An apology

June 21, 2011

I would like to apologize to readers of this blog for my recent neglect of it; I have not posted anything to it for some time, nor answered any of the comments. Some explanation for this is called for.

Briefly, and simply, I am tired. I have spent four years writing it, and have not yet accomplished what I set out to do at the beginning, which is to finish and publish my work on John Bekkos. At the present time, my attentions are mostly focused upon the necessity of making a living somehow in the very straitened economic environment in which we live. To that end, I have taken up various teaching positions over the past year, and, in the fall, will be taking up another one. For various reasons, I have been asked not yet to make public the details regarding this new position; but it will entail my moving from New Jersey, after which my father intends to sell the house where I currently live, in which I grew up.

This blog was started in September 2007. At that time, I was unemployed, living by myself at the end of Long Island in a house where, for many days on end, I had little contact with anyone except crows, ants, oak trees, and, of course, John Bekkos, whom I was translating. Writing a blog initially provided me a means of connecting and communicating with the rest of the world; this was both a pleasant diversion and helpful for maintaining my sanity. Without doubt, this blog has seen its ups and downs; there have been times when I have been deeply engaged in it, and there have been times, like the present, when it has suffered neglect. But, on the whole, it has served to make John Bekkos better known to the public, and has allowed me to say various things that I thought needed saying. Whether I shall be able to continue writing it much longer appears doubtful; my expectation is that the responsibility of teaching new and difficult subjects, in a new and strange environment, is going to reduce the amount of time I can spend on this blog to zero.

All writing that is worth anything has something of the nature of a conversation. But not all conversations can be maintained indefinitely, or should be. The things about which conversations on this blog have tended to revolve — the Filioque, the essence/energies distinction, the schism — are not the only things in life worth knowing or thinking about. As a Christian, I believe and understand that the God who gave himself for our salvation in Jesus Christ is supremely worth knowing and thinking about; theology is a legitimate and worthy occupation of the mind, since God is the highest object of knowing. But I also believe and understand that thought about God properly issues in worship and praise of him, and in a godly life; if it does not, if it becomes a sort of end in itself and nervous habit, there is something wrong with it. To my thinking, the schism is one long, bad conversation, revolving endlessly upon itself. And it pains me to think that my blog has sometimes facilitated, and perhaps sometimes exemplified, that bad vortex, which moves nowhere but sucks in everything around it.

The latest Orientale Lumen conference opened yesterday in Washington, D.C.; I am not going to it. Partly, this is because I am too busy preparing to move, and, partly, because I did not feel like shelling out $300 for the conference and accommodations; but it is also because I have attended a few such conferences before, and have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware will treat the audience to an eloquent, informative lecture, constructed around three main points and punctuated with witty anecdotes, but, in the end, he will tell people there why nothing more can be done, and why no real movement towards a resolution of the separation between Orthodoxy and Rome can be expected in the foreseeable future. Metropolitan Jonah will perhaps explain to those present where he has been for the past few months, and what considerations have led him to place the governance of the O.C.A. temporarily into the hands of his synod of bishops — but, more likely, he will not explain this, and will, like Metropolitan Kallistos, give an apologia for maintaining the status quo indefinitely and until the eschaton. Others will say ecumenically pleasant things; DVDs will be sold; an excursion will be made to a nearby church or to a bookstore; people will leave at the end, carrying with them the pleasant feeling that they have accomplished something.

This past Sunday, my bishop (Bishop Michael of New York) presided at liturgy at my church here in New Jersey. Afterwards, at the luncheon held in his honor, he fielded questions from members of the parish. Someone asked him how long it would be before there was Orthodox unity, that is, a single, unified Orthodox Church, in America. His answer: “Not in my lifetime.” He went on to explain how the influx of people from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union had complicated matters, and how the general expectation is very different now than it was in 1970 when the autocephaly of the O.C.A. was first proclaimed, and how some jurisdictions, e.g., the Antiochians, are more cooperative than others (presumably, the Greeks). It made me think of how, growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church in the 1960′s, one occasionally heard rumors about plans for a “Great, Upcoming Ecumenical Council” of the Orthodox Church which should resolve all problems, in particular, the problem of the ecclesiastical status of the “Diaspora” and the problem of conflicting claims of authority between Constantinople and Moscow. The reason why such a Great, Upcoming Ecumenical Council could not now take place, one was told in those days, was that so much of the Orthodox world lay under Communist rule. At this point, two decades after Communist rule in Eastern Europe collapsed, one hears no more about a Great, Upcoming Ecumenical Council which should resolve all problems. My guess is that, in a country like Greece, reeling under the effects of its own unwise borrowing and the predatory lending practices of companies like Goldman Sachs, a country where the privatization even of national assets like the Parthenon is now being seriously discussed, the calling of a Great, Ecumenical Council is probably the furthest thing from people’s minds.

