Monday, October 31, 2011

The Beauty of the Russian Soul

   The term Russian soul (Русская душа) has been used in literature to describe Russian spirituality. The writings of many Russian writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Lev Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky offer descriptions of the Russian soul.

    The Russian word "душа" (dushá), is most closely translated into the word “soul”. The Russian soul can be described as a cultural tendency of Russians to describe life and events from a religious and philosophical symbolic perspective. This word's widespread use and flexibility of its use in everyday speaking is one way in which the Russian soul manifests itself in Russian culture. In Russia a person's soul or dusha is the key to a person's identity and behavior and this cultural understanding that equates the person with his soul is what is described as the Russian soul. Depth, strength and compassion are general characteristics of the Russian soul. According to Dostoevsky, "the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything" 1

   Dostoevsky's ideas about Russian soul are closely connected with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, its ideal of Christ, His suffering for others, His willingness to die for others and His quiet humility about it. The Russians do not understand suffering for the sake of suffering. Depressed people have a dampened spirit and are without inner strength.  Without a healthy spirit the Russians would not have survived through the most tragic history among living nations. They would have perished like so many other nations. They love to share everything and especially joy of living (folk music depicts that aspect of the Russian soul (chastushka).

   The Russian soul has been described as: sensitive, imaginative, compassionate, patient, strong (well-known for survival in unbearable circumstances), poetic, mystical, fatalistic, introspective, mistrusting of rational thought, trusting intuition, fascinating, having ability to feel a wide array of extreme human emotions (from absolute joy and peace to the darkest despair) — the list goes on. Russians maintain their integrity in a way that conforms to their inner notion of what a human being should be, with a blatant honesty and integrity seldom seen elsewhere in the world. Above all they have an appreciation for wholeness or complete commitment and faith, no matter what that faith might be related to. 2

    While studying English on, many of the people I know from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other nations of the former Soviet Union are asked if it is true that “Beauty demands victims”.  It is quite common for people from the former Soviet Union to say that inner beauty is more important that outer beauty.  This is not the typical answer that one would receive from someone in the West.   In the West, if a man tells a woman that she is beautiful the normal response is “Thank you”.   If this same comment is made to a woman from the East, the traditional response is, “How do you know that, you don’t even know me?”  This would agree with the idea that the soul is the key to a person’s identity. 

   It has been said that we do not speak of a German soul or English soul or American soul; however, we do speak of a Russian soul.  The concept of a Russian soul arose in the 1840s chiefly as a literary phenomenon. Famous author Nikolai Gogol and literary critic Vissarion Belinskii (1811-1848) jointly coined the term upon the publication of Gogol’s masterpiece, Dead Souls, in 1842. At the time landowners often referred to their serfs as “souls” for accounting purposes, and the novel’s title refers to the protagonist’s scheme of purchasing claims to deceased serfs. Apart from this literal meaning, however, Gogol also intended the title as an observation of landowners’ loss of soul in exploiting serfs.

   Vissarion Belinskii, a noted radical critic, took Gogol’s intentions a few steps farther and inferred from the novel a new recognition of a national soul, existing apart from the government and founded in the lives of the lower class. Indeed Belinskii used the term “Russian soul” several times in his analyses of Gogol’s work, and from there the phrase grew in prominence, and eventually became more clearly defined through the writings of authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky. This famous brand of nationalis; however, was the product of a continuous effort by Russia’s various classes to define a national identity.3

   The Russian soul evolved and entered into Western consciousness in the following decades, most famously through the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his novels and stories, Dostoevsky often exhibited an anti-European nationalism and frequently suggested a “people’s spirit” held together by “unexpressed, unconscious ideas which are merely strongly felt.” By the time of Dostoevsky's death in 1881, the “Russian soul” had completed its evolution in Russia.3

    From about 1880 to 1930, thanks largely to Dostoevsky, the “Russian soul” concept spread to other countries and began to affect foreign perception of the Russian people. For many Europeans the idea offered a positive alternative to the typical view of Russians as backward, instead depicting the Russian people as an example of the innocence the West had lost. The popularity of the “Russian soul” continued into the 20th century, but faded as Soviet power increased. By the 1930s the concept was slipping into obscurity, but it would survive in the work of the numerous writers who devised it.

   The concept of the “Russian soul” may have gone out of fashion as Soviet power increased; however, now that the Soviet Union is no longer a reality, it is my contention that this concept is returning.  Even among those who do not profess a faith in the Orthodox Church, the ethos of Orthodox spirituality is very much a part of the daily life of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian people.        

