Slavophilia and National Identity in Russia

Slavophilia and National Identity in Russia

Slavophilia is the love of “Mother Russia” that every true Russian feels for his native country. This love is not founded in any absurd or materialistic attachment to the country, but rather to the spiritual and natural goodness of the country — its morality, its religion, its land, its simplicity and the virtues of peasants. These concepts are what form the basis of the Russian national identity. It is a concept that is noble in mind and the opposite of the self-interested, individualistic conceit of other cultures, such as the American culture. The slavophile is rooted in the communal, collective experience — the native experience, the peasant experience, the basic, humble elementary aspects of life that give one a spiritual joy because one is connected to an entire community — a national family — that is like one mystical body, like that mystical body of Christ (part of the Orthodox religion of Russia). Essentially, the slavophile celebrates the Russian family as the building block of Russian society and of Russian character, which is why a work like The Memoirs of the Aksakov Family can teach so much about the Russian soul and the noble ideals of the slavophile. This paper will show how slavophilia is defined and the national Russian identity displayed in The Memoirs of the Aksakov Family.

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The Russian life is bound up in the family and in the land — and this is the first sense that one has in reading the opening of The Memoirs, as the first line states, “In my grandfather’s estate, at Simbirsk granted to his ancestors by the Muscovite Czars, everything grew abundantly … ” (1). Here, in this sentence, is the mention of family (the grandfather), land (where things grow in abundance), and the hierarchy of society (at the top of which is the czar, who looks out for the peoples of Russia as though they are his own children — hence, the gift of the land to the author’s grandfather). Thus there is a sense of royalty, nobility, vibrancy, abundance, family connections, status, and fullness of life all within this one simple sentence. This is the essence of the slavophile’s sense of Russian greatness — all of these aspects are connected in an interlocking, communicating network of communal respect. In other words, they are the threads of society, without which society could not exist.

The sense that if the parts are not interlocking and working together then Russian society cannot exist and the Russian national identity loses itself is apparent in the conclusion of the first sentence of the book: ” … but the property had been divided and sub-divided until it no longer sufficed for his support” (1). What happens to the estate granted his ancestors by the Czar? It has not been kept whole and cohesive but instead has become fragmented and fractured, broken up into parts, so that one portion is sent off to one individual and his family and another portion to another individual. The grandfather, therefore, cannot live off the land because the land is claimed by so many different people who are not working together — and this is a problem for the Russian national character. If it loses its sense of community, it loses its identity. In one sense, this is paradoxical — for in the slavophilic ideal, giving to family is essential and spreading the wealth is what makes Russia great; yet on the other hand it can impoverish the giver and if the individuals don’t give back, tension is created. Thus, it is important in the slavophilic ideal that a spiritual unity underline the whole: this ensures that everyone understands the importance of giving back and of including everyone in the community so that no one is without “support” as the grandfather appears to be in the opening of the memoirs.

Yet, what follows is a depiction of how land is bought in a certain territory of Russia: it is a rural anecdote full of Russian charm and the Russian character. It is a story of a man who comes to see about buying some land and before business can even be discussed there must be half a dozen sheep slaughtered and a feast had with wine and music and dancing, and after this goes on for some days then the business matter of the visitor can be attended to — and a “deed of sale is drawn out in the legal form” even though “the quantity of land neither is, nor can be precisely stated; for who has measured it?” (3). This wonderful description illustrates perfectly well the Russian soul that the slavophile so embraces: a carelessness when it comes to material possessions (such as land — no one knows the borders, for no one has ever bothered to measure them, for what reason is there to know? Russians are not like Roman Emperors who must have a census conducted so that they can know how many souls they lord over.

No, a Russian, according to the spirit of the slavophile, is a man of neighborly virtue, who would sooner make merry and enjoy community life with a visitor than get down to the particulars of business). It is a happy, idealistic image — one separated from the urban, city business life of say a Petersburg or somewhere like that. A different picture of the Russian character could certainly be drawn there — but that is the not the picture that the slavophile depends upon for his Russian soul to be brought to life: he depends upon the rural countryside and the happy-go-lucky life of the individuals who are there — their recklessness (“guests sleeping all over the place” after dancing for days), their nonchalance and casual acceptance of all things. In short, there is a simplicity of character the underscores their worldview — and this is the Russian identity that is evident in the sort of people upheld by the slavophile as exemplifying the Russian character and goodness of the simple Russian peasant in the simple Russian countryside. Even the grandfather recognizes this as looks forward to moving to the land purchased from the Bashkirs.

