Holy-fool was a well-known ‘character’ in Russian culture. A firm image of the mediaeval times of the old Rus, he was a ‘wondering’ Christian, a mad in appearance vagabond who would renounce the world for the sake of Christ. The justification of the ‘holy fool’ can be found in the Bible, and 36 known holy fools of Russia were proclaimed as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The interest in the phenomenon of ‘holy-foolishness’ has been growing in Russia in the past years. This can be explained by the turbulent times that the country has experienced before and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, by the uncertainty on the political and economic levels, and by the phenomenal rise of the Christianity. The ‘Holy-Fool’ has become an image of Christianity but also a peculiar symbol of Russian culture, where nothing is certain, but one always believes in the fate of God, and in something more profound than the materialism of this world.
This character has found a new profound interest in both Christian and academic literature, but also in the modern cinema, and even music. The films of Lungin (Taxi-Blues, the Island) burrow and even base their story line on the Russian ‘Holy Fool’. Looking at these movies and the actor who played the main role in both movies, Pyotr Mamonov, this paper argues that the character of ‘Holy Fool’ is still alive and present in the modern days in Russia, re-adjusted, however, to the current age and current discourse on madness and eccentricity.
Who is a Russian Holy Fool?
One of a very known visual symbols of Russia is the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil), which is situated at the prominent place on Red Square in Moscow. Also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral, it was built from 1555 to 1561 under the reign of Ivan The Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The Church was erected over the grave of Saint Vasilii, who was a very known local Russian Holy Fool, ordained as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1580. “Thus, in a sense, the main symbol of Russia may be called the Cathedral of the Holy Fool.” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153).
But who was the Holy Fool, and why is it a particular cultural phenomenon of Russia, being depicted in paintings, books, and more, recently, in movies, and seeing a renewed interest in it in the past few years?
The origins of Holy Fool are embedded in Eastern Orthodoxy. It originated in monastic tradition of Byzantium and Rus, and became a recognised cultural phenomenon in Moscovite Russia in the sixteen and seventeen centuries.
The Holy Fool could be either a female or male person, wondering the streets of Rus, often naked or semi-naked, and acting often weirdly. The Holy Fool would confront the public, laugh at it, and expose the absurdities of this world. The Fool was ‘Holy’ because he was not just a simple vagabond, without a particular aim for his wonderings, but acting in the name of Christ, being a very religious person, spending considerable time on praying.
The justification for acting in the name of Christ can be found in the Bible. We can witness two different interpretations of foolishness in the Bible. Thus, in some instances, the fool is defined as someone who has no wisdom, and foolishness is considered to be a sin. However, another interpretation can be found in the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, where he says that the wisdom of this world is not real, and the true wisdom can be only found in Christ. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (Corinthians 3:18). And in another passage, we can read the following: “We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are dishonored. To this very hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.…” (Corinthians 4:10).
This interpretation of a Fool who is a Fool for the Christ’s sake formed the basis for the tradition of a Holy Fool in Orthodox Christianity. (Heller & Volkova, 2003).
The Holy Fools acted for ‘Christ’s sake’ by first, showing the same humility as symbolised by the Cross, and secondly, by trying to influence others to go back to Christ, by exhibiting the contradictions of this world. The Holy Fools would often take gifts as beggars from wealthier parts of the population, to immediately give it back to the poor. It was a sort of militant edge behaviour, the holy fools appeared as humble, but at the same time, refused to abide by the rules of this world, often confronting the tsars and the powerful, and laughing openly at their short-coming and deeds.
Saint Basil, whose name is now associated with one of the most known cathedrals in Russia, was one of the Holy Fools, and he is probably one of the most famous ‘iyurodivy’ of Rus, a Russian word for ‘Holy Fool’, having its origins in ancient Greek word ‘iurod’, which meant ‘stupid’, ‘mad’. In Russian language, ‘iurod’ means ‘the ugly one’. In reality, the Holy Fool would only appear as mad, walking on the streets and pointing towards the sins of this world. His exterior appearance, of being indeed dressed in ugly clothes, or no clothes at all, served as a metaphor for humanity’s sins, and for failure to go beyond the materialistic domain towards Christ, and seek spiritual gains, rather than earthy ones.
