. I feel like I would have to go back and watch it again from the beginning, to decide if I would even want to recommend it.

21 May 2019

Kelin: beautifully brutal and bleak


The neatherd (Erjan Nurymbet) and Kelin (Gulsharat Jubaeva) in Kelin

Another Kazakh film that I watched recently was Ermek Tursynov’s 2009 art film Kelin (Келін), or Daughter-in-Law. In a nutshell: the cinematography of Kelin is amazing. The camera dwells lovingly on wide-angle shots of mountains and the taiga-to-tundra biome which the characters inhabit – not to mention the wildlife of sundry kinds (wolves, owls and vultures being the favourites). The period-specific props, costumes and make-up are simply exquisite. The soundtrack – khöömei throat singing and traditional flute and stringed instruments – is used sparsely and to effect. The acting, considering that the vast majority of the film has no dialogue whatsoever, is excellent. And the attractive Gulsharat Jubaeva (the actress who portrays the title character) provides ample eye candy for this heterosexual male viewer, anyway, spending several points in the film in candid love scenes and divers states of undress. But nonetheless: it is an intensely uncomfortable film to watch, and I can see why it sparked such controversy among Kazakh critics who saw the film as immoral and vulgar, even insulting. Riding alongside and underneath the marginal existence of the people and society portrayed in the film, is an undergirding of primordial atavism and barely-contained rage and violence.

WARNING: Spoilers to follow.

The titular kelin is being prepared to be married off by the women of her jüz, while the patriarch haggles with two prospective suitors – a hunter and a neatherd – over the bride-price. The neatherd makes the better offer, and the hunter goes off disappointed. The kelin runs after the hunter, who was her preferred suitor; he draws a knife and makes a blood oath with her. But her fate is sealed: she is taken by the neatherd back to his family – his brother and his mother. On the way, the neatherd brutalises the unwilling Kelin and forces her into sex. But after she spends some time in his home, she starts to enjoy his embraces, gets used to his home, and even starts to think she hasn’t fared too badly regarding her husband.

But her former lover, the hunter, returns and murders her husband in the woods, much to her and her in-laws’ grief when his body is found. They prepare her husband for a burial by exposure, and Kelin sees the hunter among the traders. Her feelings are decidedly conflicted when she meets him face to face. Kelin seduces her teenage brother-in-law, who had been interested in her since his brother first brought her home, but she finds the experience less than satisfactory. The hunter shows up again and seduces Kelin, but his efforts are discovered by Kelin’s mother-in-law – who begins to take measures against the two.

Kelin’s mother-in-law, who has shamanic abilities, ritualistically strips Kelin naked and cuts off her hair. She then pays a visit to the hunter, throws Kelin’s hair at him and puts a curse on him – but this does not deter the hunter from pursuing Kelin. He abducts her, but is discovered by Kelin’s mother-in-law and brother-in-law, who have different reactions. The brother-in-law confronts the hunter directly and picks a fight with him, stabbing him with a knife. The teenager loses the fight and is killed with his own blade; Kelin weeps over him but can do nothing. The mother-in-law flees to a mountaintop and begins chanting, causing an avalanche to fall over the trail where the hunter and Kelin are. The hunter sacrifices himself to save Kelin and is buried in the avalanche. When Kelin returns, her mother-in-law almost succeeds in strangling her to death, but discovers that she is pregnant and begins caring for her instead. The mother-in-law pampers Kelin, gathers herbs for her and assists in childbirth, and the two of them end up bonding over the baby. At the end of the film, the mother-in-law gives Kelin the staff she had used in her shamanic rituals – an understated but powerful moment of intergenerational solidarity. There is a strong implication in the final scene that the mother-in-law had gone through what Kelin had; but also that Kelin and her child would continue the same cycle.

End spoilers

The story of the film is fairly simple, and the motivations of the characters are straightforward enough so that the whole of the film, every emotion and action, can be carried effectively without dialogue. This lends the movie a visceral, raw and elemental core – a heroic-mythical weight and a broad common appeal that it might not otherwise have. The lack of dialogue combined with the broad, sweeping panoramic shots of the bleak tundra give us the distinct sense that this story is rooted in a timeless distant antiquity. One can be tempted to interpret it as a sort of cautionary tale about human nature generally. On the other hand, one can also interpret it as a movie about female endurance and survival – against the elements and against human violence. I am not surprised that many viewers thought the film was insulting to Kazakh culture, often portraying it as grim and brutal. But the female characters in particular demonstrate real spiritual strength through the various ordeals, even when they are pitted against each other by the harsh realities of their marginal lifestyle.

Even so, speaking personally – despite being well-scripted, brilliantly-executed and gorgeously-shot, Kelin is the sort of film I’m content to watch once, and I can see why it was considered controversial. I might recommend it to fans of art-house and wilderness-survival films both, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it generally.