Race and the Nazis

One thing that is abundantly clear from Nazi actions, propaganda, and literature is that they were obsessed with concepts like race, racial purity, and “racial hygiene.” Among the central tenets of Naziism were the beliefs in a pure Aryan race and in the innately inferior, and even insidious, nature of the blood of other races, especially that of the Jews. These ideas, like all ideas, have a genealogy, and what is perhaps most remarkable about these ideas is that very genealogy. The Nazi obsession with race and the uniquely Nazis twists on and responses to that idea are the product of a kind of “perfect storm,” a chance collision of a variety of otherwise unrelated ideas and events which led to catastrophic consequences. Foremost among these disparate concepts, as well as most important for an examination of why this Nazi obsession with race developed in the first place, are the European heritages of anti-Judaism and the scientific outlook that emerged from the Enlightenment.

Anti-Judaism, which must be distinguished from Antisemitism as a separate but related historical antecedent, began very early in European antiquity. The Greek conquerors and overlords of Judea in the fourth through second centuries BCE viewed the Jews, with their unique ritual and social practices such as circumcision and their insistence upon religious exclusiveness, with a great measure of suspicion and skepticism. While most were willing to tolerate and even protect the Jews as an exceptional people, some rulers, such as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted, however unsuccessfully, to force the Jews to Hellenize and renounce their unique religious practices and beliefs.1

The Greek distrust and dislike of the Jews was continued among the Romans, who conquered both the Greeks and the Jews in the second and first centuries BCE. While the Romans were willing to accept and make exceptions for unique Jewish beliefs and practices and large numbers of Jews emigrated throughout the Roman Empire, Jews were consistently mocked and looked down upon by Romans, who saw practices like circumcision as barbaric and the exclusive Jewish monotheism as potentially seditious.2 This negative view of Judaism continued, and was even strengthened in many ways, when the Roman Empire gradually became Christianized beginning in the fourth century CE.

Christianity had emerged from a particularly unpleasant split with Judaism in the first century CE. Christians were viewed by the Jews as treacherous and heretical and, as a result, often suffered persecution and expulsion from the synagogues. This hostility on the part of mainstream Jews toward the Christians in their midst precipitated a final split between Judaism and Christianity. It also led to a great deal of vociferously hostile words making their way into the mainstreams of both Jewish and Christian literature and thought about the other. When Christians began to assume power in the Roman Empire several centuries later, these ideas about the Jews combined with the popular Roman prejudices to strengthen Roman anti-Jewish attitudes.3 These anti-Jewish attitudes, a combination of the Greco-Roman prejudices and Christian theological and historical disagreements, became the predominant view of Judaism throughout Europe for many centuries.

It is notable in all of this that none of these prejudices revolve around Judaism or Jews as a race or ethnicity, but as a specific religious group which one can join and leave by changing belief and custom. This began to change, however, in the early modern period. One element of the Reconquista in Spain was the forced conversion or expulsion of the Jewish population.4 When given the option of converting to Christianity or leaving, many Spanish Jews chose to convert. These conversos, as they were called, came to be viewed with a great deal of envy and suspicion by their Christian neighbors. Many suspected that because they had converted under duress that their conversion had only been affected for appearances and that they secretly continued to practice Judaism. In addition, many whose families had been Christians for centuries viewed with envy the children and grandchildren of conversos who were able to attain to important spots in government and in the the Church. As a result, the name of converso came to be applied, however improperly, even to those whose grandparents had converted to Christianity and the stigma of sedition attributed to the Jews continued to be attached to these conversos even after generations as Christians. What had been a difference in religion was coming to be viewed as a difference in race.

With the era of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans came to focus more attention and importance on science than on religion. Whereas the emphasis of the Middle Ages had been a primarily religious emphasis, which the denizens of the Enlightenment saw as superstitious, the emphasis of the Enlightenment was one of science and rationality. Rather than actually shucking superstition, however, many instead simply adopted a new set of superstitions or rephrased old superstitions in the new, more acceptable terminology.

This can be seen especially in the rise of Antisemitism from anti-Judaism, as constructed by people like Wilhelm Marr. “Marr” was among the first of those who “assigned to Jews the attributes of a race” and was the first, in 1873, to use the term “anti-Semitism” to describe this position.5 While an intellectual living in the wake of the Enlightenment could not take religious differences seriously, or, at least, as seriously as they had been taken previously, he could take supposedly scientific ideas like race seriously; Judaism, then, became no longer a religion, but a race, and all of the same superstitions and conspiracies which had formerly surrounded the Jewish religion were transferred to the new Jewish race.

