Aleksandr Pushkin Monism Russia Russian Culture Russian Culture and Thought Russian history Russian history and culture Russian monism Russian society Russian thought Russian Tselostnost`


by Gordon M. Hahn


Some two decades ago historian Richard Wortman published a journal article and then book chapter examining the role of the concept of unity or integrity (tselost’) in Russian political culture, concluding that Russia had a unique propensity to focus on unity. The study focused for the most part on territorial integrity and countering ethinic and religious divisions and somewhat less on the unity of power and authority in the person of the sovereign autocrat.[1] A group of Russian scholars critiqued Wortman’s journal article, and their comments were included in Wortman’s book at the end of the journal article-based chapter, raising some important issues. First, they noted, unity or integrity needs to be defined and categorized methodologically. In Wortman’s treatment was tselost’ “an instrument of contemporary scholarship,” “some original concept with historically fixed meanings that would evolve over time,” an “element of legal discourse, a cultural category, an ideological construct,” what precisely? Second, they suggested that study of the concept in pre-Petrine Russia “with its specific vision of wholeness” was in order. Comparatively, they asked: “How idiosyncratic was the concern of indivisibility and cohesion to the Russian empire?”[2] Wortman replied that tselost’ in his usage was a “cultural category” of “representation of the monarchy,” “one element of the political culture of Russian monarchy,” and “a principal symbol that infused the thinking of the monarch and his state elite.” Tselost’ was “more than a legal term” becoming a “a good in itself”[3] and took on a “sacral character…that lent it moment and significance, which may not have characterized other systems.” Wortman asks: “(I)n which (other states) did (tselost’) arise as a principal goal and symbol that address an ongoing problem, and persist from era to era?”[4] In sum, both Wortman’s article/chapter and the Russian comments point to the value of further research and elaboration on the hypothesis of an aspect in Russian culture we might tentatively label tselost’.

I posit four basic kinds of tselostnost’ in Russia discourse and aspiration: monism, unity, sobornost’/collectivism, and universalism. I define ‘monism’ as aspiration or assumption in religious theology (Orthodox Christianity) and philosophy, including the truly formal philosophy that emerged in late 19th century Russia. Unity is more of a political concept most relevant to political culture and here is conceptualized as an aspiration or approximation of unity in society, politics, culture, ideology, even economics. Sobornost’/collectivism has political implications here, but it is primarily socio-cultural and centers around the subordination of the individual’s interests and preferences to those of the group, encompassing Russian ideas such as sobornost’, institutions such as the pre-Soviet village obshchina, and Soviet collectivism. Finally, universalism is an aspiration, sometimes informing practice, conduct, and even policy that seeks to increase the influence of one or more of the forms of Russian tselostnost’ to a culture or entity beyond those of Russia: to Slavdom, to the Orthodox world, to the Christian world, to Europe or the ‘West’, to all mankind, to the universe. We encounter forms of tselostnost’ or the desire for it in Orthodox Christianity as embodied in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), in the rejection by the ‘Old Believers’ of the ROC in 1666 when the Church attempted to reform ‘absolutes’ in its praxis, in Slavophile communalism, in Autocratic Absolutism, in Marxist-Leninist collectivism, in the dream of universal social justice, unity and brotherhood, in Russian formal philosophy, cosmism, and transhumanism.

In this excerpt from my working paper “Tselostnost`,” I examine the presence of monism in the work of Russia’s great poet and thinker, Aleksandr Pushkin.


The great Russian literary tradition was born with the rise of the country’s greatest and first national poet, Aleksander Pushkin (born 26 May 1799), the first great cultural product of the enlightenment century that preceded him. After his untimely death in a duel on 29 January 1837 Pushkin remained the centerpiece of Russian literature, and this literature retains enormous influence over Russian thought and culture. It is safe to say that it is the most influential intellectual and cultural ‘institution’ today, with the possible exception of Russian Orthodox faith. Indeed, these two institutions have overlapped for centuries. The religious aspect of Pushkin’s poetry – where one is more likely to encounter monist articulations – was given short shrift compared to its other aspects, except among theologians and religious philosophers such as Vladimir Solovev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Semyon Frank.[5] This was the case in part because of the restrictions on such interpretations extant for seven decades under atheist Soviet regime. Since the USSR’s demise, however, there has been emerging interest in this aspect of the work of Russia’s still most popular poet. There is considerable religious material for literary and cultural scholars to consider, especially in Pushkin’s later years in the 1830s when a religious sensibility evolved into more fervent faith.[6]

