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C H A P T E R S I X THE CENTURY OF BELIEF Christ in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature And so they keep a martial pace Behind them follows the hungry dog, Ahead of them—with bloody banner, Unseen within the blizzard’s swirl, Safe from any bullet’s harm With gentle step, above the storm, In the scattered, pearl-like snow Crowned with a wreath of roses white, Ahead of them—goes Jesus Christ. Alexander Blok,“The Twelve,” January 1918, trans. Maria Carlson The growth of secularism in Russia had its dramatic crowning moment in the 1917 revolution, the ultimate confirmation of the triumph of unbelief in Russia. The fascinating thing about this outcome is that it happened in a nation with a unified national Orthodox creed and a nearly thousand-year history of belief— the confirmation, perhaps, of Dostoevsky’s premise that the line between fervent faith and militant atheism is very fine indeed,that the conditions that foster belief can just as easily give rise to a virulent atheism in sometimes sudden and unexpected ways. Looking at the Soviet century, however, it is tempting to make the opposite argument: that militant atheism eventually gave rise to a resurrected faith in the USSR among intellectuals and writers pushing back against an increasingly totalitarian government. Indeed, one might even argue that the Soviet Union as an officially atheist state where the Church was persecuted and 125 The Century of Belie belief was ridiculed actually became the perfect negative space from which, in apophatic fashion, writers could discern anew the nature of faith in the absence of positive cultural conceptualizations of belief. In truth, of course, the relationship between belief and unbelief in the Soviet century is more complex than such a neat formulation might imply.For one thing,the Soviet government soon made a state religion out of ideology complete with sacred foundational narratives and a gallery of secular saints. For another, the teachings and life of Christ himself helped to inspire adherence to the revolutionary cause, as Alexander Blok confirmed when he put Jesus Christ at the head of twelve Bolshevik revolutionaries in his famous poem. The path that led to the appearance of Jesus Christ there began in the waning years of the century of unbelief, a period in Russian culture enigmatically referred to as bezvremen’e—literally, “timelessness,” but here designating a period of cultural and social stagnation. Blok chose this word as the title for one of his first prose articles in 1906, a meditation on Russian society and culture at a crossroads. Where before “nature, art and literature” had been valued and protected, Blok writes, now people had given up on the muses, devoted all their time to work and petty pursuits and,“proceeding along a path of languor, gradually lost first God, then the world and finally themselves.”1 Blok’s indictment of his age is both the summation of a fin-de-siècle malaise afflicting Russian society and the anticipation of some kind of cataclysmic rupture. Thus, the century of belief in Russian literature was born amid a sense of social and cultural collapse and impending apocalypse, the culmination of the last fitful decades of the century of unbelief. Society had lost its faith in both Orthodoxy and literature as repositories of the answers to life’s questions. The Church was beset by rival heterodox belief systems—including Tolstoy’s anarchic Christianity, various Orthodox sects (Skoptsy, Khlysts, Dukhobors, Molokans) that persisted into the twentieth century, as well as different strains of Protestantism—and was under assault from radicals and materialists who pronounced the death of God and railed against clerical indifference to social inequality and injustice. As the giants of Russian realism either died (Dostoevsky a month before Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, Turgenev two years later) or absented themselves from the literary scene (Tolstoy after Anna Karenina), new authors appeared responding to the demands of an increasingly more literate society for works of a popular, diverting nature. Small genres—short stories, sketches, and novellas—proliferated, while thick idea novels addressing the cursed questions C H A P T E R S I X 126 disappeared from the scene. According to the critic Mikhail Menshikov in an 1891 article, literature in the last decades of the nineteenth century lost “its former significance as a guider of souls.” Russians now read mainly to be distracted .2 The close of the century of unbelief was a time of the “redundancy of...


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