A GLIMPSE OF THE PRESENT STATE OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY
Monday, August 8, 1992
Location - FNCA 1992
Thanks to the generosity of the Swedenborg Foundation, I attended last month a conference at Dartmouth
College on the Revival of Russian Spirituality and its Relationship to the Development of Democratic
Institutions. This was the second of a proposed series of conferences, the first having been held in
Moscow and St. Petersburg last winter, with Don Rose representing the Foundation.
Our interest stems from the realization that there has been significant interest in Swedenborg in
Russia in times past. The seminal Russian theologian, who flourished just before the turn of the last
century, was Vladimir Solovyev, and it was he who wrote the article on Swedenborg for a standard
encyclopedia. Some of the writings were published in Russian translation, but this may have been a
less significant source than the translations into French, since in the nineteenth century, educated
Russians were enchanted by all things French.
My particular agenda for attending was primarily to listen and learn. In preparation, I read most of a
couple of histories of Russian philosophy. Up to the time of the Revolution, Russian philosophy was
essentially theology. As is well known, however, Marx regarded religion as a tool by which the upper
classes persuaded the working classes to accept their deprived lot in this life, so the Revolution
marked a virtual rejection of the immediate philosophical past.
There were several Russians present, as well as Americans with considerable expertise in Russian
language and thought, one young man from England who has just had published a book on Solovyev, and
Anders Hallengren from Sweden, who has done a very useful monograph on the Swedenborg-Emerson-Whitman
connection. It will appear in English translation very shortly, incidentally, published by the Nordic
Studies Department of the University of Minnesota.
I'd like to have a look at prospects for the publication of Swedenborg in Russia, but I need first of
all to give you some samples of what was said on the general theme, so that our own interests will be
in some context.
The first plenary session was a talk by Robert Daniels, "In Search of a Usable Tradition." His main
point was that Russian philosophy and theology have for centuries been wrestling with three
dilemmas--to be traditionalist or modernist, to give primacy to faith or to reason, and to be
distinctively Russian or to incorporate Western ideas. He noted that when Russians have adopted
Western ideas, they have tended to do so with far more intensity and single-mindedness than the
Westerners who originated them. Part of the problem lies in a persistent sense of inferiority, which
is fertile ground for extremism. At present, the utter rejection of the communist era, coupled with
the previous utter rejection of the tsarist regimes, leaves the nation with a feeling that it has no
usable past to draw on. Daniels was urging that this is not actually the case, and that any viable
world-view must emerge from Russia's own experience.
A particular dilemma at this point arises from a longing for American culture on the one hand and on
the other a fear of the lax ethical and moral standards that seem to accompany American prosperity.
Daniels implied that this is a particularly difficult dilemma, since a certain amount of Western
pragmatism is virtually a necessity as a counter to Russian idealistic absolutism. One of the
respondents (Yuri Karyakin) pointed out the paradox that the Slavophile Solzhenitsyn was living in
America, while the "Westernizer" Sakharov lived in Russia, and in fact moved east from Moscow. He went
on suggest that at that level, the disagreement was like a musical counterpoint, with an implicit
harmony. However, at lower intellectual levels, the two tendencies became more militant, with each
working actively to destroy the other.
The second plenary session was a talk by George Kline on "The Potential Contribution of [Classical]
Russian Philosophy to the Building of a Humane Society." He began by observing that too little
attention has been paid to a recurrent feature of Russian thought, namely its obsessive preoccupation
with a world-historical future, for the sake of which the present is sacrificed. The dream of the
perfect socialist/communist society sometime in the next millennium has provided the pretext for the
inhuman treatment of contemporary individuals. He gave some striking instances of writers who looked
forward to the utopian year 3000, a poet who wrote to "comrades of the thirtieth century" as though
they were present, and of one writer who thought a three-hundred year plan was too shortsighted, and
proposed a seven-thousand year plan.
Kline spent considerable time documenting the fact that a nineteenth-century philosopher name Herzen
(sp?) had argued against this tendency in Russian thought, speaking of the "Moloch of historical
progress" to which the present was being sacrificed, and insisting that only the present was real.
This left him with time to make only the briefest of mentions of two other points, Herzen's arguments
against national chauvinism, and Solovyev's warnings about ecocide in the form of extensive
On the second day, the morning talk was by James Scanlan, whom I had met at a picnic the evening
before; and while I found him an open and accessible individual, I was a little puzzled by his
approach. His main point was that ". . . despite its current relative disfavor in Russian
philosophical life, the secular tradition in Russian philosophy has a great deal of relevance for
reform--in some respects greater relevance than the religious tradition." This may well be the case,
but it would still seem more appropriate to focus on the role of spiritual renewal at a conference
devoted to that theme, even if one believes it is not the most promising line to take.