The Russian humor is evident in the next pages, as the grandfather takes leave of his family: his viewpoint of the differences between sons and daughters is something that the great Russian writer Gogol would have appreciated because there is absolutely nothing politically correct about it, and there is a biting acerbity to it — but also the words are said out of love and affection. So all of these contrasting elements are bound up in the humor — it is realistic, satirical, biting, honest, but affectionate and not meant to hurt or reveal bitterness; indeed the humor has a very down-to-earth sense about it and so long as it is not rooted in anything mean-spirited, it is a welcome attribute of the Russian identity. The humorous moment comes in this way: the grandfather takes leave of his wife (for whom he has one name when he is in a good mood, and another name when he is in a bad mood) and then he takes leave of his children, giving an extra special blessing to his son, because the grandfather “looked upon his son, as the sole hope of his ancient house, and regarded his daughters as nothing. ‘For,’ said he, ‘of what use are they? They do not look into the house, but out of it. Today they are Bagroffs, tomorrow they are Shligins, Maligins, Popoffs or Kalpakoffs. My only hope is Alexis'” (5). Thus, the humor lies in the fact that the grandfather cares most about the son because he believes the son will care most about the house. This is a great bit of ironic humor, which is part of the nature of the slavophile, who knows, appreciates, and is even fond of the Russian’s shortcoming’s, his self-centeredness, and his honesty and directness about it — because in the end, it is a humor based on a simple way of life (in this case, protecting and taking care of the house). It is almost a kind of frontier humor, the sort that any frontier-loving American could appreciate, too. For in this sense, the American Western humor and character is similar to the Russian character — especially of this sort, as the grandfather embarks on a journey to “the other bank of the Volga” in order to set about preparing for his retirement.

The Russian character is embodied, also, in the description of Stephen Michailovich Bagroff — “a man of low stature, but his elevated chest, broad shoulders, sinewy arms, and powerful muscular frame showed him to be a man of extraordinary strength” (5). It is a combination of lowness and greatness that marks him as the sort of contradictory, paradoxical (in a way), complex individual that gives slavophilia its simplicity and its nobility. Bagroff embodies strength (in his physique) and humility (in his openness and “low stature”). Thus, he is an attractive character, one which the slavophile would be proud of.

His features, too, mark him as one of substance: “his thick eyebrows and pleasant mouth gave his face a very open and honest expression … Everybody believed what he said” (5). It is descriptions of characters like this that would lift slavophiles like Dostoevsky to an exulted state: they loved renderings such as this, and, indeed, Dostoevsky spoke highly of Aksavov’s works in his Diary of a Writer, extolling the virtues of the characters and perspective of the author. Every detail is described from a position of love and affection, even if the description reveals all sorts of character flaws or rough patches — the fact that is obviously done in love and truth with no malice or evil intent behind it but rather out of a spirit of loving mirth is what makes it so special and endearing and wholly embraced by slavophilia.

Furthermore, Bagroff represents the simple, uneducated generation of landed gentlemen in Russia — who grew up without really having to know how to “read or write Russian” because life did not demand it (6) — for the demands of life at this time in this region were different: they had to do with the land and with the community. Bagroff has grown into a good man because he has met the demands of life and fulfilled his end of the bargain that the Russian individual must make with life. Thus, his identity has been forged and it is one that people respect. He is represented the as the good-hearted Russian whose feet are on the ground and whose love of people makes him one whom people trust and like in return. To the slavophile, this is exactly the sort of man that the Russian character embodies.

The character of the grandfather also gives another aspect of the Russian character: the simple landlord who is neither too stern nor too indifferent: “He did not stand over the peasants at their works, nor play the sentinel at harvest time; he supervised seldom, but then to the point, and if he detected a crime, especially if it were deceit, he spared no one” (6). Thus, what Russians admire is honesty — lies and tricks they dislike immensely because deceit is of the devil, the Evil One, and it destroys the fabric of society. The slavophile is most concerned with society and what holds it together. This characteristic of the grandfather, therefore, is an important one because it illustrates the hard line that the Russian identity maintains when it comes to dealing with individuals who resort to lies and deceptions. It is a very “un-Russian” characteristic, or viewed as such by slavophiles.

