Friday, May 31, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 4

We got up a little later on Thursday and went to the main offices of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University in order to register our visas and meet with the university administration. Going to Russia requires a lot of paperwork, including registering your visas once you get there. If you don’t register your visa, you might end up not being able to go back to Russia on your next trip!

When we got there we had some time before the meeting started so we went down the street to a local café to get some coffee. A note about coffee-houses in Russia: they also tend to serve alcohol, hence there’s a good number of “café-bars” on the street. The café we went to was no exception, but I didn’t feel like vodka at nine in the morning. Instead I opted to get a Russian pie, or pirog. The first pirog I saw looked good, until I was told by one of the guys working the counter that its filling was turkey and prunes. “That might be a good combination of sweet and savory,” said Natalia. I was not convinced, and demurred, explaining to the man the association between prunes and old people in Florida. “But it’s good,” said the man, in perfect English. I bought a lemon-filled pie. Natalia was disappointed in my lack of gastronomic boldness, and frankly, after eating the lemon pie, so was I.

We got back to the university in time for tea and turning in our passports. We then got to meet the rector of the university, Fr. Vladimir, along with several other university officials, who explained to us the basic rules of living in the dorms (like no smoking, drinking, or appearing drunk) and promised us towels and a wi-fi router.

For the meeting, I was relatively dressed up in a blazer and dark pants. I figured that we were meeting someone important and that since I packed some nice clothes I might as well use them. That got me some compliments. Alika said, “Oh, John, you look like you belong on The Bachelor! ‘Will you accept this rose?’” There’s a nice feeling from wearing well-fitted dressy clothes, and I probably should do it more often. Fr. Vladimir gave us some roses from St. Matrona’s grave…and now I really did look like I belonged on The Bachelor.

Suited up! Photo: Alika

After our meeting with the rector, we went to a little museum dedicated to the artist Viktor Vasnetsov. Vasnetsov was prolific during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he mainly did paintings and other works centered around Russian folklore. His most famous painting, Bogatyrs, hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery.

Bogatyrs (1898)

The museum was the artist’s old home. Entering it I relived the famous scene in War and Peace where Natasha visits her uncle’s home and dances:

There was something essentially Russian about the place, something I’d like to call folksy asceticism. Vasnetsov was a devout Orthodox and a monarchist, and his way of life in this old house was, in his words, “pre-Petrine”. I felt at ease in this house, a feeling not unlike the lower church in the Feodorovsky Cathedral the previous day.

A common scene in the van. Photo: Alika

After the museum, we went to the Epiphany (Elokhovsky) Cathedral to sing vigil for Saints Cyril and Methodius. The church was the patriarchal cathedral after Christ the Savior was destroyed by the Communists until the end of the Soviet Union. This time we were the right (main) kliros, singing in a gallery high above the nave. We used a few pieces from the composer Lapaev, who was a hit with everybody. After the vigil, we did a short mini concert and then had a festal meal in the cathedral trapeza. On the way back we were in a choral mood, and sang rounds.

* Live from the Kremlin, it’s the Patriarch’s Namesday!
* The largest procession ever
* We finally have free time
* Dinner with a donor

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 3

I woke up early again, took a shower, and got my things ready. We were leaving St. Petersburg that evening. Before we vacated the Lavra, David and I went to the monastery cathedral for the end of liturgy. The Trinity Cathedral was built in the same baroque style as other St. Petersburg churches, but what struck me was the high ceiling, which created a huge interior space. That space was very good acoustically, because the very small kliros was able to make a very big sound. It was a mere quartet, but they made a clear and unified sound. I forgot myself and did a prostration during “We Praise Thee” even though it was still the Paschal season.

View of the Lavra Cemetery

We took our van to the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, which was having its altar feast. Vladika Theodosy was going to serve with the same bishops as yesterday. We entered through the lower church, which was the size of a large Orthodox church in America, and went up the stairs to the cathedral proper, which was, as usual, impressively large. The church was built during the time of Elizabeth, and is of course heavily influenced by the baroque style of the period. I liked the color scheme, which was gold and navy blue. “Oh hey, you match,” I said to Natalia.

