The significance of the Russian Soul in understanding contemporary geopolitics

Photo: Ilia SchelkanovPhoto: Ilia Schelkanov

‘Who would grasp Russia with the mind? 

For her no yardstick was created: 

Her soul is of a special kind, 

By faith alone appreciated.’ 

 – Fyodor Tyutchev (trans. by John Dewey)

“Wanted: Russian-speaking spies to help MI5 keep tabs on Vladimir Putin,” read a February Telegraph headline. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ had set a six week-deadline to recruit new analysts to help the U.K. better decipher Russia’s intentions in Europe and counteract a purported increase in espionage from the East.

Both the U.K. and the U.S. have seen a drastic decrease in spending on Russian counterintelligence since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russian studies programmes have suffered, as well, with ever-diminishing investment compromising their ability to produce analysts with high-level expertise. As a result, the gap between Russia and the West has widened at a time when tensions are at their highest since the Cold War.

Now with the March application deadline long past, potential recruits will be attempting to prove their “analytical and enquiring mindset”, trustworthiness and loyalty – just several of the requirements for the job. Knowledge of the Russian language is, expectedly, also a must. But are these attributes sufficient to navigate the labyrinth of Russian politics and the Machiavellian mind of Vladimir Putin? How will analysts overcome the stereotypes and assumptions that cloud many Westerners’ understanding of the East?

Historian Glen Jeansonne and Shepherd Express A&E Editor David Luhrssen recently co-authored a Foreign Affairs article on the depiction of Russians on the silver screen. In exploring the attributes of Russian characters in Hollywood blockbusters, the piece calls attention to the degree to which Cold War anxieties shaped and continue to shape the Western public’s understanding of Eastern Europe.

“Anglo-American popular culture seldom depicts Russians as heroes or even good guys – unless they come from the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak,” Jeansonne and Luhrssen observe. But since popular culture has the ability to permeate consciousness and inform attitudes on certain issues, dramatic cinematographic representations of shrewd spies, clandestine operations and elaborate conspiracies, however entertaining they may be, help form sensationalised stereotypes that prevent us from assessing our adversaries’ true capabilities.

Some Russian citizens may well be “sinister oligarchs and crime syndicate kingpins” with flats in Chelsea and yachts in St. Tropez, but Russian intelligence agents are likely to be far more sophisticated and discreet in their operation. Assuming identities that would not arouse even the slightest suspicion, some may be sneakily scheming away in London’s finest think-tanks or New York’s investment banks. As enticing as might it be to assume that most Russians walk around with, as one American young man confidently informed me several years ago, “pocket-sized nuclear bombs”, such a fallacious perception of any people is neither conducive to effective diplomacy nor sufficient in preventing Putin from altering the international political order.

It is time to stop underestimating those whom we readily call “nemeses without a cause”. To thwart Russian aggression or, at the very least, maintain a balance of power in Europe, Western specialists must a) stop naively assuming that the playing field is as transparent as popular culture has led them to believe and b) develop the capacity to outsmart their Eastern counterparts. Even the poorest of Russian families scrape together whatever savings they can find to fund their children’s studies with native speakers of English. From an early age, Russian children watch Western films, listen to Western music, read Western books and become intimately familiar with the Western mentality. For those who make it to Russian intelligence, such skills are priceless.

Learning Russian and Russian culture is not enough. To truly understand what it means to be Russian, the West needs to see the Russian people as they see themselves. Russia’s current media-promulgated propaganda has successfully enticed a remarkable percentage of the population into supporting Putin’s political agenda precisely because those who produce this propaganda understand the Russian mentality inside out and have no qualms about playing upon popular vulnerabilities. If the West too learns to understand the Russian psyche, it might be able to anticipate Putin’s moves more effectively.

An enigma

Dominating literary and philosophical discourse on Russian identity since the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of the Russian soul remains a mystifying question to this day. Mysterious, elusive, cryptic and grandiose, the Russian soul is an enigma. It is, as Dostoyevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary (1876), “unspoken, unconscious, and can only be strongly felt”.

