Mikhail Epstein. Cries in the New Wilderness:
From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism.
Trans. and intr. by Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002, 236 pp.
                        (hardcover and paperback)

From Part 5. Doomsday Sects.


 This is one of the least-studied faiths. Its representatives are sometimes called Void-Worshipers, Holy-Earthniks, Cosanostrans, Plain People, and Latitudinarians. These names may refer to various still-unknown divisions within Steppiedom itself. On some points, Steppie doctrine overlaps with the Red Horde or Orientism.

 From the Steppies' point of view, the atheism that triumphed in post-Revolutionary Russia is a significant step in the direction of those eastern forms of religiosity that revere Nothing. The collapse of Orthodoxy laid the foundations for a new universal religion occupying an intermediate position between eastern and western or "negative" and "positive" forms of religiosity, between "world negation" and "world affirmation."

Russian Marxism is akin to Buddhism in its atheistic tendency. . . . But the essential difference is that the Russian nirvana is sought within life itself, and constructed from the materials of nature and society. The site of salvation, where the painted veils of Maia are to be stripped away, is located in physical space and historical time. Yet it is not fused with time but raised above time, as the bright kingdom of Superhistory (or "Authentic History"). Likewise, the earthly nirvana cannot be the sum or juxtaposition of several different places with their individual landscapes and climates; it must be one single, continuous place, geographically accessible and defined, but endowed with the boundlessness of the Absolute in its eternal self-identity. This placement of nirvana within time and space (rejected by Buddhism itself) leads to specifically "plane" or "latitudinal" modes of religious existence. The reign of one deathless leader becomes the Chronos of this "plane" state of the world, and the extension of one endless plain becomes its Topos. ("Buddhomarxism: Research Materials")

 The Steppies regard the "innate instinct" of Emptiness as the specific form of Russian religiosity, not yet consciously recognized and only now emerging from beneath the flotsam of alien religions introduced from the West. But they interpret Emptiness not as a simple Nothingness or "idle negation," but as an indiscriminate Allness, where everything is dissolved in everything else and thus ceases to be anything in particular.

 Here, incidentally, lies the source of the Steppies' quarrel with the Thingwrights. Thingwrights claim that "nothing can exist without being something," to which the Steppies reply, "nothing can exist without being everything" (I.K., "The Antinomies of Emptiness").

 The Steppies use the term “breadth” for a state of being in which nothing is distinguishable from anything else:

 …a quiet, healthy existence in the mode of breadth. Breadth is God's gift to man. According to an ancient tradition, in the beginning the world consisted only of heights and depths, mountains and seas. When man appeared, he didn't know where to live, so he prayed: ''Where are You, Lord? I want to be with You."And God answered him: ''I shall put My heights before you and I shall spread My depths before you, for you are My true image and My beloved child; and I will keep no secrets from you, just as you will keep no secrets from Me.'' And behold, God made Eden, the first level place on the earth, and there He settled the man, who began to rule over the earth, which was completely open before him. . . . But when he closed his heart against God, the earth became closed to him again; again the depths were ruptured and the mountains loomed up….

 And yet, when God expelled man from paradise, He left him a place for his work on the earth. Although the plain wafts sadness and melancholy over man, it reminds him of his covenant with God: this is the earth he was given to rule over. And the greatest plain was given to the greatest people, the people chosen to sanctify the breadth of the earth. (G.Ya., "Breadth and Height in Early Eschatological Traditions")

 Remember: you live on the plain, and lo, the plain lives in you. ''Plain'' is the name of the condition of a man who has attained the point of we in his soul. The greatest wisdom lies in being plane, like the space stretching out all around you. One and the same endless plain—the plane on which we meet each other—extends through all souls. He who goes higher or lower will never meet his brother. If you raise yourself a mountain, you will block your neighbor's light; if you descend into a canyon, you yourself will be beyond the reach of light. . . . Look at the earth, how it stretches out around you for thousands of miles! Nature herself has given it to you as a model. Make yourself like this plain: ever the same, neither rising up in joy nor sinking down in sadness, neither mounting higher nor falling lower. Truth lies in this breadth where everyone meets everyone else; it is not in the heights and depths to which individuals soar up and crash down. Breadth unites, while height and depth separate. . . . Breadth is the openness of God's heart, which collects us, all His children, into a single we. He who hearkens to the Lord and answers "we" to His "I" has attained the spiritual plane in his own heart….