Christian unity is not the answer to all questions; it does not magically supply a solution to global warming, poverty, unemployment, war, and the high price of gasoline; it does not even furnish an answer, directly, to some strictly theological questions of real importance, e.g., how to read the Book of Genesis in the light of earth science, genetics, and palaeontology. But it is a kind of prerequisite to any united, effective action by Christians in the world. Most importantly, it is Christ’s will. I confess that, when I hear a bishop answer “Not in my lifetime” to a question about unity, I must infer that something is deeply wrong, and that someone is not doing his job. If not in your lifetime, then in whose? To quote Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”

Some while ago, Dr. William Tighe recommended to me the book The Church in Rome in the First Century by George Edmundson, published in 1913. I found the book on-line on Google Books, and began reading it; it is, indeed, a very persuasive study. I finally decided that I would like to own a physical copy of the book, and, last week, ordered such a copy from My copy arrived yesterday; today, I plan to send it back. Below I give my reasons why, in a review of the book which is still pending publication on’s website. (Note: I gave the book one star, mainly because I thought that, if I gave it no stars at all, someone might think I had simply overlooked that section of the evaluation; also, because there was no procedure for registering negative stars.)

I received this book yesterday, delivered by UPS. When I opened the box and began reading the enclosed reprint of Edmundson’s book, I was shocked at what I found. Edmundson’s book is, itself, an intelligent, persuasive study, and very worth reading; but this printed edition of it is not what he wrote. It is essentially an OCR of a scan of the original text that has been hastily printed out, put between covers, and sold, without even a minimal attempt at proofreading. The first thing I noticed was that the Greek, in the original book, appeared as gibberish; here is a random example, from p. 18:

“5 Compare Rom. ix. 3: Tfox MI “f p andflf/ta eleai ainbs iyu air!/ rov virep ruv asf ipiav ov, Tuv ffvyytvuv fiov Kata ffdpka, otrivfs fiffiv Iffpa At 3 liffiraffaffsf vspdvatov Kai Iovviov Tovs irtryytifls ov Kal ffvvaixfia otriwl flfftv iiriffrifiol Iv To?! iiroo-rijAoir, ot /to! irpb ifiov ytyovav iv Xpiffrif. It is possible that lovviav might be feminine = Junia, but it is generally taken as masculine, Junias being an abbreviation for Junianus.”

The second thing I noticed is that all the original footnotes in the book appear within the body of the text; that is true of the above citation; here is another example, from p. 32:

“The language of Clement of Rome2 in his Epistle to the Corinthians leaves no doubt-for it is the witness of a contemporary-that Peter was martyred at Rome. But leaving ancient examples let us come to the athletes who were very near to our own times, let us take the illustrious examples of our own generation. Peter who through unjust jealousy endured not one or two but many sufferings and so having borne witness-/j ptvp a-ai-departed to the place of glory that was his due. The 48 ASCENSION OF ISAIAH 1 Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, p. 125.
2 In that portion of the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles which was probably written 71-74 A. d. the flight of Nero from Rome is thus described; V. 143 4ifv etai Ik Ba0v uvos andva tpofifpbs icol
Clement Rom. 1 Cor, v.
statement in the apocalyptic Ascension of IsaiahiI-also the work of a contemporary-that a lawless king, the slayer of his mother, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted.”

And so on. The whole book reads in this vein; it is, quite literally, a piece of junk, and a scam.

The book was printed in the year 2010 by an outfit named “General Books,” Memphis, Tennessee, USA (website: On the page behind the title page, one finds, along with the legally required information about the publication, explanatory comments. Under the section titled “How We Made This Book for You,” one reads that the book was made “exclusively for you” using patented Print on Demand technology, and then learns that a robot flipped and scanned each page of the original, rare book, and that the “typing, proof reading and design” of the book were automated using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software.

