The Demons That Haunt Russia

Professor Warns of Nationalism and an Inferiority Complex

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ROME, JUNE 26, 2001 ( Professor Sergej Sergeevic Averincev teaches philology and comparative literature, and is the author of fundamental texts on the cultural universe of Byzantium and the meeting between Greek culture and the Jewish world.

More importantly, he is among those who have inspired the spiritual awakening of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others, he is one of the critics of Russian Christianity. In the following interview which appeared in the June issue of the Italian magazine Jesus, Averincev analyzes the legacy of Orthodoxy and the difficulties in understanding between «the two lungs» of Christian spirituality.

–Q: What do you think are the prejudices and errors that we, Westerners, must combat in order to better understand the Russian soul?

–Averincev: I do not believe there is a uniform West. Italy is Italy, and I am sure that, for the Italian soul, to understand the Russian soul is much easier than for another, let us say, more «arid» soul. As regards prejudice in general, I would say that all simplification, all intellectual laziness must be excluded given the complexity of the reality, both in the «Russophobic» as well as the «Russophile» vein.

–Q: What are the temptations or «demons» that tempt Russia today?

–Averincev: All my public activity in Russia is an effort to exorcise such demons. I think a great problem — and not just for Russia — is overcoming every tendency to nationalism and dangerous and unfruitful isolationism, obviously without betraying our national identity.

The demon that today, in this era of Americanism, might have greater possibilities of success among youth of countries that pride themselves of an ancient history, such as Russia — but also Europe — is called «inferiority complex.»

The destructive action of this demon is obvious in two contrasting models: the madness of ultranationalism and the frenetic desire to level all cultures.

–Q: You say that the European cultural universe was born from the dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem. But, what is Byzantium´s role, namely Orthodoxy´s, in the formation of a new European consciousness?

–Averincev: The experience of Western Christianity should teach us, the Orthodox, to understand St. Paul´s teaching: «Brothers, stop being childish in your thinking. In respect to evil be like infants, but in your thinking be mature» (1 Corinthians 14:20). Our task is to remember what the Book of Proverbs says: «Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom» (Proverbs 2:7). This «fear» is very different from servile fear, as, instead, it is intimately related to the mystery.

Not for nothing is what the Latin tradition calls «sacrament,» called «mystery» in the Byzantine Orthodox tongue. The word «sacrament» is full of nobility, with its direct reference to the Roman use of oath of military fealty (sacramentum). However, the concept of «mystery» has its own depth. It is indispensable that, in the new consciousness of European Christianity, these concepts be seen as complementary.

The «mystery,» without the sacramental meaning of «oath of military fealty,» can remain [ineffective]; the «sacrament,» emptied of the meaning of «mystery» is too arid and moralist.

–Q: What aspects of Byzantium´s heritage — tradition of the Philokalia, liturgy, teachings of the Fathers, monasticism — do you consider indispensable for the affirmation of this consciousness?

–Averincev: The aspects you have enumerated are essentially inseparable. However, I think that, when we speak of Byzantine heritage, thanks to its visibility, liturgical culture has certain advantages. I am impressed with the way this culture is, in some cases, accepted and received in the West.

In Paris, for example, in the old church of St. Gervais, the Fraternity of Jerusalem celebrates Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours according to the Latin rite, but with the insertion of some elements of the Byzantine rite and, what is most important, with a great capacity to receive the general atmosphere of the Byzantine «mystery» and a special taste for «Hesychia,» namely, for contemplation and interior peace.

In this connection, the cases of the Benedictine Abbeys of Chevetogne in Belgium could be referred to, where the monks celebrate according to the two rites (Latin and Byzantine), and the experience of the ecumenical Community of Taizé.

–Q: How do you evaluate the present stage of the dialogue (some speak of «ice») between Catholicism and Orthodoxy?

–Averincev: Yes, the present situation is very sad, all the winds of the world blow against the ship of reconciliation. However, if we have faith in the fact that the Lord is with us, in our fragile boat of Galilee, we cannot lose hope.

Look, if unity is not a simple wish, but a question of life and death, then each one of us must make an effort, through prayer and action, to reach this objective. We must all be one «so that the world will believe.»

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