The Importance of Russian Culture and the Russian Church: A Personal Testimony

"As I worked, I found that all study of Russian culture lead inevitably to the Russian church. Therefore I decided to begin my book (Land of the Firebird) with the coming of the Orthodox faith to Russia, because this faith and the church, was the rock on which the great and beautiful Russian culture was founded."

This article from our archives was first published on RI in May 2019

Suzanne Massie is a 40 year phenomenon in the field of US-Russia relations. A brilliant and passionate writer, she is author of some of the greatest classics about Russia. She became a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the course of advising them about Russian culture and psychology. Her life story, and how it became intertwined with Russia reads like an adventure novel. See RI’s profile here. A resident of Maine, she keeps an apartment in St. Petersburg. Raised Episcopalian she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. She is an outspoken critic of how dishonest the media are about Russia and is brilliant in explaining to Americans why Russian culture is one of the most exciting phenomenona ever. Archive of Massie's articles on RI.

This brilliant speech was given in New York in 1981. In it Massie recounts the remarkable story of how she became connected to Russia, how Russian culture and Christianity are inseparable from each other, what she learned about suffering from her Russian friends and caring for her hemophiliac son, and how the Russian Orthodox faith taught her to accept what life sends us. Given 8 years before the collapse of Communism, it is as relevant today as it was then.


Commencement Address
June 7, 1981
Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary
Jordanville, New York

I come to you today to testify to the importance of Russian culture and the Russian church in one life – my own. People whom I meet -- whether they are Russians or Americans -- always seem to ask me the same question. How is it, they ask, that I an American, have become so interested in Russia and Russian culture when it is not my native background? Always there is not only curiosity, in this question, but even incredulity. Each time I answer the question in the same way. Yes, I say, there are some facts and reasons I can give you, but essentially there remains something mysterious, unexplained and wonderful, in the true sense of that word. It is finally, simply a question of love. Love is always a mystery. No one can define it exactly, but when it happens it is the most real and important thing in one's existence.

In the beginning there was nothing in my life that would have lead anyone to believe that I would devote my career and the major part of my life to date to searching out and learning about Russian culture. I am Swiss by background, descended on both sides of my family from sturdy Bernese farmers we trace back to the 13th century.

A remarkable set of coincidences is responsible for leading me to you, and I once heard a Bishop of the Orthodox Church say that God comes to us in coincidences.

Even before I was born, the coincidences began.

My Swiss grandfather was, at the turn of the century, the representative of watch making industries of Neufchatel. Grandfather traveled to Russia once a year for many years. He made friends and they were forever urging him to send one of his children to visit. He always refused, until one year when my mother was 15, she fell ill. The doctor said that a change of climate was indicated and that Russia would be perfect. So she was sent off on a train to Moscow to visit a Russian family, friends of my grandfather's, for the summer; a normal enough occurrence in those days when travel and visiting Russia was a natural thing. But it happened to be the summer of 1914. War began. There was no question of sending a young girl back in those times and everyone thought the troubles would be over soon. But this was not to be the case, and my mother lived with this family through the Revolution and finally escaped with them through the south, and Sevastopol.

For over two years her family heard not a word from her. She vanished; they did not know whether she was alive or dead. Suddenly, at age 21, she reappeared in Athens in 1921. This dramatic family story was the background of my childhood existence. Although I can only dimly remember it, I know now that my mother filled my childhood with Russian tales -- I recently came across an old book with a tale of Baba Yaga that was given to me on my fifth birthday. I cut my teeth on a small enamel Easter egg which Mother often wore on a chain around her neck, given to her by a famous ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater. Sometimes, when I was a child, I would be taken to meet Russian friends of my mother. They would look at me and say, "You have a Russian soul," but of course I did not know what they meant.

Many years went by and I did not pursue or learn anything more about Russia, although my mother taught me to love the ballet and I studied dance for ten years. It was not until much later, when I was a young married woman, that I was confronted with a far more disturbing mystery. When our first child, a son, was born, my husband and I rejoiced, but joy soon turned to fear and sorrow when, at the age of five months, as a result of a routine blood examination, we learned that our beautiful child had hemophilia. It was a stroke of lightning. There was no hemophilia in our family. We searched carefully through those Swiss archives back over a hundred years. Nothing. Mystery. We were one of those 40 percent of the cases called "spontaneous" for which even today there is no medical explanation.

It was a catastrophe that seemed to shatter all our hopes and dreams. Yet, unknown to me in those dark moments within this sorrow was contained the seed of our future creativity. But then, bewildered and grieved, I struggled against my fate. I attacked it with all the rationality and work ethic which was my background and with which I had been raised. I thought that if I worked harder, learned more, somehow, by my own will alone, I could conquer. But no matter what I did, or how hard I struggled, my son suffered. I could not control my fate. No matter how much I tried to guard him, bleeding would strike. I spent hours and nights in hospitals. He often suffered terrible pain. I was told that he would never walk (this did not in the end prove to be true, but for many years, it was).