He did raise a specific issue of pervasive significance, namely that the secular philosophers seem to
believe that a social system can be devised which will result in a just society, while the religious
philosophers tend to maintain that individual attitudes must change--we must learn to love the
neighbor. If this is the case, then one would expect the secular philosophers to have more to say
directly about social reform, but could well argue that what they have to say will not be as effective
as they hope.
I might leap from here to the closing major address on prospects for democracy in Russia, which was
given by a former ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock. After describing himself as "a carpenter talking
to a bunch of architects," he spent a little time offering rough definitions of "democracy" and
"Russia," both of which are more elusive than they might at first appear.
He then took a generally optimistic view of the possibility of the development of effective democratic
institutions, acknowledging that there were real difficulties, that it might not happen, and that it
would not happen as a copy of any particular Western democracy. His thesis was that there was more in
Russian tradition to undergird democracy than is usually recognized. While the democratic structures
of the Stalin constitution were on paper only, the fact that they existed at all testifies to a
recognition of their validity--"Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue" (LaRochefoucauld).
He noted that given the opportunity, the Russians did get out and vote, and that candidates seemed to
learn very quickly how to campaign effectively. A quite careful poll showed a very high regard for
fundamental freedoms, and the popular resistance to the August coup was courageous and impressive.
The greatest problems he sees lie in three areas. First, the economic situation is grim, and past
habits lie heavy. Second, nationalistic passions are exploding after having suffered decades of
repression, and constantly threaten further fragmentation. Third, there is no outstanding intellectual
leader to present an appealing democratic vision--Sakharov was such an individual, but has no evident
The church's role has been ambivalent. It has a history of collaboration with the communist state, and
has been distinctly defensive of its own turf. On the other hand, it has been the most effective
agency for the delivery of pastoral services and relief efforts. The jury is still out. While other
nations may be able to help to some extent, the final decisions are up to the Russians.
The panel of Russians raised questions about Matlock's optmism. Sergei Chizhkov noted that the
encouraging results of the poll as regarded political freedoms were counterbalanced by discouraging
results on matters of economic policy. Vyacheslav Styopin (= Stepin) noted that there was little
precedent for the actual prosecution of human rights violations, and that there was a deep-seated fear
of exposing oneself to governmental machinery. He also raised questions about the human rights of
Russians living in former satellite countries. Vladimir Maliavin noted that previous experience leads
to a subliminal expectation that reforms will be on paper only. In his view, the most hopeful
tradition to draw on would be an age-old one of decision by substantial unanimity. Alexei Kara-Murza
expressed gratitude for Matlock's appreciation of the Russian people, He noted that in the past, the
"indecent" people always managed to be first in line to take advantage of changes, and hoped that this
pattern would be broken now.
So far, I have paid most attention to the views of American speakers. This is not because I see them
as having a better understanding, but because they were the ones who tended to offer overviews. What
the Russians had to say was generally more in detail, and fitted into the broad outlines I have just
sketched. For example, Konstantin Ivanov made some revealing comments about the Russian Orthodox
Church. The basic picture he gave was that it reached a high point in popular esteem about eighteen
months ago, and could at that point have exerted real leadership. Presumably out of fear for its own
survival, though, it hedged its bets and would not take a stand (against the coup, e.g., until it was
fairly clear that the coup would not succeed). He sees the church as deeply separated from popular
concerns, and as having lost a large measure of its credibility by reason of its temporizing.
After lunch on the second day, there were two group sessions. I attended one on the "Open
Christianity" group. This group originated in the coming together of a number of relatively young
people who found faith in the early seventies, quite independently of each other. They see Christian
life as developmental and the Orthodox church as static, and try especially to build bridges to
non-believers. They have about two hundered members in St. Petersburg, and have just been given a
dilapidated but very well-located building. They have now founded a school which will have an
enrolment of about 100 this fall, and have a five year college curriculum designed and a faculty
chosen; so this fall the "University of Open Christianity" will be inaugurated. They also maintain a
"House of Human Rights" and a "Workshop of Christian Art." They have managed to achieve some voice in
the city government, and hope to serve as a model for other local movements. With their new property,
they will furnish a chapel, and could call a priest if they can negotiate with the Metropolitan to
have full control over his hiring and firing.