One of the greatest ironies of the Nazi obsession with race is that they, while taking up this “scientific” view on Judaism as a race, re-translated it into religious terms. For the Nazis, race became a religious concept. As one Nazi ideologist, Arthur Rosenberg, wrote in his The Myth of the 20th Century: “A new faith is awakening today: The faith that blood will defend the divine essence of man; the faith, supported by pure science, that Nordic blood embodies the new mystery which will supplant the outworn sacrament.”6 The Greek incredulity at what they saw as the bizarre customs of the Jews, the Roman suspicions toward Jewish exclusivity, and the Christian theological and historical differences with Judaism, all of which had been matters of religious and cultural opposition, became, for the Nazis, attributed to an insidiousness inherent in Jewish blood. This was contrasted with the inherent superiority and goodness of pure Aryan blood. The Nazis took up a heritage of anti-Judaism and a pseudoscience of race to create their own unique racial religiosity which lay at the heart of their entire philosophy and practice.

Notes
1 Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 49.
2 Ibid., 278-9.
3 Ibid., 551.
4 David M. Gitlitz, Conversos and the Spanish Inquisition, ed. David Rabinovitch, PBS.org, accessed 14 April 2012, http://www.pbs.org/inquisition/pdf/ConversosandtheSpanishInquisition.pdf.
5 Karl A. Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy toward German Jews, 1933-39 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 24-5.
6 Arthur Rosenberg, Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1931), 114. Quoted in Schleuenes, 52.
Bibliography
Gitlitz, David M. Conversos and the Spanish Inquisition. Ed. David Rabinovitch. PBS.org. Accessed 14 April 2012. http://www.pbs.org/inquisition/pdf/ConversosandtheSpanishInquisition.pdf.
Goodman, Martin. Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts. Munich, 1931.
Schleunes, Karl A. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy toward German Jews, 1933-39. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Soviet Society and Culture 1953-1985

A major aspect of the Bolshevik plan for Russia was to reshape Russian society and culture in the Marxist image. To this end, the Soviet government set about attempting to impose its ideals on the population via the influence of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others. In one sense, they were successful in creating a Communist artistic vision and imposing this upon the intelligentsia and, through the media, upon the rest of the Soviet population. In other more fundamental senses, however, they ultimately failed in their plan. “Indeed,” as historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “it is precisely in social and cultural life that we begin to see signs of the disintegration of the Communist order that would contribute to its collapse.”1

Immediately following the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in late 1917, the Bolsheviks, in accordance with their liberal and progressive ideals, attempted “to nurture a spirit of collectivism and egalitarianism;” to this end, “iconoclasm and imagination were encouraged in the arts and literature.”2 Soviet leaders implemented social policies that contributed to a radical restructuring of Russian society away from agriculture and family life and toward liberation of the individual and even “free love.” The previous period of Russian history under the czars was seen as a period that had stifled intellectual, social, and artistic growth, and had to be overcome. This initial period of relative openness did not last long, however.

As a new generation of Soviet leaders, especially Josef Stalin, began to assume power and the previous generation of radical intellectuals receded into the past, a marked conservatism took hold over Soviet culture. Laws were implemented that restricted the rights of individuals, much of the earlier utopian talk of liberation and equality was repudiated, and greater censorship of the arts was enacted.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, later Soviet leaders attempted to walk the thin line between the oppressive social policies of the Stalin era and an absolute artistic freedom that would lead to open criticism of the government and its policies. In literature, for example, the post-Stalin era saw a remarkable tolerance for controversial themes and even subjects that might reflect badly on the the Soviet Union itself. Even “forbidden themes such as Stalin’s purges and labor camps were briefly allowed,” though eventually banned once again.3

Great limitations were nonetheless kept in place throughout the history of the Soviet Union, even during periods of relative openness. One example is the Soviet reaction to the 1958 novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. While it was received throughout the world as a great work of literature, its publication in the Soviet Union was banned because the book, whose contents span the end of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union, did not reflect a proper Marxist view of history. When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his novel, the Soviet government prevented him from traveling abroad to receive the prize and he was widely criticized in the government-controlled Soviet press.