There is also the sense that the Russian should be able to handle matters of discipline himself and not have to resort to the “police” for such matters: “To have recourse to the Police, God forbid! It would have been a shame and scandal … ” (6). The Russian identity is about taking responsibility for what belongs to one, and not having to pass problems off to a separate authority because one does not want to wield the stick. It brings about an embarrassment of manhood and masculinity. The landowner should know how to deal with that which is his, and this is part of what it means to be mature, respectable, self-confident, able-minded, generous, and productive. To run for the police in matters of discipline of the peasants is a cowardly act and shows a character that is not deserving of the word “Russian” though slavophiles would not fail to admit that such characters do exist in Russia, as Aksakov implies in this section of the Memoirs. For the slavophile is honest about all things, and even when Russians fail to live up to the standards of the Russian identity, they are not written out of the books — they are simply examples of what happens when an individual’s shortcomings take over his method and manner of acting.

As the grandfather goes into the countryside, a description of the land is given that also helps to explain why slavophilia is so obsessed by the countryside and the beauty and greatness of the rural parts of Russia: it stems from an overwhelming appreciation of what God has given to the Russians: “the further he penetrated the Province of Oufa, the more fertile the land grew, till at last he came upon the forests of the district of Buguruslan … situated on the slope of a lofty mountain overhanging the great Kinel, a stream long known in song … ” (6-7). That songs are written and sung about the stream indicates how meaningful such landmarks and natural treasures are to the Russian identity — and yet there is great humor here too because again the Russian sense of irony is displayed, as the lines of the song are given by Aksakov: “The Kinel River / Not rapid, not deep, / Only muddy” (7). It is a hilarious anti-climax to the lofty description of the surroundings and the natural beauty of the countryside that has just passed. Aksakov concludes it by giving a peasant-humor description of a river that is notable only for being dirty — not crystal clear as one would like. This sense of beauty and ugliness coupled together in one setting is what gives the Russian identity its appreciation of complexities and of things that have two-natures (such as man, spirit and flesh, of course). The slavophile’s humor is based on this perception of how things can be one way and be the exact opposite at the same time. Russia can be grand and humble, proud and meek, educated and simple, deceitful and honest.

Finally, the grandfather settles on a piece of land and it is described with great appreciation, revealing that while the ironic humor of the Russia is good for a laugh it is by no means the final word. The final word is one of exaltation and deep appreciation of the land and its gifts — as Aksakov asserts, “What richness, what abundance, what luxuriance were there on those shores!” (8). Here, the waters of the river are described as pure and clear so that one can see straight to the bottom, and it is here the grandfather wishes to settle, because he, like a good Russian, admires and appreciates good land when he sees it.

He settles and has his serfs brought to the land — and here another characteristic of the Russian soul is revealed and made clear: “Emigration, painful everywhere, is especially repugnant to the Russian” (10). Part of what makes it so repugnant however is not just the move but also the location — far away from civilization, where there is no Orthodox church and therefore no sacraments or christenings: it is an “unknown heterodox country … from the distance of the churches, the inhabitants had to die without absolution, and the newborn babes to remain long unchristened — the very thought was dreadful!” (10). This mention shows how important spirituality was to the slavophile and he role that the Orthodox church plays in the Russian identity. For them, belief in the supernatural is as real as the beauty of the countryside. The Christian God is truth and the sacramental mysteries of the church that take away sins and give grace to the soul are essential elements of life — as much needed as food and water. This is why the peasants are so reluctant to be so far away from churches, from whom they require these special spiritual gifts.

Nonetheless, go they must and everyone settles out in the countryside with the promise of there being erected a church there that will be dedicated to the Holy Virgin. In this manner, the church follows the people and there is a great festival and the town that is built up around the settlement receives its own name from the peasants who name it after their lord. A mil dam is built, and a description of domestic and farm life is given, showing how the Russian identity is tied to the land and to the labor that goes with it, making the land fruitful and productive so that there is something to reap for everyone. Using the land as a gift from God and turning it into a means of production that benefits the whole community is what the slavophile most admires — the peasant’s industriousness and desire to work with his hands, to be in touch with nature. With his God by his side, and out laboring in the fields under the heavens, the peasant has all he needs and his life is not encumbered by materialistic pursuits or dreams of riches. He has no ambition to rise up out of his class or to chase a kind of American Dream — in Russia there is no such thing, and the slavophile views such a dream as unbecoming of a Russian. It is more like a ghost — a haunting, materialistic ghost that weighs down the soul and leads one to hell. The Russian national identity is much more grounded than that and the scenes in which the new land is settled, tilled and farmed show just how grounded the peasants are when it comes to living their lives through work and recreation.

