The Mysterious Russian Soul

I wanted to share a great article from the Moskovsky Komsomolets website about aspects of the Russian national self-image—the idea of the “mysterious Russian soul” and certain qualities that are considered uniquely Russian.

Tsarevich Dimitry, by M. Nesterov,1899. in public domain

Tsarevich Dimitry, by Mikhail Nesterov, 1899. In public domain

In the past I’ve read other work by the author, Georgi Yans, but this time I wondered about his name. Is it a cheeky pseudonym? (“Georgians”?)

Whatever the case, he comes across as a frustrated lover of Russia, and I thought his ideas might be interesting for my readers who are curious about Russian culture but don’t know the language.

Yans said a conversation with a disgruntled acquaintance made him think about what Russians typically believe about themselves and their country: That they are a special nation with their own special path. That they have an enigmatic soul and are distinguished by their patience, compassion, love, and capacity for self-sacrifice (according to writers like Dostoevsky).

In his article he looks mostly at self-sacrifice and hero-worship. About the first, he says “every nation has people who are prepared to give their lives. There is nothing unusual, no special mission, in this.” Actually, he says, in Russia’s case it has been more about being prepared for your rulers to sacrifice you, being “cannon fodder.”

About the second, he says it’s normal for nations to idolize their own heroes, but people should remember that other nations have theirs, too. And he criticizes the way Russian rulers are turned into mythical beings, from Nevsky to the Romanovs to Putin: “These are not historical figures and real politicians. They are fairy-tale heroes endowed with unreal qualities.”

Instead of patience, compassion, love, and self-sacrifice, the author sees more and more of the opposite these days: “In every direction you can see the process of degradation: culture, science, education, morality. … Isolated incidents of [humanity] show how low we have fallen. But the bottom—so we can push ourselves off of it—is not yet visible.”

His recommendation? “You need to simply live and love, value not only the country as a whole, but also the people that surround you.” Don’t let a natural pride turn into arrogance, and don’t be obsessed with being different.

After all of this criticism, Yans ends with a beautiful quote from Dostoevsky on assessing the moral strength and potential of a nation. To paraphrase: We shouldn’t look at the mess the people are in now. “We should imagine the spiritual heights they could reach when the time comes.”

Yans does have a good point. Too much of an emphasis on being exceptional, instead of doing exceptional things, is bad whether we’re talking about school children, adults, or countries. (See my post on this regarding American culture)

Personally, I do find Russia mysterious and fascinating, and that’s why I began studying the country and language a long time ago. But “fascinating” is a matter of taste.

So if I may bastardize a Tolstoy quote here, which seems appropriate, I’ll finish by suggesting that all nations are mysterious, but each is mysterious in its own way.

Link to the original: Загадочная русская душа, где ты? (Mysterious Russian soul, where are you?)

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