They were reading the hours and a priest was doing a general confession for a small crowd of people. We were placed right in front of the altar for the service. I can’t imagine the liturgy being terribly different from what it was in Elizabeth’s time, though perhaps the music would have been more Italianate. The choir sang in a gallery high above the nave. The deacons came out swinging their censers, using that same incense which I still want to identify. The people crowded around the three hierarchs serving. There was a chain separating the vestibule from the nave with a sign prohibiting entry to tourists. This was a working cathedral.

After liturgy, our group ate at the festal banquet. I met Fr. Constantine, a jovial protodeacon who said the loudest litanies. He wore a bright red cassock over his massive frame. We talked about parish life in Hawaii (“I hope your parish turn into diocese!”) and about the Russian Church. He said to me, “Of all Russian saints, only one-third before Revolution! Two-third from Soviet time!”

The meal, like most meals in Russia, consisted of a ton of appetizers followed by the main course. There were also quite a few (we lost count) toasts. Everyone on the head table got up to make a toast, which was followed by singing “Many Years”: “Mnooooooooooogayaaaaaa Leeeeeeetaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” The wine was nice and sweet. Nicky then said to me: “John, stop drinking! We have a concert to sing!”

“Nonsense! Wine makes me a GOOD singer!” At that point, my face was starting to resemble the wine in my glass. Alex Cooley took away my glass.

The cathedral choir got up to sing a set of hymns which were very good and very loud. “Tough act to follow,” I said. And then we got up to do our mini-concert. It went okay (they liked us) but I under the influence I made a couple of mistakes, including one big one at the end.

Moral of the story: Friends don’t let friends sing drunk.

We soon excused ourselves and headed to the shrine of the Holy Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg. Blessed Xenia is the most famous holy fool of the Russian Church, and tens of thousands of pilgrims visit her tomb in the Smolensky Cemetery every year. Like always, our group skipped the line and sang a moleben surrounding her tomb with Vladika Theodosy serving. It was awesome. I also liked the cemetery itself, which was more unkempt and woodsy than American cemeteries, which look more like golf courses.

There’s something about this cemetery that screams out “LIFE!”

Our last stop in St. Petersburg was the Feodorovsky Cathedral, completed in 1913 in honor of the tricentennial of the Romanovs. It was built in the style of churches of Rostov common during the reign of the first Romanov tsar, Michael, in the early 17th century. The church was desecrated by the Bolsheviks and turned into a dairy. After the fall of the Soviet Union restoration work began, and a thriving parish founded.

The lower church of the cathedral is done in a style similar to early churches. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the Baroque churches I saw in St. Petersburg. This gave a respite to my senses, and I felt at ease.

View of the Altar

The upper church was still being restored, and the walls were white and perhaps waiting for frescoes. A very large iconostasis, carved according to the style of ancient Rus, towered over us. Hanging over the nave was a large chandelier in the shape of Monomakh’s Cap, the crown of Russian tsars. We sang “Eis Polla Eti Despota” in the nave, perhaps the first time the words have ever echoed off the church’s walls.

We then took the Sapsan back to Moscow. An aside about trains. Train travel, as opposed to bus or plane travel, is superior in many respects. You aren’t crammed together like sardines, there’s not as much traffic on a rail line, and the view is better. The only advantage that a plane has is that it’s a faster way to go somewhere, but one should add the time it takes to check in one’s bags, go through security, etc.

On the plane I had several interesting discussions about the 50th Psalm, film adaptations of great literature, and life in Hawaii. In three and a half hours we reached Moscow. I missed St. Petersburg so much (or perhaps it was the dormitory bed) that I hardly slept that night.

* I Suit Up!
* Another museum!
* Vigil for the Patriarch’s namesday

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 2

I woke up early, a little past six o’clock. I quietly gathered my things and went across the street to McDonald’s, where they had (as I hoped) wi-fi. I ordered an orange juice. The lady taking my order asked me a couple things which I did not understand at all. Seeing my confused look, the manager just told her to let whatever it was go. I sat down, opened up my computer, did my first Russian facebook status, and turned in my paper for Russian Literature. I was now finished with my third year of seminary!

