Slavophilia and National Identity in Russia
Slavophilia is the love of "Mother Russia" that every true Russian feels for his native country. This love is not founded in any absurd or materialistic attachment to the country, but rather to the spiritual and natural goodness of the country -- its morality, its religion, its land, its simplicity and the virtues of peasants. These concepts are what form the basis of the Russian national identity. It is a concept that is noble in mind and the opposite of the self-interested, individualistic conceit of other cultures, such as the American culture. The slavophile is rooted in the communal, collective experience -- the native experience, the peasant experience, the basic, humble elementary aspects of life that give one a spiritual joy because one is connected to an entire community -- a national family -- that is like one mystical body, like that mystical body of Christ (part of the Orthodox religion of Russia). Essentially, the slavophile celebrates the Russian family as the building block of Russian society and of Russian character, which is why a work like The Memoirs of the Aksakov Family can teach so much about the Russian soul and the noble ideals of the slavophile. This paper will show how slavophilia is defined and the national Russian identity displayed in The Memoirs of the Aksakov Family.
The Russian life is bound up in the family and in the land -- and this is the first sense that one has in reading the opening of The Memoirs, as the first line states, "In my grandfather's estate, at Simbirsk granted to his ancestors by the Muscovite Czars, everything grew abundantly ... " (1). Here, in this sentence, is the mention of family (the grandfather), land (where things grow in abundance), and the hierarchy of society (at the top of which is the czar, who looks out for the peoples of Russia as though they are his own children -- hence, the gift of the land to the author's grandfather). Thus there is a sense of royalty, nobility, vibrancy, abundance, family connections, status, and fullness of life all within this one simple sentence. This is the essence of the slavophile's sense of Russian greatness -- all of these aspects are connected in an interlocking, communicating network of communal respect. In other words, they are the threads of society, without which society could not exist.
The sense that if the parts are not interlocking and working together then Russian society cannot exist and the Russian national identity loses itself is apparent in the conclusion of the first sentence of the book: " ... but the property had been divided and sub-divided until it no longer sufficed for his support" (1). What happens to the estate granted his ancestors by the Czar? It has not been kept whole and cohesive but instead has become fragmented and fractured, broken up into parts, so that one portion is sent off to one individual and his family and another portion to another individual. The grandfather, therefore, cannot live off the land because the land is claimed by so many different people who are not working together -- and this is a problem for the Russian national character. If it loses its sense of community, it loses its identity. In one sense, this is paradoxical -- for in the slavophilic ideal, giving to family is essential and spreading the wealth is what makes Russia great; yet on the other hand it can impoverish the giver and if the individuals don't give back, tension is created. Thus, it is important in the slavophilic ideal that a spiritual unity underline the whole: this ensures that everyone understands the importance of giving back and of including everyone in the community so that no one is without "support" as the grandfather appears to be in the opening of the memoirs.
Yet, what follows is a depiction of how land is bought in a certain territory of Russia: it is a rural anecdote full of Russian charm and the Russian character. It is a story of a man who comes to see about...
This wonderful description illustrates perfectly well the Russian soul that the slavophile so embraces: a carelessness when it comes to material possessions (such as land -- no one knows the borders, for no one has ever bothered to measure them, for what reason is there to know? Russians are not like Roman Emperors who must have a census conducted so that they can know how many souls they lord over.
No, a Russian, according to the spirit of the slavophile, is a man of neighborly virtue, who would sooner make merry and enjoy community life with a visitor than get down to the particulars of business). It is a happy, idealistic image -- one separated from the urban, city business life of say a Petersburg or somewhere like that. A different picture of the Russian character could certainly be drawn there -- but that is the not the picture that the slavophile depends upon for his Russian soul to be brought to life: he depends upon the rural countryside and the happy-go-lucky life of the individuals who are there -- their recklessness ("guests sleeping all over the place" after dancing for days), their nonchalance and casual acceptance of all things. In short, there is a simplicity of character the underscores their worldview -- and this is the Russian identity that is evident in the sort of people upheld by the slavophile as exemplifying the Russian character and goodness of the simple Russian peasant in the simple Russian countryside. Even the grandfather recognizes this as looks forward to moving to the land purchased from the Bashkirs.
The Russian humor is evident in the next pages, as the grandfather takes leave of his family: his viewpoint of the differences between sons and daughters is something that the great Russian writer Gogol would have appreciated because there is absolutely nothing politically correct about it, and there is a biting acerbity to it -- but also the words are said out of love and affection. So all of these contrasting elements are bound up in the humor -- it is realistic, satirical, biting, honest, but affectionate and not meant to hurt or reveal bitterness; indeed the humor has a very down-to-earth sense about it and so long as it is not rooted in anything mean-spirited, it is a welcome attribute of the Russian identity. The humorous moment comes in this way: the grandfather takes leave of his wife (for whom he has one name when he is in a good mood, and another name when he is in a bad mood) and then he takes leave of his children, giving an extra special blessing to his son, because the grandfather "looked upon his son, as the sole hope of his ancient house, and regarded his daughters as nothing. 'For,' said he, 'of what use are they? They do not look into the house, but out of it. Today they are Bagroffs, tomorrow they are Shligins, Maligins, Popoffs or Kalpakoffs. My only hope is Alexis'" (5). Thus, the humor lies in the fact that the grandfather cares most about the son because he believes the son will care most about the house. This is a great bit of ironic humor, which is part of the nature of the slavophile, who knows, appreciates, and is even fond of the Russian's shortcoming's, his self-centeredness, and his honesty and directness about it -- because in the end, it is a humor based on a simple way of life (in this case, protecting and taking care of the house). It is almost a kind of frontier humor, the sort that any frontier-loving American could appreciate, too. For in this sense, the American Western humor and character is similar to the Russian character -- especially of this sort, as the grandfather embarks on a journey to "the other bank of the Volga" in order to set about preparing for his retirement.
The Russian character is embodied, also, in the description of Stephen Michailovich Bagroff -- "a man of low stature, but his elevated chest, broad shoulders, sinewy arms, and powerful muscular frame showed him to be a man of extraordinary strength" (5). It is a combination of lowness and greatness that marks him as the sort of contradictory, paradoxical (in a way), complex individual that gives slavophilia its simplicity and its nobility. Bagroff embodies strength (in his physique) and humility (in his openness…