Another example of the Soviet back-and-forth between openness and repression in literature is the treatment of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written about the forced labor camps under Stalin, was published with the explicit and personal permission of Nikita Kruschev himself. Kruschev even openly praised Solzhenitsyn and his work, including leading a standing ovation for him at an official state dinner party, in which he happily announced to those gathered, “comrades, Solzhenitsyn is among us.”4 Only three years later, in 1965, however, Solzhenitsyn was banned from ever publishing anything within the Soviet Union again. He continued to write, however, and have his books published abroad, and was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union altogether in 1973.

This kind of vacillating and contradictory approach also marked the Soviet treatment of other aspects of culture. In figurative art, for instance, whereas the Soviet government had once encouraged innovation and expression and officially continued to do so, suppression of the arts was heavy. “In 1962,” for instance, “when Kruschev visited an exhibit of modern art in Moscow,” he proceeded to openly “mock it with crude humor.”5 Later, in 1974, in an even more extreme case of government suppression of the arts, “bulldozers were sent to destroy an informal exhibit in a park outside Moscow.”6

Because of this atmosphere of repression and especially because the Soviet government forbade a wide variety of emotions and thoughts from being expressed, such as any melancholy, pessimism, religious belief, doubt, or irony, the quality of the arts overall in the Soviet Union was very low. Artists, writers, and others believed that the arts in the Soviet Union had been “subordinated to revolutionary purpose and much of the complexity of life deliberately drained out of” them.7 As a result, many Soviet artists and intellectuals began to retreat from the public sphere and create small social circles and cliques “where new poetry or prose was read, art displayed, and ideas discussed.”8 Even among the wider population and especially the youth, counter-cultures began to form that focused on Western trends like rock music, new clothing styles, and sports. Public discourse in the Soviet Union had become so heavily regulated and any dissent or apparent deviation so heavily suppressed that people began turning to new ways to shape and express personal identity apart from the official Soviet doctrine.

It was in these pockets of culture that “dissident movement developed from the late 1960s into the 1980s.”9 Ultimately, this was the backfire of Soviet policy that would contribute significantly to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. The Soviet attempts to suppress freedom of speech, individual identity, and self-expression were, like so many attempts to suppress the human spirit throughout history, doomed to failure from their very inception. In driving differing ideas out of the public sphere, the Soviet government had driven them into the place where they were most dangerous to the continuation of the Soviet Union: into hearts, homes, and other private places where they could no longer be monitored and controlled. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, assumed power in 1985, a significant segment of the Soviet “population had become alienated from the established order in their values, judgments, tastes, and beliefs.”10 This alienation would, in a short time, prove an unstoppable force and would put an end to the Soviet Union and its Marxist experiment.

Notes
1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 589.

2 Ibid., 595.

3 Ibid., 609.

4 Niels C. Nielsen, Jr., Solzhenitsyn’s Religion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 9.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 613.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 608.

8 Ibid., 596.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 597.
Bibliography
Nielsen, Jr., Niels C. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Slave Morality and Master Morality

Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that morality and ethical values in general are of the utmost importance for the way people live. Ultimately, one’s morality determines the ends that one seeks to achieve and the means by which one goes about achieving them. Nietzsche took a historical, or “genealogical,” approach to philosophy in which he sought to find the origins of various ideas in order to determine their truth and worth. In his examination of the genealogy of morality, he discovered the origins of contemporary values in a revolt of the weak against the strong. This led him to contrast what he labeled as “master morality” with the “slave morality” which he believed opposed to it.