   Since the fall of the Soviet Union, life has been very challenging in these various countries; however, there is hope that things will improve over time. What has helped the people to deal with these major changes is their Russian soul which is their source of inner strength allowing them to cope with so many things that would have probably destroyed them, had it not been for their soul.
    How is beauty and kindness understood in modern Russia? They can be understood in relationship to modern Russian women. Kindness, sincere delicacy of the Russian women, readiness to understand other people in many respects are defined by the life of the Russian people. Many foreigners still consider Michael Zoshchenko (1895-1958), who described the life of Russians of the 1920s and 30s, a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, municipal apartments, where several families live in the small area divided into tiny rooms, with one toilet and a bath for all is not such a rarity, even now. Not everyone has a separate apartment. According to the western parameters these apartments are considered small, even for one person. Russian families of 4-5 people live in a modest two-room apartment of the area of 58 square meters. Quite often some generations simultaneously live in a tight small-sized flat. In Russia the saying "In narrowness, but not in insult" is popular. The Russian conditions of residing give rise to feeling of special unity when it is necessary to reckon all time with others, to accept others such as they are. The Russians are used to being patient with other people. The Russian people grow in conditions of dependence on the others' needs. Russians possess a unique ability of adaptation, especially where it concerns women. These conditions, seemingly intolerable for foreigners, are perceived by the Russian people as due. For this reason, Russian wives are very patient and always ready to compromise in their home life. The situation which will be regarded by the Western woman as an infringement of her interests may be ignored by a Russian woman. The Russian wife is always ready to a compromise. This sincere mobility and patience is peculiar to Russians which is often lacked by Westerners. 4   

   The impact that men such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and others have had on Russian culture has been profound.  These men were certainly products of their generation, but they also influenced and continue to influence countless generations that have come after them.  

    As long as the spirit of these men remains alive in the East the “Russian soul” will also remain alive.  Suffering for its own sake makes no sense, but since suffering is a part of human life it is easier to suffer knowing that one’s suffering is united to the suffering of Jesus than believing that it has no point at all.  This is one of the aspects of a Russian soul.  It is an indication of the resilience of the human spirit and confirmation of the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who said, “Anything which does not kill you, will only make you stronger.” 5

    The Russian woman not only personifies the “Russian soul” but provides a setting within which the beauty of this soul can be expressed. Coziness and a warm home atmosphere is a point of honor for the Russian housewife. She considers her house a continuation of herself, as a symbol of a happy home life. In Russia they still do so without the service of servants. The majority of Russian women are engaged in cleaning of an apartment and cooking. They often do manual repairs. Russian beauties are capable of improving a dwelling with a painting brush or spatula. A Russian woman always tries to make her house light, clean, and joyful. Going to restaurants and cafes in Russia are considered, to be social events. Ordinary citizens do not go to restaurants "simply to eat". The majority of the Russian families eat at home. It can be explained both by the material reasons and the habit of Russians to eat tasty home food. Besides, it is a rare Russian woman would make an uninvited person stand at the threshold. She would necessarily feed him; ask about his life, and share news. Russians try to always have food at home and long years of deficiency have accustomed them to do food stocks. The Russian woman is inventive in when cooking. Many recipes of Russian cuisine were not born from abundance, but from the shortage of products on the shop shelves. The Russian housewife seldom strictly follows the recipe. If it is possible she replaces missing products with others, having transformed the recipe from available products. Russian women are famous for their skill in preparing a tasty dish "from nothing". A lot of Russian families have a country house which does not serve as vacation spot, but a place where greenery, vegetables, and fruits are grown. Usually, they are some distance from the house where they go by car or bus. The Russian woman knows how to correctly plant and grow up potatoes, onions, and carrots. In many apartments in the early spring there are boxes on the windowsill with sprouts of tomatoes and peppers. The Russian woman is capable to work all days off in the country site, being even sturdier than a man. On Monday she comes to work with a manicure, elegantly dressed, and gracefully brushed. From the products which have been grown in the country site, the Russian woman makes preparation for winter - compotes, jam, vegetable salads, and marinated peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Jars with these culinary masterpieces wait for winter in pantries and cellars. Russians are hardworking and hardy. They can have two jobs; have time to be engaged in household, education of their children, work on a personal plot of land, but at the same time look attractive and feel like a heroine. The Russian woman perceives these loadings as due; she does not feel she is doing something special. Russians got used "to survive" in heavy conditions and joke about difficulties. Owing to features of the life in Russia, these women are remarkable for their raised psychological mobility, endurance, patience, and ability to understand others.6   

   The notion of the beauty of the Russian soul is not simply a product of the late nineteenth century, but is alive and well today in the lives of Russian women.  It might have a different appearance than it did at the time of Leo Tolstoy or the other classic Russian novelists, but it is still alive.  Each successive generation will have its own manifestation of this reality; however, the beauty of the Russian soul will never die.

                                                           End Notes

1)    Ries, Nancy  Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika, (NY: Cornell University Press, 1997)

2)    “Russian Soul”

3)    Robert C. Williams, "The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 573-588, accessed October 27, 2011.

4)    “About Russian Women” (accessed 11/7/11)

5)  Nietzsche, Friedrich Twilight of the Idols (NY: Penguin Book, 1990), p. 76

6)    “About Russian Women” 


ludmilka said...

Thank you very much , really very interesting your description of rusian soul, and the most important it's true !!

Mohanned Hussein said...

Russian people as an example of the innocence the West had lost, but unfortunately most people consider the delicacy and innocence is a sign of Naivety, but those people are ignorant because they don't know the real strentgh and beauty, and intellegence behind this innocence.

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Mr. Hussein, you make a generalisation about the West, which in detail is certainly not true. And you think that the East is more innocent, and caring. I have my serious doubts, when I see what is happening out there. But not all are included in that. The one big thing missing is that there are few voices from, in particular, the Arab world ,against what is happening there, and its reaction to what they feel about the 'decadent' West.

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