To have a Russian soul was to be exceptional and to possess precisely that which set Russia apart from the allegedly “rationalist, materialist, work-oriented, and time-conscious world” of industrial nineteenth-century Europe, wrote historian Robert C. Williams in his essay ‘The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism’.

The concept of the Russian soul emerged in a time of great struggle to understand the identity of a country positioned between East and West and uncertain of its destiny. According to Williams, the term Russian soul was “used by those who found other categories of nationalism inadequate to express what they felt”. In effect, the term became an instrument by which to retrospectively understand the course of Russia’s history and to compensate for an earlier failure to identify a unifying force within the populace. Most importantly, the conceptualisation of the Russian soul marked a transition to a positive, optimistic view of Russia’s path in popular discourse, a vision for what Russian could one day become.

Conceptualisation and development

In his first philosophical letter, Russian philosopher Petr Chaadayev noted that all nations experience “turbulence and passionate disorder” in early development. It is in such periods, he argued, that the social fabric of a nation, its brightest memories and its most fruitful ideas, are formed. The memory of this youth, in turn, constitutes the joy and edification of the nation’s adulthood. Russia, he insisted, had experienced nothing of the sort. “First wild barbarism, then rude superstition, then cruel and humiliating foreign domination, whose essence our rulers subsequently inherited – that is the sorrowful story of our youth,” he wrote. “The years of our youth have not left a trace within our souls, and we have nothing unique for our thought to rely on… we live only in the present in the narrowest of its confines, with neither a past nor a future – in dead stagnation.”

Chaadayev’s depiction of Russia as a socially and intellectually backward country, argues Williams, raised an essential question in the minds of the intellectual elite. Did Russia have a history? Did it even have a future? A monumental debate was sparked, one that essentially divided Russia’s intellectual society into two groups: the Westernisers (who encouraged Russia to continue turning to the West) and the Slavophiles (who sought to revive Russian culture, purify the Russian language, shield Russia from the West and return to pre-Petrine values. The Slavophiles sought to understand what set their country apart from a West which, like Dr. Faustus, they believed “had sold its soul,” wrote Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev in his 1918 essay Sud’ba Rossii.

“In the West, the soul shrinks,” wrote nineteenth-century Slavophile Konstantine Aksakov. “Our history lies ahead.” The West, it was believed, was dying of pustodushie, having an empty soul – a devastating consequence of industrialisation, materialism and education. It was to this very disease, some claimed, that Russia’s imperial elite had succumbed. The populace was, therefore, perceived as the only remaining source of former virtue. An answer to Chaadayev’s questions soon emerged in the form of the Russian soul – the soul that withstood the temptation to sin to which the Western soul had succumbed.

The concept of a morally-degraded West is a prominent feature of Russia’s current propaganda: the West is blamed for Russia’s LGBT parades, as well as for the “rise” of fascism in Ukraine. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party leader and Putin’s supposed marionette, has, on numerous occasions, spoken of the need to “liberate” the Russian language from foreign, and specifically English, words. Over the past year, four foreign researchers have been fined or deported from Russia.

The Russian soul became a concept only in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1830s, despite the works of Golden Age poets Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, literary critic and Westerniser Vissarion Belinsky argued that Russia had no literature that could truly express the “inner life of the nation”. It was only after Belinsky had read Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) that his opinion changed. “[Gogol’s] subjectivity prevents [him from demonstrating] apathetic indifference … [and] forces him to pass through his very living soul the phenomenon of the external world, and through this to breathe a living soul into the [external world] in turn,” wrote Belinsky, who believed that “in [reading its] every word… a reader could say: ‘Here lies the Russian spirit; here smells of Rus.’”

Williams argues that Belinsky misinterpreted Gogol, who used the term soul not in a spiritual sense, but merely to represent a unit by which to measure one peasant. The poignancy of Gogol’s work, however, led Belinsky to interpret the word soul as a reflection on the Russian identity. The concept of the Russian soul thereafter swiftly spread through literary and intellectual circles.

