Monday, May 11, 2020

The Return of Holy Russia by Gary Lachman

When I think about Russia, two thoughts immediately pop into my mind. The first is Winston Churchill's observation (made in 1939) that Russia is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." The second thought is a visual image of Russian nesting dolls shown in the 1979 BBC production of John LeCare's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alex Guinness. As the opening credits roll*, one doll after another is removed until the final, innermost doll is revealed--and this doll has no face. Of course, in the context of the story, this final, faceless doll no doubt references the mole inside the Circus. But for me, it also represents the seeming inscrutability of the Russian mind and its culture. One needn't be an expert on Russian history and culture (and I'm not), to hold this sense of perplexity, at least those of us living to the "West" of Russia. 

But if you, like me, don't wish to remain in confused ignorance about this rich culture and the nation-state that it supports, then Gary Lachman's The Return of Holy Russia: Apocalyptic History, Mystical Awakening, and the Struggle for the Soul of the World (2020) can provide you a comprehensive and accessible tour of Russian history and culture that shines a light into the events, ideas, and attitudes that mark this complicated (and often perplexing) behemoth of a culture and nation. In this book, Lachman looks backward in time to unpack the Russian nesting dolls of Russian culture that he broached in his Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018). In that book, Lachman explored the many tributaries outside of mainstream cultures that altered (and continues to alter) political reality in the U.S., Europe, and Russia in this current time of troubles. In Dark Star Rising, Lachman ranges from Trump's New Thought heritage (via Norman Vincent Peale) to an extended consideration of the culture of Putin's contemporary Russia, a witch's brew of resuscitated czarist aspirations for empire and Slavic glory, Stalinism, Orthodoxy, and "Eurasianism," all overseen by a criminal syndicate posing as a national government. I suspect that as Lachman looked at the tangled mass of threads that run through the Putin regime, he must have wondered (or at least I did), where did all these threads come from? What among the many justifications (and lies) that this particular regime promotes to retain its control could resonate with enough ordinary Russians to maintain the legitimacy of the regime at a level sufficient to allow it to remain in power? The Return of Holy Russia is an attempt to identify those threads from near their beginning and then follow them through to the present. In undertaking this project, Lachman, in his typically thorough, well-paced, and accessible prose, has completed a comprehensive history of Russian thought and culture centered on its religious, philosophical, and high-cultural aspirations. So does this book answer the riddle, solve the mystery, and de-code the enigma? No, but it helps. In this book, Lachman serves as a tour guide in a massive museum of Russian history and culture, providing a grand tour that touches upon the significant exhibits without lingering on any one exhibit too long. By doing so, many readers will emerge from their reading experience wanting to further explore those exhibits that they found most intriguing. I recently read an interview of Lachman where he observed that reading the works of Colin Wilson was like receiving a liberal arts education. The same can be said for reading Lachman. 


In the Introduction and first two chapters, Lachman provides an overview of his subject and a sense of his undertaking, which is an exploration of the Russian "soul" or "character" through time, the result of accretions laid down over hundreds of years of history that lead us the ever-elusive present. Lachman, in these initial pages, identifies some of those who've looked deeply into Russian culture in attempts to arrive at an understanding of the Russian mind. (Lachman notes up-front that he doesn't read or speak the Russian language.) This undertaking by Lachman and his sources is by nature the equivalent of an impressionist painting as opposed to, for instance, an engineering blueprint. In an impressionist work, the colors are bright but often blended one into another and the lines often blurred. We see the big picture but we remain relaxed toward the details, foregoing (or postponing) concerns with details of structure and causal relationships. In this extended metaphor, the Russian "mind," "soul," or "character" is the impressionist vision as a whole, taken-in while knowing that such entities consist of many individual minds that, like flowers, share many common, identifiable attributes, but that reveal individual markers upon close inspection. Lachman addresses the challenge in a footnote (p. 24): 