One very active member of this group is Vladimir Poresh. He described his own pilgrimage to Open
Christianity, which began with a basically hippie mindset (and he still looks the part--beard, jeans,
round steel-framed glasses, etc.) He discovered his incredible ignorance of Christianity (many
Russians do not know that the New Testament is part of the Bible), and his curiosity gradually led him
to conviction. Hieromonk Benjamin (a Russian Orthodox priest active with Open Christianity) noted that
there had been no Protestant Reformation in Russia, and that essentially lay bodies such as this might
serve a similar purpose without being divisive.
Poresh had spent some time--I do not know how much--in a gulag, and at this point his story
intersected that of another participant, Mikhail Kazachkov. Mikhail spent some twelve years in one
gulag or another, including, if my memory serves me correctly, twenty-two months in solitary
confinement. It was during this time when his physicist's mind decided that the rationale for the
existence of God was convincing, and he discussed his newfound faith with Poresh during his time in
solitary. If this sounds impossible, you need to know that Poresh was in the cell overhead, and that
they communicated by tapping on a water pipe. Mikhail describes his experience as one of the longest
continuous trains of thought in history, incidentally, and has some telling things to say about the
nature of evil on the basis of his encounters with the KGB. It was Mikhail Kazachkov who on another
occasion asked how a society which had produced such giants as Dosteovsky and Tolstoi could create
such a disastrous mess. The world has looked to these beacon intellects, he said, without realizing
that the foundations of the beacons might actually be a swamp.
On the next-to-last evening, Harvey Cox gave a talk which served to highlight one specific and, I
think, central dilemma. His specific topic was what the U.S. has to gain from all this. He described
American philosophy as in crisis--by its own admission, so caught up in specializations that is
irrelevant to life concerns. He told of his enchantment with Berdyaev when Richard Niebuhr assigned
him at Yale Divinity School, especially because Berdyaev faced squarely the mystery of being.
Now when he reads, the old magic is gone, largely because so much has changed. There is a mistrust of
sweeping systems, and an insistence that one state personally where one is coming from. This leads to
many different approaches, which are likely to be discordant--it is like listening to four modern
composers at once.
However, Cox feels that we are coming to a place where we will be compelled to look at common themes.
He applauded remarks by Sergei Kharujy to the effect that we whould look less for common ideas and
more for "the atmosphere of discourse"--specifically, for emotional intimacy and personal dialogue.
These attributes are keys to both Dostoevsky and Berdyaev. We need the kind of passion they represent,
to pull us out of our sterile preoccupation with technicalities.
Cox went on to describe American spirituality as basically centered in self-fulfilment, in what
Berdyaev called "transcendental egoism." He quoted the familiar hymn, "I come to the garden alone . .
. and he walks with me, and he talks with me." Sobornost (conciliarity, "togetherness") is the
opposite of this, and we need some experience of the reality to which the word refers. For the first
time, we are having to learn to live within limits, after a history of feeling that there were no
impassable frontiers and that there was no limit to our potentialities. Russia is experiencing the
reverse disorientation with the sudden opening of the ideological marketplace. We've had this for a
long time, and can realistically warn of the dangers of commercialization. Next come Jimmy Swaggart
and Shirley MacLaine.
So, said Cox, welcome to the world of Thoreau and Emerson, of MacDonalds and Madonna. We have a lot to
The respondents basically thought Cox had been too hard on American culture, and two asked directly
how our country had become so prosperous if its ideology was so flawed. Their experience of the
brutality of collectivism has made them highly sensitive to the dangers of sobornost, there was a
general sense that they really wanted to see hope for Russia in America's success story.
In a way, this was the note on which we closed. The plenary wrap-up sessions involved some reactions
from panelists and solicitation of opinions and suggestions from the whole roster of attendees. The
Russian reactions were very warm--it was as though they had expected Americans to be more suspicious
and critical of them, and were genuinely moved by the degree to which they had been accepted, listened
to, and appreciated. The Americans tended to want to caution the Russians not to be uncritical of the
U. S. as a model.
Where might Swedenborg fit into all this? On the first day, I met a man named Vladimir Maliavin. As
soon as he discovered that I was a Swedenborgian, he made an urgent request for time to discuss
publication of Swedenborg in Russia. He was much in demand by the VIP's, being one himself, and we had
to keep postponing the discussion, finally opting for getting together for our Saturday lunch. As he
was about to sit down with us, one of the planners came over and insisted that he sit at the head
table, so we rearranged to talk after lunch. He, Erland Brock of the Swedenborg Scientific Association
and I did so outside the main hall, and even then, Vladimir had to resist some pressure to rejoin the
panel that was convening inside.
