To adorn oneself with suffering
The defining trait of Russian psychology, one can argue, is the sense of having a double nature: on the one hand there is the notion of being a chosen people with a special destiny and thus of being more advanced, or more truthful, metaphysically, than the west. One the other there is an acute sense of flaw in character; i.e. very fundamental traits that threaten the fulfilment of the messianic destiny. Acceptance of how these flaws may jeopardize and devastate the grand scheme, yet also embracing them –rather than trying to remedy the faults– is at the heart of the Russian sense of gambling with the future and, in a way, challenging destiny.
This means living in a kind of principal uncertainty as to whether Russia will triumph or go under, and whether one self will triumph or go under. And more importantly it means that this uncertainty is held on to: the idea of grooming oneself for that which is one’s destiny is refused, because then it would not be truly believing in destiny. There is a reflexive kind of interchange between belief in destiny and holding on to all those factors that make its fulfilment uncertain. Belief conditions the freedom to be flawed and live unwisely. The Russian psyche is characterized by an aversion against sensible, agreeable solutions; choices and ways that would make things run smoother and which are oriented towards a worldly goal, i.e. success. Such sensible solutions are most of all rejected because they represent a notion of weak belief and uncertain destiny: if one becomes too sensible and pragmatic and goal-oriented then that is indicative that belief in destiny is waning. Taking things into one’s hands means taking them out fate’s and God’s. Only in refusing sense, is belief and the sense of fate held high.
This is something founded in religion, as discussed above, but more importantly perhaps, it is also an existential trait, which lies at the root of Russian philosophy of life, and which possibly predates the religious notions. It is an aspect of the national character reminiscent of the how young people think they are immortal and therefore allow themselves to pursue the bad things that humans like. Again: happiness lies in excess and in freedom; freedom from prudence, the point of which is always accumulative: wealth, health, beauty etc.
It is probably a very defining trait that the notion of freedom for the Russian mind is a notion of defiance and spite.
The juxtaposition of the certainty of being a chosen people, and at the same time an irredeemably flawed people, is the core of the double nature.
The Russians are, in their own eyes: lazy, prone to drink, and drawn towards self-destruction. And they are very conscious how these factors are constant threats to the divine destiny that is ordained for them. A further set of characteristics come as a consequence of this double nature and contradiction; a set perhaps more evident for an alien observer: First of all slyness and deviousness in petty matters; a way of manipulating situations based on seemingly naïve, childish behaviour -which is self-victimizing and cowed- but on that ground extremely cunning. It is a strange thing, for it is in fact the very basest of instrumental behaviour, and it appears as a necessary corollary to the aversion against sensible, pragmatic and agreeable solutions on a more consistent level. This trait does not only hold for small people and small matters. It seems integral in the way that there is always a counterpoint between brazen arrogance and wretched submissiveness, also in the highest of affairs.
Put categorically the Russian is haughty and proud, but with little notion of dignity. The idea of being a chosen people seems to entail that there is no need to bring dignity into everyday conduct and dealings. Instead one sees this proud arrogance –also where there seems little cause of any– in combination with blatant cajoling and bootlicking meekness.
However it is important to acknowledge the great sense of realism behind this. It is a way of conduct that reflects acceptance of living in an environment of lies, opaqueness and machinations of the kind that each one must look out for oneself in the best way possible. The scorn for dignity is in fact a matter of great realism since dignity is a luxury of a more clear-cut and transparent society than the Russian one. From the stark contrasts and the imprint of living with lies, un-kept promises, corrupt government, and disappointments of every sort, ensues a realism of the Russian kind: arrogance, power and undignified pride combined with submissiveness and cajoling and bootlicking.
Firm belief in destiny implies a sense of fatalism that is deeply inscribed in the Russian soul. On the one hand this is reflected in the realism discussed above, i.e. the necessity and acceptance of undignified behaviour -slyness and cajoling- on the grounds of the irredeemable flaws of character and the essential hardships of Russian life that follow from a society interspersed with these flaws as well as from living in a country the destiny of which relies on the sacrifices of the individual. Again there is the sense of pride in the suffering: At the time of the Kursk accident in the Barents Sea, the wife of one of the missing sailors was interviewed on the quayside in Murmansk. She had the couple’s two little daughters with her. They were crying in front of the camera. The mother said dramatically –to the girls and two the Russian nation– do not cry, daughters, life is ahead of you, and it is hard.
But there is also a different manifestation of this fatalism, which is rather superb in comparison, namely the sense of courage and the disregard for life and health which is based on the notion of being personally responsible for exploring the limits of existence.
Thus there is a love of danger and disregard of good sensible solutions also regarding private life and health. –Because restrained, wholesome and sensible conduct does not provoke existence in such a way as to deliver answers to big questions. As Rebecca West puts it:
In the West conversation is regarded as a means of passing the timer agreeably or exchanging useful information; among Slavs it is thought to be disgraceful, when a number of people are together that they should not pool their experience and thus travel further towards the redemption of the world. In the west conduct follows an approved pattern which is departed from by people of weak or headstrong will, but among Slavs a man will try out all kinds of conduct simply to see whether they are of the darkness or of the light. (Ibid)
This aspect is not only one that pertains to abstract notions of exploring big questions, like to how to socialize, and the theme of not taking care of oneself in a prudent way, but also a general way of denouncing life as something good and sacred in itself: The concept of happiness simply does not carry much weight. There is instead a strong concept of life, in physical and social form, just being a tool for discovery of the incorporeal planes of existence, and willingness to use this tool means a willingness to jeopardize life. The opposite, western, idea of clinging to life and health –success and happiness– is scorned upon as another misconception.
There is something splendid and Slav about this: They had resolved to provoke an analysis of death by their own deaths, and hastened to carry out their resolution. (Rebecca West)
Perhaps no piece of literature exhibits the Russian willingness to pay the price of one’s life for the revelation of metaphysical truths better than the death of Prince Andrei in Tolstoy’s War and Peace:
Andrei is engaged to Nathalia. There is true love; love of the most profound kind. But Andrei goes off to fight Napoleon. In his absence Nathalia is seduced by a charlatan fellow officer of Andrei’s. She resolves to elope with him, and is only hindered by coincidence and interference. However, the harm is done. Andrei learns of the betrayal, and the engagement is broken. Both face a life without love, for they know they were meant for each other.
Later, at the gates of Moscow, Andrei is mortally wounded. By sheer coincidence he is taken to Nathalia’s family’s house for shelter and treatment. Nathalia grasps this hope of redemption and puts her whole life in nurturing Andrei back to health. Even if he will not have her, she feels that she will have made repentance to God if he lives.
Andrei gets better. He recognizes Nathalia, and forgives her. Apparently their love is restored. But Andrei is strangely absent minded. And then, when his recovery seems certain, his health deteriorates dramatically. As Tolstoi puts it: life was within grasp, but he had been on the threshold of death and could not bear not to be initiated into the mystery. Thus he chooses to die, chooses death over life, and love; for he cannot bear not to know that which he has seen the contours of.