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September 3, 2002

Epstein writes 'handbook' to post-Soviet religion

By Michael Terrazas

The “Ultimate Paradox” of Soviet Communism, according to Mikhail Epstein, is that by attempting to forge a society using the most rigid of socioeconomic blueprints—Marxism—the authors of the October Revolution created a system that imploded largely through internal chaos.

Epstein should know. The Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature emigrated to the United States in 1990 after personally witnessing the Soviet collapse. Quoting former Communist Party Secretary Yuri Andropov, Epstein said:
“We have created a society whose nature we don’t understand.”

Cries in the New Wilderness, Epstein’s new book published this year by Paul Dry Books, is the Emory professor’s contribution to post-Soviet cultural understanding—theologically speaking, at least. The “encyclopedia of post-atheist faiths,” as its author describes it, is such an avant-garde approach to literature that it’s tough to pin down: part social commentary, part fiction, part satire, part tragi-comedy, New Wilderness is all of those things and more.

Ostensibly, the book is a “reference manual,” published by the (semi-fictional) Institute of Atheism of the U.S.S.R.—“Classified, For Official Use Only,” with numbered copies—that documents the wellspring of neo-religious sects created in the wake of state-sponsored Soviet atheism. These sects range from groups that celebrate the divine of the everyday—the “Foodniks,” for example, consider the very act of eating a sacrament and elevate hunger to the level of existential yearning—to groups such as Khazarists and the Red Horde that worship the god of nationalism, to the “atheist sects” that have somehow transubstantiated even religious denial into something holy.

On its face, the book is an exercise in absurdism. But like all good absurdist art, it rests
on a bedrock of firm reality.

“I had already written about all of this in a scholarly way,” said Epstein, author of 15 books and some 400 essays and journal articles. “So I decided to build theologies on the foundation of emotional and intellectual currents that I observed.”

Epstein said he has been compiling the text of the book sporadically for roughly 15 years, since he headed up several cultural/intellectual centers in Moscow throughout the 1980s. In the transition years between “Soviet stagnation” and perestroika, he said, it could be foolish and even dangerous to articulate theological thought, so Epstein simply kept his ears open to the minds of friends and colleagues. He took notes; he built “religions.”

“Nobody could grasp these emergent tendencies except the people who were part of them,” Epstein said. “The intellectual life in Moscow was maintained in small semi-underground circles of friends, cothinkers and cobelievers. Sectarianism was a form of spiritual survival under the ideological pressure of the state.”

None of the names used in the book are real (except his own; Epstein references his own scholarly work several times), and the author shielded both persons and ideas with composite characters, such as Russian “atheism scholar” Raisa Omarovna Gibaydulina. The literary trick might have worked a little too well.

“Even some people who are quite familiar with Russian culture thought some of these characters were real,” Epstein admitted. “I talked to a priest who was convinced he’d met [Gibaydulina].”

But the grains of truth hiding within New Wilderness’ religious sects are certainly real, and they can be found growing in various capacities within us all. And that is exactly what their “founder” intended.

“All of these sects are part of my spirituality; I belong to all of them and to none of them, and this is a way to objectify and transcend my own prejudices,” Epstein said. “We need experimental theologies to bring our emotional and spiritual lives into alignment with our intellectual lives—to understand what we believe in.”