 The chief feature of each thing is its breadth. The ideal world has neither depths nor heights; there, nothing is hidden from man. On the plain, every place is visible from every other place; voices carry clearly, each audible to each. This is the highest degree of development, the ultimate point in the evolution of worlds, where everything internal becomes external. Everything now hidden on peaks and in abysses will emerge from the darkness of original sin, cast off the stamp of its shameful secret, return to its full and mighty breadth, and become steppe. Everything has its own inner steppe; but what strength it takes to traverse it from end to end, to become level with everything! . . . Will you find the steppe-trekker within yourself, will you try out the breadth and measure of things with your stride?…("The Book of Plains and Steppes")

 The Steppies believe there is a connection between breadth and the phenomenon of Russian drunkenness. The letter has never yet been adequately studied; no one has yet discovered a form of sobriety comprehensive enough to compete with it.

 Drunkenness is the eschatological sickness of the Russian soul, thirsting after a new earth and a new heaven. All around us we see ''the Promised Breadth,'' as the poet put it, ''which eclipses even the brightest light'' (I.Z.)…. This nation will be cured of its drunkenness only when it finds something in reality itself to answer its broadest spiritual needs. The European forms of civilization, too narrow, specialized, ''particular,'' offer no answer to these boundless needs; but intoxication somehow satisfies them by washing away all boundaries. Of course, drunkenness is an illness. The problem is to find a kind of health that the soul would still desire after tasting the unfathomable longing of the steppe…. What is needed are forms of expansiveness so sober that no room is left for drunkenness. (Yu.K., "The Joy of Rus")
 Among possible versions of the future "divined" by the Steppies is a return on the superhistorical level to the nomadic life of prehistoric times.
 Speed is one of the few authentic forms of sober expansiveness. In moving from one place to another, a man senses that his own boundlessness lies not somewhere beyond the edge of reality but within reality itself. . . . The Russia of the future will be a society of ''runners''; there, no one will be where he was the day before. In Old Russian times there was such a sect, whose members were always on the run—from the authorities, from settled people, from themselves. Of course, in our times only an economically prosperous society can allow its members to be in constant motion. But our civilization's actual lines of development—the accelerating growth of the means of transportation and communication—point to the likelihood of such a future….

 A man on the move does not drink; he is already intoxicated by speed itself. The lower, alcoholic form of drunkenness is crowded out by the higher, apocalyptic form. Where the Hindu communes with emptiness through contemplation, stillness, seclusion, the Russian does it through a maximum kick of speed. He believes in the emptiness revealed to him on all sides, for speed is the highest revelation of this emptiness, sucking him in like a tornado but keeping him whole as it carries him further and further away. He burns up space and time in his soul, while hovering about the motionless point of the Always-Here. Speed has no boundaries, nothing beyond. Everything is here, everything is now. A horse or a motorcycle is all you need to burn up this heap of importunate, oppressive corporeality, to fly off into eternity while still remaining in time. In the words of the early Steppie poet V.B. :

"Are you moving, my stallion, or standing in place?"
 Wordless, he soars into infinite space.
The answerless silence, the boundless inane
 Mirror eternity as in a pane.

 This poem, entitled ''Steppe,'' expresses the religious experience of a man for whom alcoholic oblivion is as needless as metaphysical transmutation, for he attains the annihilation of space and time in space and time itself, penetrating into the very emptiness of being. The ''boundless inane,'' the ''answerless silence''—this is nirvana revealing itself in the reality of the world around us.