The paradox of Western influence

This repulsion of Western ideals was paradoxical, because, as Williams wrote, “it was European thought which provided the Russians with the intellectual categories of nationalism which enabled them to describe themselves as different from, hostile to and superior over the West.” Western intellectual traditions were therefore essential in the conceptualisation of the Russian soul.

Dostoevsky’s appeal to intellectuals to return to the pochva, or the Russian soil, gave rise to Pochvennichestvo in the 1860s. Its followers dismissed ‘corruptive’ aspects of Western culture, such as materialism, and strove, through spirituality and ethics, to coalesce educated Russians with the ordinary people. Nevertheless, while Slavophilism detested the policies of Peter the Great, Pochvennichestvo recognised the benefits that came from Westernisation. Pochvenniki encouraged industrialisation and free trade, and embraced enlightened principles such as freedom of the press and of the individual.

Dostoevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary (1880): “Our striving towards Europe, even with all of [the latter’s] fancies and extravagancies, was not only legal and sensible in its foundation, but also national in character, coinciding perfectly with the aspirations of the people’s soul, and, finally, inarguably, having a higher purpose.”

The concept of the Russian soul and its historicity, therefore, came from the intellectual elite, which had been exposed to Romantic theories of nationalism circulating throughout Europe. Though “Russian people of all societal strata engaged in philosophical conversations about goodness, the meaning of life, and God,” wrote philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “their conversations did not necessarily lead to the systematic conclusions necessary to express opinions in literary form.” Russian serfs, and later peasants, were concerned with spiritual connections with their land as a giver of sustenance and were consciously linked to one another by Orthodoxy. They, nevertheless, lacked a political consciousness and were unlikely to have been aware of the Russian soul as an embodiment of ‘national spirit’. Once conceptualised within the intelligentsia, the Russian soul was projected onto Russia’s people.

Dostoevsky and Lossky on religiosity, kindness and cruelty

The Russian soul has historically been perceived as the foundation of the mentality, character and irrational behaviour of the Russian people. Its complexity and paradoxical nature are well-explored in literature. In Sud’ba Rossii, Berdyaev wrote: “One should approach the [challenge] of understanding the secret hidden within the soul of Russia having already admitted Russia’s antinomy [and] its dreadful contradictoriness.”

The first thinker to write extensively on the Russian soul was Dostoevsky. “The Russian soul is the genius of the Russian people,” he wrote in A Writer’s Diary (1880), “[a people] who, arguably, of all of the nations, are most capable of encompassing the idea of universal unity, a sense of brotherly love, and a sensible reception of things.”

Philosopher Lossky strove to understand the Russian soul, as well. In his book The Character of the Russian People, Lossky identified eleven quintessential characteristics of the Russian identity. The most important – religiosity – stemmed from Moscow being dubbed the ‘Third Rome’ in the 15th century and, thereby, the preserver of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Religiosity unified the peasants in faith over centuries of servitude and foreign domination and led them to develop a self-perception based on humility and suffering.

A Russian Sonderweg of sorts, religiosity was the closest thing the Russian people had to a collective consciousness of a predetermined mission, and remains an important part of the Russian identity to this day. Though Part I, Article XIV of the current Russian constitution establishes that the country is secular, Orthodoxy plays a significant role in both popular and political discourse. A willingness to disrespect a sacred place of Orthodoxy during their February 2012 performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour earned Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina two years in prison. They were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

One century earlier, Lossky too maintained that a Russian person would succumb to hooliganism once his religiosity was lost. Similarly, Dostoevsky believed that such a person would “plunge headfirst into an abyss”. Can these musings then offer any insight into the state of the Russian people under Soviet atheism? In reality, they cannot, as contemporary thinkers suggest that religiosity is not necessarily tied to religion. Instead, religiosity can be perceived as a popular desire to act wholeheartedly in the name of a unifying idea, whatever that idea may be. In the Soviet Union, people replaced their devotion to Orthodoxy with devotion to an ideology. Nevertheless, as it is difficult to assess the extent to which private religiosity was truly compromised under atheism, it is likely that, for some people, religiosity persisted in its traditional manifestation even during the Soviet period.