Further down on the page, there is a section titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” The first “Frequently Asked Question” is the following: “Why are there so many typos in my paperback?” The answer provided is the following:

“We created your book using OCR software that includes an automatic spell check. Our OCR software is 99 percent accurate if the book is in good condition. Therefore, we try to get several copies of a book to get the best possible accuracy (which is very difficult for rare books more than a hundred years old). However, with up to 3,500 characters per page, even one percent is an annoying number of typos. We would really like to manually proof read and correct the typos. But since many of our books only sell a couple of copies that could add hundreds of dollars to the cover price. And nobody wants to pay that. If you need to see the original text, check our website for a downloadable copy.”

Thank you, but I have a downloadable copy already, from Google Books. I ordered this paperback copy of the book because I wished to be able to read the book when I am not at the computer. The copy you have so lovingly and carefully prepared for me does not allow me to do that; as mentioned above, it is a piece of junk. I will send it back to, and ask for my $19.42 to be refunded.

That Amazon is willing to be the go-between for such publishing scams lessens my trust in it. It needs to clean up its act.

The Harrowing of Hell

April 3, 2010

Last week, a friend of mine, who is writing a screenplay, asked me a question about Christ’s descent into hell. He wondered what scriptural support the doctrine had. I told him that, so far as I am aware, the doctrine is based on a single New Testament passage. In the First Letter of Peter, it is said that Christ “went and preached unto the spirits in prison”:

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3: 18-20)

This preaching to the spirits in prison is understood to have occurred during the interval between Christ’s death and his resurrection, and it is that descent into hell that is particularly commemorated by the Church on Holy Saturday. My friend, somewhat surprised, asked me if that was all the scriptural support the doctrine had. I told him that, in the Bible itself, that was all, although in Christian tradition the doctrine has a long history; the usual Orthodox icon of the Resurrection is actually a depiction of the Harrowing of Hell; Christ stands on hell’s broken gates, and is grasping the hand of an old man—Adam—and, in some versions of the icon, the hand also of a woman, Eve. I also mentioned to him a passage in Dante’s Inferno, in which Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell, points out a place where, such and such number of years before, someone came through and broke down a wall. I looked for that passage today, and eventually found it in Canto XXI:

Then to us he said: ‘To go further along this ridge
Is not a thing you can do, because the sixth arch
Is lying in pieces down at the bottom;

And if you wish none the less to go on,
Keep up upon the ridge above the bank;
Nearby is another projection where there is a way.

Yesterday, five hours later than this hour,
One thousand two hundred and sixty six years
Had passed, exactly, since the path was destroyed.

I am sending some of my troop in that direction,
To make sure no one has come up for air:
Go with them, they will not be treacherous.’

(Inferno, Canto XXI, lines 106-117; C. H. Sisson, tr.)

As usual, when citing things from memory, I got some of my facts wrong. These lines are spoken in the fifth chasm of the eighth circle of hell (Malebolge), not, as it turns out, by Virgil, as I had thought, but by a demon named Malacoda (Evil Tail), who, as it also turns out, is lying to Virgil: there is, in fact, no bridge in the direction to which he is pointing the two poets, but he is leading them into a trap; not long afterwards, in Canto XXIII, Virgil has to extricate Dante and himself from this trap and from an imminent demonic assault by grabbing Dante and holding him safe while sliding down the rocks to the next level of hell. But the temporal indications Malacoda gives are very precise: 1266 years ago yesterday, he says, five hours later than this hour. A note by David Higgins, accompanying Sisson’s translation, interprets this to mean that, when Malacoda is speaking, it is 7:00 in the morning; Dorothy L. Sayers disagrees: in the notes to her translation (the old Penguin translation, now out of print), she points out that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Christ’s death occurred at the ninth hour, i.e., 3 p.m., which would put Dante’s and Virgil’s visit to this particular bowge at 10:00 a.m. on Holy Saturday. It should be noted that the Divine Comedy begins on Good Friday in the year 1300, when Dante is 35 years old (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” that is, midway in our journey of life of three score and ten years). Dante thus dates the crucifixion to the year 34 A.D.