There is, limited albeit, religio-monist expression even in Pushkin’s earliest works. In his 1821 poem ‘Christ Has Risen”, Pushkin speaks of the “god-man.”[7] His 1826 poem “The Prophet” depicts Christ at the end of his wandering 40 days in the desert, with God the Father intervening in the world to send him out of the desert and back to his flock of mankind to spread the good news’ of salvation:

I lay like a corpse in the desert

And God’s voice called to me:

“Rise, prophet, and see and heed,

Fulfill my will

And, bypassing the seas and lands,

Burn people’s hearts with the word.”[8]

His 1922 poem “I Love Your Unknown Twilight” suggests doing away with “earthly feelings” and the “earthly world” for an “unearthly world”

where everything shines

Imperishable glory and beauty

Where pure flame devours

Imperfection of being.[9]

In his 1827 poem “Angel”, an angel stands at the doors of Eden when he encounters Satan who says he did not hate everything in Heaven or everything on earth.[10] Pushkin’s brief but moving “Epitaph to an Infant” of the same year speaks eloquently for itself:

In radiance, in joyful peace,

At the throne of the eternal creator,

With a smile, he looks into earthly exile,

He blesses mother and prays for father.[11]

In “Monastery on Kazbek” (1829) Pushkin seems to approve the desire to enter a monastery, pleading in the closing couplet: “There, in a cell beyond the clouds,/ Hide me in the neighborhood of God!”[12] In his 1836 commentary on the Italian dramatist and author Silvio Pelicco’s On the Duties of Men (Dei doveri degli uomini), Pushkin wrote that Pellico belonged “to the highest degree to those chosen, whom the angel of the Lord greeted in the name of men of benevolence.”[13]

Overall, Pushkin’s monism, though not his religiosity, is somewhat superficial in the sense that it does not extend beyond beliefs traditional for Russian Orthodox believers or even Christians in general. Pushkin’s religious poems do not touch in any depth the cosmological issues of the unity of God and Man, Heaven and Earth, the spiritual and matter, the divinization of Man, and so on. They are mostly concerned with issues of prayer to God, sin, and repentance. However, it is hard to agree with Surat that “in Pushikin’s lyrics there are no appeals to the Most High” but only “unconscious, implicit incipient prayer” in six poems, none of which are touched on above.[14] In Pushkin’s 1836 poem “I Erected a Monument,” the poet appeals to God for creative inspiration: “By the command of God, O Muse, be obedient….”[15]

Among those Russians who have discerned a more profound religiosity and therefore more multifaceted monism in Pushkin’s art is the Russian intuitionist philosopher Semyon Frank, whose work Surat commends.[16] Frank declared that for Pushkin “poetry itself is already ‘prayer’ (‘we are born…for sweet sounds and prayers’) and “(t)he poet, similar to a prophet, knows only one goal: fulfilling God’s will, ‘burn people’s hearts with the word.’”[17] He finds in Pushkin’s “erotic aesthetics” a description of sensual love that “touches other worlds,” his beloved women are “angels ‘with a fiery sword,’ speaking in a ‘dead language about the secrets of eternity and the grave.’” Pushkin’s maiden in his 1829 poem “A Poor Knight Once Lived on Earth…”, according to Frank, evoked for Solovev ‘Divine Sofia’ of Orthodox Christianity, discussed further below.[18]

In Frank’s views, Pushkin’s “Two Feelings” expresses the “internal connection between the familial abode and the motherland is based on the united feeling of the rootedness of personal spiritual life in the soil from which it (the internal connection) grew and its connection with closest familial surroundings, from which it feeds from”[19]:

Two feelings are marvelously close to us –

In them the heart finds food –

Love for native ashes,

Love for fathers’ coffins.

Based on them for centuries

By the will of God himself

Self-standing humans

The pledge of his greatness …

Life-giving shrine!

Without them the world would be dead,

Without them our crowded world is a desert,

A soul is an altar without the divine.[20]

Pushkin’s invocation ‘By the will of God himself’, though not an appeal to God, is a clear recognition of God’s intervention in the world. Frank’s philosophical intuitionist perspective (examined further below) discovers in this poem a “connection made between spiritual individualism and spiritual collectivity” (sobornost’). “The unity of this individual-collective essence of spiritual life is infused with a religious basis.”[21]