Both Dostoevsky and Lossky saw religiosity as a source of absolute goodness, a sense of innocence that ensured that there was hope for Russia’s future. “Do not judge our nation by what it is. [Judge it] by what it hopes to become,” wrote Dostoevsky in 1880. He believed that Russian people carried “strong and holy ideals” within themselves, such that ensured their survival through centuries of torment and forever bestowed upon them simplicity, honesty, sincerity and open-mindedness, as written in A Writer’s Diary (1876).

Kindness, another trait identified by Lossky, was believed to be deepened by religiosity. Nevertheless, with kindness came its antithesis – cruelty. “As paradoxical as it may be, [cruelty can even be observed] in the behaviour of people who are not evil by nature,” he wrote. Displays of cruelty were unpredictable and were often rationalised by perpetrators. Cruelty could be observed, for example, in the tendency of peasants to beat their wives in fits of drunkenness. Writer Maksim Gorky criticised this tendency in his book Creatures that once were Men, in which a teacher says to a character called Yakov: “You are angry with your [dark and sad] life, but your wife is patient; the closest relation to you – your wife – and you make her suffer for this simply because you are stronger than she.”

The paradox of cruel tendencies in otherwise kind-hearted people is an illustration of the contradictory nature and “inconsistency of the Russian spirit” which Berdyaev, in The Origin of Russian Communism, argued arose from a conflict of Eastern and Western elements. Marquis de Custine, mocking the theatrical veneer of Imperial Russia’s Europeanism, insisted that civility was but a façade to hide the nation’s true essence – the Asiatic soul. “Asiatic barbarism” was most evident in what Lossky identified as the people’s passion and love of freedom. Standing in opposition to the European etiquette and conservatism observed in members of the Imperial court, this love of freedom was less an appreciation of enlightened principles of human liberty, and more a neglect of boundaries and a tendency toward immoderation. On the other side of this equation, however, remained the modesty necessitated by religiosity, which further exemplifies the antithetical nature of the Russian identity.

Both Russians and foreigners were conscious of this contradictoriness. In My Literary and Moral Wanderings, and Other Autobiographical Material, Appolon Grigoriev wrote that Russians had two selves: “The artificial [self, the] one that appears on the surface, and the another [self], God-given, which lives hidden in [them] intact and untouched.”

“Suffering purifies the soul”

In A Writer’s Diary (1873), Dostoyevsky wrote: “I think that the most important, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, constant and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything. It seems they have been infected with this thirst for suffering from time immemorial.”

As follows from the Russian saying “suffering purifies the soul”, suffering is a mechanism for the repentance of sin and a step towards salvation. The Russian people have historically demonstrated a quasi-masochistic acceptance of suffering as part of an unconscious quest to emulate the humility of Christ, a paradigm borne of the permeation of Orthodoxy in society. These tendencies made the Russian people both prone to sacrifice and martyrdom and susceptible to manipulation by the imperial Russian government.

A manifestation of the desire for suffering amongst pre-Revolutionary Russians was their acceptance of autocracy and despotism. In  his journal La Russie en 1839, De Custine wrote of the numbness that settled upon the people as a result of centuries of slavery. The rulers of Russia and its people, he observed, had relationships of mutual perversion and demoralisation. “[The great princes ruled only] … on the condition that they serve as docile instruments of oppression, instructed in despotism by servitude … [they] familiarised their people with the violence of the conquest to which they personally submitted.”

In 1833, Tsar Nicholas I promulgated the motto ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’, requiring undying popular loyalty to all three elements. Autocracy and nationality were distant concepts, because, as historian Richard Pipes has maintained, the serf “felt no patriotism and no attachment to the government save for a vague devotion to the distant tsar from whom he expected to receive the land he coveted”. Loyalty to the tsar was unconditional, but derived largely from Orthodoxy, as the Romanovs claimed divine right. Despite the vagueness of these concepts, peasants complied because of a predisposition towards dominant rule. Despotism, wrote De Custine, crushed the Russian peasants, but cultivated within them good faith and probity.

