"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Russian Geography: Sacred, Real, and Imaginary

Anyone who knows anything about relations among Eastern Christians in the former Soviet Union, and relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches since 1991, will have heard the phrase "Russian canonical territory" repeated more times than anyone would care to count. That phrase, of course, has been invoked tendentiously to assert that the Russian Orthodox Church is the sole legitimate ecclesial presence in Ukraine. Neither the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, nor the Roman Catholic Church, nor any of the other three (of four) Orthodox Churches in Ukraine are legitimately allowed to be there according to this Russian mindset: only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is said to be legitimate. All others are illegitimate interlopers. (Some of these assertions have been examined and debunked by others, as I noted previously.)

It seems, then, that in the absence of empire, geographical boundaries and territory have become paramount concerns in buttressing post-Soviet Russian identity. Such an idea is given fresh examination in a new book by Edith W. Clowes, Russia on the Edge: Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity (Cornell University Press, 2011), 200pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russians have confronted a major crisis of identity. Soviet ideology rested on a belief in historical progress, but the post-Soviet imagination has obsessed over territory. Indeed, geographical metaphors—whether axes of north vs. south or geopolitical images of center, periphery, and border—have become the signs of a different sense of self and the signposts of a new debate about Russian identity. In Russia on the Edge Edith W. Clowes argues that refurbished geographical metaphors and imagined geographies provide a useful perspective for examining post-Soviet debates about what it means to be Russian today.

Clowes lays out several sides of the debate. She takes as a backdrop the strong criticism of Soviet Moscow and its self-image as uncontested global hub by major contemporary writers, among them Tatyana Tolstaya and Viktor Pelevin. The most vocal, visible, and colorful rightist ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, the founder of neo-Eurasianism, has articulated positions contested by such writers and thinkers as Mikhail Ryklin, Liudmila Ulitskaia, and Anna Politkovskaia, whose works call for a new civility in a genuinely pluralistic Russia. Dugin’s extreme views and their many responses—in fiction, film, philosophy, and documentary journalism—form the body of this book.

In Russia on the Edge literary and cultural critics will find the keys to a vital post-Soviet writing culture. For intellectual historians, cultural geographers, and political scientists the book is a guide to the variety of post-Soviet efforts to envision new forms of social life, even as a reconstructed authoritarianism has taken hold. The book introduces nonspecialist readers to some of the most creative and provocative of present-day Russia’s writers and public intellectuals.

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