I got back to the Lavra in time to leave for our first event: the feast day (St. John the Theologian) of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. We were to sing the liturgy there with three other choirs. The Academy was a short walk from where we were staying, and the church was very large, and integrated with the building itself. We were walking in as the Hours were being read. The reader had a little confusion over what hymn to read, causing a priest to come out and berate him. I smiled to myself and thought: They’re not so different, after all!

Liturgy was amazing. Imagine a choir you listen to on a CD, like the Sretensky choir. Now imagine three such choirs, live. The three other choirs we sang with were a men’s choir, a women’s choir, and a mixed choir. The men were dressed in black cassocks, and the women were all in identical blue dresses with white headscarves. They were a part of the choral music school associated with the academy, and thus it was a uniform for them. Another thing I noticed was the beautiful incense, which was very strong, sweet, and straightforward.

After liturgy, we had a festal meal in the Academy’s trapeza. There were all kinds of cold cuts and cheese and the best and meatiest soup I’ve ever had. And then they served us the actual main course. I was warned by my friend Greg that this was going to happen, but I filled up on the appetizers anyway. My other traveling companions were a little more surprised. This unexpected overeating was going to repeat itself over the next few days. After lunch our youth choir got up and did a mini-concert, which turned out okay and the seminarians cheered us on.

We then had a tour of the Academy’s extensive facilities, and also a small museum which had Patriarch Alexis II’s mantia, among other rare items. The Academy even had an online radio station which intersperses contemporary music (I guess if Smashmouth counts as contemporary) with readings from the Fathers.

We then went to several cathedrals and the huge Hermitage museum. Our first stop was the Kazan Cathedral, which was impressively large. Then we went to the Hermitage, one of the largest and most beautiful museums in the world.

We had two hours.
We were just in the Winter Palace part of the Hermitage, which used to be the palace of the Romanovs. I was very tired (“John’s falling asleep again!” Alika would say time and again) and we were rushed through the rooms so I wasn’t able to appreciate the art as much as I could have. It was kind of a sensory overload. But one of my favorite pieces in the museum was this giant mechanical peacock clock:

After the Hermitage we had a gelato break, and then went to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb. I quite loved the architecture of the church, which was reminiscent of medieval churches of Old Muscovy, with a more than passing resemblance to St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Next we went to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which was built by Nicholas I. Everything was very large and the size of the altar itself was amazing. I also got to visit the grave of the great general Mikhail Kutuzov, who led the Russian Army against Napoleon. We sang “Memory Eternal” for him. One thing I didn’t like about the cathedral (and the other cathedrals in St. Petersburg) was the ubiquitous presence of kiosks, which made it feel more like a tourist attraction than a place of worship.

At St. Isaac’s we found the last two members of our choir, Meri and Natalia, who had flown into St. Petersburg that very day. Meri, who had spent six months in Petersburg over a year ago, was very happy to be back, though not so happy that we had gone to see the Hermitage without her.

We then (yes, there’s more) went to the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, which is where nearly* all the emperors and empresses of Russia after Peter the Great have been interred. We served a litya for them in the fortress’s cathedral, which you can see below:

After that, we had a short tour of the Fortress, which is undergoing some restoration work.

As the night came to a close, we had dinner at the Il Patio restaurant. The food wasn’t bad (though again, due to factors I noted yesterday, a little slow) but the cocktails were pretty darn good. I had a mojito to cool off after the long and rather hot day. It was refreshing.

* Another big cathedral!
* Why you should never drink before a concert
* A visit to St. Xenia’s grave
* Going back to Russia Moscow!

* Remains believed to belong to the Royal Martyrs were interred in 1998, but these have not yet been affirmed by the Church as being authentic.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 1

I’d like to tell you a story about how I met your mother my trip to Russia. But first, a caveat: for the entire week I was a little loopy since I suffered from major jet lag and slept on the average of four to six hours each night. So the events which I will recount did not necessarily happen in the order I tell them in, and the details might not be completely right. There’s also quite a few things about which I would not tell you because you would never believe me.

We landed on Monday morning at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Julie, Matthew and I were part of an 11-member choir singing in Russia. The three of us were to meet up in the airport with our driver carrying a sign saying “ПСТГУ* — SYNOD” but we couldn’t find him outside, so we ended up staying inside at a cafe. I was going to get a bottle of water but stopped when I realized that in rubles it was five dollars. Little did I know that this was not only an airport price, but indicative of Moscow prices in general. Julie and I also were going to look for the airport’s Orthodox chapel, but it was a bit far away.