Nietzsche believed that, earlier in human history, a more natural form of morality had been predominant. He labeled this moral system “master morality,” or “aristocratic morality” (West, 2010, p. 149). This morality had been practiced among the strong, a minority which consisted of those who dominated the weak majority. It included “values such as courage, generosity and magnanimity or greatness of spirit” that “reflect[ed] … strength and vitality” (ibid.). These values, according to Nietzsche, were practiced among the strong and the noble. In demonstration of his position, he drew upon the examples of the heroes of the ancient Greeks as found in Homer’s works and elsewhere. Among them, the strong held a mutual respect for each other and practiced these virtues in their interactions but held a contempt and disdain for the weak.
The weak, according to Nietzsche, had a morality of their own. This “slave morality” saw things as “good and evil” rather than “good and bad” as the master morality posited (ibid.). Whereas master morality was based on a mutual reciprocation among the equally strong, slave morality sought to force all, including the strong, to become equal. The slaves, unable to create their own values due to their weakness, made morality a matter of force rather than freedom, as among the masters, who could create their own values in their strength. In addition, the content of slave morality was such as was of benefit to the weak, including values like “pity, humility, and self-sacrifice” (ibid.). As such, Nietzsche saw slave morality as intrinsically tied to weakness and degeneration as well as inherently selfish on the part of the weak, a symptom of their lowness. Nietzsche saw the rise of slave morality as linked historically to the personages of Socrates and especially Christ. As a result of Christianity, according to Nietzsche, slave morality had become the prevailing moral worldview of Europeans.
Nietzsche did not confine his criticisms of slave morality and its origins to an argument against Christianity. Perhaps his greatest target in these criticisms were those inheritors of the Enlightenment who attempted to maintain Christian values without Christian theology. For Nietzsche, however, “when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 80). Nietzsche followed logic and his genealogical method through to where it led him. As a result, he found that it was absurd to attempt to maintain a set of values while ridding oneself of the philosophical or religious foundations of those values. On the contrary, if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche famously said, all of the values based upon his existence and nature as understood by Christians must also be done away with. The atheists and other non-believers who continued to practice and propound Christian values were, then, just as guilty of continuing slave morality as were Christians.
According to Nietzsche, this slavery morality, forcing servile “virtues” born of the selfishness and jealousy of the low-minded, impeded the greatness of people. Those who were natural aristocrats, the strong and noble, were restrained in their powers by slave morality. As a result, they were unable to practice the master morality that their dignity and strength demanded. Nietzsche saw most of the Western philosophical tradition subsequent to Socrates and especially Christianity as the primary culprits in the propagation of slave morality. Because of this, he saw Christianity and Socratic philosophy as impediments to the human spirit and all of those who continued to espouse those values as impeding the same. Nietzsche saw the greatness of humanity as being prevented by a set of values he saw as beneath human dignity.
References
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1990). The twilight of the idols and the Anti-Christ: or how to philosophize with a hammer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The Silver Age of Russian Culture

The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.

The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.

“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.

Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6

Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.

In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.

Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.

In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.

Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.

Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.

Notes
1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 450.

2 Michelle Potter, “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal,” National Library of Australia News Vol. 15 No. 10 (July 2005): 4, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/

3 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 450.

4 James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969), 7.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 456.

6 Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year,” Art Knowledge News, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html

7 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 453.

8 Ibid., 454.

9 Ivan Moody, “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” Hyperion Records, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318

10 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 454.

11 Ibid., 451.

12 Leonid I. Strakhovsky, “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Vol. 6 No. 1/2 (May, 1947): 2.

13 Ibid.
References
 
Moody, Ivan. “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Hyperion Records. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318
Potter, Michelle. “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal.” National Library of Australia News Volume 15 Number 10 (July 2005): 3-6. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year.” Art Knowledge News. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html
Strakhovsky, Leonid I. “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love.” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Volume 6 Number 1/2 (May, 1947): 1-18.
Sweeney, James Johnson. Marc Chagall. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.

Religion in Kierkegaard

The one word which seems to recur most frequently when the topic of Søren Kierkegaard’s views on religion are discussed is “passion,” along, of course, with its cogates. In Antony Aumann’s paper “Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy,” for instance, he characterizes Kierkegaard’s view of Christianity as “a passionate and unconditional commitment to following Christ” (2009, p. 233). Similarly, Paul Tillich, in his History of Christian Thought, says of Kierkegaard’s understanding of religion that religion is that “which produces infinite passion” (1968, p. 466). For Kierkegaard, religion is, as is demonstrated by this frequent focus on passion by those who describe it, an intense and intensely personal thing and far more an activity, or a “doing,” than an idea, or a “believing.”


 In understanding what all of this means to Kierkegaard, perhaps the first notion that must be gotten rid of is the idea of religion as a set of ideas to which one assents. Aumann states plainly that “Kierkegaard rejects the idea that faith involves simply assenting to certain propositions” (2009, p. 233). It is the common conception that a religion, especially a dogmatic, creedal religion like Christianity, is a set of doctrines and practices and that one is an adherent of that religion if one gives mental assent to those doctrines and engages in those practices. Kierkegaard, however, rejects this understanding of religion altogether. To merely “believe” in the sense of simply agreeing, but not actually feeling the truth of, those doctrines is not enough. Nor is it enough even to engage in the religious practices of a given religious community as David West points, saying that Kierkegaard noted “the emptiness of merely external observances within the established church” (2010, p. 142). Real religion, according to Kierkegaard, must be an overwhelming and overwhelmingly inward experience. To merely “go through the motions” and not to engage passionately is insufficient to true religion.