“The fool’s naked, dirty, ugly, strange and indecent appearance has a metaphor for humankind’s soiled, ‘naked’, sinful soul that has lost its ‘wedding garments’, its innocence. Becoming insane, becoming ‘a fool’, humanity has lost its divine likeness and lost its God. The holy fools look the way human beings really look in a spiritual sense. They become spiritual symbols – strange and almost disgusting in appearance, but tragic and attractive from a spiritual point of view. The holy fools’ disgraceful behaviour carried the message of judgement. Those who understood the message started to cry; those who did not laughed at the fools and threw stones at them” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 155).
Thus, holy-foolishness was considered as a spiritual gift.
Saint Basil, or Basil the Blessed, was born to serfs in a village near Moscow. He was first an apprentice shoemaker, exhibiting often weird behaviour. He would steal but then immediately give it back to the poor, pointing towards the problems of inequality and the burden of life of those in need. He would walk around naked and put chains on himself. Typical of holy-fool’s behaviour, it was odd, and controversial, but with deep meaning behind. Signs of visible madness were glorified and considered as a symbol for sanctity.
Basil the Blessed was a holy-fool who started a real following of holy-foolishness. In the sixteen century, they became popular figures, adored by laypeople, who looked at them as a link between God and earth, as a spokesperson who had gotten his voice directly from God. They were viewed as figures of authority, who could even oppose the tsar.
However, by the eighteen century holy-foolishness started to be used for gain or entertainment, and even, in order to advance one’s causes. Some authors would write stories around holy-fools for the purposes of lobbying for various interests or in order to undermine the political power. Some vagabonds and poor people would also fake madness to appear as holy-fools to obtain favours and monetary gains. As a result, by the eighteen century the figure of holy-fool started to be associated with charlatans, and the Church didn’t look favourably at holy-foolishness. The image of holy-fool became compromised.
It was Peter the Great who outlawed holy-foolishness in the beginning of the eighteen century, and holy-fools were persecuted. Peter the Great saw holy-fools as mostly scandalous figures who wanted attention and had little respect for the Church and authority.
“Any sensible person can see how many thousands of such lazy beggars can be found in Russia…who devour the labour of others with their impudence and their feigned humility…and who drive ordinary simple people insane…They slander high authorities, yet they themselves take on no Christian responsibilities. They go into church but think it has nothing to do with them, so long as they can carry on their shrieking in front of the church.” (Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, 1879, p. 30.) And the example of such a monstrous act can be found as recently as when the Pussy Riot entered and sacrileged the Russian Orthodox Church (as it seemed), built on tears and real suffering of the whole Russia, trying to deal with the impossible. My beautiful native land. They dared to enter, I totally avoid that church.
Peter the Great moved the capital of Rus to St. Petersburg in 1712, a city he had named after himself. He is famous for his reforms and for ‘Europeanizing’ Russia, where after his numerous visits to Europe, he introduced radical changes, including in architecture, where his love for baroque architecture can be seen across modern St. Petersburg.
Interestingly, despite the ban of holy-fools, some of them survived the reign of the tsar, like was the case of a famous holy-fool, St. Xenia, who lived in St. Petersburg in 1731-1803, and achieved a considerable cult following. As other holy-fools, she was a highly controversial figure. Widowed at the age of 26 she renounced all her possessions, including her house, and would wonder the streets of St. Petersburg, dressed in her late husband’s clothes. As other holy-fools, she would beg for money and goods, to immediately give it back to the poor. She appeared as if she had lost her mind, due to the death of her husband, and insisted that others called her by the name of her late husband, Andrei Feodorovich. However, “These eccentricities were not indicative of a loss of reason, however, but signified a complete disdain for earthly goods and human opinion, which places them at the center of existence. Thus, Xenia of Petersburg took upon herself the difficult podvig (feat) of foolishness for Christ’s sake. (Orthodox Christianity).”
Xenia would spend all her might on praying, going into a field, where she would stay awake in order to communicate with God. Once a new church started to be built, in Smolensk cemetery, Xenia would secretly transfer bricks at night, to help to build the church.
Thus, despite the official ban on ‘yurodiviis’, some of them still prospered, and St. Xenia was a popular figure during her life, attracting adherents of her renunciation of earthly goods, and seeing her as a noble representative of the tradition of holy-foolishness. Her popularity during the time of persecution clearly demonstrated the fascination of Russian society with the boundary between the ‘normal’ and bizarre, where some things could never be explained, and were in the hands of the spiritual domain.
