When a “Westerner” came to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – at least during what the events of time and history happened to reveal as the last days of the USSR – deeper conversations could not but often bring up the presence of the idea of “fate”, usually named судьба. And considering how little personal choice most Soviet people then had, as to home, higher education, vocation, place of work, social freedoms and possibilities, etc, compared to us “Westerners”, “fate” and its limitations was an obvious idea in contrast to Western “freedom” (of which the USA described itself as the world leader). The Russians I met always contrasted their “inner freedom” (sometimes “spiritual freedom”) to the “external freedoms” which many a visitor from Italy, France, England, or America were born – after World War II – into. Certainly the idea of “inner freedom” was very intriguing to attentive and thoughtful Westerners; and the proverbial conversations of “philosophy” inside of Krushchov kitchens allowed some of us to temptingly taste some of this “inner freedom”.
In the late 1980’s, on America’s National Public Radio, a Westerner who had been imprisoned in some middle-eastern country for years in solitary confinement, described how he had kept his sanity by daily, hourly, designing in the greatest detail, an actual castle in his imagination. He had worked on it in his mind – while living in a small, dark cell – for years. There is something here related to the halos on saints on icons in Orthodox Churches, and to late Soviet “kitchen philosophy”.
I once had a rather long talk in St. Petersburg in 1988 with an Intourist guide and his wife about our comparative lives and destinies in the, then, two halves of the world: e.g. I choosing to visit the USSR again; they unable to even think seriously about seeing the West. I learned later that this conversation, of “freedom” vs. “unfreedom”, had made this woman so upset, so depressed with her fate, that she went to the doctor for pills, and couldn’t work for a week. (After perestroika continued, they did journey to the West as teachers.) There was a reality then to the differences between at least the “external freedoms” in the USA and USSR.
The idea and question of how much one’s life is determined by God, or gods, e.g. the mythological Three Fates, and by oneself, is deep and old of course. But it is safe to say that for most cultures, traditions, and, as it is au courant to say today, civilizations, most people felt that their lives were “in the hands of the gods”. Fate comes from Latin fatum, which comes from fari “speak”; it means, to quote Ayto’s Dictionary of Etymology:
‘that which is spoken’, that is, by the Gods.
The Soviet State in its ideological and realistic totality was not clearly related to the idea of a divine order, meaning and place, etc., to peoples’ lives, as individuals or collectives. It was also not a bubonic plague; inexplicable earthquake; storm of rain, fire or locusts; not earthly death, disease or deformity at birth; nor a war, nor draught; etc. – but it was the main element of the forces in people’s lives which constituted the Three Fates of Greek, Medieval and later beliefs and “mythology”. But it is “so human” a Westerner thought and felt; “provisional – even arbitrary”. “Bad luck” for the Russians, and peoples in the USSR perhaps; but it seemed to us to not really quite qualify as “fate” or “destiny”.
Indeed, many aspects of life that had in earlier centuries been attributed to “the will of God”, or the surrounding worlds of angels and spirits, good or evil: one’s “lot”, “chance”, “destiny”, “fortune”, the West had gradually come to see as due to either merely natural-physical causes, to human activities, or to mere chance. Many of the aspects of life – except death, disease, etc. – which people in Soviet times still attributed to “fate”, the Westerner thought of as subject to human will, human institutions, and the perfections and/or imperfections of social institutions (such as medical knowledge and skills, or legal, political, or economic structures). Thus civilizational structure affected the ideas of “fate” and “destiny”. If the proverbial man in the medieval ages believed and experienced himself to be in the hands of fate; an American today would find far fewer matters that belong to divine or demonic forces and powers. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and storms are still often described as “acts of God”; but a failed medical operation; the collapse of a business; fraud in a stock document; deception in money matters; unfairness in political and social possibilities; where one is born; one’s capacities and education;…and many more things which may sometimes still, at least in lingering proverbs and expressions of grief and disappointment be attributed to “the will of God” or “fate” (or destiny), are now often understood as (often) amenable, human, under the control of man or human institutions.
Now the entire “genome project” is bringing very many deep elements of the human being into question (and change): good or bad luck, fate, destiny…? Many things that were once “the will of God (or the gods)” will in the coming years be seen to be “the amenable ‘fate’ of the genes”. Some scientists today even see Death, “the Grim Reaper”, as a sort of old, dated actor, whose life-contract can, should and will eventually be terminated.
But whether there will ever be a scientific “requiem” of death, or a human genetic control over even most diseases and deformities, there is already, amid life’s formerly-perennial “trials and tribulations”, for example a growing loss of being “lost” in the world.
As a boy and young man, on cold, wet, winter mornings hunting alone in the woods of Alabama, I was often enough faced with the possibility of getting hurt or lost in the forest. It was certainly part of what made me into a “young man”, that I had to face the possibility of getting lost or injured. Do I go this way or that? If I climb this hill, cross this bog, or go into this ravine,…will I be able to return safe and sound, as the expression goes. Facing challenges, fears, dangers, uncertainties, etc., that helped mature the boy. This is clear and unsurprising enough. But now, for a couple of hundred dollars, it is very near next to impossible to be “lost” in even the, until-recently, “deepest” jungles and forests on earth. Yes, for the people (billions!) without a couple hundred dollars of “disposable income” to buy a GPS receiver, a forest, a jungle, a mountain range, an ocean, can still be “deep”, dangerous, confusing, treacherous, etc. But for many “Westerners” (or those in the so-called “developed countries”), one never more need be lost; and this is, in my view, surely a loss. Perhaps since Columbus mistakenly thought he had landed in India, this is an inevitable “loss” in human history, due to the inevitable “march of human progress”, but still it seems to me a loss.
In the essential and seemingly unavoidable search for meaning in life that all humans seem to have, I know a Russian who, somewhat characteristically it seems to me, still consults her fortune, her cards as to her life and coming events, love, etc; who understands electric short circuits in her old flat as “signs” of future events, ill health or bad luck, perhaps as punishment for bad deeds, or purgations for future possibilities. In contrast, I know Americans who do not question that economic success is in their own hands (certainly not that of God, or the Three Fates); who believe that their own happiness and destiny is determined almost completely by their own will and actions. They feel that their lives are in their own hands; that it they do not “have everything”, and are not “happy”, “fulfilled”, etc, it is their own personal fault. In such cases “fate” – if not yet death and disease – is dying, or seemingly so. Many post-Soviet Russians must now decide whether it is their “fate” to remain in Russia, to have this or that work and career, money, location, etc. But though Russia “fate” still lives much more strongly that e.g. California – in Russia too fate has lost some of its unquestioning believers and adherents.
The loss of “lost” and the fading and death of “fate” are certainly not present for many poor people around the globe today. Such conditions may only ever really reach them via a dream inspired by a global Hollywood TV program. But in much of the industrialized, advanced, “developed” world, being “lost” is being lost, and fate is dying…(for now?)
First published in the magazine English, #46, December 2000, p. 1-16.