Perhaps it would be foolish of me to inquire what time zone it is in hell, and to what standard the demons set their clocks. Infernal Standard Time, presumably. Infernal Standard Time is defined by it being always too late to do anything that might make one happy.

May the readers of my blog not set their clocks to Infernal Standard Time, and may they have a joyous Easter.


November 25, 2009

About 10:30 this morning I had just checked my e-mail and was getting ready to sit down to work on the lecture I am scheduled to deliver in Ohio next week on the subject of the Filioque controversy — a subject about which the Preacher, the son of David, may have been prophetically thinking when he observed that he who increases knowledge increases sorrow, that of the making of books there is no end, and that much study is a weariness of the flesh. Much other business also urgently awaits my attention: I need to clean up the house and make other preparations in advance of a visit from an aunt and uncle, who are coming down from Boston this Friday to attend my Aunt Becky’s funeral (she died early this past Monday, aged 80, of cancer of the liver; with all the misery and horror of approaching death, she managed to look beautiful even to the end). Anyway, at just about 10:30 a.m. I heard a scuffling noise outside, a great, noisy confabulation, which seemed to be coming from all directions. I looked out the window and saw that the roof and the ground and the bare trees were all covered with crows, like an army of well-trained paratroopers, surveying the territory or moving about in search of food; many of them were scouring the gutters of my house for insects, pulling out the decaying leaves that had collected there and letting them fall to the ground, making easier for me the job I will eventually have to do to clean these gutters out. From the kitchen window, I could see their tails moving directly overhead as they scavenged, while others, on adjacent parts of the roof, looked about, with sharp, no-nonsense eyes and bluish heads: certainly enough to strike terror into the heart of any beetle or ant who should have had the misfortune of being caught out in the open. I was wondering to myself how many they were, and was thinking that there must have been at least a thousand of them; after some minutes, when I sat down and began working on the computer, the birds must have been startled by a noise which I didn’t hear, or by a movement somewhere which I didn’t see, because they all suddenly took off like a great black horde, briefly filling the whole grey sky like a dark, self-propelled cloud; and I could see that my guess of a thousand was a serious underestimate: there may well have been ten thousand of them or more.

And now, as I write this, and look again out the window, they seem to be returning, perhaps flattered at having received all this attention. I had better get to work on more serious things.


August 14, 2009

This has been an unusually hectic week for me, and next week promises to be even more so. I have been on the road most of the past week, shuttling back and forth between New Jersey and Long Island, singing at various church services and attending a burial service in Pennsylvania on Wednesday (a very pious Greek lady who attended my parish in New Jersey died last weekend and was buried at a monastery); tonight I drive back to Long Island, to attend two liturgies over the weekend and to sing at a concert Sunday afternoon. On Monday I will drive to Cleveland, Ohio to look into a possible teaching position at a private school; at the same time, I have just been informed that I need to get the final proofs of my article for Communio back to them by Wednesday. Aggravating this frenetic hurrying about, I have pretended to be a computer geek, and attempted to set up a double-booting system on a laptop I purchased the other day; the results have been pretty horrendous, and, as I write this, I am waiting for the hard drive to finish reformatting before I leave for Long Island, hoping that there will be at least one working operating system on the machine before the procedure is all through.

All of this is offered in extenuation for my continuing, long-term neglect of this blog, and to give notice that that neglect will probably be prolonged for at least the next week or two. Wishing readers of this blog a blessed feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.

A brief notice

July 20, 2009

I just today received word from Communio concerning the essay I sent them in April; they want me to revise it, and they want the revision by next week. I think the criticisms that were made — essentially, that the essay, as it stands, is a bit too technical for the journal’s audience, and that I need to do more to explain to readers both who Bekkos is and why the underlying theological issues are important — are entirely well-taken. Because I will be completely preoccupied with this job until early next week, I would ask readers’ forbearance if I do not reply to comments for the time being, and if the discussion on divine simplicity that has recently emerged in the comments to my last post is temporarily put on hold.

A postscript

June 29, 2009

I wish to acknowledge publicly that my language towards Photios Jones in the exchange over my last post was intemperate and uncalled-for. I do not presume to know who is saved and who is damned; that is a judgment which belongs only to the Lord Jesus Christ to make. If I in fact believed that Mr. Jones were eternally reprobate, I would not pray for him, as I have done and shall continue to do. I do strongly reject his ecclesiastical position; but it may well be that the Lord will account him a more righteous man than myself. If he is in schism, it is possible that I am as well, and with less justification.

