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The Diminishing “Magical” of Moscow?

Insights into life can sometimes come – to those who pursue them – at odd, unexpected times. One came to me as I was nearly drifting off to sleep here in Moscow, imagining the life of a close friend living on the coast of central California, in a small, quaint home she, as a devoted, first-grade school teacher, has worked dearly for more than two decades to be able to possess.

Is the “magical” still in Moscow, and Russia? There certainly seemed to be a mysterious, uncanny, even almost “mystical” (in the loose sense of the word) element to the life and people here – when I came a decade ago to Soviet Russia. Then most people I met did not much appear to need to think or worry about the practical necessities of life: flat, food, work, money, medical care, . . . . I have since learned that things were sometimes not as easy – even on the low Soviet standard of living – as it seemed to a naive visitor (though I tried, and partly succeeded, even then to penetrate Intourist’s “Potemkin Village” image of the communist utopia). But still, compared to the orderly, “civilized” life in the West, where people, such as my American teacher-friend, most often had to work very long and hard for their life necessities, many Russians I met then hardly seemed to work at all! The practical problems seemed to have been generally solved – and the people I met gave their attention to (legal and illegal) books, ideas, gatherings with friends, philosophy, poetry, music, etc. Sensitive, thoughtful Western visitors to Russia – and this was, in my several-summers’ experiences, about 2-3% of those who came – could possibly have what David Remnick in his 1997 book Resurrection, The Struggle for a New Russia, described as:

David Remnick (1993)
David Remnick (1993)
. . . one of those magical evenings around a battered table with a Russian writer, sharing the vodka and the potato salad, the speculation and the irony. It was a kind of talk they could find only rarely as dinner-party warriors in Manhattan, Cambridge [Massachusetts, location of Harvard, and many other educational institutions], or East Hampton.

At a musical dinner party recently (December ‘98) in Moscow – and I have few such experiences now in the “New Russia” – I was asked a question which I very often heard in the late 1980’s: Surely you can find – among the educated people – such conversations, as you find here, in America? Virtually no Russian I answered “only rarely” to, in those days of the closed Soviet state, believed me; they were certain that I had personally just had bad luck, or not looked in the right places, in America’s great civilization and culture. (They perhaps presumed – to the degree that “America” was not a kind of necessary ideal land for their dreams, souls and hopes – that a great material civilization must also have a great and deep cultural life.) My protestations were consistently and confidently rejected then. (They seem somewhat more audible today.)

As a witness to a decline of the “magical” in the life and people of Moscow, I can reflect on American culture, civilization, on the general mentality and “atmosphere” there, and see how – and this was my “insight” – individualism and mundanity work against the “magical” in the life there. My Russian friends in the late eighties were, many, not very practical or well-organized; my American friends were, and are, rather practical and well-organized – but very far from “magical”. For what was “magical” to some of us, Westerners, – George Kennan said that few Americans could understand and appreciate Russia, and that the Russian world was unsettling and displeasing to the American mind – was the uncanny sensitivity; the mysterious insights; the extraordinary passions and fulsome soul of many (even ordinary) Russians; conversations, as mentioned by Remnick, where the soul was really open, sharing the deepest questions, ideas and feelings; the earnest, educated-literate exchange on the meaning of life, history, society, suffering, inner and outer freedom, God, the powers of art and music, etc. Sensitive Westerners then could sample a sort of soul solidarity – which was really for them barely expectable and believable, considering their usual social life and realities in the West, with its centuries-long development of individualism, independence, privacy – and material prosperity. The Russians were, often, impractical – but what passions and feelings for deep questions, poetry, literature and people! Among friends – what closeness of feelings and community! And what a deep, if brief, and meaningful liberation from aloneness for the visiting Westerner! As Nicholas Berdyaev wrote in the 1920s:

It must be understood that the structure of the Russian soul is all its own and completely different from that of Westerners. The more penetrating minds of the West realize this well enough, and are attracted by the puzzle it presents.

The Spirit Earthbound

American civilization, ignoring and detouring far from the thoughtful, philosophical lives, and challenges, of its own Thoreau and Emerson (as Leo Tolstoy mentioned, towards the end of his life, in a letter to the American people in a US newspaper – contrasting them with Carnegie and Rockefeller), is such that people are by practical and economic necessity, social impetus, and mass psychology, sort of compelled to spend often inordinate time and effort on their practical, merely mundane lives – what Berdyaev and others called the “horizontal life” of man. And as they do so, . . . as almost all of the mind and soul is absorbed with the practical, material, monetary, etc., concerns – the “magical” and “mysterious” in man and life diminishes and dies. For the “magical”, in this sense, is an audience, an openness and a susceptibility to the mysterious in life and world, to that which is above and beyond the purely material life, interests and concerns of man. American civilization is now so pervasively mundane that the “magical” can really hardly live at all; everything is so thoroughly and well humanly-organized, for material comfort, security, and convenience; it is all so very earthly . . . . And since “individualism” tends to make people become, as Tocqueville noted as a worrisome tendency already in the young USA of the 1830s, and which has continued to today, “isolated in the solitude of their own hearts”, people’s personal lives are often very lonely places. Isolation contrasts with soulful sharing, solidarity, community; the mundane (economic necessities, materialism, consumerism, etc.) works contrary to the elusive “magical” and “mystical” in life and man. (This is surely one of the causes for the often silly, childish, naive and fantastic, reactive escape of the so-called “new age” religions and mysticism, so widespread and growing in the America and the West today, declaring an impending New Age of Spirit, Love, Peace, Brotherhood, etc.)

