The famous Russian Soul

The famous Russian Soul
12 November 2020

The concept of the Russian soul (русская душа) is quite famous, and describes the idea that certain character traits are unique to the Russian nation. It kind of goes without saying that people have traits which are given to them by the culture they inhabit, but most people don’t talk about a national ‘soul’. Where did this idea come from and why are people so obsessed by it?

Where did it come from?

Nationalistic ideas were pretty much always popular in Russia, but there was no mention of the ‘Russian soul’ until the 19th century. 

Previously, the word ‘soul’ had been used by Peter the Great to refer to tax units. In ‘Dead Souls’ (Мёртвые души), written by Nikolai Gogol in 1842, a landowner uses the same unit, ‘souls’, to count serfs which he buys and sells. However, Gogol also allows the word to be understood in a religious sense, in order to highlight the spiritual consequences of the landowner’s treatment of his serfs. 

Literary critic Vissarion Belinskii then referred to the ‘Russian soul’ in his appraisal of Gogol’s work. The term then became more widespread and came to represent innate characteristics of the Russian people. These characteristics were not only typically Russian, but, most importantly, unique to the Russian people. The Russian soul was what Russia had to offer to the world. In the works of great Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov appeared more and more attempts to define the Russian man whilst rejecting Europe for being soulless and capitalistic.

Some say that German romanticism provided the foundation for the concept of the Russian soul, because of its rejection of the rationalism which had gripped Europe. All the same, Russian exponents of the ‘Russian soul’ still rejected Germany along with the rest of Europe!

Why did the idea stick?

During the 19th century, nationalism was becoming popular in other parts of Europe, and the Russian intellectual elite felt a strong need to define themselves in relation to their European counterparts. On top of this, Russian artists had been using forms which originated in the West, and now wanted to find their own style.

Europeans were also partly responsible for the popularity of the term, as many who were disillusioned with their own homeland (and the effects that capitalism was having on it) began to idealise Russia for its relative purity and moral integrity. 

What’s more, I googled the ‘Russian soul’ and found many articles attempting to define characteristics of Russian people. So the idea lives on!

How can the Russian soul be defined? 

The term has a certain air of mystery surrounding it and as such, it isn’t clear what exactly it comprises.

In the past, people saw the Russian soul as manifested in simple-mindedness and innocence, obedience, far-reaching hospitality, amongst other traits. 

“It’s frightening how free a Russian man’s spirit is, how strong is his will! No one has ever been so much torn away from his native soil, as he sometimes had to be; nobody ever took a turn so sharp, as he, following his own belief!”  – Fyodor Dostoevsky

“That’s our Russian apathy – not to feel the responsibilities imposed on us by our rights and thus to deny those responsibilities.” – Leo Tolstoy

It’s interesting to note how the characteristics writers describe are not exclusively positive. There was genuine soul-searching going on here – Russian writers were not simply praising Russia for the sake of it, but were analysing themselves honestly. 

Btw, these descriptions didn’t necessarily extend to all the people of Russia, since the upper layers of society were often perceived as overly Westernised. Consequently, the Russian peasantry was idealised as purely Russian, untouched by Western trends. 

Present-day articles, obviously no longer differentiating between nobles and peasants, describe the typical Russian person as direct, hospitable, and always willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a friend (amongst other traits). If you have Russian friends, you will probably have come across behaviours, traits or values which diverge from what you are used to in your home country. If you’re lucky enough to be able to spend time in Russia, look out for the Russian soul! The more we interact with people from a different culture, the more we notice aspects of our own character and behaviour which we had simply inherited from our native culture and never thought about. We’re then in a better position to improve our character, identifying its positive and negative aspects. Maybe it’s even possible for foreigners to develop a Russian soul?…

This article was written by Olivia, current student at Liden & Denz Moscow

Posted by Olivia Wright

Hi, I'm Olivia and I'm currently studying German and Russian at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I was introduced properly to Russia and its culture two years ago, when I started learning Russian from scratch, and am now a big fan!

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