Modern Holy Fool (Holy-Foolishness in Russian Culture: Part Three)

The image of a Holy Fool (read about who is Holy Fool here and here) found its new popularity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons is, of course, the recognition of Russian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion, but also the collapse of the beliefs of the socialist regime, when the country as a whole found herself in a momentary chaos, becoming, one can argue, a prototype for holy foolishness as a search for meaning.
The holy fool found a renewed interest in Christian studies, but also in academia. However, it is in the popular forms of media, such as films and even music that the holy-fool found a new ‘fame’, he came back to be yet again a spiritual hero, but he also acquired a new angle, the one of controversy in terms of his ‘madness’. What does lie behind his madness? And can we call someone mad, individually speaking, when the whole society can be considered as mad, especially if we look at what was happening in Russia since the late eighties of the last century? The old regime collapsed, reversing the ideology of communism to the ideology of capitalism in a matter of a couple of years. Old government structures were sold as vouchers to the Russian population, to be immediately bought back by those running these companies for a penny, because the population was suddenly starving, making them oligarchs. Shops got empty, there was shortage of food and clothes, and a total disarray in terms of a spiritual direction of the nation. While Russian Orthodox churches were emerging from their oblivion, Tarot readers and palm readers would sit in their proximity and promise the passers-by some hope for a better life. Hypnotist Kashpirovsky got a prime spot on the TV to hypnotize an entire nation, feeding tales from the national TV in 1989.
It was absolute and total madness, and it found its way into popular art, where painters, artists, and film-makers, would resort to the character of a holy fool to make sense of something which didn’t make any sense.
Russia is often referred to by Russians themselves as a country of fools, and the changes that the country witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, could be delegated firmly in the domain of total madness, where the only way to show the light at the end of the tunnel, was to resort to laughter and the grotesque, as a way to manage the deep spiritual malaise. As Heller and Volkova ask, in relation to the fascination of Russian culture with holy-foolishness: “A question arises: is there something deep inside the Russian mentality that correlates with the state of insanity?” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153) Some changes that Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Russians at a loss, where they were asked to adjust to a new ideology, new beliefs and new rules, and the popular art showed us the difficulty of the transition, by resorting to holy-foolishness and the character of a holy-fool in order to negotiate the incomprehension and deep spiritual uncertainty that the country and her people experienced then.
During the years of Perestroika, the image of holy-fool became the one of a dissident, adopting the weird behaviour of holy-fool to show the plight of many individuals who struggled to adapt to the changes in Russia on an economic and political levels. We can see this theme clearly in Taxi-Blues by Pavel Lungin, a film which was released in 1990, and which portrays us the reality of Russia at that time.
The film focusses on the life of two protagonists, a taxi-driver, Shlykov, and Lyosha (played by Pyotr Mamonov), a saxophonist. They meet on a ride in a taxi, when Shlykov takes Lyosha and his friends as passengers, but Lyosha doesn’t pay for the ride, after which Shlykov manages to track him down. Both characters then develop a truly bizarre friendship, which becomes a main story on the background of the madness of the country then.
The madness of that time starts from the beginning of the movie. The hypnotist Kashpirovsky greets us on the screen, by delivering his slogan promise: ‘Everything will be calm’. It immediately shows us the absurdity of that times, when ordinary people couldn’t find work, when hard-core communists quickly established their new capitalistic businesses, and when, in the ultimate feat of total absurdity, Mikhail Gorbatchev abolished alcohol, driving many Russians to either create a black market, or resort to the home production of alcohol. Kashpirovsky was put on the national TV in order to try to calm the nation down.
The lives of the two main characters show us how ordinary people managed life at that time. Thus, Shlykov, as it appears, adapted better to the new changes, by working hard as a taxi-driver. He has a room in an apartment, a girlfriend, can afford nice food, and from exterior it looks like a good life. Only by watching the narrative do we discover that he is not really happy in himself, that he doesn’t have many friends, that he struggles to find the spiritual meaning in life. And the aim of the film is also to show that all those who just continued hard-work couldn’t dream of acquiring the same richness that nouveu riches managed to accumulate. Hard-work and integrity were all the values that became suddenly obsolete, not cool and not needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lyosha, the saxophonist by profession, refused to adjust. He just goes with the flow. Despite the fact that saxophonists are nor longer needed and struggle to find any employment, Lyosha refuses to change anything, and gets by, by either singing on the streets, or by pure luck, such as meeting Shlykov in a difficult moment in his life and being helped by him. And while Shlykov helps Lyosha on a material level, Lyosha gives Shlykov a new spiritual meaning, found in laughter, unpredictability, and love of grotesque. Lyosha reminds Shlykov to sometimes let go, do something unexpected, believe in the fate.