Holy-foolishness in Russian folklore and literature
The holy-fool and holy-foolishness could always be found in Russian folklore and Russian literature. One of the most famous characters of Russian folklore is Ivan the fool, who can be called as a genteel equivalent of holy fool in folklore.
Ivan the fool is usually the youngest brother of three, born in a peasant family. He is presented as simple-minded at the start of the story, but it appears later on that he is actually the smartest of all three brothers, because he thinks with his heart, rather than his mind, where his wisdom is more spiritual rather than earthly one. He ends up being deceived by his brothers, because he voluntarily gives them his possessions when they struggle, being always kind and caring, and never greedy. Ivan the fool has a heart on his sleeve, and ends up fighting villains, where one can see a parallel with the fight between the good and the evil, as in the Bible. At the end of the story Ivan the fool is always a winner, rewarded with love of a princess and half of the kingdom, and where his simplicity emerges as deep spiritual wisdom.
Ivan the fool, as holy fool, symbolises important traits of Russian culture, such as deep intuition, belief in the unknown and that things always turn out for the best. It is intuitive reliance on fate, on God’s will. Sometimes, Ivan the fool appears as lazy, but his laziness is a disguise. He is simply not interested in pursuing accumulation of materialistic goods like all others around him, and is looking for things that belong to the domain of the heart, such as love, kindness, compassion, justice for wrong-doing. All stories around Ivan the fool also contain the element of grotesque: chimneys can start walking and talking, pots can sing, carpets can fly. This element of absurdity, of laughing despite the seriousness of a situation, is a trait of Russian culture, where holy-foolishness, and ‘foolishness’ as such is embedded in deep spirituality, but presented as ‘laughter’ and ‘spectacle’ to bring the maximum impact about some causes. If holy fool was acting in the name of Christ, to point out to the short-comings of the human nature, Ivan the fool acts in the name of universal goodness, and appeals to the heart, to the moral qualities of his public. Ivan the fool appears as ‘fool’, as slightly ‘stupid’ to show humility. Holy-fools would adopt the same attitude: “The urban fool becomes an apostle of the crucified Christ by living within the city as a vagrant and an outcaste. He or she assumes a guise of madness in order to be misunderstood and persecuted. The fool behaves in an uncouth way in public places to earn rebukes and blows. Thus the fool humbles his own pride and exposes the pride of those who subject him to rebuke. When failed Christians increase their own separation from Christ by persecuting the fool, they unwittingly enter into a provocative scenario aimed at opening their eyes to spiritual Truth” (Hunt, 2011, pp. 3-4).
Holy-foolishness can be traced also in later writings of Russian authors, where parallels can be drawn between holy-fool (and also Ivan the fool) and usually the main, more modern character. One such character we can find in Dostoevsky’ ‘The Idiot’, where it is often argued that the main protagonist was based on ‘holy-fool’.
The parallels indeed speak for themselves. The main hero, referred to as ‘the idiot’, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshki, comes to St. Petersburg from a Swiss village, where he spent four years in a mental institution. He is presented to us as simple-minded, with an open good heart, which leads to believe those around him that he lacks intelligence. He is deliberately positioned in the middle of an earthly society, the elite of St. Petersburg, driven by greediness, materialism and conflicts. The readers are left to see whether such a character can survive. The idea, as Dostoevsky explained in one of his letters to his friend, was to “depict a completely beautiful human being” (Mills Todd, 2014, p. xxiiii).
Prince Myshkin has a passionate Christian soul, is very kind, and innocent. His life and character have many details borrowed from the lives of holy fools. He even speaks weirdly, and is often called by people around him, ‘the idiot’. Like a holy fool he emerges as a controversial figure, that invokes deep emotions of our psyche. Unlike the holy fool though, he doesn’t play on laughter but rather on pity, where the aim, nevertheless, remains the same: he appeals to those who understand the deep spiritual meaning of life.
We can find the theme of holy-foolishness in many other writings, as well as paintings. The fascination with holy-foolishness is embedded in Russian culture and character, where Russian people were always driven to explore the line between sanity and insanity.
Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, I, St Petersburg, 1879, p. 30.
Orthodox Christianity (2019). THE LIFE OF ST. XENIA OF PETERSBURG, at: http://orthochristian.com/44559.html