For some time now, I have come to think that Rome’s claims to Petrine authority are essentially legitimate. I also think that the Orthodox Church is a true Church, and in many ways preserves more of genuine Christian life and piety than I am able to perceive elsewhere. It has nurtured my life in Christ, and I am unwilling to leave it for something that I would only perceive as a pale substitute and that might leave me feeling spiritually lost. Such a position might be condemned as cowardly and hypocritical and inconsistent, and in fact is condemned as such by Photios Jones, and probably by others; but I hope that, at least, I have been up-front about it. I would like to see a union between the Churches, in truth and peace; I do not want to see a union that results in reducing the Orthodox Church to something it is not. I have thought that the approach John Bekkos took to this issue centuries ago deserves, at least, to be understood, and perhaps to be emulated.

Last year, around this time, I discontinued this blog for a period of several months; the thought has occurred now to do the same, or to hang it up altogether. I need to get a real job, and to finish this book on Bekkos; the discussions which I have had with Photios Jones, although they make for good spectator sport, are soul-destroying, and are largely a distraction from my real work. I will probably take some time off from the blog during the coming weeks; there is much sorting out of things I need to do. I ask the readers’ prayers.

A visit to Brooklyn

June 11, 2009

Near Prospect Park in Brooklyn is a place I have often visited, and which I visited again some weeks ago on my way back to New Jersey at the end of a brief trip to Long Island: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Since my return to the Northeast in 2005 after seven years of teaching in New Mexico, I have probably spent more time at this garden than at any other place in New York City, with the possible exception of the New York Public Library; at one point I contemplated moving to Brooklyn and taking a job there, which I have not done and probably shall not do, chiefly because my horticultural skills are nonexistent. But this has not prevented me from enjoying the garden; and since it was a bright spring day, and my birthday was approaching, and I had not been to the garden in some time, I made a point of stopping there.

The scriptures, of course, speak of the first man as a gardener, someone whose original task was “to dress and keep” the garden in which he had been put (Gen 2:15) — more literally, “to work it and to keep it,” לעבדה ולשמרה, le-ovdha ve-le-shomrha, LXX ἐργάζεσθαι αὐτὸν καὶ φυλάσσειν. The same verb עבד occurs, for the first time in the Bible, at v. 5 of the same chapter, where it says that “there was not a man to till [to work, le-avod] the ground”; man is there presented as a being whose essential activity, as his name adam suggests, is to work the ground, ha-adamah, to get it to do the thing it is meant to do, i.e., produce beautiful and healthful plants. From the verb עבד is derived the feminine abstract noun עבודה avodah, “service,” which, in the Septuagint, usually gets translated by the Greek word λειτουργία, from which we get the English word “liturgy.” So it might be inferred that liturgical prayer is itself a form of gardening, a working of the ground of the heart, although, admittedly, such an inference would not hold up in a book of logic.

St. Gregory the Theologian, in his poem On the Soul, interprets man’s original employment as a gardener in a particular way. The poem speaks of God having created man to be a being partaking in both the material and the spiritual worlds, a being of a mixed constitution who, because of this dual nature, exhibits a longing directed towards both heaven and earth. Having given man this evenly balanced nature, God also gave him an internal law, and placed him “in the vales of an ever-verdant paradise, … observing which direction he’d incline” (Poem 1.1.8, De anima, vv. 101-103; PG 37, 454). As for the paradisiacal garden, Gregory says, “it is the heavenly life, it seems to me. So this is where he placed him, to be a farmer, cultivating his words,” λόγων δρηστῆρα γεωργόν (ibid., vv. 105-106). The word δρηστῆρα, in one sense, implies that Adam was placed in the garden to be a doer of God’s words, to live a life of practical virtue. But I have translated it as “cultivating” God’s words, his λόγοι, in keeping with what St. Gregory states in his Oration 38.12 (PG 36, 324B): Adam was placed in paradise “to till the immortal plants, by which is perhaps meant the Divine Conceptions (θείων ἐννοιῶν), both the simpler and the more perfect.” Man’s original, Edenic activity was, on St. Gregory’s view, to contemplate the divine reasons of things, and, by perceiving them, to catch a reflection of the glory of God.