The character of Lyosha, played by Pyotr Mamonov is often compared to that of a holy fool, but transformed into a modern version of it. We can disagree, however, with that meaning, because while during the whole narrative, Lyosha does exhibit all the characteristics of a holy fool, he fails in the end of the movie to fulfil the ultimate obligation of giving. Lyosha meets a famous American saxophonist at some point, and gets an opportunity to perform in the United States, which re-launches his musical career. Shlykov watches the newly found fame of his friend from a distance, and is desperate to see Lyosha again. He misses the playfulness and cheerfulness of his friend, and he doesn’t understand why Lyosha fails to come and see him when he is back in Moscow. Eventually when Lyosha comes to see him, he brings with him a band of new friends and absurd presents, such as a big doll. We can see that he breaks the heart of Shlykov and lets his old friend down.
But while one can argue whether Lyosha can be compared to the character of a holy-fool, it is the narrative itself that is representative of holy-foolishness positioned at the fall of the Soviet Union. The film shows us how the modern world changed to the worst, where the goodness of character, kindness and empathy are replaced by greediness, strive for material goods, and desire to become famous. It is the story itself that leads us to ask the eternal spiritual questions: but what is the meaning of life if one is lost completely in the material side of it? Should we remain humble even if we get further in life, and still remember those who helped us at the most difficult part of our journey? Shouldn’t we cherish friendship and simple things in life, such as sharing warm soup with friends, laugh even when life is difficult, appreciate people rather than goods?
It is in his next movie, The Island that Lungin returns to the question of deep spiritual meaning. The Island appeared in 2006, quite a few years later after Taxi-Blues. In it we see a story of a modern fictional Russian orthodox monk, played yet again by Pyotr Mamonov.
It starts during the second world war, when sailor Anatoly and his captain, Tikhon are ambushed by the Germans, somewhere at the shore of the white sea. As a grotesque joke, the Germans present Anatoly with a choice: either to shoot Tikhon and live, or die. Anatoly shoots Tikhon after which the Germans blow up the ship.
Anatoly survives and is rescued by the monks from a local monastery, where he stays. It is many years later that the new life of Anatoly is presented to us. He works as a stoker at the monastery and acts as a local ‘wise’ man. It is to him that ordinary people come for advice, prayer and also in order to heal.
The parallels with the holy-fool are much more striking in The Island. Anatoly is a deeply spiritual man, who constantly prays to God. He has a gift of a prophet and of a healer. He sees the future and can predict it. He gives wise advice. At the same time, his behaviour is extremely weird. He rarely washes his face, makes fun of the monks, is always late for the Church services, where he shows up in a truly bizarre attire, one day marching with one foot in a boot, another dressed in a sock.
But while watching the character, we can’t help but fall in love with him and his way of thinking and doing. His faith in God is so beautiful and sincere, that the viewer hopes that he will be forgiven for his ultimate sin. And we are relieved indeed when right before his death (that Anatoly foresees himself several days in advance, by organising his own coffin), we learn that Tikhon had survived. He brings his daughter to see the remote monk due to rumours of his healing gift, and meets Anatoly. Anatoly reassures Tikhon that his daughter is not mad but is possessed by a demon, preforms exorcise, after which she is healed. After that Anatoly tells Tikhon who he is, but Tikhon tells him that he was only wounded in the arm, and that he had forgiven him.
The movie, while basing the character of Anatoly on holy-fool, presents us a different façade of holy-foolishness than the one we have seen in ‘Taxi-Blues’. It reaches a deeper spiritual meaning where we are confronted with the true meaning of holy-foolishness: one has to have faith in God and Jesus, and then and only then, one can become a holy-fool, while renouncing also worldly conventions and material aspects of things. It also shows us Russia as it changed in the years after the turmoil of the uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It became quieter in its own spiritual search, firmly embracing Christianity, and by going back to its roots preceding the revolution. The country might still experience turmoil at a political level, but spiritually, it found a new meaning.