These are some of my favorite (Russian) things


Despite an atmosphere of blind hatred, let’s appreciate Russia’s tremendous contribution to universal civilization.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a Russophobic frenzy in the United States and Europe. From vandalism of Russian restaurants and community centers to bans on Russian teams participating in soccer and Paralympic competitions, many in the West seem unable to make a moral distinction between Russia’s political leaders on the one hand and millions of ordinary Russians on the other.

This is a sadly common phenomenon in times of war, and it can be excused that people react instinctively to a powerful nation attacking a smaller, weaker neighbor, with all the human misery that entails. Still, there is something particularly bland about today’s social media-led, HR-backed anti-Russian push. Yesterday it was anti-maskers and Black Lives Matter skeptics who became impersonal; today it is everyone and everything associated with the bad country.

Worst of all is the sheer philistinism that requires us to banish Russian culture from our bookshelves, galleries, concert halls and theaters. A Russian conductor has been booted from his job with the Munich Philharmonic. A Russian opera singer has canceled her appointments at the Met Opera. Studies in the history of philosophy, a scholarly journal, has canceled a special issue on Russian religious philosophy in light of “the Russian Federation’s illegal attack on Ukraine.” An Italian university postponed a course on Dostoyevsky (previously back). The city of Manchester is considering removing a statue of Soviet-era communist thinker Friedrich Engels, who happened to be German.

This is all monumentally stupid. And dangerous. If anything, the war was intended to renew Western interest in Russian history and culture so that we might better understand Russia’s motivations; simplistic, Manichaean narratives are not enough. Also on the road to cultural annihilation is dehumanization (already There are calls to treat all Russians as somehow collectively guilty). A serious exposure to the glories of Russian culture might forestall further alienation.

Where could a beginner start? As the son of Iran – a nation, I might note, with its own historical grievances against Russia – I have encountered Russian literature only in translation, whether in Persian or English. I do not claim any special expertise. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of four Russian art objects that have deeply touched me over the years:

1. It may surprise readers that my favorite piece of modern liturgical music was composed in the Orthodox tradition by a Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff. I’m talking about the night watch (1915), Rachmaninoff’s Goosebumps A cappella Ode to the Christian mysteries as expressed in his beloved Russian soil, in his grandmother’s Russian Orthodox Church (Rachmaninoff himself was not very religious). Considered an extremely difficult piece to play, the guard oscillates between gentle intimacy and increasing power and glory, weaving Psalm and Gospel and Magnificat into an otherworldly choral tapestry.

2. In my most recent book, I devoted a chapter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the liberal West, forcefully articulated in his infamous 1978 Harvard inaugural address. In it, the former Gulag resident warned that the West has lost sight of the old distinction between freedom for good and permission for evil, resulting in a society that is paradoxically less free, hostage to naked commercial interests and whims of the egoist . Denounced at the time as a misguided tirade of “a conservative, religious Russian with terrible homesickness,” the Harvard speech proved prophetic. (Needless to say, Solzhenitsyns A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago also belong on any list of the best in world literature.)

3. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films demand a lot from the viewer, but the patient is rewarded with profound insight and visual pleasure. I’m particularly a fan of Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and stalker (1979). But mainly Rublev. A light-hearted, haunting biopic about Russia’s greatest medieval iconographer that, among many other things, offers a spiritual roadmap for rebuilding civilization just when all seems lost.

4. Russia’s literary masters of the 19th century need no endorsement from me. Tolstoy and the now canceled Dostoevsky tower over the others. If I had to choose one, I would choose Tolstoy and his war and peace (1869), the only novel I think that captures the whole of life, both on the world-historical macro level and on the micro-psychological level (my God, even the wolves and dogs have an inner life!). Western pundits rubbing their hands smooth at the prospect of breaking Russia’s will may recall the scene when Muscovites set their own city on fire during the Napoleonic Wars to keep it out of foreign hands.

Others might make other lists of this kind (feel free to share yours in the comments section). It is about insisting on the true, good and beautiful of Russian culture and, in an atmosphere of blind hatred, celebrating Russia’s tremendous contribution to universal civilization.

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