Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of another battle: the gifts of Russia are not exclusive to that country and a dark tyrant doesn’t control our hearts to the Russian people and their artistic gifts to us. Politics, in this earthly city, as Augustine wrote 1600 years ago, is dominated by relations of power and the lust to dominate. But art, beauty, he also wrote, is the universal path to God (who is Beauty and Love). And the art of the Russian people has inspired many and ought to continue to inspire many more because though the artists were Russian the soul that moved their spirits was the universal soul of beauty and love which is invites all to dwell in beauty and love.
A couple days ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine from England. I’ve known him for many years. We talk on a wide range of subjects—I have, for years, been encouraging him into the idea of “aesthetic living” and the importance of art, music, literature, philosophy, and theology as part of a wholistic embodied existence. During that conversation he asked me what my favorite genre of music was. I told him Romantic. And then told him that among my favorite composers is a Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff—one of the last great representatives of the Russian romantic tradition in music. His music captures that brilliant synthesis of beauty, passion, serenity. (I had the fortune, when studying in England, to also hear a performance of “Vocalise” inside Buckingham Palace among other classical and romantic pieces.)
Concerning literature, I have a fondness for Russian literature. The title of my book, The Odyssey of Love, is taken from the article of that name published here at VoegelinView assessing the brilliant splendor of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. On most days, Tolstoy’s grand masterpiece is my favorite book. I say most days. Occasionally I wake up and probably love Doctor Zhivago more if I am in a bit more of a tragic mood.
Boris Pasternak’s great novel, situated in maelstrom, hope, revolution, and despair, is a tale of star-crossed lovers. It is also a work that preaches that timeless poetic truth that was divinized by Christian theology (Pasternak was Orthodox): love is stronger than death. The grand epic that began in death and loneliness ended in life and companionship despite the death and destruction and dislocation that engulfed the work from start to finish:
To the two old friends, as they sat by the window, it seemed that this freedom of the soul was already there, as if that very evening the future had tangibly moved into the streets below them, that they themselves had entered it and were now part of it. Thinking of this holy city and of the entire earth, of the still-living protagonists of this story, and their children, they were filled with tenderness and peace, and they were enveloped by the unheard music of happiness that flowed all about them and into the distance. And the book they held seemed to confirm and encourage their feeling.
I also love Dostoevsky. And Solzhenitsyn. And Pushkin. Their gifts being instantiations of beauty and love give them their endurance—their universal value and appeal. After all, love attracts, and love is the magnet of the beautiful. We cannot help, as Augustine said, but to love the beautiful: “How can we love anything but the beautiful?” As he also said in Confessions, after his eureka moment, “Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you.” (Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, Sero te amavi.)
What the genius of “Russian” art and literature captured is the totality of the human condition, the love and beauty that we seek, seldom find, but when we do, are transfigured and transformed by it. Away, up from the crass nihilism that infected the likes of Pierre Bezukhov and Raskolnikov or the vengeful death-drive of Prince Andrei and toward the loving incarnation of husband and wife (Pierre and Natasha), regeneration through suffering and love (Raskolnikov and Sonya), and the healing power of forgiveness (Prince Andrei). That love which unites and binds is what gave life in a world of turmoil and revolution and though parents die (Yuri and Lara) that love still begat life and brings the possibility of continued joy and love in the world (as is the implied conclusion of Pasternak’s great novel and wonderful film adaptation).
I remember reading Dostoevsky in high school for my AP English Literature course. I only remember a couple things about it. I thought it was a long book. I also recall the grisly image of Raskolnikov’s murderous crime. I’m not sure if I really liked it then. I wrote my capstone paper on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Today, however, I adore Dostoevsky and his novels and find a great, profound, depth to them. Perhaps my graduate education in theology and philosophy opened me up to that world he speaks of. Or, perhaps, it is the elevated cultivated love of art and literature that has sprung up in me as I’ve matured. Maybe both. Dostoevsky’s considerations on the human condition, heart, psychology, love, death, suffering, and redemption can touch any reader. They have touched mine.
When I look at the collection of my library, among my most prized possessions are Russian works. Bespeaking of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, I own a first edition. As mentioned, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favorite book (on most days). C.S. Lewis described it as “the greatest war book ever written.” I think he really meant to say that it was the greatest book ever written.
The beauty, the love, and the majesty of the Russian artistic and cultural tradition exists for the nourishment of all people, all souls, across all space and time. The true destiny of the soul is not bound to nations, a “Third Rome,” or fanciful geopolitical dreams. We must contend with these often-pernicious spirits, heresies, and idolatries, but we shouldn’t let these battles cause us to sour on those cultural and soulful creations that are meant for the world because they were written in the spirit of love and beauty to magnify and transfigure our lives.
In the drama unfolding in Ukraine, let us not take the easy path and become “anti-Russian.” The creative spirit of Russians and their tongue may be foreign to many but what it preached is universal and accessible to all. Evidently, Putin doesn’t have the eyes to see or the ears to hear what the artists of Russia have prophesied. It is up to us to save the treasures of Russia from Vladimir Putin and his ilk and stand in solidarity with the innocent people of Ukraine.
This essay was first published at VoegelinView, 25 February 2022, where the author – Paul Krause (Hesiod, on this site) – is editor-in-chief.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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