I mention this because I think it underscores both the legitimacy of his credentials and the sincerity
of his interest. He is a published author in his own right (his Chinese is "better than his English,"
which is excellent, with a 100,000 copy edition out of a book on Taoism), and the press he has worked
with would be interested in publishing Swedenborg and is very much in touch with the appropriate
He and Erland talked mainly about the technicalities, and my impression is that Maliavin is exactly
the person the Foundation is looking for. He read all the Swedenborg he could in his student days, and
is in personal touch with other readers. He has business experience and contacts, since he cannot earn
a living from scholarship alone, and can pilot us through the paper work. He is on the planning
committee for the next conference (outside Moscow next March) and obviously enjoys the respect and
esteem of of the conference leadership. In his view, it will take seed money to get publishing
started, but it should move quickly toward being self-supporting. He recommends that a separate
Russian legal entity be set up, perhaps as a kind of department connected to the publishing house I
mentioned, with as much control as we wish vested in Erland or some other representative of American
donors. He would recommend a first edition of 30,000, probably of Heaven and Hell (he knows of a
highly competent translator who would work from Swedenborg's Latin), which the publisher's marketing
division could move with some speed.
Penultimately, I would report that I found several strong suggestions of Swedenborgian thought in
Caryl Emerson's description of Soloviev's thought. I jotted these down in the hopes of a chance to
mention them to her, and met her in the corridor of our hotel. She responded with what seemed exactly
like lively and spontaneous interest, and I have some hope that she will follow up and perhaps be in
touch with us. She is Professor of Slavic languages at Princeton, and her paper was one of the most
clear and cogent presented.
In fact, every Russian I talked with showed immediate recognition of Swedenborg's name. For instance,
I followed up on a suggestion and talked to Sergei Khorujy about a man named Daniel Andreyev who died
in prison camp in the forties or fifties (?). Khorujy immediately exclaimed that Andreyev's outlook
was "just like Swedenborg's," and that we should certainly learn about him. As far as he knows,
though, none of Andreyev's writing has been translated into English. Maliavin is determined that there
be a Swedenborg session next March.
Apart from encouraging prospects for the publication of Swedenborg in Russian, there are several
specific lines of inquiry that might be productive. Perhaps the most obvious is the
Swedenborg-Solovyev connection. By looking at what Solovyev had to say about Swedenborg in his
encyclopedia article, it should be possible to get an impression of what he regarded as most
significant. This would relate directly to the topics I raised with Dr. Emerson in the hotel corridor.
A second area is more focused philosophically, specifically in the area of epistemology. One of the
people Don Rose had met in Moscow was a Robert Slesinsky, and I followed up by introducing myself to
him. His talk was on "Russian Philosophical Thought as a Search for Integral Knowledge."
Specifically, the notion of "integral knowledge" means not that we should fit all knowledge together,
but that what we do know, we should know with our whole being--not just with our rationality. Given
the basic premise of integral knowledge, it also follows that knowledge involves "conciliarity"
(sobornost)--that is, that we discover the truth in the context of loving relationships with each
other, and not in mental isolation. The Russians seem to regard this approach as contradictory to
Western rationalism, though in Slesinsky's judgment, their evaluations of that rationalism are not
very well-informed. Once I get back to SSR, I want to send Dr. Slesinsky a copy of the Arcana extracts
on "knowledges" from the end of Heaven and Hell 356. He has already expressed a determination to find
out more about Swedenborg, and had bought the Paulist Press volume for starters. I recommended Divine
Love and Wisdom as more germane to his interests.
In any case, a paper on Swedenborg's concept of "integral knowledge"--that is, on the primacy of
affect and the "outreach" of thought-- might well be germane.
The third topic that seems promising involves a comparison of tensions in Swedenborg's life with the
tensions acknowledged in Russian thought. The basic struggle between Cartesian empiricism and Lutheran
pietism may closely parallel the reason/faith tension. Swedenborg saw his own country as backward
relative to the Continent, perhaps in much the same way that educated Russians looked to the West.
And certainly the traditionalist-modernist dilemma is there in his emphatic Christianity yoked to an
insistence that the Christian church had come to its end.
It looks as though avenues are opening, and I hope we can explore them.