          …A move from fixed settlements to nomadism is a likely prognosis for the distant future. According to the spiral-dialectical theory of development, the future continually repeats the past on new loops and even returns to ever-earlier stages. If, in the social-economic sphere, we are headed for a classless society restoring the virtues of the original commune, then in the cultural-psychological sphere a return to nomadic life is entirely likely. Perhaps the only path to the moral regeneration of a nation reeling about in drunken visions is to give it a taste of real travelling. (M.R., "On Ancient and Modern Nomads")

 Steppies have their own initiation rite, known as the "tour of emptiness." While most religious rituals present the newly converted with obstacles to overcome, here, on the contrary, all obstacles are deliberately removed. Preferably, the rite is conducted on level ground, as open as possible in all directions, as in a field or steppe. There are no orienting signs: right and left, forward and back are all the same. The initiate goes in circles, first widening and then narrowing back to the starting point, after which he is considered to have been "received by emptiness." Henceforth, the emptiness he has "toured" will be within him.

 The Steppies' desire to attract the attention of an international audience is evident in K.K.'s half-mystical, half-promotional article, "The Chalice of Illuminations," from which we present several excerpts:

 In earlier times, mystically inclined young people set off for a land of dreams and wonders—to the jungles and caves of Hindustan or the peaks of Tibet; following in the tracks of Madame Blavatsky and Nikolai Rerikh, they sought wisdom in inaccessible ashrams and the mountain haunts of mahatmas. Now they are coming to Russia to pitch their tents on the bare steppe. In the summer months, virtually the whole of the great Eastern European plain becomes a plateau of meditations for Western Europeans and Americans. The very country that, as the German writer Ernst Junger put it, ''had managed to escape the slightest hint of the miraculous''—a country as prosaic as prose itself, as commonplace as an overcast day—suddenly got the reputation of a “chalice of illuminations.”

 We usually connect the idea of mystery with hiddenness, inaccessibility. The most widespread archetypes of mystery are the cave, the thicket, the mountaintop: this is where the wise man lives, cherishing his miraculous revelation. This network of associations derives from initiation rites: to be initiated into a mystery, one must first overcome an elaborate system of obstacles.

 Yet there is something more enigmatic still: the openness, the full accessibility of mystery. Precisely on the steppe, on the endless plain, you can get the feeling that the mystery is not "out there" but right here: you can touch it, but that doesn't lessen its mysteriousness. The very greatest mystery comes to view just where there are no secrets. Level earth, everywhere the same, stretching in all directions into the infinite distance. . . . Is not the universe as a whole, in its excess of space over matter, just the same sort of uniform emptiness? And even if tracts of "masking" material do accumulate at certain far-separated points of the universe, this is still only a drop in the ocean of indiscriminate homogeneity. The universe is everywhere the same; the density of matter is no more and no less in one big chunk than in another. And this uniformity is the greatest mystery to man, accustomed as he is to experience himself as a person unlike any other.

 When people go out onto the steppe for long nomadic treks, it is not in order to see something new (there is enough of that in the West), but in order to see always one and the same thing, in order to correlate themselves with the Universe. They study the characteristics of emptiness, and the emptiness fills them. This is the condition they call ''vacuoplenitude.''

 "On the steppe," acknowledges one of them after a trek of about 1500 kilometers, "I attained what I had not been able to attain in three years of yoga and transcendental meditation. The world is as empty as the palms of our hands at the moment of our birth. No Savior will come to us from beyond, because God is only the Fullness of this emptiness. To accept this means to become no one, nothing at all. The only thing that matters is the place where you are standing and the place where you are going; but it is one and the same place. All the rest is non-existent" (cited from the anthology Pilgrims in the Land of Emptiness: Observations and Meditations on the Road).

 On the steppe there is no difference between ''here'' and ''there,'' and in general there are no differences at all. . . . If God did not create the steppe, at least He lives on it. The steppe is a negative made from Him Who is called God: its emptiness is the reverse of His fullness. . . . The steppe teaches a clarity which is itself the greatest mystery; no solution is adequate to it. All you can do on the steppe is exist, without expecting any events. Nothing happens to you there and nothing ever will.

 There have been many teachings about what a man should do with his soul, his mind, his conscience. But no one has yet taught what to do with the steppe, what to do with this environing space, and why it stretches out all around you. On the steppe you suddenly understand that you are called to tour the emptiness. And you will always find enough emptiness to tour. Every city, every street, even every room has its own little steppe. . . .