The grandfather shows his thankfulness at all the industriousness of the serfs and at the bountiful nature of the land. Aksakov describes this when he states that the grandfather “crossed himself again and again with unfeigned gratitude, when he found himself in his vast and fertile estate” (17). The fertility of the land is one thing that is mentioned again and again — it shows how foremost in the mind of the Russian the ability to produce is. Life is indeed one of the most important aspects of the Russian character: the Russian identity is life-affirming. It does not celebrate death or look on annihilation as a good thing.

However, Aksakov, true to the slavophilic form, does not shy away from depicting the ugly side of human nature, even in the grandfather, who is described thus: “with all his benevolence, was subject to bursts of passion that made him capable off the fiercest cruelties” (21). This “passion” is also bound up in the Russian identity. It springs from that same source that is eternally grateful to God for all the good things in life, and it is caused by some disruption in the soul, some shortcoming, some impatience. The grandfather, for instance, loses his composure and becomes enraged when one of his daughters tells a lie — the hatred of dishonesty is so vehement in him that he cannot keep control of himself. He becomes a different man — altogether impassioned and unreasonable. He loses his own sense of propriety, because hatred — even hatred of falsehood, which is not bad — overtakes him and he forgets that part of the Christian character is to have patience and be merciful. His scorn of that which is false is stronger than his sense of temperance — and this is yet another example of the contradictory elements in human nature, which the slavophile will always acknowledge because it gives a good example of how on guard against oneself one must be, because even in righteousness the Evil One can slip in and cause chaos and disorder.

Other examples are given of the way in which the Russian identity can be thrown off course — for example, there is Kurlesof, the tyrannical landlord, who acts shamefully and with abusive power, which is not extolled by the slavophile (32). There is however a great deal of pity and sympathy for the victim of the tyrant and this is indeed part of the Russian identity which is inspired to cultivate a great sympathy for those who are downtrodden and beaten. The Russian thus views such persons in the same manner that Christ views the man who is beaten by robbers and cared for by the Good Samaritan. The slavophile views it as the height of the Russian character to act as the Samaritan because this is how a Christian should act — and the Russian identity is bound up in the teachings of the Orthodox Christian church, a point made very clear in Aksakov’s memoirs.

The social aspect of slavophilia is also described with vivid characterizations — for example, the match-making of the girl (43) and the social aspect of courtship and marriage which is something that is lost in today’s modern Western society. For the slavophile, marriage is tied to the idea of procreation and of having children: a man and a woman marry so as to provide a stable unit in which children can be had and raised to be good Christians. This is the foundation of society in Russia, and this is why the matchmaker plays an important role: she sees who should go together, how compatible two people might be and lines them up.

Of course, this balance which is depicted so lovingly is also immediately contrasted with the fact that man and woman have very different natures — a point which the Russian will always point out and laugh about. Here it is shown in the way in which the grandfather is made furious when his wife “gives him tit for tat” or, in other words, speaks to him in a way that he does not like (47). It is a very humorous example of the complexities that make up the Russian social order: on the one hand, man and woman go together for the good of society; on the other hand, they often don’t get along because they are so different in terms of their individuals natures. Nonetheless, that is how God has ordained it and the Russian knows it and the slavophile thanks God for ordaining it so because despite the mysterious aspect of how the two go together to form one, there is a harmony about it that produces great love and affection and social order — as well as the opportunity for fertility in the human person to be used to produce fruit — children.

Through a number of anecdotal scenes in which drunkenness occurs, or when the grandfather is “bamboozled” by the tyrant (72), Aksakov presents various aspects of the Russian soul that highlight the complex nature of the Russian character, how it can be both good and bad, how it can be wise and idiotic from one moment to the next. In short, the slavophile’s sense of the Russian identity is that it is above all human — and this means that is not perfect and cannot be programmed like a machine to act as a computer does. Humans have a soul and reason and passion and all of this is combined in the flesh and therefore humans are unpredictable. They have the grace of God that builds on their nature, and their love of nature is what helps them along, but that same nature can also work against grace and give in to the temptations of the Evil One as is shown throughout the memoirs. This the slavophile well knows and sees it as an important reminder that the Russian identity should embrace humility — because it is one antidote to the devil, who is consumed by pride. The Russian identity should also make good use of mercy and forgiveness, because these are characteristics of Christ, the God Whom they love and worship and honor through the churches and feasts, etc.

