Breaks and Ties

Author: Georges Vasilievich Florovsky

Translator: Yulian Orlov

Source: Exodus to the East: Forebodings and Events: an Affirmation of the Eurasians (Sofia 1921), accessible in Russian here. 

Why? saith the Lord of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house.
Haggai 1:10.

Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.
Exodus 32: 32. [1]

For many long years, ‘revolution’ has been the Russian ideal. The image of the ‘revolutionary’ has appeared to the social consciousness to be the highest kind of patriot who combines within himself eminence of intention, love for the people, the destitute, and the suffering, and a readiness towards oblational self-sacrifice on the altar of common happiness. However different the contents that different men put into these concepts may have been (from the monarchic to the anarchic), all versions have been similar to each other in one respect: in the faith that, be it through organised civil society, the good sense of the people, or by the selfless courage of ‘those dying for the great cause of love’, they had the strength to and, by way of exerting their will, they could break the ties of the social and political evil that had ensnared Russia and establish the highest and most perfect form of social-cultural life. In this faith in themselves, in the glorious essence of their inner being, in the true goodness of their internal constitution concurred all men, from inveterate Zimmerwaldians [2] to rabid reactionaries. They thought that it was necessary and sufficient to put on a mask and change into costume a l’européenne; others thought it enough to tear off the Western clothes they had so quickly put on, while yet others sought recourse in a restructuring of classes. There were debates about what the true people were; however, almost everyone was a ‘narodnik’ [3] deep down: all believed in the messianic calling of the entire people or some part of it. Gorky’s ‘prayer’ was close to them all to a greater or lesser degree: “…and I saw her master, the all-powerful, immortal people and I prayed: There shall be no God but thou, for thou art the one God, the creator of miracles.” [4]

It is in this sentiment that we entered and ‘accepted’ the war, placing it in the magnanimous scope of Utopian, ‘progressive’ humanism. Misanthropy and fratricide were seen under the mark of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”; the mysterious contradictory nature of the task (buying and securing a thousand lives at the price of a thousand murders and a thousand deaths) was hidden with hypnotising words about this war being “the last”, a “war for peace”, for “universal disarmament, internal overcoming, the self-exhaustion of belligerence”.

The sharpness of the moral tearing that must be passed by all those who pick up the sword was softened by the transfer of pathos to the straightforwardness of formal duty to the fatherland and one’s tribesmen, to the good of humanity, and to civilisation. It was truly believed that “the cross and sword are one”, that for the revealing of the bestial elements of human life their enlightenment would magically arrive and that the war would be followed by the blessed time of “eternal peace”…  Men would make themselves perfect to such a degree that it would be possible to turn swords to plough-shares. It is for this alluring dream that men happily went off to kill and die…

In its [war’s] name, the ecstatic hymns of the “magnanimous and merciful” revolution sounded four years ago. When from beneath the ‘bloodless’ image, which was known from legend and dear from tradition, the demonic contours of the growing collapse started to brazenly make themselves manifest among the carbon-black and wandering wafts of incendiary catastrophe, when beneath the reddening smoke before our very eyes chaos was ”startled into action”, the uncomprehending societal mind started to speak of some form of errors or miscalculations, about prematurity, about tardiness, about the confusion of the idea, about the uncouthness of the masses, all the while not losing its faith in an easy and possible correction, and, as if it were seeking to defend itself, it concentrated its gaze on squabbles of daily life, on all kinds of crisis, from that of production to that of paper, all in order not to see the all-encompassing, terrible dash into bottomlessness, the rupture of body and soul.

There, where death and disease

Have been passed by the slashing gauge –
Disappear into space, disappear
Russia, my Russia… [5]

And Russia has disappeared… Not only has Russian “statehood” disappeared, not only our hereditary way of life: national unity has collapsed, all social fasteners have fallen away, and, as was the case with the Tower of Babylon of old, a mixing of the tongues has taken place within our consciousness. In the currents of this historical maelstrom has been drawn everything that Russia had become through the ages, everything She was when we first started loving Her, a “strange love” though it may have been.

Peering into the mouth of the “silent Russian sphinx”, which is covered with a wise smile, we suddenly, unexpectedly see the ghoulish image of an “enormous, disgusting beast, a-hundred maws and barking” [6], and, what is most horrifying, we recognise within it the concretion of our own, ancient, great-grandfathers’ hopes. The longer we stare at this terrible riddle, the clearer we feel that these old dreams have not yet lost their power over our souls as well, and that we still believe, or want to believe in a “successful conclusion”, in a “natural sequence of things”, in the creative power of lofty ideals.

In this great cataclysm, all fissures and crevices have opened, primordial breeds have been carried up the surface, the depths have been laid bare…  We have felt the bifurcation of the Russian national element… And we have seen Russia standing

at a crossroads,
neither daring to take up the sceptre of the Beast,
nor the light yoke of Christ [7]

And we have seen that we love Russia precisely for this two-facedness of hers, for her endlessness, in which two abysses, above and below, are joined. Atavistically enchanted by the straining of raging forces, we once again dream of strength and glory on an elemental scope… human strength and glory.