 The Russian poet and sage Tyutchev said that nature's greatest secret is that she has no secrets. This can be seen most clearly in those hinterlands, as he puts it, ''where the celestial vault so dully gazes at the bare earth. . . .'' This is why Western PILGRIMS OF EMPTINESS set forth onto the steppe: they want to see face-to-face this sphinx who has no secrets. The Egyptian Sphinx, with her simple-minded riddles, the answers to which are written upside down at the bottom of the page, is a child in comparison with the Russian Sphinx, who poses no riddles. You can see right through him as he shakes his lion's mane of wild prairie grass." (V.A., "The God-Steppe")

 The Steppies claim that Russia is the "motherland of emptiness" and at the same time the "country of the future" or, more exactly, the "country of the end of time:" Russia, they say, is ordained to "complete the creative destiny of the world." By way of proof they appeal to both physical and aesthetic analogies.

 Among our thoughts, as among particles of matter, there must be some emptiness, so that they can generate and replace each other. One who fears emptiness is incapable of anything great. A great human being is one who has fully experienced the emptiness of the world in himself, who knows how to be empty, a nonentity among nonentities. While "genius and evildoing are incompatible," genius and nonentity are fully compatible, and even entail one another"… Among the nonentities of the world, he is perhaps the biggest nonentity of all," said Pushkin of the poet-genius, thus denying him any right to evildoing. To be a nonentity means to be empty, to be no one, neither good nor evil. And how appropriate it is that this poet flies from inner to outer emptiness: "to the shores of desolate waves." In order to create, he must feel the great emptiness of nature beside him. He creates from nothing, and that is why he is "full of sound and fury": he has to be hooked up to some emptiness in order to open the springs of inspiration. . . .

 Perhaps the original act, the creation of the world from "nothing," is reproduced time and again in the work of every thinker or artist who conjures up his own unheard-of worlds from that same emptiness, "that dark abyss" over which the Spirit of God hovered before the beginning of days. In other words, this "nothing" is needed for the fullness of the creative act—and this is exactly what we are short of in our contemporary civilization, so full of information and culture. It seems that all the emptiness of the world is already divided up among thousands of sciences, arts, theories, and practices, each squatting on its own little piece of the planet, all tracked up and trampled down. . . .

 But there is still in the world a great virgin wilderness—Russia. And everything that touches her gets a spark of inspiration. "Everything must become creative in this Russia and this Russian language," wrote Pushkin. Russia is the virgin soil of knowledge, the virgin soil of being. If there is anything great still happening in the world, that is because it is imperceptibly touching this vacuum and drawing new charges of energy from it.

 A country with so much hidden space in it cannot fail to be bewitching. And even now the best contemporary minds are turning this way, peeking behind the edge of Western civilization, gazing into the pure mirror of the great plain, so as to see their own future "nothing" as the possibility of "everything." Perhaps the reason why the first day of creation has not yet dawned over this "formless and void" land is that God is keeping it in reserve for the miraculous revelation of the last day. We believe that Russia will become the first transmundane power of this world, that the Spirit hovering over this hazy abyss will create here a new heaven and a new earth, shining with the light of faith, cleansing with the waters of knowledge, springing with the verdure of hope. In our world, nebulous Russia is the embryo of other worlds. . . .

 In the book of Isaiah there is a prophecy about the great plain where the glory of God will be revealed to the whole world. "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the steppe a high way for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see God's salvation" (Isa. 40.3-5). It is from the heart of Russia that this voice of one crying in the wilderness will be heard. The Lord's Day, the Last Day, will come to the emptiness of Russia, straightening all ways and raising upon them a new man—the man who is to smoothe the rough places and traverse all of space, the man whose All is delivered from the moldering Nothing of his motherland into the festival of her Fulfillment. (G.N., "Plain Eschatology")

 Copyright 1993, 1994, 2001 Mikhail N. Epstein
 Copyright 2002 Paul Dry Books, Inc.
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