We went outside again, where we fended off the mosquitoes. It was surprisingly hot and muggy, considering that it was early summer. After a while we finally found our driver, who almost was going to leave because he wasn’t able to find us! We piled our stuff in the back seat of a large Nissan van, and zoomed off to Moscow.

Did I say zoomed? Perhaps I should say crawled, or limped, or inched. A team of Volga boatmen pulling our car would have taken us to Moscow faster than in the hellish traffic jam that we faced for what felt like two hours. If Dante were alive today and rewrote his Divine Comedy, Purgatory wouldn’t be a mountain but the traffic jam we were in. What made things worse is that we didn’t have air conditioning in the summer heat. Nevertheless, we were in high spirits: Matthew hadn’t been in Russia in six years, and for Julie and me it was our first time. The three of us amused ourselves by looking at the Cyrillo-English signs, and rejoiced when we saw our first Макдоналдс.

Finally we approached Moscow. Buildings seemed bigger, there were more parks, and the traffic cleared up a little. As we entered the city, what struck me the most was the strange combination of architecture. Crumbling Soviet apartments mixed with ancient onion domes and the brash palettes of New Russia. It did not strike me that we were in Russia until I saw the Kremlin and Red Square from my window.

“Oh, St. Basil’s is smaller than I thought,” I said. That did not keep me from saying “oooh!” and “ahhh!” to every church we passed by. If I started crossing myself after passing each church in Moscow, my arm would have never stopped moving.

We stopped at the Martha-Mary Convent, where we picked up Fr. Andrei Sommer, the organizer of our trip. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the dormitories of St. Tikhon’s University (the aforementioned «ПСТГУ») to settle down, sign up for our rooms, and unpack. The dormitory was not terribly different from other college dormitories, except for the small wooden chapel in the courtyard. The four of us ate at the dorm’s small cafeteria, which served Russian food like pirozhky, cutlets, and other things. I ate some kind of cutlet and drank pear-flavored soda, which was pretty refreshing.

After a lot of waiting in the heat, the second half of our Moscow group, comprised of Alex Cooley, Alika, and David, finally arrived; their flight was delayed. We basically left as soon as they showed up, because we had to take a express train that night to St. Petersburg.

In downtown Moscow we stopped at a department store for dinner. Where we met up with Vladika Theodosy of Seattle, who was going to be traveling with us. I’ve known Vladika from shortly before he was consecrated a bishop in 2008. He’s very good with the youth and so I was glad to finally be able to travel with him. We also finally met up with our maestro, Nicky Kotar, with his equally-talented fiancée Anastasia.

This restaurant, along with every other restaurant we went to, was owned by a Russian émigré from South America who went back to Russia and became a successful restauranteur. He let us eat in all of his restaurants for free! We’re all very grateful to him, so I hope he won’t be offended if I list off several interesting things I noticed about restaurants in Russia:

First, they always serve bottled water (regular and sparkling), never tap, because nobody drinks the tap water in Russia. Second, they serve the meal somewhat differently than in America, which seems to cause service to be slow with a larger group. Third, there is no tipping, just like in the rest of Europe.

After dinner, we walked to the Leningradsky Station, a short distance from the department store. Not looking where I was going, I banged my shin hard against an iron hand truck. “We call that the first Moscow stress,” Anastasia said. I answered that it was the second, if the traffic jam from Sheremetyevo counted.

As we waited on the platform, our tickets and passports in hand, the trains from St. Petersburg arrived, and a very Russian-sounding song about Moscow started playing. It was pretty catchy and became an earworm for Cooley and me. Here’s a full version of it on Youtube, complete with the singer himself in all his 80s glory:

The express train we rode—the Sapsan—was pretty fast and a smooth ride, and we got to Petersburg in about three and a half hours. The train ride itself was sponsored by the owner of the railway, who also sponsored our plane tickets. “Imagine if the president of Amtrak sponsored a Orthodox choir traveling to America!” said Fr. Andrei.