De Custine believed that “violence and arbitrary rule” formed the foundation of everything in Russia and “tyranny was the only kind of happiness which [the] government [was] able to afford its people”. Some Russian writers, in turn, were inclined to see the state’s despotism as a psychological need of the people. “The Russian nation does not want to be [composed of] courageous builder[s], [because] it is feminine in nature, passive and submissive to affairs of state, constantly awaiting the groom, the husband and the lord,” wrote Bardyaev in 1918, referring to the unconscious desire of the populace to be guided by an authoritative, masculine figure. The idea of a strong father figure leader for Russia remains enticing to this day, as evidenced by popular admiration for Putin’s masculinity. It was evident during the Soviet Union, as well, with the Cult of Stalin.

This desire, observed de Custine, translated into eagerness among the Russian people not only to embrace the role allotted to them in the despotic state, but to voluntarily participate in the execution of tyranny without having any authority themselves. “A multitude of little superfluous precautions engender here a population of deputies and sub-officials, each of whom acquires himself with an air of importance and rigorous precision,” he wrote, arguing that people had been reduced to fear-inspiring “voluntary automata [and] to the state of a mere machine”. Similarly, during the Soviet period, ordinary citizens, especially those within state structures, exposed their neighbours as ‘enemies of the people’, and, thereby, chose to play the role of deputy.


The ‘soul’ has provided the Russian people with an instrument for self-assessment for nearly two centuries and rumination on its attributes is a popular pastime for Russians of all backgrounds, occurring under diverse circumstances and in various places, from banyas to dachas.

The concept is based on characteristics historically present in the Russian people as a whole, those that were played upon for centuries by the country’s rulers. In the present Russian-Ukraine conflict, Ukraine is depicted as an aggressor that threatens the peaceful, fascist-free world that Russia, as part of the Soviet Union, selflessly fought to establish. Fuelled by memories of wartime suffering and sacrifice, many Russians have, accordingly, entrusted their country’s fate to Putin, a tsar-like figure who has promised to restore Russia’s glory.

Recognising Russia’s need for spheres of influence, the West has thus far been obliging, notwithstanding its sanctions and reprimanding rhetoric. Even against a backdrop of frantic cries from Poland, the Baltic States and other nations fearing to be sucked under Russia’s wing, we have underestimated Russian strategy. Effective diplomacy and prevention can take place only if all involved parties fully understand their adversaries, which is what the West must give itself the opportunity to do.

Finally, there is hope that ordinary Russian people, with the help of the country’s intelligentsia – the fifth column – will unite to resist Putin’s manipulation from the inside out. After all, the Russian soul has two additional characteristics.

The first is a desire for truth and righteousness. “No corruption, no pressure, no humiliation could destroy … the thirst for righteousness [in the heart of the people] … for this thirst is more valuable than anything else,” wrote Dostoevsky in 1873. “The Russian soul,” wrote Berdyaev in Sud’ba Rossii, “burns in a fiery search for the truth, the absolute, godly truth and salvation for its world and for the universal resurrection of a new life. [The soul] always mourns in light of the suffering of both its people and [the people] of the entire world, and there can be no mitigation of its anguish.” May this thirst for truth help the people overcome the influence of propaganda.

The final quintessential trait is eternal hope. Commenting on the “dirt” of the human experience, Dostoevsky wrote in 1876: “[The Russian] believes that all of this is superficial and temporary, a delusion of the devil, that the darkness will end, and that, one day, eternal light will certainly come [upon them].” He believed that the undying hope within the Russian character would enable the people to withstand the devastation of their reality and bring them closer to the day when all of their sorrows would cease to exist. Perhaps, once this period of darkness has passed, the Russian people will finally be given the opportunity to live in freedom and engage peacefully with the rest of the world.