This Fall marks the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Although few commentators today are likely to glorify that event or its aftermath, most will assume that the revolution was a regrettable necessity, which swept away a repressive and stagnant ancient regime. Such a view is false. Culturally and spiritually, that lost pre-revolutionary Russia was a treasure house, and indeed a birthplace of the modern West. The grim view we hold of Russia’s old Christian world is one of the last triumphs of Soviet propaganda.
That is nowhere more true than in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is so often portrayed as a haven of obscurantism and anti-Jewish hatred. In fact, most of the episcopate strove to discredit and suppress antisemitic propaganda. Meanwhile, the country was in the midst of a general spiritual revival, with rising levels of literacy among peasants and a publishing boom in devotional literature. The church made serious inroads among industrial workers through a series of charismatically led reform movements preaching a kind of social-gospel activism. The legendary St. John of Kronstadt was only the most celebrated of many locally famous holy men and women.
The church boasted a thriving cultural life, as most intellectuals and artists were suffused with its imagery and traditions, even if they rejected its political authority. Many proclaimed themselves Bogoiskateli, “God seekers.” In 1915, Sergei Rachmaninoff produced in his choral “All-Night Vigil” one of the greatest musical accomplishments in modern religious history. Nikolai Berdyaev was a groundbreaking philosopher, a radical pioneer of Christian existentialism. The Orthodox Russia that entered the war looked as if it were beginning an epoch of cultural achievement equal to any in its storied past.
Historians commonly draw a sharp division between such achievements of the old order and the dazzling triumphs of modernism, which they commonly associate with the revolutionary world. In this view, 1917 represents a watershed, a glorious transition to modernity. Again, that is a pernicious myth. Well before this date, Russian artists and musicians were already key pioneers of modern literature, art, music, and design, and they drew overwhelmingly on Christian traditions. However radical it might appear in retrospect, experimental modernity was rooted in a thoroughly Orthodox thought-world of angels, apocalypse, and icons.
Already in 1916, Russia had produced the greatest urban apocalypse of the era. Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg resembles the work of Joyce in its daring experimentation, and in its enormous influence on later literature. The book depicts pre-war St. Petersburg as a society on the verge of explosions, literal and metaphorical, a city living at the end of the world. It is also a city under the eye of angels, where the devil walks the streets. The statue of a horseman is a pervasive symbol, obviously suggesting one of the four horsemen of Revelation. Only in whispers can Bely’s characters discuss the real issue at hand: “the Second Coming of Christ.”
Although Bely apparently never met the Moscow-born painter Wassily Kandinsky, the work of each man often echoed the other’s interests in angels and imminent judgment. In 1912, Kandinsky edited the pivotal manifesto Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, which cultural historians regard as an epochal movement in European modernism, bringing together the most innovative German and Russian artists of the day. But we lose the religious significance of the name when we translate it “The Blue Rider.” It actually refers to a blue horseman, and the movement was born as a protest against a gallery’s decision to reject a Kandinsky painting of the Last Judgment. That Orthodox-framed cosmic finale lay at the heart of European modernism.
Another angel-obsessed member of the school was Russian painter Natalia Goncharova who in 1910 created her stunning image of the Archangel Michael, the leader of the heavenly hosts. Although an advanced modernist, her work draws heavily on Russian icon traditions. In 1915, she designed sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s planned ballet Liturgy, which was to feature such ancient images as the six-winged seraphs, with music based on Orthodox liturgical themes.
Mentioning Diaghilev suggests the enormous Russian contribution to modernist music, as avant-garde Europeans venerated such titanic innovators as Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Scriabin. But Stravinsky in particular was a devout Orthodox believer, who famously remarked that “Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.” Obviously, Stravinsky did not return to Bolshevik Russia after 1917, nor did many of the key modernists. The gullible modernists who did choose Bolshevik rule usually ended up silenced or murdered.
When we struggle past the Bolshevik myths, we must give full credit to that old Christian Russia for inventing the modern West, and the modern mind.