We were greeted in St. Petersburg by a very large, boisterous and friendly man named Alexander, who is probably an important personage in the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. We also met Daniil, a young Ukrainian man who acted as Vladika’s cell attendant during the trip.

After we exited the station, we were amazed by the old-world European architecture lit up by the city lights. I would call St. Petersburg the Paris of the East, but since I have never been to Paris, such a comparison is impossible for me. A short van ride from the station brought us to the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra, home of the theological academy and our place of rest for the next two days. We took our things to the diocesan guesthouse. At the guesthouse, our party gained another member: Alix, Nicky’s younger sister. There were two of us to a room; David and I shared Room 12. Each room was equipped like a hotel, complete with towels (which most of us didn’t bring) and other toiletries. For some reason, David and I got these neon orange indoor slippers that everyone else didn’t have.

What impressed us the most was the showers. They looked like some kind of spaceship pods, with two sliding doors, two shower heads (fixed and movable), and full-body massage jets. After this very long journey, these little comforts helped us fall asleep quickly, which was good because this was just the beginning.

Stay tuned tomorrow for:
* The first of several hierarchal liturgies
* Unexpected overeating
* Baroque churches!
* And the completion of our fellowship

* There were a number of speculations about what “PSTGU” stood for. My favorite was something like “Pittsburgh State Theological Government University.” Actually it stands for «Православный Свато-Тихоновский Гуманитарный Университет» or St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 0

I write these words on the cold floor of the Sheremetyevo Airport’s Terminal D, awaiting my return flight to New York. I haven’t slept in over twenty-four hours and doubt that I will sleep very much on the plane. But while I still have clarity, I’m going to write the first part of what I would like to call

What I Saw In Russia, or, The Drowsy Seminarian.

My first recollection is of standing in line at the Megabus stop in Albany. I was at nearly the end of the long queue. Behind me were a man and woman in sunglasses; the woman wore large hoop earrings. Their favorite pastime seemed to be people-watching: “The girl in the green shirt…She’s got flats…That guy’s got nice arms…It’s a bit much…” I took my seat in the crowded bus next to a sleeping student in sweatpants, with my carry-on between my legs. The safety video was done by a girl who consistently mispronounced the definite article before words beginning with vowels. Instead of “thee aisle” and “thee emergency exit,” she said things like “tha aisle” “tha emergency exit”—it ground my gears a little. The seven-thirty bus left close to eight, and I had to make it to JFK by noon. Otherwise I would miss my flight to Moscow.

I was part of a youth choir chosen to represent the Church Abroad in the Motherland. In addition to participating in services, we were to sing a specially-prepared concert with readings in commemoration of the four hundred years of the House of Romanov. The whole trip was sponsored by generous Russian donors. Not one to turn down anything free, I jumped at the chance when Nicky Kotar offered it to me. Several grueling rehearsals and last-minute stresses later, I was on my way to New York and everything was smooth-sailing. From Penn Station I took the LIRR and then the AirTrain to the airport. In all, the whole process of traveling from Albany to JFK took me less than four hours, even with some traffic.

At the security line, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see my friend Matthew, who is a seminarian at St. Tikhon’s, formerly of Jordanville. After clearing security, we went to the gate, where we were met at the last minute by Julie, the third person on our flight. She had endured a long bus ride to New York, which did not arrive until shortly before our flight. We got on the plane, which left in the early afternoon, set to land in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in the morning. During the nine-hour flight, I watched the movie “Ruby Sparks,” which I thought was a pretty good romantic comedy and interesting deconstruction of modern notions of romantic love, especially the ideal of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” They served two meals on the flight which were pretty good for airplane food. Unfortunately, in the entirety of the nine hours I had ended up sleeping only two; this would have repercussions for the rest of the week.

We landed in Sheremetyevo perhaps a little before nine o’clock in the morning. I was now in Russia. Little did we know how crazy, exciting, and moving the trip would become.

Get ready tomorrow for:
* Russian soda
* Showers, space-age and otherwise
* Drowsiness
* Churches, churches, churches!

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Dear Readers,

Christ is Risen!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my previous posts on War and Peace, which were little more than attempts for me to do my paper. The final installment(s) will be up shortly. Today I finished my last exam (Church History) and just have this literature paper to turn in. Then I will be finished with my third year at Jordanville.