True religion, according to Kierkegaard, is “an inward renewal, a return to the original purity and ferocity of Christianity” (West, 2010, p. 142). This concept of an “inward renewal” means that it must be something that is deeply and passionately felt, not just thought, nodded in assent to, or even understood. In fact, one need not even have a great understanding of the historical circumstances of Christ or the intricacies of Christian thought and theology to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word. Rather, what is required is an existential commitment to living out the commands of Christ.

The paradox in Kierkegaard’s thought on this matter is that one must simultaneously acknowledge that one will never be able to actually live out those commandments fully. To live the Christian life in this passionate and complete kind of way is, in fact, impossible. It is, however, one’s unwavering dedication to doing so that is important. In short, one must make the Christian way of life into one’s own way of life, one’s ultimate and driving goal being the complete attainment to it.

In addition, for Kierkegaard, this overarching commitment must not be contingent on reason. Kierkegaard rebelled, in addition, against those who attempted to find a solid foundation for evidence in favor of the Christian faith in the historical record surrounding the gospels as well. In fact, as reasonable notions, including all of the philosophical proofs, theological arguments, and historical evidences, are insufficient guides in making a decision for or against religion, reason not only should not but cannot be the cause of one’s commitment. On the contrary, one must make a “leap of faith” in his commitment to follow out the way of Christianity.

In making this leap of faith, one must in a sense “jump” beyond reason and any attempt at objectivity to a purely subjective, personal dedication. This jump is the only way to overcome the estrangement inherent in the human condition, or what Kierkegaard referred to as the “sickness unto death” (Tillich, 1968, p. 463). This “sickness unto death,” according to Kierkegaard, is a state that all men hold in common. It is the state of feeling and even really being guilty but, possibly, possessing no knowledge of what it is one is guilty of. Ultimately, says Kierkegaard, it is the inherent knowledge, even if somewhat vague and incomprehensible, that one is separated from God. The only way to overcome this separation is through the existential commitment everyone is called to in Christianity, and the only way to make this commitment is via a leap of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard’s view of religion as a passionate experience was seen by him as a way of overcoming both the insufficiency of evidence for religion and the estrangement that he saw as the only alternative to a life of faith. His views led him to reject both intellectual assent to a set of doctrines and the outward rituals of a religious community as insufficient to true religion. True religion, for Kierkegaard, is a personal and passionate commitment to and a constant engagement in obediently following out the commands of Christ, even when these commands seem impossible to fulfill. It is only in this way, according to Kierkegaard, that religion becomes meaningful.



References
 
Aumann, A. (2009). Kierkegaard’s case for the irrelevance of philosophy. Continental Philosophy Review, 42, 221–248. doi:10.1007/s11007-009-9104-2


West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

Notes
1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.


8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

References
 
Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Reforms of Peter the Great

Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov, remembered today as Peter the Great, enacted a great number of sweeping and radical reforms of Russian government and culture throughout his reign as czar in 1682-1725. His reforms, implemented with the goal of transforming Russia into a state more in line with the European thought of the Enlightenment, so widely and deeply impacted every facet of Russian society that approximately a century later Count Egor Kankrin was able to write that after the reign of Peter the Great “we must be called not Russians, but Petrovians. … Russia should be called Petrovia and we Petrovians.”1 The longest lasting and most drastic of the reforms included the building of a Russian navy, movement of the capital of Russia from Moscow to the newly-built St. Petersburg, alterations in the government of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the adoption and enforcement of Western dress and grooming standards.

The establishment of a Russian navy was “one of [Peter the Great’s] passions.”2 He dreamed of establishing Russia as a maritime empire like those of the West and spared no expense in making his dream a reality. According to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, “he began from scratch – with one vessel of an obsolete type, to be exact – and left to his successor 48 major warships and 787 minor and auxiliary craft, serviced by 28,000 men.”3 Peter, in fact, traveled in person to London to learn shipbuilding from the shipwrights there because he had been “told that the theory of shipbuilding was better understood in England” than anywhere else in Europe.4 When he began to build his own navy upon returning to Russia, he remained directly and personally involved in the building as well as the utilization of the ships.