Yet of all the difficult things I had to face in those dark hours of my beginning, the hardest was a sense of great isolation. I had not realized so immediately until then that contemporary American society demands that we remain forever beautiful, healthy and young. Grief and suffering are something to be hidden from view so that they do not intrude and disturb the relentlessly happy picture that we have imposed on our American society. Although I was the same person, it seemed as if a wall of glass had descended between me and the rest of the world. It was a bewildering and frightening experience. I felt totally alone and cut off from all the people I knew. When Bobby was two years old, he had a completely unexpected, and to this day unexplained, cerebral hemorrhage. He did recover, but in my night of despair, I decided that I had to do something very hard to save my sanity.

And it was Russia to which I turned. Why? To this day I do not know, nor do I remember the name of the neighbor who told me that at the local high school there were adult education classes for eight dollars a semester in the Russian language. I went. And the teacher looked at me and said, “You have a Russian soul.” We became friends. Through her, and other Russian neighbors living in nearby Nyack, I began to learn to look at my experience in a different way. These friends taught me to look into my soul, to hope that perhaps my suffering contained if not the probability, then at least the possibility of new knowledge and creativity -- that I had been given a great challenge rather that a curse and punishment. They invited me to Easter services where I found joy and hope. They accepted Bobby when others were afraid to risk having him in their homes. From my son's illness I finally learned to accept that there was nothing I could do to predict or control my destiny, that all was in God’s hands. From my Russian friends I was given a human support and comfort that I think, saved me.

It was because of the new perceptions of the world brought by our son's illness that we embarked on the book which became - Nicholas and Alexandra. I worked very closely with my husband and the book became a family project into which we both poured all our energies. In the course of helping with research and editing, I was, was for the first time, able to pour my interest and love for the old Russia my mother had taught me to love as a child. It was at the end of the writing of the book that we decided to go to visit the Soviet Union to see the city of St. Petersburg where so much of the drama which had so interested us had happened. I have always thought it symbolically appropriate that the only way we were able to finance this trip was to borrow on our life insurance.

For there, my story took another strange and intense turn. Quite inexplicably, from the first moment I arrived in St. Petersburg I felt that I had always known it. I knew no one, but I felt that someone would find me. I waited. And again, quite accidentally in the palace of Pavlovsk, I met a poet. With him I went through the looking glass that separates foreigners from Russians. After that first trip I went every six months for five years and met many Russians of varied backgrounds and experiences. The strange thing was that my eleven years of living with hemophilia had somehow prepared me to meet them. I had learned to live with fear, with constant anxiety and helplessness, with never knowing what the next day would bring. Although our experiences had been different, somehow they recognized me and I recognized them. It was like finding a family that I had never known existed.

It was they who took me by the hand, and with great love and respect showed me every detail of their beloved "Piter," pointing out architectural details of buildings that were shabby and in disrepair, who spoke with love of their splendid churches destroyed and desecrated, who quoted their writers and poets of the past from memory. It was they who told me sadly, “We used to have such beautiful holidays, but now we are forgetting how to celebrate them.” (I add in parenthesis that it was to try to help answer this question for them that I wrote the chapter in Land of the Firebird that is titled, “Ice Slides and Easter Eggs.”) The remarkable thing about all this was that it came from a young generation which had had no contact with the past. And from the first moment in the Soviet Union what I saw, and what touched me deeply, was suffering mirrored in eyes that I shall never forget.

I knew that there was something miraculous in all these meetings and that they could not last long. So while it was possible, I walked into every door that opened and was never afraid. One thing that is quite amazing, in a society which rewards informers, is not that there are so many – but that there are so few. Out of these trips grew my first book, The Living Mirror: Five Young Poets from Leningrad, and of course inevitably, the time came when I was no longer granted a visa. No reasons were given. There were none, simply, I suppose, I knew too many people. Once again I struggled against fate, but to no avail. It had been my hope to write a book on the magnificent restoration of Pavlovsk Palace; a work that had been accomplished with great love and devotion to the beauties of the past. But I was not permitted to return.

And again, through a strange set of circumstances, just at the time that I sorrowfully concluded that my work was conclusively barred, another door opened. I was asked to prepare a lecture for the Metropolitan Museum that would evoke the glories of the culture of old Russia. It was the work I did for this, that my book, Land of the Firebird, began to grow. As I worked, I found that all study of Russian culture lead inevitably to the Russian church. Therefore I decided to begin my book with the coming of the Orthodox faith to Russia, because this faith and the church, was the rock on which the great and beautiful Russian culture was founded.