I apologize to readers who may find these comments about “the Russian character” or“soul” offensive and outdated, given our current concern with avoiding racial or nationalstereotypes. I personally do not find this danger so serious, and my outline of the characteristics of “Russian man”—and “Russian woman” too—are based on wide reading and multiple sources.
Anyone writing a history of ideas (or more broadly, of culture) must deal with negotiating between the Scylla of over-(or unjustified) generalizations and the Charybdis of extreme skepticism about identifying shared traits among groups, be those groups as large and diverse as a nation or as small as a family. Of course, any observer must be careful to avoid convenient and popular stereotypes and lazy generalizations. And groups have outliers, those who don't fit the prevailing pattern of group norms and characteristics and who march to the beat of different drummers. In short, we have to use sound judgment and discernment before arriving at any conclusions. I find that Lachman negotiates these narrows artfully, not only in addressing generalizations or the ubiquity of cultural traits but in addressing all of the ideas that he identifies over the course of Russian history, Lachman maintains a light touch, not allowing his judgments to intrude into his subject matter. Indeed, one of the features that I enjoy when reading Lachman is to watch for those fleeting moments when he tips his hand--often ever so slightly--to reveal judgments he holds about his subject matter. In his introduction and conclusions, in this book and others, Lachman allows himself to emerge from behind the author's screen to share some more explicit judgments with readers, although I've never found that he proselytizes. Indeed, Lachman does a fine job of following the adage of the great British philosopher R. G. Collingwood that the historian should "re-enact" the thought of his historical subjects.** Only when one has, in a sense, gotten inside the head of one's historical subject can the historian place himself in a position to reach conclusions and pass judgments. 

Early in the book, Lachman ties three key figures from the Silver Age of Russian thought and culture to the present regime of Vladimir Putin. Putin recommended that his regional governors read specific works from three Silver Age thinkers: Vladimir Solovyev (d. 1900), an Orthodox mystic and labeled "Russia's greatest philosopher" by the American scholar of Russian thought, James P. Scanlan; Nicholas Berdyaev (d. 1948), the Orthodox philosopher and theologian exiled by Lenin who became one of the foremost "Christian existentialists" and whose ideas about freedom and creativity remain important;  and Ivan Ilyin (d. 1950), a philosopher also exiled by Lenin who became a proponent of fascism, although he and the Mussolini and Nazi regimes parted with differences. He ended his days living in Switzerland. Of the three, Ilych is the least surprising person among the three on Putin's reading list, while Solovyev and Berdyev are perplexing. (Lachman wisely avoids offering an opinion about whether Putin himself has read any of these thinkers; it would be a safe "no" vote if Trump recommended reading certain books, but Putin? Who knows? So mysterious he is.) All three of these figures were products of Russia's "Silver Age" of 1890 until 1920, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks ended any meaningful philosophy or theology in Russia, although Berdyev and Ilyin made their most significant contributions after they were exiled. In fact, the Silver Age may be seen as the fulcrum of Russian thought and spirituality, and Lachman's book an account of the advance of Russian thought to this point and then its abrupt disbursal after 1920, with several Silver Age thinkers being recycled of late, which may--or may not--presage a genuine renewal and invigoration of Russian thought and spirituality. I'd wager that it is the Silver Age and some of its thinkers that most intrigue Lachman, as they attempt to forge a way that transcends the opposition between Western science, rationality, and material well-being and the collective energy, passion, and spirituality of the Russian heritage. These thinkers were looking for a "third-way" that took Russia beyond political and economic servitude without buying the ethos of Western modernity in full. (If I were to hedge my bet, I'd put some money on Lachman saying "Just Dostoyevsky" as the most telling point in his survey.)