There is truth in the fact that the ‘disappeared’ Russia was stronger than the West, which persists until now; however, the truth of repudiation does not redeem the possible mendacity of affirmation. This is precisely the reverse of the pink optimism of the author of the “Theodicy” [8]:  they are all right in the fact of their affirmation and only err in their repudiations; only someone who believes in his omnipotence, in his inborn goodness, one for whom evil is an error and not a sin. Of course, no one ‘made’ the revolution, and no one is guilty of its horror and sorrow. It created itself, was irresistibly born as the result of the entire Russian historical process that preceded it. Everything in the revolution is irresistible, everything is marked with the seal of Judgement. However, what did it grow from: from the good, holy, eternal, sacred elemental forces of our people, from its ‘idea’, from the fact that “God thought about it in eternity”, or from a spiritual lie, a twisting that was put at the foundation of our historic existence by human will?… .

We will comprehend the past and become worthy of the future only when it does not become a sweet hope for us, but a duty, when hopes are reborn into a thirst for victory, when the thickened, almost apocalyptic atmosphere of our days pours streams of true religious pathos, of the ‘fear of God’ into our souls, when behind the collisions of finite human will with the blind occurrences of the ‘great Faceless Nothing’ we comprehend the Christian tragedy of internal bifurcation: I do not do the good that I wish to do, but the evil that I wish not to… When we understand that only

With the Lord Creator  
There is the eternal obliteration
of all earthly suffering…

We are not speaking of ‘repentance’. There has been a great deal of repentance in Russia, a very great deal, even to an excessive and exuberant degree. Repentance managed to become so habitual that it became a pose, a caricature, transforming into prideful self-deprecation, into the most exquisite and refined form of spiritual delusion [9].The computation and all-national confession of our own sins (as well as those of others at the same time) became not the laborious achievement of providential rebirth, but a stylised sentiment, and good deeds and worthy penitence were replaced by the over-exertion of a self-flagellating and self-comminating voice. We are now speaking not of the arithmetic of sin, but rather about the need to feel horror in the face of current events, feel the entire mystery of life that is splitting into two, to see through the reality of evil and temptation…  

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” [10]. This is the question Dostoevsky posed to himself, and he shuddered in agony as he did not understand, did not accept this harsh world…

However, it is not by the tears of one tortured child, but by the hands of tears and blood that the “fabric of human destiny”, the fabric of the fate of Russia is founded and created. It is now being forged by bloodied hands, there, in emptied spaces… For years upon years we have lived in hatred, rage, a desire for vengeance, a desire for victory and punishment. Some kill. Others die. All hate. There are even those who dare to call their hatred “sacred”, who dare to speak of the “sweetness of hating one’s homeland”, as in the old days [11] … All kill: some with words, some with looks, some with swords. There is no love in anyone. There is no exit, as there is no desire for repentance. We are suffering. We even cry, bitterly and inconsolably. However, our tears are still those of an offended child, not the tears of a man who has stood face to face with his ‘second death’. We are confidently capable of justifying our lowest means with a ‘higher’ goal: we still hope all too stubbornly that pride will melt away entirely. The downfall of our ‘geographic fatherland’ is hiding the horror of the dying of human souls from us…  It is not terrible that men die, but rather that they cease to be human. There is only one exit from this horror and fear. Our hearts should burn not only for our ‘Great Russia’, but above all else for the cleansing of the darkened Russian soul. It is not in prideful guesswork, nor in prophesies, nor in the enjoyment of a flowing forth of national forces, nor in the contemplation of the superhuman strength and power of elementary popular forces, but in repentance created by tears, burning prayer, and providential forgiveness from Above that will we acquire the right to believe, hope, prophesy, and call out.

Sophia, 31 March 1921


Translator’s notes:

[1]: all translations of Bible quotations are drawn from the King James Version.

[2]: a reference to the Zimmerwald conference, which was held in Switzerland from 5 to 8 September in 1915. It marked the start of a split between reformist socialists and revolutionary socialists in the Second Internationale.

[3]: although this term can be translated as ‘populist’, the meaning is slightly different and does not necessarily indicate a supporter of ‘populist’ policies; rather, it very broadly means ‘someone who plaсes special importance on the Russian people (narod) and wants to either change or reinforce the Russian state through it’, with different sub-meanings depending on the characteristics of individuals or political movements.

[4]: the translation of this quote has been drawn from Maxim Gorky: Confession: A Novel, translated by Rose Strunsky (New York 1916: Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers), accessible here.

[5]: the quotation is from a poem named Ash by the well-known symbolist poet and author Andrei Bely (1880 – 1934). The poem can be found in Russian here.

[6]: a quotation from the famous opening epigraph of the Russian liberal author and social critic Aleksandr Radischchev’s (1749 – 1802) work A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

[7]: this quotation is drawn from the poem Vengeance of the Sword (Месть мечная) by the symbolist poet and literary critic Vyacheslav Ivanov (1886 – 1949). The translation is mine. It can be found in Russian here.

[8]: the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646 – 1716). The Theodicy is available in English here.

[9]: the term used here, прелесть (prelest) is usually translated as spiritual delusion. It is a theological term that indicates a type of spiritual delusion that involves demonic influence, usually manifesting itself sensorially (for example, a Christian in a state of prelest might think that he sees an apparition of Christ while he actually sees a demon) and in thought.

[10]: a quote by the nihilist materialist Ivan Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). The translation has been drawn from Fyodor Dostoevsky; The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett (New York: The Lowell Press), p. 308; accessible here.

[11]: this is an infamous quote from the autobiographical work Apologia pro vita mea (Apology of My Life) by the Russian liberal political emigreé and author Vladimir Pecherin (1807 – 1885). The work can be found in Russian here.

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