Perhaps it was this original Adamic task that drew me to the garden in Brooklyn on that bright afternoon some weeks ago, although I confess that, in recent months, my ability to perceive the divine reasons of things has been very sporadic and limited. Perhaps I have had too many other things on my mind to fulfill that Adamic task in the proper way.

I stayed at the garden only about an hour and a half, having arrived there in the middle of the afternoon and not wanting to get caught in rush-hour traffic. In driving there, I passed by various examples of New York life and death: vast marble cemeteries; some Hispanic men playing baseball; a car with a bumper-sticker that read “Islam is the answer”; a Torah scholar, gaunt, black-clad, with a long black beard, looking strangely other-worldly, sitting on a park bench in front of a yeshiva.

At the garden, I bought three cheap books (two on recycling and one on composting), had lunch (a bowl of split-pea soup), and then walked around, observing the plants and the people. The boughs of a dark Canadian hemlock hung down over the walkway: a beautiful tree, but poisonous (remember Socrates). Two women in the rose garden wore hats that reminded me of those seen in photographs from my grandmother’s day. Mothers pushed their baby-carriages and talked on their cellphones. I stopped for awhile at the Japanese pond, one of the most beautiful spots in the garden, a place where people invariably take pictures and have their picture taken; a wooden, covered shelter there extends over the water, from which one can gaze down upon the goldfish swimming below, which gather when they see a tourist, knowing from experience that tourists frequently ignore the sign that tells them not to feed the fish. Some visitors there were speaking Modern Greek; a Spanish woman, who pronounced her “c”s as “th”s, was telling her young daughter, in Spanish, to behave.

I also took a walk through the “Shakespeare Garden,” a small enclosure that apparently contains specimens of all the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was in that garden, some two decades ago, that I bumped into the elder sister of a friend of mine from college. Elaine Gluckman always impressed me as a kind and gentle person, a sort of Leah to her sister’s Rachel. She told me there, with evident joy, about her upcoming marriage. About a year later I learned that she had died in childbirth; her son survived, and has been raised by his father. Perhaps she was actually the Rachel (cf. Gen. 35:16-20).

There are many things I do not understand. Perhaps the greatest attraction of a botanical garden is that plants do not say anything. They challenge one’s assumption that all of life is susceptible to analysis and explanation. If one is to perceive the λόγοι of plants, their speech, in which they declare their nature and show the divine glory, one clearly has to go about it in a different way than is usually done in this world of instant information and constant self-assertion. One has to learn great patience, something I still lack.

God willing, at some point I will attain that necessary patience and humility, so as to perceive God’s reasons, and God’s glory, in plants and people. For the present, much of what I ought to understand seems strange and inexplicable.

The miseries of Facebook

March 16, 2009

A number of old friends of mine sent me invitations over the weekend to sign up for Facebook. I did so, and already feel it was a stupid mistake. I have too much to do to waste my time in “social networking,” scribbling pleasantries and explaining to people in two or three sentences what I’ve done over the past thirty years of my life; mostly I’ve done nothing, and am doing nothing at present. When people hear that, they think I’m being antisocial. Perhaps; but I’ve got work to do, and Facebook is a distraction I can ill afford. I think I’ll delete the account tomorrow.

Anastasia Baburova

March 10, 2009

Some weeks ago, I clipped an obituary out of The Economist, dated February 7th 2009; it has been sitting on my desk, and, on Saturday, I began thinking about why I had kept it there. It reports the death of a twenty-five year old Russian journalist named Anastasia Baburova, who, on January 19th, was shot in the head in the center of Moscow, in broad daylight, moments after a friend of hers, Stanislav Markelov, a human-rights lawyer, was also shot and killed. It is unclear whether the assailant targeted her from the start or if he shot her because she intervened to protect her friend. Her death comes at a time when the case of another murdered Russian journalist remains unsolved, that of Anna Politkovskaya, who angered the Russian government by her critical reporting of the war in Chechnya and, like Baburova, worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

At the top of the Economist obituary, there is a photograph. It shows a scene from a nighttime street demonstration, presumably in Moscow; three men are pictured, apparently listening, with varying degrees of attention, to a political speech; the one in the middle, a young man with Slavic features, holds up a white sign, on which is pasted a black and white photograph of Ms. Baburova.

