I was scared of the big cows in Poland.
I was proud of the bigness of America in the Latvian classroom.
I’m astounded by how big Russia is.
Russia has nearly twice the area of the US but only half the population. That means that 90% of this expansive country either is not populated at all or is the equivalent of Western Kansas. Of course, whereas Western Kansans are fiercely independent pioneers, Russian, especially the provincial ones, have lived in small communes and in service to the Tsar or Communism or, now western-style Capitalism.
Fedorovtsy, a small religious community of about 20 people, is one of the last places where traditional Russian life is still practiced – 0nce largely rural and agricultural, Russia’s population is now almost completely urbanized. Like many of the sects that dotted the vast Russian plains over the past couple centuries, Fedorovtsy is rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy but with a little twist – the arms of the Orthodox Episcopacy can only reach so far. In the world of Fedorovtsy, the group’s founder, Fedor Rybalkin, was the messiah and we’re now living in the apocalypse. Consequently, no marriages or children. If you’re interested you can read more about the community where I spent the last week here: http://directory.ic.org/21630/Fedorovtsy.
Perhaps fortunately, I couldn’t understand a word anybody said to me so I largely remained blissfully ignorant. Didn’t have to understand the texts of the songs we sang before and after meals or engage in eschatological debates. Just drink lots chai, split firewood, and read Andrey Bely’s The Silver Dove.
I did also have some opportunity to chat with Shura, my english speaking escort from Moscow, from whom I learned that, in his words: “Russia is tired.”
Now that I’ve been back in the chaos of Moscow for a couple days, I think I understand what he’s getting at. While Russia has tremendous natural resources, a significant population, and huge geographic spread, it’s hard to imagine the farmers in and around Tishanka caring about building a world superpower.
The shabbiness of St. Petersburg’s western-style palaces built on a grand, inhuman, scale and the glaring gilt of Moscow’s temples to consumerism belie a culture that lacks self-awareness or confidence. While it seems everyone in Russia wants to live in Moscow these days – it’s population has nearly doubled in the past ten years – what they’ll find here is a cheap knock-off of western culture designed to impress but not to nourish the souls of its residents.
At least there are twenty old men in Fedorovtsy keeping Russia alive.