Holy Fool in Russian literature and art (Holy-Foolishness in Russian culture: part two)

The Holy Fool, to remind you (please, refer to part one), was a person who became mad for the sake of Christ. It was a well-known, recognized phenomenon in the old Russia. It was a man or a woman who would often wander the streets of old Rus and remind people to live their lives based in Christian values. They would often appear as ‘mad’, as ‘insane’, but several of these Holy Fools were recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as saints, with one of the most famous Holy Fool being Saint Vasilii the Blessed. It was after him that the most famous Russian Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil) was named.

From the beginning the character of the Holy Fool has fascinated Russian writers and we can find this personage in several writing and also paintings. Behind it, is the interest in the unexplainable, in the grotesque, in the spiritual domain, but where things always remain mysterious. It is the fascination with unpredictability, as long as good outweighs the evil, Russian people have been driven to explore the human soul, and the human misery, throughout the history, which can be seen in literature and art.

For example, Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), based his character in ‘Deathless Golovan’ on holy-fool, where the main protagonist is a simple man who takes care of those affected by a plague, despite danger for his own health. He also gives milk to a Jewish man, stupefying his neighbours. In his other writing, ‘Singlethought’ (1879), the main character, a police officer based in a provincial town, becomes slightly ‘mad’ after reading scriptures of the Bible. The reading has such a profound impact on him, that he starts to behave strangely, such as refusing bribes and gifts at his job, as was the custom then. The story highlighted the corruption of the power at that time, but also raised the more important spiritual questions. Who is really a fool here? A simple man who refuses to be corrupted, or the society as such, driven by corruption? And shouldn’t we rather abide by Christian, moral values in our daily life? As in holy-foolishness, the story also contains many grotesque, ‘hilarious’ moments, such as then Ryzhov, the main character, forces the mean Governor of the town to bow in front of the icons in the Church.

Other Russian writers explored the theme of ‘holy-foolishness’ either basing their character directly on holy-fool, or by building a story around the theme of holy-foolishness, where madness always takes on an additional meaning. It is never an ‘illness’, but something deeper, a battle of one’s soul, where the hero, while being ‘mad’, is more connected with God and spiritual aspects of life, than the laypeople, preoccupied with the material sides of things. Gorki explored the theme in ‘A Confession’, Chekov built his short story ‘Ward No. 6’ around holy-foolishness, where both protagonists, a long-time staying psychiatric inmate and his treating psychiatrist share remarkable traits with holy-fools, but also Bulgakov, it can be argued, based his ‘Master and Margarita’ on the motifs of holy-foolishness. The main character, the master, who ends up disillusioned by this world, is a modern ‘holy fool’, but unlike in the Moscovite Rus, he has problems to adjust and adapt to the requirements of the modern world, which in the Soviet Union, was characterised by omnipresent bureaucracy, corruption, ridiculous rules, and greediness, despite the fact that one of the slogans of the socialist regime was an equal society. The story of the Master runs in parallel with the story of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), and some obvious conclusions can be drawn from the novel. There is a deep spiritual need nascent in all humanity, but it is often compromised by scepticism and inability to think outside the box, because of being under too much influence of materialistic world. Many ridiculous, hilarious scenes in the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov draw a direct parallel with the weirdness and ‘laughter’ of holy-fools.

The image of Holy Fool can be also encountered in numerous paintings, where painters depicted the fascination and also certain reverence towards the character. He can be seen on numerous paintings of Nesterov, and also Syrikov, showing his firm place among laypeople, and not just being a character of Christian writings.

For a Russian culture, the holy fool has a deep meaning. It shows the possibilities of a spiritual domain, reinforces one’s faith, and reassures one that good will always outweigh the evil. Thus, the character of Holy Fool is deeply embedded in Russian culture and tradition.

A God’s Fool Sitting on the Snow, by Vasily Surikov, 1885)

Born in Russia. A boy, a book, and The House of Artist

When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.

What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.

I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.

It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.

There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.

Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius.
One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.

“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.

Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.

Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.

I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.

The devil’s ball

It was while living in Sheffield that I ended up attending the devil’s ball. I woke up in one of my lucid-dreaming and found myself waiting on the road, somewhere near a Dutch forest. If you are not familiar with lucid-dreaming, let me explain. It is a state when you wake up in your dream and realize that you are no longer dreaming but are experiencing an absolute, magical, parallel reality. Your physical body usually remains in its place, in your bed, but I heard of some shamans who can move their bodies in their sleep from one place to another with a simple power of their mind. They fall asleep in one place and wake up in another.

So, I woke up in my dream, and found myself standing on a recluse road, somewhere in the Netherlands. I just knew that I was in the Netherlands, out of deep knowledge of my mind. I also once woke up in my  other dream, travelling on the train, and knew at once that I was somewhere in Switzerland, although the purpose of my travel wasn’t entirely clear, and remains vague to me till today. Why Switzerland I wondered? But on the other hand, I was also experiencing a sense of absolute wonder while looking outside the train’s window. Yes, I could travel in my dream, and yes, I was doing it in reality, not just in my dream. I also sensed that my body wasn’t in my bed, in my cozy house in Sheffield, but indeed on the train, somewhere near Zurich.

While knowing that I was near a Dutch forest (however, I am not sure whether it was in the south or the north of the country), I was also aware at once that I was due to attend a ball of the devil, and visit his residence. I waited for a couple of moments, and a strange dog appeared, who would transport me to the house where the devil lives, deep in the forest, besides many trees, a place that I am not sure how it looks in reality. I didn’t see the house itself and thus, can’t describe it in details.

The flight on the dog, and it was similar to a flight, was exhilarating and magical. I couldn’t help but to think that, ‘wow’, I was really doing it and wow, it was really happening. I also knew that, despite the evidence so to speak, I wasn’t a witch, but strange things keep on happening in my life, and the appearance of the devil in many forms and appearances is taking place in my regular life (and not just in my dreams), with terrifying occurrence. What does he want from me, and why does he chase me – is a question I ask myself on a daily basis.

The dog was of an unknown breed and if I would describe it in more details, the breed was similar to a mixture between pit bull and bulldog, but there was more to it than just a breed. It was obvious that the dog was magical, and that I was experiencing a total emergence into the parallel world.

We arrived at our destination and entered the house, which had different levels. The moment between arriving and entering the devil’s domain was too brief for me to notice more. I can’t say, for instance how the house looks from exterior, but I noticed a few things from inside. It is based in a place where people don’t walk, away from the humans, and one can enter it by invitation only, but I might be wrong about all this, as my impression was that I happened to be there by accident.  Who had sent the dog for me was unclear. The devil himself? I am not so sure, as while being inside his house, I had a definite feeling that there was some sort of mistake and I wasn’t really expected there.

On the first floor there was a big bar, with guests exchanging the pleasantries and having some drinks, while in the basement, guarded by bodyguards, was HIM. I was pushed by some invisible force to approach the guards to go the basement, but at the last moment turned away. Was it a higher force preventing me from making the fatal step towards the basement, or was it my own inner strength which banned me from going down, and it was indeed deep, deep down, and I knew instinctively that where was a place from which I would never return.

Instead I approached the bar and ordered a drink (a glass of champagne) but it all became a blur and I don’t remember how I exited the devil’s domain and found myself back in my bed, waking up and knowing with absolute certainty, that yes, it had happened, and no, I wasn’t mad or insane.

master and margarita

(Illustration to ‘Master and Margarita’ of Bulgakov, found on ‘Russia Beyond’ website. The great writer depicted the character of the devil in an unusual and interesting way, while also describing a ball where Margarita acted as a hostess)