Not long after this article appeared, I saw, on the television, a short news piece on this case. A brief scene was shown from Anastasia Baburova’s funeral: her mother was seen approaching the bier; next to it was this same photograph.

It must be said that the Russians are a people who know some things about icons. Whether the photograph of Anastasia Baburova has an iconic character is perhaps debatable, but it is certainly a very striking picture. In a single image, it says something about a whole life.

Three years ago about this time, I went into New York City to attend an exhibition of Russian art at the Guggenheim Museum, meeting there my friends Bill Ney (who writes the blog The New Combat) and Brother Robert Smith. There are many things that I remember from this exhibit, which was the last time I saw Brother Robert while he was still well. One would have thought that the examples of early Russian iconography, e.g., the Andrei Rublev paintings and the large Deesis panel from the Kirillo-Beloezersk Monastery, would have left the deepest impression on my mind; but I have to say that this was not so. (In any case, I always feel vaguely awkward when viewing icons in a museum, where they are meant to be seen as art and where one is not supposed to venerate them.) The paintings that I in fact spent the most time looking at were four, all of them from the mid-nineteenth century onward. The first, though not the earliest, was a huge mural from the early 1960′s, an example of Socialist realism, titled “Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station” by the artist Viktor Popkov. The painting, which is permanently on exhibit at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, shows four muscular construction workers and a diminutive woman, taking a lunch break. I spent a long time looking at it, trying to decide whether it was ugly or beautiful; in the end, it seemed to me that the artist, although commissioned to do the work for a political end, had succeeded in conveying something of the humanity and self-respect of these people, who stand looking at you or looking the other way, not pretending to be other than what they are. (Brother Robert, I have to say, didn’t like it.) The second painting that caught my attention was a mid-nineteenth-century portrait of a Russian girl, red-haired, probably between 15 and 17 years old. She looked utterly normal and utterly happy to be alive; it did not seem, in looking at the painting, that what I was looking at was a girl who lived a hundred and fifty years ago. A third picture, another painting from the nineteenth century, was a portrait of a lady, dark-haired, dressed head to toe in what must have been a riding uniform. There was a curious, forceful purposefulness to her gaze and gait, which held my attention for a long time, as I wondered who she was and what she was up to. Brother Robert came by and asked what I saw in the picture; I wasn’t quite sure myself, and pointed out to him the rich colors; he said, “Ah yes, the colors…” or something like that. It seemed to me that seeing beauty in a painting (or, perhaps, in anything else) is somewhat like getting the point of a joke: the experience is not easily communicable, it tends to become compromised in the act of explaining it. For my own part, I show my lack of aesthetic sensibility by the fact that I take more interest in the persons and things depicted than in the depiction as such.

The fourth picture at the exhibition that caught my attention was a contemporary painting, and a disturbing one. It was an allegorical representation of contemporary Russia as a disheveled, probably dissolute woman careening through the snow in a mad troika, a boyfriend at her side, the frantic horses being pushed to the limit; behind them, in close pursuit, follow demonic hounds. I wasn’t quite sure what the painting was saying, but it seemed to be saying something true. The absolute, prostituting pursuit of wealth and immediate enjoyment seems to be a mad joyride, with disaster directly on one’s heels.

Perhaps that was the Russia Anastasia Baburova lived in and wrote about; perhaps it was also that Russia which killed her. I get the sense, in seeing her photograph and reading the few translated excerpts from her blog, that she was a fundamentally honest young woman, who loved life and people and hated fascism, which she saw spreading in her society like some poisonous mold or fungus. She doesn’t appear to have been particularly religious; perhaps she didn’t live long enough to feel a need to be. She reminds me, in some ways, of another Anastasia, the Natasha of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of my favorite characters in all of world literature, someone whose faults, such as they were, always resulted from an overflowing superabundance of life and too great a faith in the basic goodness of humanity. A less calculating, utilitarian personality can hardly be imagined. My impression is that Anastasia Baburova was that sort of a person. That Russia should still be producing such people tells me that that land has not yet completely lost its ancient greatness of soul; that it allows them to be murdered tells me that its soul is not in good health — although, as an American, I realize that I must not throw stones at other people’s houses.


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