Poet argues for Russian Land as a Unifying Idea

By Olga Timofeyeva and Roman Muhametzhanov (photos) The Moscow

Could Russia's national idea be encrypted in a clay whistle?


Russian: Леонид Латынин: "Нас может объединить идея русской земли"


Leonid Latynin, a well-known Russian poet and prose writer, recently put out a new book that offers a poignant glimpse of a bygone era. Main Storylines of Russian Folklore (Osnovnye syuzhety russkogo narodnogo iskusstva, Moscow: Glas) is not only a description of a unique collection of toys that the researcher gathered in remote expeditions, but also an insight into the sacred meaning of folk symbols encapsulating Russia's pre-Christian history.

It is noteworthy that Latynin not so much leads us into the realm of fairytales, epics and proverbs, as blazes a new trail in the search for the proverbial national idea.

Leonid Latynin agreed to an interview with The Moscow News.

Does folk art exist today?

It has all but disappeared. Today, clay toys and figures are made by people outside the original geographic, conceptual or philosophic context. These people no longer understand the primary meaning of folk symbols, beliefs, customs or traditions. This understanding was irretrievably lost in the past 15 years or so. In the 1950s-1960s, I was still able to collect works produced by folk craftsmen in northern, northwestern and eastern Russia who helped me understand the true meaning of folklore plotlines.

Still, why did it disappear?

One of the outcomes of industrialization and other changes was that aluminum replaced clay in day-today life. There was no longer any need for earthenware, pottery and suchlike household utensils. Furthermore, in the 1930s, handicrafts in the Soviet Union were regarded as a form of "speculation" and "profiteering" that incurred serious punishment: A person caught selling his wares on the market could easily land in jail.

It was not until the 1960s-1970s that a certain number of people returned to their folk roots because they had preserved some knowledge and skills, but they were unable to pass them on to the next generation.

But if they had passed them on, our contemporaries could still be making clay toys today?

Archeological artifacts show that many anthropomorphic and zoo-morphic clay toys made this century do not differ from those made in the previous millennium. The main plotlines are the same.

But their meaning has been lost?

That's right. The ancient ones had an intrinsic, inbuilt sacred meaning: Ancient toys, spinning wheels, embroidery patterns, etc. contained a pre-literate record of rites, customs, a pre-Christian pantheon of deities, and so on.

It is widely believed that the Russians, unlike other Europeans, never valued domestic, household comfort, did not know how to provide creature comforts for themselves. This comes into conflict with what you are saying. Indeed, if we look at ancient household articles, it is easy to see how beautiful and artistic they are.

Some houses and household utensils on the Northern Dvina continue to stagger our imagination. For example, some of their exterior and interior woodcarvings are fit to be displayed at the Russia History Museum, indeed, as they are.

But it turns out that decoration was not for decoration's sake, but for the sake of salvation?

Like I said, folk art in Russia always had a sacred element, but not only because it was associated with some rite, ritual or custom. The main reason lies elsewhere.

What was Russia 15 centuries ago? It was like America, a free territory without state governance or control, which was attracting various tribes from all over. What kind of tribes were they and why were they coming to Russia? They were mostly people who had to flee religious or political or domestic or some other form of persecution or pressure. They were drawn to that freedom. And each of those tribes had their specific sets of values, customs, traditions, etc.

Like America, Russia was a huge melting pot: Russianness is an aggregate of different systems - esthetic, religious, moral, and so on. Not surprisingly, color patterns used on toys made in Kaluga [today a city about 200 km SW of Moscow] little differ from those used in Tajik toys, while Finno-Ugric carving patterns recur in ethnic Russian woodcarvings.

Are you saying that each of those toys had the same content?

Definitely not. All tribes put their own meaning into apparently the same figurine. The Russian pantheon of deities was interpreted differently by each tribe or clan, but folklore as a whole was an amalgamation of different worldviews.

But didn't that independence and belligerence of the tribes come into conflict with the peaceful coexistence of world-views?

I believe that this is a principal factor in the emergence of Christianity in ancient Russia, or Rus, as it was known at that time. When 1,000 years ago Prince Vladimir sought to unite different tribes, unite different world views into a single state system, his first attempt proved unsuccessful.

It only deepened tribal divisions and hostilities because each of them insisted that their particular God was paramount, while other gods were not gods at all. Then Prince Vladimir wisely adopted Christianity with a "foreign" God, and therefore one common to all.

It was an idea that united ancient Russia in its culture, language, and geography. It was the only thing that helped Prince Vladimir build a single and viable statehood.

Incidentally, very much the same happened with the Communist idea. When the Russian Empire, spanning across enormous, diverse territories with Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, etc. began to fall apart at the beginning of the 20th century, another "foreign" - i.e., Communist - idea cemented the nation in the form of the "Soviet super-ethnic group."

Today, we are in a similar situation: There is a pressing need for a common idea to preserve the Russian statehood.

Does it exist?

I think so, yes. It's the idea of Russian land. Not the land of Russians, but Russian land.

From time immemorial this land has been the motherland of many peoples, ethnic groups, religions, and nationalities, and therefore the idea of Russian land is a common, unifying idea to the Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim alike.

Nevertheless, all of the three mentioned are reluctant to unite, but rather want to preserve and uphold their independence.

No matter what, this Land is equally sacred to all of them. Our sole salvation lies not in technology or the military or even culture - it lies in our Land.

That is to say, in oil?

Also natural gas, metal ores, and gold, as well as the whole Periodic Table of the Elements.

Where are the boundaries of this land?

In metaphysics. Russian land is not Asia or Europe or Eurasia. It is a separate continent, like America, Africa or Asia. Our unique feature is not that we are at the crossroads of civilizations - we are a distinct civilization in its own right.

This is metaphysics all right, but continents, mainlands also have geographic borders. What are the borders of the Russian land?

America is not about geographic borders. America is a metaphysical concept. Ditto for Europe. It is not Luxembourg, Switzerland, Denmark, or Germany. It is a special mentality, a unique identity, a semantic concept.

I would suggest that today Russian land is our sole national idea, our salvation.

Yet it seems that many people are running away from this land.

Well, I believe that many are also coming back. People are coming here to make money. Many of them have fallen by the wayside, and Russia is their only salvation.

To me, the idea of Russian land - its protection and well-being - is key to Russia's revival.