The book takes the reader back to the early days of Russia and patiently recounts the development of Russian culture as influenced by Byzantium, Orthodox Christianity, pagan traditions, and the continuing influx of horsemen from Central Asia with the Mongols (Tartars) as the final and perhaps most formative set of invaders from the east. Lachman also touches upon the struggle for control among the elites to claim dominion over the territories that eventually grew into Russia. This chronicle of elite struggles can become a bit repetitive, as chronicles are want to do, unless you're into the type of raw data that gives rise to Robert Graves's Claudius books, the History Plays of Shakespeare, or George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones***, to give you a sense of the futility and carnage that these repetitive struggles for power entail.  But while the early stages of the chronology of rulers and would-be rulers are noted, Lachman's main focus remains on the various influences of thought and practice that formed the Russian Orthodox tradition. While religious disputes remain on the whole less brutal than struggles for political control (to the extent the two arenas remain separate), the trends in Russian Orthodoxy are dynamic and contribute mightily--for good and ill--to the formation of modern Russia. The political history, too, eventually gets to the point where Peter the Great (the late 1600s) and Catherine the Great (the mid-late 1700s) come on the scene. Lachman addresses the efforts of these rulers to change Russian culture based on the innovations of Western Europe, especially in the fields of science and technology. By the 1600s, the West had begun the Scientific Revolution that was also a revolution in the ability of societies and nations to gain control over nature through technology. And while Galileo, Bacon, Hooker, and Newton were the most significant names in science, Russians were also exposed to Western thought flowing from the Rennaisance and occult traditions (e.g., Freemasonry) and liberal political thought (e.g., Locke, Voltaire). It's at this point where ideas associated with Western modernity begin to clash with Russia's Orthodox Christian, Asian, and traditionalist heritages. Earlier in the book Lachman addresses the differences between Orthodox and Western (Catholic) Christianity, which seem subtle to the point of trivial at first glance--just try grasping the significance of the filioque clause on a first pass--but the sometimes perplexing differences that often seem over-emphasized by elite churchmen and theologians prompt quite different attitudes and practices in the religious life of the faithful (and sort-of faithful). 


When Lachman's narrative arrives at the nineteenth-century, he moves into an era in which many of the names become familiar, especially in literature: Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and, most importantly, Dostoyevsky. In addition to the rich insights into Russian thought and life provided by these authors and their literary works, Russian thought blossomed in many other fields as well. And despite the efforts at the Congress of Vienna and the failures of the revolutionary movements of 1848 throughout Europe, pressure for political change and the political writing promoting change grew in importance. One might think given the eventual success of the Bolsheviks that Marxist thought dominated the political conversation, but this seems not to have been the case. Many members of the intelligentsia went through a youthful infatuation with Marxism before moving on. (Alas, Lenin and his ilk didn't move on.) This is also the era of Slavic and Russian nationalism, with writers of the magnitude of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, among many others, who promoted ideas about the importance of Christianity and Pan-Slavism. 


As I suggested earlier in this review, the Silver Age from 1890 to 1920 can be seen as a high point in Russian culture and thought. Vladimir Solovyev, as a philosopher and theologian, comes across as the most important thinker of that era. During this period, which involved significant social and political unrest, members of the intelligentsia were seeking ways to organize a new Russia, with or without the czar. Thinkers like Solovyev, Bulgakov, Berdyaev, and others wanted to bridge the gap between Russia's unique and deeply felt Orthodox Christian culture and the rationality of the West, to find, as it were, a "third way" (a term it seems as popular the end of the twentieth century as it was at the beginning). But, as Lachman recounts, the few thinkers and searchers lucky enough to have survived the initial stages of the Bolshevik seizure of control were shipped abroad by Lenin, including Berdyaev and Ilyin. 