In order to make his dreams of a powerful Russian navy come true, Peter also had to capture coastal land for Russia, which was largely landlocked when he began his reign. To that end, he undertook a war with Sweden beginning in 1700, capturing the Baltic coast and establishing St. Petersburg and the port city of Kronstadt in 1703.5

In addition to being strategically located, closer to the sea than Moscow and acting as a “Window into Europe,” the establishment of St. Petersburg also fulfilled another dream of Peter the Great.6 Especially upon his return from Western Europe, Peter saw his capital city, Moscow, as insignificant and antiquated, a relic of a time long past. When he compared it in his mind with the great cities of Western Europe, such as Paris and London, he thought Moscow too religious and medieval to be the capital city of the great European empire which he sought to make of Russia.

After capturing the Baltic coast from the Swedes, Peter immediately set to work transforming a piece of swampland in the area into the new, glorious, and clearly European capital from which he desired to reign. Peter demanded that his new capital be the priority of the entirety of his people. He ordered that “no stone house was to be built in the rest of the empire till a certain number had been set up in the new capital.”7 He had the buildings, including the homes of the Russian aristocracy and his own palace, built in the European rather than the Russian style of architecture. He sought to keep his new capital free of the domed architecture and iconographic art which dominated the skyline of the old capital in Moscow.

In a similar effort to free Russia from its Orthodox Christian religious past and bring it more into line with contemporary European religious and philosophical thought, Peter also significantly altered the governance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ostensibly in an attempt to avoid events like those which had led to the schism of the Old Believers just a little over a decade prior to the beginning of his reign, Peter abolished the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and, in 1721, replaced it with a council of bishops, following the model of the Protestant churches in Germany. Historian Paul D. Steeves describes the council, called “the Most Holy Synod,” as consisting “of a board of bishops which supervised church affairs and which was, in turn, supervised by a secular government official, the Procurator General, appointed by the Czar.”8 As a result of this new form of church government, “the Russian Orthodox church [sic] thus became little more than a department of state for the remaining two hundred years of the existence of the Czarist state.”9

In addition to the abolition of the Patriarchate and imposition of the Most Holy Synod on the Church, Peter also established his dominance over the Church in a number of other ways. One of the most objectionable, from the standpoint of the Church leadership, was the decree contained in his “Ecclesiastical Regulation,” the same document which established the synod, that “any priest who discovered, in the confessional, evidence of treason or of anti-government plans” was obliged “to pass on such information to the police.”10

In addition to this violation of the privacy of the sacrament of confession, Peter also passed a number of rules which, in his attempts to Westernize Russia, impinged greatly on the individual freedoms and traditional ways of life of the Russian people. Perhaps the most famous of these new rules was a law against growing beards. Peter saw the beard a symbol of the old Russia which he sought to uproot. In addition to personally shaving the faces of five of his closest advisers, Peter also “ordered that none should enter his presence with beards, on which he put a tax.”11 Similarly, he ordered that his aristocrats and others replace their traditional Russian clothing with the styles then current in Europe.

As can be seen from just these few examples of the reforms he implemented, Peter the Great despised the traditional Russia he had grown up in, seeing in it and all of its symbols an antiquated way of life. He sought to bring Russia into the European fold and spared no expense – nor focus on seeming minutiae – to accomplish his goal. Many of his reforms, such as his attempt to move the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, would be reversed by his successors. Other of his reforms, such as his tax on beards, appear hypocritical in the light of the European thinking he set as his standard even while using his autocratic power to accomplish these ends. And still more of his reforms, such as his meddling in Church government, can be seen as little more than ill-advised power plays. On the other hand, however, a large portion of his reforms, such as his building of a navy and establishment of Russia as a maritime power, had overwhelmingly positive and permanent effects on his nation. There is no way to characterize the person and reign of Peter in unambiguous terms other than, perhaps, with the descriptor, used in a neutral sense, which his people would attach to his name after his death: “great.”

Notes
1 Count Egor Kankrin, quoted in Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 211.
2 Ibid., 227.
3 Ibid.
4 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 198.
5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 221.
6 Robert Wipper, “Ivan Grozny: Excerpts,” in Thomas Riha, ed., Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 109.
7 Pares, 219.
8 Paul D. Steeves, “The Russian Church,” in Tim Dowley, ed., Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity (Carmel: Guideposts, 1977), 458.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Pares, 198-9.
Bibliography
Dowley, Tim. Editor. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Carmel: Guideposts, 1977.
Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Riha, Thomas, editor. Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.