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.

My Moscow

Let’s make a break in psychiatry and return to Russia for a bit, my country, my native land.

I was born into a truly picturesque environment, I was born in Moscow. If you ever plan a trip to Russia, I really advise you NOT to miss that place. Moscow has the true Russian architecture, with its magnificent Kremlin, decorating the central space. There is also a mausoleum of Lenin there, something I never visited and never will, but let’s ignore a small negativity of the legacy of some Egyptian traditions to mummify a dead body, and move on towards the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed,  known as St. Basil Cathedral, and also as Pokrovsky Cathedral, built from 1551 to 1561 on the decree from Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.

The Cathedral is more than magnificent, it is truly, I feel, a symbol of Russia and of Russian Orthodox Christianity. It stands tall and proud across the Moscow river, and when you drive past it at night, you land up in a magical domain, once you see it illuminated, like a star in a beautiful night. It shines by its beauty, and it shines its Christianity. It is a partial museum now, and when on a visit there, I always felt that it should be restored as a proper church. I know that from 1991 Church services restarted there, which is a blessing, of course.

The grave of the Russian Saint, Saint Vasily is there, the Russian Holy Fool (read about holy foolishness on my post here), and it has a shape of a bonfire, a design that is totally unique and as Dimitry Shidkovsky, described in his book ‘Russian Architecture and the West’, “It is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century…a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design.” (2007, p. 126).

Moscow is full of magical, unexpected places. It is a unique combination of old and new, where almost each corner presents something wonderful and unique, and is truly Russian. If I return to Russia as a tourist, I will start with Moscow, and then proceed to the golden ring, and definitely not miss Suzdal, a city full of churches, but let’s take a walk in Moscow first.

My favourite place to hang out was always the Old Arbat and then walking towards the Kremlin across the bridge, right down to the Oktiabriaskaya underground station. Or turn right after leaving the Arbat and walk through the boulevard park towards Ostozhenka, where the Linguistic University can be found (former Institute of Foreign Languages, where I studied for a year, before moving to Brussels to continue my other degree in languages there). The Old Arbat is a pedestrian street, favourite of the artists, and vagabonds. It always attracted weird crowds of people, and that’s maybe I loved it so much. I felt like a part of the crowd of interesting, unusual people, of artists, painters and performers. My other best friend, Sergei, would often take me there, and we would chat and drink with his friends of the University of Film and Cinema (BGIK) where he studied to become an actor.

The Old Arbat has many interesting cafes, where one can get a good impression of how Russian people eat. It is always a nice warm meal, very delicious, as how pancakes, pastries, delicious porridges, fresh bread from the oven, and the incredible influence we got as legacy from Georgia and Armenia, can not taste good? Tea is more popular than coffee, and drinking tea is a proper ritual. If you are invited for a tea to the Russian family, except a feast. People in Russia, and my native town, are extremely hospitable. You will need to go on a diet, I guarantee you that. Russian host will bring everything he or she has on the table. Last time I was back in Moscow, my best friend, Masha, prepared a table that an army could eat. She made me my favorite meatballs, numerous salads, pastries, and a cake. My other best friend, Anya, made for me a special chicken and a salad of shrimps under the mayonnaise, that is now my signature dish if I am hosting.

I used to love walking in Moscow. I would spend days on it. After finishing my classes at the University, I would walk towards the Park of Culture, and admire the tress, and the lake, and then walk towards the Crimea Bridge and admire my native city. From the Crimea bridge that connects the underground station of Park of Culture and Oktyabriaskaya, one can get a glimpse of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and see the House of Artist, where I used to attend lessons in drawing, and that always has interesting, unique expositions.

Moscow is huge, and as a whole, does reflect well the Russian culture. It has churches with bells, numerous parks, incredible underground station, and people that read. One of the most amazing book shops, called Dom Knigi stands proud on the New Arbat, and if you are lucky one day to travel on the Moscow’s underground station, you will get the impression that you travel in a moving library. Everyone reads. Rides are long to connect people who go to work or to study, and they use this time with wisdom: they read.

At night the center is illuminated and if you do believe in magic, you will notice, that you are indeed in a magical land. I left my native, my beloved city at the age of nineteen to study in French in Brussels, another city I fell in love with. But I will tell you more about Brussels in another post.

(a view of Moscow with my best friend, Masha)

P. Tchaikovsky – Pas de Deux (‘The Nutcracker’

Foolishness for Christ. Encounter with the devil

There is a reason as to why I go back to the 1990s in Russia so often on my blog, because it was exactly at that time that devil made his appearance in my country. The Christianity was proclaimed as official religion, and he, quite, obviously, couldn’t miss the opportunity to battle for a few remaining souls.