Thus, whether one is in a Bashkir village on a quest to see one’s mistress (200), or at home with wife and children, or surveying one’s property, the Russian identity can be viewed in all its forms. The faults are not denied, and they are depicted for the purpose of showing to everyone how human beings act. It is not meant to celebrate wicked actions or to mock the simple shortcomings of others. It is done in good humor, out of affection, with a societal aim in mind — namely that Russians come together and support one another and have a deep empathy and understanding of one another so that a sense of community and togetherness can be richly fostered.

The tradition of making tea, of “boiling the samovar” goes hand-in-hand with this neighborly perspective (210). The samovar represents that kettle that is always hot so that there is always tea to drink while individuals sit alone or with company, talking about society or problems that they face, or rejoicing and giving thanks for their good fortune. Sometimes there is undue complaining and the faults of others are criticized beyond the bounds of propriety — but again this only serves to illustrate how prone to human weaknesses the Russian character is — just like all characters everywhere. It is nothing shameful in itself though it could certainly stand to be remedied, the slavophile would say.

Likewise the concordance between nature and the affairs of Russian life is an important idea that is conveyed in the memoirs — because the two should be harmonious within the context of the Russian identity. For example, when bad times come to the house of the Bagrofs, “nature seemed to sympathize with what was passing in the house” (210) and gave way to rain and cloudiness, masking the area in a kind of curtain behind which sorrows could be expressed more appropriately. This correlation between the natural world and the spiritual world (the Russian soul) is indicative of the way in which the slavophile views the relationship between soul and body, body and world: the one reflects the other and there is a reciprocal condition to the relationship. Earth gives to man and man gives to earth (through reproduction and procreation). God gives to all, and all give thanks to God. Yet sorrows come, mistakes are made, sometimes tragically. All the while the samovar is always boiling, representing that underlying constant faith that the Russian identity always maintains and can never relinquish because it is so deeply valued and ingrained in the blood.

The words “long did the samovar boil in the drawing-room” (210) are very significant in this sense because they articulate precisely this image of the faith of the Russian soul, persevering to the end in spite of all difficulties: it is like a place of refuge — indeed, like a “drawing-room” where one might take rest and replenish oneself with a meditation on the sufferings of Christ and how united to their God in this way the Russian can overcome all obstacles and fly to the heavens through love of God and love of one’s neighbor. The long boiling samovar is an excellent symbol of this faith and this constancy within the Russian identity — even if it disappears for a time or goes underground, still it will resurface because nothing can put it out completely. The Russian soul is like Peter, the first Apostle, who was the first to express faith in Christ. Indeed, the Russian city Petersburg displays this sense of faith, even if it is named after the czar and not the Apostle, the czar still took his name after Christ’s follower and that is implicit in the designation.

But the true Russian character is tied to the countryside — not to the urban cities, where the Russian identity can be lost in the myriad illusions proffered by wealth and income. The slavophile prefers the union of labor and produce, the idea that one must earn one’s daily bread through the sweat of one’s brow — and for this reason the peasant class is extolled and praised for its simplicity and virtue (even if individually the peasants are not perfect — indeed, no Russian is). The Russian identity, however, is lifted up by virtue and by working with the land. The beauty of nature is replenishing to the Russian soul and allows its nature to be open to the flood of grace that the Orthodox church can give, so that when one loses his temper with his wife or daughter, he can be forgiven and his soul can return to union with God. This is one of the most important aspects of the Russian identity — maintaining unity with God, so that the soul is in a state of grace. The countryside best supports this union, so long as the church is there to help foster it too. For as Aksakov shows, the peasants long for the gifts of God just as the landed class long for a place where they can live in harmony with the bountiful gifts of nature.

In conclusion, Aksakov’s Memoirs of his family give a rich and detailed depiction of the Russian national identity, as viewed from the perspective of the slavophile, who loves Mother Russia in her simplest form, free of guile and rich in fertility. This love naturally leads one to the countryside, which is where Aksakov goes. There one finds the real Russian soul, full of faults and shortcomings but always manifesting the long persevering faith of their religious beliefs, which are tied to the mercy and charity of Christ. So while there may be sins along the way, there is always that belief in forgiveness and redemption that makes the Russian soul as rich as the fertile lands.

Works Cited

Aksakov, Sergey. Memoirs of the Aksakov Family. Calcutta: Englishman Press, 1871.

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