In less than an hour, I will be leaving Jordanville on a trip to Russia. I’m going to be singing in a concert commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Romanovs. It’s my first time to Russia (in fact, my first time in seven years going to a foreign country other than Canada) so it is, of course, very exciting. Hopefully I’ll have some kind of camera to document my trip, or you will have to put up with some poorly-executed sketches.

See you on the other side!

Pierre Bezukhov (Part II)

Pierre, once the illegitimate son of a rakish nobleman, is now the legitimized inheritor to a vast fortune, married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and occupying a high place in society. And yet he is unhappy, especially since his wife has compromised her virtue with another man, namely Dolokhov, one of his former drinking buddies. Dolokhov was in fact living at his house and even borrowed money from him.

The breaking point came at a dinner in honor of General Bagration, one of the heroes of the Battle of Austerlitz. That very morning, Pierre had received an anonymous letter making fun of him, saying that “he saw poorly through his spectacles and that his wife’s liaison with Dolokhov was a secret to no one but him.” At the dinner Dolokhov mocks him with a toast: “To the health of beautiful women, Petrusha, and of their lovers.” Pierre soon challenges him to a duel, and the next morning, the two meet at the Sokolniki woods with their seconds and begin the duel. As it is his first duel, Pierre’s second Nesvitsky has to show him how to hold the pistol and shoot it.

On the count of three, the two adversaries approach each other. Pierre fires first. Bang! In his childishness, he “smiled at his own impression and stood still.” When the smoke clears, Dolokhov still keeps going, but he was shot in the side, and soon collapses. He aims and fires, but misses due to Pierre’s ridiculous luck.

Coming to his senses, Pierre realizes that he could become a murderer, and runs through the snow yelling out “stupid…stupid! Death…lies…” Everything becomes topsy-turvy and meaningless to him. The society which mocked him for being a cuckold now mocks him for dueling, because of the apparently scanty evidence of infidelity. Hélène herself bitterly reproaches him, and Pierre, losing it, nearly kills her with a giant marble slab. They separate, and Pierre goes to Petersburg; Hélène retains control of much of Pierre’s fortune.

In St. Petersburg, Pierre gets introduced into Freemasonry, with his mentor being Osip Bazdeev, who is sort of like an Obi-Wan figure to him. Pierre is inducted in a secret ceremony (natch) and throws himself wholeheartedly into Masonic activity and beliefs. This starts an obsession with mysticism, esotericism and the like, which for Pierre helped him answer the aching questions that he had about the meaning of life. He even has the gumption to kick out Prince Vassily when he comes to ask Pierre to reunite with Hélène.

However, Pierre’s enthusiasm for Freemasonry does not pan out well. On the basis of his new creed he attempts to reform his estates in Southern Russia, but due to his lack of practicality and the wiliness of the chief steward his reforms don’t work out. Moreover, he realizes that his brother Masons aren’t as charitable and focused on brotherhood as he once thought, and that for many (such as Princess Drubetskoy’s son Boris) joining the Masons is basically just another way to step up the social ladder.

Yet the beliefs which Pierre adopted—which happen to be not too far from Christianity—make an impact on his friend Prince Andrei. After the Battle of Austerlitz, a wounded Prince Andrei returned as if from the grave to his family estate near Smolensk. There, he saw his wife die in childbirth, which throws him into a deep depression. Pierre says to him, “If there is a God and if there is a future life, then there is truth, there is virtue; and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must life, we must love, we must believe…that we do not live only on this scrap of earth…” Andrei is reminded by this of the time, when he fell on the field of battle, that he saw the infinite sky above. And he starts to live again.

Soon, Pierre introduces Andrei to a family friend, Natasha Rostov, a young girl of sixteen who is just entering society at the New Year’s Ball. They dance splendidly, and something awakens in both Andrei and Natasha. Pierre, having unhappily reunited with his wife, is sullen because (despite her stupidity) she gained a rather high reputation. From there, Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha’s lives will be irrevocably intertwined.