The “magical”, the mysterious in man and world, in a place like California (that I know best of the USA), is often weighed down by the material life – which the omnipresent advertisements for the materially-conceived “American Dream” say are the best and height of man! The spirit in man is almost completely captive inside of the body and its feelings, bound to the earth, captivated by mundane, material worries of security, property and possessions, comfort, doctor’s bills, insurance, etc.; and most people are separated from each other by the West’s proud tradition of individualism, privacy, etc., which pervades their souls in society there. The result is an earthly civilization, well-organized indeed, but with very little “magical” or “mysterious” – and many deeply-isolated, lonely people searching for something . . . . The spirit in man – earthbound!

I have written before about the vast diversity of religious beliefs in the USA (English, No. 19, 21 1996), and the kaleidoscope of idiosyncratic cosmologies in California (English, No. 23, 39, 42, 44, 46, 1996); but contrasting with this, it is almost as if gravity works more strongly in America, on the inner life and soul of man, incarcerating the higher elements – those related to the “spirit”, the trans-physical, the so-called “higher faculties” in man – into an isolated incarnation. As if gravity and the mundane pulls down and beclouds that “magical” part of man which otherwise might be ignited as a sort of spiritual light – the halos surrounding the head of saints in church art representing this inner life. As most people are passive participants in the culture and society in which they are born, many hardly notice or recognize these facts.

Hidden Treasures, Lost?

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the nascent collapse of the Soviet Empire, in an article entitled “Eastern Europe: The Year of Truth” in The New York Review (Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, February 15, 1990), author Timothy Garton Ash, looking at Central and Eastern Europe, asked prescient and insightful questions, as to the realities of life there:

Timothy Garton Ash (1997)
Timothy Garton Ash (1997)

“. . . Do they [of Eastern Europe] come, as it were, like mendicants to the door, bearing only chronicles of wasted time? Or might they have, under their threadbare cloaks, some hidden treasure?

Traveling through this region over the last decade, I have found treasures: examples of great moral courage and intellectual integrity; comradeship, deep friendship, family life; time and space for serious conversation, music, literature, not disturbed by the perpetual noise of our obsessively telecommunicative world; Christian witness in its original and purest form; more broadly, qualities of relations between men and women of very different backgrounds, and once bitterly opposed faiths: an ethos of solidarity. Here the danger of sentimental idealization is acute, for the privileged visitor enjoys these benefits without paying the costs. There is no doubt that, on any quantitative or utilitarian reckoning, the costs have been higher than the benefits. Yet it would be even more wrong to pretend that these treasures were not real. They were. And for me the question of questions after 1989 is: What if any of these good things will survive liberation? Was the community only a community of fate, a Schicksalsgemeinschaft?[1] Were these just the uses of adversity?”

The understandable desire for and pursuit of a “normal, civilized” society, of which one often heard in the years after the collapse of the USSR, has not been without its costs to the “hidden treasures” in Russia and the Eastern Europe of which Ash wrote with some real worry. When I came to Moscow to live in 1994, with the longing and need to be around the “magical” that I had only (believed myself to have?) glimpsed in my several trips to Russia before, I co-wrote a piece for the journal Moskva – a “Romantic” piece as Russia, and the world, seem to show – entitled: “The World Does Not Need a Second America” («Миру не нужна вторая Америка»). The social, political and economic events in Russia since the dissolution of the USSR, show that copying America in Russia, if it is an image and dream of many, is – with Russia’s own history and realities – not a social order which will come here easily or readily. But yes, most (but not all) of the world seems incapable of doing much other than imagining to copy or pursue “the American way of life”. (Many French people, for example, do not like the fact that their nation is no longer the ideal of best society, as in prior centuries.)

Moscow has become materially richer since perestroika and the historic dissolution of the USSR; it has also, like much of Eastern Europe, lost (or abandoned?) many of its “hidden treasures” – what I have here named the “magical”. The loss of the collective, theoretically and practically, has played a part; the emphasis on individualism – with its “good” and “bad” aspects, and a tendency to privacy, has affected many people’s lives and relationships here; the real, new mundane problems of life in Russia, especially money, have affected all aspects of life, soul and society here. To this may be added Hollywood’s stupefying, disorienting films – created in the amoral, secular “freedom” of the USA which is harming not only the life of the cultures and peoples of the entire world, but America’s also.

Yes, there is less of the “magical” in Moscow (I am not sure about other parts of Russia); one might even say that the more Russia accurately copies the USA, the less of the “magical” there will be, the less of the “hidden treasures” there will be in Russia. So that Ash’s questions, and mine, seem in part answered. Still, Russia, to this observer’s sight, does not show any signs of the stability needed to become a “normal, civilized” society, and who can guess the future of Russia? Economic poverty or prosperity? Political stagnation or progress? Spiritual and cultural malaise or vigor? So that it is difficult to say what will be with the “magical” in Russia in the future.

History sometimes moves slowly; sometimes painfully rapidly. But it does not stop. The prosperity and power in which the USA basks today – and it, even only on a scale of decades, has not for a very long time has this central “place in the sun”, though the legendary “Westward Course of Civilization” had forecast it for centuries – will pass someday. It is as inevitable as time. Whatever comes in Russia from 1999 to, say, 2049; it would be a loss to mankind, or, at least to Russians, if they were found to have lost all the “hidden treasures”, the remaining “magical” of Russia.

This author hopes the “magical” in Russia will not only not diminish and disappear, but somehow revive – though the mundane problems, individualism, and Hollywood are working against this.

First published in the magazine English, #7, February 1999, p. 1-14.


1. Schicksalsgemeinschaft – community of fate (Germ.) Back to text