Pushkin also is endeared by and sacralizes the Slavic pagan myth of the domovoi and the penates or home dieties found in the ancient Roman and Greek cultures, declaring his love for them, and in his poem “One More High Important Song” these “domestic divinities” love him and teach him “immortal and secret feelings.”[22] But this is a rarity; almost all of Pushkin’s references to another unseen world are Christian. Finally, intuitionists like Frank and the “God-seekers,” with whom Frank was theo-philosophically close, as discussed further below, tended to see tselostnost’ in many places and many ways. Here is no exception, as Frank writes of “the integral (tselostnyi) spirit of Pushkin the poet,” whose thought is always “directed on the full entirety and tselostnost’ of existence and life.”[23]

Philosopher and culturologist Vladimir Kantor describes how Pushkin addressed the question of Peter the Great’s “appearance in anti-heroic Moscow” on a religious basis, which Kantor himself seems to share, reflecting God-Man and Heaven-Earth monism:

(Peter the Great’s) appearance, strictly speaking, is explainable neither by historical preconditions, nor genetics. …Pushkin proposed his formula of Russia, Russian history, and its chances to break from the embrace of malice and grief. And his formula is founded on faith in the miracle of Christian revelation and transformation (Kantor’s italics). He spoke about the fact that man “sees the general course of things and can conclude from one profound proposal, often justified by time, but it is impossible for him to foresee a happening of a powerful and instant weapon of providence. (Pushkin’s italics).” Precisely Peter became the happening, that weapon of providence by the prime mover, the “glorious skipper,” “by whom our Earth is moved,” and who kept Russia “over an abyss itself” (Kantor’s italics). When no one expected salvation, when the country degenerated into wild revolts and petty intrigues by boyars, the Transformer appeared. (‘finally Peter appeared’), which no one, no mind could foresee, for it was a phenomenon, i.e., an event, for Russia a happening of salvation (Kantor’s italics).[24]

Russian thought about Pushkin seems to have produced more monism than the poet himself. A good example is the following from Surat and those she cites:

Pushkin did not rush to Heaven from the earth, but rather he brought Heaven to earth. Let us recall Belinsky again: “There is a sky in Pushkin’s poetry, but the earth is always permeated by it.” Belinsky seems to us more accurate than Rozanov, who wrote that Pushkin came “to love this beautiful land and…to raise it to heaven as soon as possible,” but with the apparent opposition, they, in fact, say the same thing: in Pushkin, God lives in peace and reveals to the poet the human soul, history, nature, and every detail of creation.[25]

Kantor’s and Surat’s comments demonstrate the remaining power of both Pushkin’s creations and monism in Russian thought and culture well into the post-Soviet era.


[1] Richard S. Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History: Charismatic Words from the 18th to the 21st Centuries (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

[2] Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, p. 178.

[3] Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, pp. 179-80. Wortman notes as well that although the concept was used in the Hapsburg monarchy, “it did prevent granting autonomy to national areas” or the emperor from conferring authority on a chancellor.” Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, pp. 180-1. However, it should be noted that, as Wortman himself references in his article, Poland and Finland had autonomy within the empire. Also, as alluded to by Wortman, power was divided under the new 1906 Fundamental Laws, with some power being transferred from the sovereign to the government and Duma.

[4] Wortman, The Power of language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, p. 181.

[5] See Irina Surat, “Pushkin i religioznaya problema,” Novyi mir, No. 1, 1994,, last accessed on 4 November 2020. See also Frank’s “Religioznost’ Pushkina” in Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, pp. 213-26.

[6] Semyon Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 1996), p. 221.

[7] A. S. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya literatura, 1959), Tom 1, p. 177.

[8] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, pp. 148-9.

[9] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 1, p. 189.

[10] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, p. 174.

[11] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, p. 244.

[12] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, p. 269.

[13] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 5, p. 192.

[14] Surat, “Pushkin i religioznaya problema.”

[15] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, p. 460.

[16] Surat, “Pushkin i religioznaya problema.”

[17] Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 222. Similar views were expressed by others including ROC hierarchs, see Surat, “Pushkin i religioznaya problema”.

[18] Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 223.

[19] Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 224.

[20] A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 3 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1977), p. 203. The version of “Two Feeling” in the 1959 edition of Pushkin’s collected works is censor, removing the second stanza and the word ‘soul’ in the third stanza. See Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, p. 596.

[21] Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 225.

[22] Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 224. For Pushkin’s poem “One More High Important Song,” see “Eshcho odnoi vysokoi vazhnoi pesni,” Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh, Tom 2, p. 589.

[23] Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, pp. 260 and 268.

[24] Kantor, Lyubov’ k dvoiniku: Mif i realnost’ russkoi kul’tury, pp. 128-9.

[25] Surat, “Pushkin i religioznaya problema.”

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