Lachman ties his account into the present, bringing it up to where he first recounted it Dark Star Rising. We learn of Putin's reading list of Silver Age thinkers and of his use of technology, propaganda, and political machinations (apologies to the misunderstood Machiavelli) to maintain his regime. Lachman describes what seems to be the attitude of Putin and many of those who buy into his narrative: what is the liberal West's dream is Russia's nightmare; indeed, there is a strain of the Russian character that sees history only as a nightmare. The horrors of the twentieth century in Russia certainly contribute to this dour outlook. But interestingly, Putin, in speaking of his self-described "conservative position" and defense of "traditional values," quotes Berdyaev. Lachman, channeling Putin, writes: 



The point of conservatism, Berdyaev, the spiritual anarchist, said was that it did not prevent movement “forward and upward,” but was a safeguard against a movement “backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”  (384)

As a Western liberal, albeit one living in a time of troubles, I can endorse Berdyaev's adage. Change is change: it may be for the better or for the worse. Some changes, such as many liberations, have been for the good. Changes that foster and enhance human dignity are highlights of the Western tradition. But not everything branded as "progress" has resulted in change for the better. No engine of change has been more pronounced than contemporary consumer capitalism and the material and technological world-view upon which it is based. This system, which has led us to untold material wealth, has also led us to frightening environmental degradation, disruptive economic inequality and dysfunction, and political and social incoherence--to provide only the short-list. And, of course, we quite often don't know in which direction change will take us. The best we can do is apply our reason and imagination to create our future. Lachman captures the dilemma for Russia and for the rest of us in this footnote that draws upon the insight of the British historian Arnold Toynbee : 

In some ways we can see the return of ancient pagan beliefs and the revival of futuristvisions in post-Soviet Russia as an example of the historian Arnold Toynbee’s dictumthat when faced with a “time of troubles,” a people respond in two stereotypical ways:by retreating into the past or leaping into the future. That examples of “archaism” and“futurism” can be found in the West as well, suggests that our current “time of troubles”is a global phenomenon.
We cannot live in the past; there is no past to return to. But we can benefit from it by exploring the wisdom and perspective that it provides us if we approach it a spirit of reverence and truth. We can not leap into the future; the future only arrives one moment at a time. The future is shaped moment-to-moment by the forces of nature's inertia and the dynamics of human thought and action. We can't take a rocket ship to the future or upload a simulation to replace the reality of the present. The future is built moment-to-moment by humans making plans and choices, or by following the blind inertia of habit and instinct.

A history book like this one provides value by granting the reader access to information that the reader may not have held before. And this book does that quite well. But the mark of an even better book of this sort--one that addresses history, thought, and culture--is that it prompts the reader to want to learn even more about the topic. And Lachman's book does that, he's provided a wide-angle view of the course of Russian history and culture. With the encouragement and direction that Lachman has provided, I'm eager to explore further this terrain with other guides to explore finer-grained resolution of the images that Lachman has identified, from the beauty of the great Russian writers to the "third-way" of the Silver Age thinkers to the tangled-web of influences visible today in the era of Putin and his disruption-restoration. Or to return it to the beginning of this review, I'm encouraged to further seek to answer the riddle, solve the mystery, and de-code the enigma and to keep removing the nesting dolls in an attempt to arrive at the essential core--if one can be found. 

*The opening credits of Tinker, Tailor begin to roll at about 2:12 into the video of the first episode. BTW, this is an extraordinarily fine production, very much worth watching. 


**Collingwood's use of the term "re-enact" has caused some commentators consternation. He at times used the term "reconstruct," which I find more felicitous, but the intended impetus remains the same: to get inside the head of historical actors to think and understand what they thought and understood before passing any judgments about them and their actions. 


*** Of course, each of these works comes in video as well as literary format. Anyone living probably knows of the Game of Thrones series. And there are many productions of the various History plays, with recent BBC production of The Hollow Crown that includes Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2), Henry V, and Henry VI. But the gem that many may not be aware of is the I, Claudius series from 1976 with a superb cast, that included some (then) young and upcoming actors Derek Jacobi (Claudius), John Hurt (Caligula), and Patrick Stewart (Sejanus). Suetonius for television (with plenty of gore & sex). I'm sure that there are Russian dynastic rivalry plays or operas to match these and similar accounts. 












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