I could watch what was happening in my country from a vintage point of a teenager, which helped me somehow, because it is much more difficult to survive the battle between good and evil when you are an adult. The mundane daily responsibilities don’t allow space for any deep philosophical inclinations, and then, of course, it is hard to believe in anything, yet, allow oneself any ‘magical’ thinking, because one is always at risk to end up on the radar of the psychiatrists. The psychiatrists rule the world based in normality, and no one dares anymore to proclaim loud and clear: yes, there is the devil, and yes, there is God, and Jesus was real.

Back in the 1990s in Russia I met the character, the devil, on numerous occasions. He was lurking around, and once when I was with one of my best friends, he announced himself around us, right when we were admiring the visitors to a local church. My friend Anya and I were skipping a class in algebra, and were sitting on the bench on the hill, above a Russian Orthodox Church where some people started to go because Christianity had seen its return, and people didn’t have to hide anymore their faith in secret.

It was an interesting development for both me and Anya as we had grown up in a country without any religion. The Soviet Union’s doctrine was based on absence of any belief system, besides the building of a communal goal, with  stuff like ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ considered to be absolute madness, and where those who had dared to proclaim otherwise, were deemed to be mad, and had to undergo a psychiatric treatment. Interestingly enough while I live now in a so-called free society, the mantra that you can believe in anything you want as long as you remain silent, is truer than anywhere else. You are proclaimed as insane immediately if you start talking about God and the devil, and especially if you hint at the fact that you see their manifestations in a daily reality.

So, Anya and I were watching the church with deep curiosity, it was indeed totally beyond any logical thinking. How come, we both wondered, that a country of absolute atheists suddenly turned into zealous church devotees?

“Look, even young people go now there,” I made a remark to Anya, and she nodded to me an agreement, noticing as me, a couple of what looked like students entering the door of the church.

“And I still remember how the doors to the same church were totally closed in the seventies,” we both jumped from fright as we hadn’t noticed the man, sitting now next to us on the bench, approaching us, let alone, materializing himself, suddenly on the bench. But here he was, wearing an interesting red hat, and staring longingly into the distance at the church, furtively giving me a wink in the process, locking his eyes with mine for a brief moment.

A though immediately entered my mind that he was the devil, and I allowed it to remain there, because I was still a teenager, and radical thoughts and visions are more tolerated when you are still at a precarious age. I haven’t yet reached the years when you learn that weird thoughts are not allowed, and that the psychiatry as an institution has the reins and power to silence all ‘different’ individuals once and for good. All those that have seen the devil, met him and know that he is real, are sitting behind the psychiatric bars. Since I am not there, I decided that I have the liberty to say whatever I want, and therefore, I am taking this opportunity to reassure you that everything ever written in the Bible is totally real, not that I had read all of it, due to the difficulty of the scripture. But I live the stories written in it in real life, and manifestations of it and the truth, reach me on a daily basis, usually in my dreams.

And so I allowed the thought to remain there and it was scary but at the same fascinating. Oh wow, I thought, it isn’t all fables and just stories then, is it? Here he is, the devil, and once I permitted the thought to stay there, it took that definite proportions when you realize that perhaps, magic is all real, and I was blessed (or cursed) to see and witness the manifestations of it in my daily reality. It was also interesting to observe that Anya jumped from fear and started to run away, while I remained sitting on the bench for another good couple of minutes, to (and I realize it only now) come to terms to my ‘raison d’etre’ from now on. Yes, I would be chased by the presence of the devil my entire life, and it’s only with experience that I learned that the only way to fight him is via Christianity and belief in Jesus.

Amazingly enough we didn’t talk with Anya about that particular manifestation of the character. I think that like me, she realized the significance of the presence of the man in the red hat, but it was too scary to admit the reality as it is: yes, the devil is real, and he is chasing the earth for a few remaining souls.

It was also the same year that I went to receive baptism and became a Russian Orthodox, embracing a difficult and run with obstacles life. Because the life of a true Christian, the life of a Holy Fool, is one of a martyr, and I ended up fighting with the devil my entire life.

Having met the character many times since that first encounter, I will tell you more about him from now on. He is a great manipulator, and uses clever tactics to lure one into his kingdom. He can also take different forms, and only once I saw the real him, as depicted in Christian scary stories, when I was lucid-dreaming in my sleep.

But this is a tale I will share with you next time.

holy fool

(Saint Nicholas of Pskov – Russian Holy Fool)