By Philip Boobbyer
If we find ourselves in hell, what voice will we scream with? “Not with our own,” observed the Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky in his 1973 book of gulag reflections, “A Voice from the Chorus.” The implication was existential: hell can be defined as a place where we have lost touch with our true selves.
The search for authentic identity is a major preoccupation of modern culture that is often experienced at a personal level. The war in Ukraine has seen this coming out in national form, however, as the war can be seen as an attempt by the Russian state to assert a certain kind of imperial identity. And, in view of the Russian Orthodox Church’s endorsement of the war, it is an identity containing both political and religious elements.
Many people find this version of the Russian voice unconvincing in light of the war though: both Russians and those with an affection for Russia do not believe that brutal violence and systematic lying can ever reflect the true spirit of the country.
Fortunately, there are other voices present in Russian spirituality and culture — voices pointing to a more thoughtful kind of country.
Churchmen and thinkers alike have often encouraged people to listen to the voice of conscience in their hearts, while also warning them that if they are not careful they can become desensitized to it.
The 19th century Russian bishop Ignaty Bryanchaninov described conscience as a “subtle bright voice” that distinguished good from evil. By contrast, evil “darkens, dulls and deadens” the soul, he said.
Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny’s famous design for Khrushchev’s gravestone in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery contains blocks of black and white marble facing each other. The implication being that the Soviet leader was a contradictory figure. There were, one could say, different voices at work within him, just as there are in everyone.
Philip Boobbyer is Former Chair of IofC UK and is a Lecturer in modern Russian and European history. His publications include S.L.Frank: The Life and Work of a Russian Philosopher 1877-1950 (1995), and Conscience, Dissent and Reform in Soviet Russia (2005).
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.