During the course of working on my book, I was, in effect, removed from the world for the better part of three years. I spent those days in a small room reading books. In such an isolated atmosphere, ideas and perceptions appeared to me. I found myself wondering what was Russia like 60 years after the Mongol invasions? -- those invasions which were of such destructive intensity that they can be called the atom bomb of their day. After the cataclysm, Russia was a depressed, corrupted, destroyed land. The promising civilization of Kiev, the great palaces, the churches, the books, the great men, all were gone, the population dispersed and terrified. Yet, despite everything, wrote the historian George Fedotov, "The Christianity of Kiev remained a living memory in the hearts of the people.” Monks traveled the land, comforting and gathering the survivors. It was the church that led Russia out of the darkness. In those days the church was Russia, and Russia was the church. I believe that in a very real way, this is still true today. The church has always represented the finest aspirations of the Russian people and provided them with inspiration and strength in the darkest hours of their history. There have been no darker days than those of the past 60 years.

The Russian people have absorbed the brunt of the greatest shock of modern times -- Communism -- an idea which came clothed in the robes and the words of idealism, but in fact concealed only tyranny and death. All Russians, wherever they are, have suffered from this cataclysm in physical and moral ways which are beyond the understanding of any Westerner. They have been dispersed all over the world, forced into new paths, new lives, while those who remained behind have been terrorized, tortured, silenced. By absorbing this terrible historical shock of the 20th century, I believe that Russia may well have saved us in the West, as the Russians in the 13th century once saved European civilization from the Mongols. The price paid by them was very high. The destruction of the nation and the spirit is today perhaps even more profound. Yet sixty years is but a moment in historical terms and the final story is far from told.

It is not an accident that the Soviet government has always considered religion and the Orthodox faith its greatest enemy ... that they have tried in every way to destroy allegiance to the church among the people, to lead them astray by false promises of material benefits, to terrify them, besot them with alcohol, isolate them from the world and envelop them in lies. But the fact that they have tried for sixty years with all the might at their command to destroy faith and have failed, is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit which yearns for the nourishment of its Creator and cannot and will not allow the divine flame to be extinguished.

It is also a tribute to the extraordinary strength and endurance of the Russian people. I sometimes think that only Russians could have absorbed such a shock to the soul and survived it all. And survive they have: beleaguered, weakened, dispirited, but alive ... and searching for the spirit. Among the most moving church services I have ever attended are those in the Soviet Union where I have seen strong men singing the service with tears pouring unashamedly down their faces. I know a poet in the Soviet Union who is of deep Orthodox Faith. As a child every day he was beaten for his beliefs, and yet he maintained such integrity that he said that from his early years he knew that if he read the newspapers he would never learn to be a poet, so he studied and took his language from the Church alone.

I heard this phrase from a young man who was searching for faith, “We have learned that man cannot live without beauty, without spirituality, and without religion.” To me, this is the essential message of our part of the twentieth century. The mystery, the miracle, is that this message is coming in its purest form from Russia. Solzhenitsyn once wrote that when culture is taken away from a people, it is like committing a lobotomy on them. Milos Kundera, in his brilliant Book of Laughter and Forgetting, treats this same terrible phenomenon in Czechoslovakia. Yet we have seen the power of belief in Poland, where despite everything, religion has conquered, and without violence. I believe that as it once did long ago, only the Orthodox Church can lead Russia out of her darkness. Only the Church can restore to her the roots of culture, identity, strength.

Today the Soviet Union is the spiritual battleground of the world and on the outcome of this battle the fate of the entire world may depend. You are the shepherds. Your brothers in the Soviet Union are searching in the darkness for their lost faith and culture. Many are like sad and ignorant children, but there are heroes among them: men and women who are not only prepared, but who, every day, even as we are here, are suffering and dying for the principles of the human spirit. The West is in great part deaf and even blind to this reality. We who know and love Russia must unceasingly remind them of this suffering. For although the West is often blind, nevertheless it senses that something is lacking in our society, that we are lonely, alienated, hungering for spiritual nourishment.

Russia can help to provide us with that nourishment that we so much need. Dostoevsky once wrote that the West was the body and Russia the spirit and that the body could not exist without the spirit. You in the Orthodox faith are, for Russia, the living link between the past and the future, and for us in America, an essential connection between East and West. As a Westerner, step by step, I have been led closer to you.

Thanks to my contact with Russian culture and the Russian church, my life has been enriched so greatly that I cannot imagine it without you. Thanks to you, I have learned to think differently, to accept my life as it unfolds in all of its variety. I have learned to trust mystery.

From my contact with Russia I have begun to learn how to take a long view, something difficult for us in the West - and greater patience.

A poet in the Soviet Union wrote me, "Perhaps we are all nothing but witnesses in a gigantic trial whose outcome is as yet unknown, but whose outlines we can somehow perceive, as behind a driving rain we can sometimes glimpse the silhouettes of angels."

I do not know the purpose of having been given my love for the Russian land, but I do know that I feel that I have a mission to share my feeling as widely as I can and this I have been trying to do, in lectures and in books.

You are witnesses to the great Russian culture and faith. And, when you are serving in your various ways with your various talents, you may one day see someone who is looking and listening with great attention ... a stranger, as I once was, who is searching and needs to find that which you alone can give. Then I hope that you will remember me and reach to that stranger, for one never knows what may happen by this contact.


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