To be continued…

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pierre Bezukhov (Part I)

For my final paper for Russian Literature, I read War and Peace and decided to write about one of the main characters, Pierre Bezukhov, who is an unlikely hero. Large, fat, and bespectacled, he stumbles into fashionable society and shocks people with his unconventional political views. He is both physically and socially awkward, and does not fit the conventional characteristics of a hero. Yet in War in Peace, Leo Tolstoy makes Pierre one of the main protagonists for precisely this reason. Pierre shows through his development in the novel that what is important is not necessarily external actions, but one’s inner attitude. Thus, by the end of the novel, Pierre does not change externally—he doesn’t become less absent-minded or lose weight—he does undergo a complete spiritual transformation due to the many misadventures and sufferings that he undergoes.

We first meet Pierre at a St. Petersburg soirée in 1805. Tolstoy describes him as being “a massive, fat young man” and the illegitimate son of a rich nobleman, Count Bezukhov. Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress and the hostess, immediately feels discomfort at Pierre’s arrival, not on account of his physical girth but because of his “intelligent and at the same time shy, observant, and natural gaze which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.” Pierre, being raised abroad in Paris, is an outsider ignorant of the unwritten rules of society, making him somewhat of a wild card. Anna Pavlovna’s fears are confirmed when Pierre has a lively political conversation with the French viscount who was the guest of honor. Pierre defends Napoleon’s execution of the duc d’Enghien, saying that it was “a necessity of state,” and even praises the French Revolution, which did him no favors with the other party guests, who pepper him with questions. Pierre answered them all with a simple, childish smile, which showed that even with his radical views, he really was harmless.

Pierre acts as a foil to his best friend Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who matches Pierre’s youthful exuberance and idealism with cynicism. Prince Andrei, tired of society life and of his marriage to the beautiful Lise, is entering the army to fight against Napoleon. “Never, never marry, my friend,” he tells Pierre, “Marry when you’re old and good for nothing…Otherwise all that’s good and lofty in you will be lost.” Andrei wants to leave his wife and society for the sake of greatness, but Pierre begins to become tangled up in worldly affairs, since he might inherit his father’s immense fortune.

Despite becoming potentially one of the richest men in Russia, Pierre is quite clueless. He carouses with another friend, Anatole Kuragin, and gets himself banished to Moscow. When he visits his dying father while he receives Holy Unction, he acts out of place, like everything is somewhat alien to him. Tolstoy expertly shows Pierre’s feeling of detachment from his father and everything surrounding him by calling all the clergy participating in the rite “clerical persons.” Although he was raised in Paris and had no real connection with his father, Pierre felt societal expectations pressuring him into awkwardly acting out the part of a dutiful son at his father’s deathbed.

Pierre is surrounded by people who claim they have his best interests in mind, but have their own ulterior motives. Prince Vassily, Anatole’s father, wants to covertly change Count Bezukhov’s will so he could inherit the lion’s share of the wealth. Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy, a family friend of the Bezukhovs, wants Pierre to inherit everything so she and her son Boris could benefit. Prince Vassily’s machinations fail, and Count Bezukhov dies making Pierre (whom the tsar conveniently recognized as legitimate) the new count and inheritor of a vast fortune.

Hélène and Pierre
As for Pierre, he remains subject to the whims of other people as well as to his own passions—he is stuck in the mire of the world. St. Theophan the Recluse describes the world as full of people who go around in circles, questioning, seeking pleasure, and being subject to their own whims: “There is an entire world full of people…whose every way in all of this has led to a system, placed everyone under its laws, and made these laws a necessity for everyone who belongs to this sphere.” Thus, Pierre gets caught up with the beguiling but empty-headed Hélène Kuragin, Prince Vassily’s daughter. Pierre finds her physically attractive but is full of doubt because she doesn’t seem like the brightest lampada in the chapel. Yet all of society, and especially the Kuragins, seem to conspire to put them together, until finally, after a party, Prince Vassily marches in on the two of them and acts as if Pierre and Hélène are already engaged in a tragicomic scene. Left alone, Pierre says to her, “Je vous aime,” and they kiss. Yet he soon comes to regret this Je vous aime. When Hélène starts to be unfaithful to Pierre things start to take a turn for the worse for him. Trapped in a loveless marriage and surrounded by people who only want his money, it does not take too much to make Pierre snap…

To be continued.