W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

Piet's Videoranch Talks: April 15, 2007

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Science in a Wider World: Mother Russia

In these weekly talks, the general theme is science and other ways of knowing. Sometimes the focus is on science and daily life, while at other times we explore connections between science and philosophy, or spirituality, or art. In the U.S., `science and something' often defaults to `science and religion' which then often boils down to `evolution vs. creationism' or variations thereof. In Western Europe, however, evolution is much less of an issue, and in Eastern Europe, not too long ago under the communist regimes there, religion was officially not an issue at all. Science was the one state-sanctioned way of knowing, and religion was officially ignored.

In order to explore the notion of `science and other ways of knowing' in the Russia, I invited Professor Anna Vassilieva, who is the Head of the Russian Studies Program at the Monterey Institute. Anna is a good friend of mine, and we have had many a conversation about science and spirituality in various cultural settings and historical periods, from Greek mythology and Indian and Burmese world views to the history of Mother Russia. This last Sunday, we continued our conversations, starting off with me asking her about the way she grew up in Siberia.

Anna described how her parents had moved out to Siberia for their geology work in the fifties amidst a wave of optimism and idealism inspired by Khrushchev's liberal approach after the death of Stalin. She described what it was like to grow up there. She painted a picture of the elementary school she attended. In the hallway there was a huge mural with gold letters on a red background, describing the moral rules for a good communist. In effect, these were almost literally the ten commandments, translated from the original Judeo-Christian setting into a seemingly non-religious context.

Even though none of her teachers mentioned the words "religion" or "spirituality", she and her class mates in high school discussed these topics among themselves, particularly when they were in the context of studying Russian literature of history. The triggers for such discussions were the spiritual views that they were exposed to through reading the Russian classics, from writers like Dostoewski and Tolstoy, as well as French, British and American literature.

The conversation then turned to the events in Russia in the last twenty years, during and after the fall of the Communist regime. Anna told us that the revolution in 1917 that gave rise to the USSR was in fact a far less dramatic change than what has happened recently, after the fall of the USSR. Back in 1917, the three main structures in Russia, namely monarchy, Russian Orthodox Church, and peasant community, remained virtually the same. The peasants were organized into collective farms, not very different from their previous life in semi-serfdom; the communist state took over the whole bureaucratic apparatus from Tsarist Russia; and the role of the Church was replaced by the ideology of commitment, purity and sacrifice, and veneration of Communist heroes, starting with Lenin, who were given a form of sainthood.

In contrast, the switch to capitalism and democracy, which had never before existed in Russia, was much more of a break with the past. Rampant inflation, collapse of value system and pervasive corruption made the life of ordinary citizens miserable in such shocking ways that a direct comparison with Western notions of democracy and capitalism became impossible. Under Yeltsin, Russia's infrastructure more or less fell apart, economically and culturally. Putin has tried to pick up the pieces, but in doing so, has gotten a really bad rap in the Western press. Anna described at length, using a number of specific examples, how the media in the US tend to paint Putin's actions in a one-sided way, out of context. In general, the West has very little understanding of how Russians themselves view their own county, Mother Russia.

Anna has been active in trying to provide more balance, through her writings and interviews. For example, a year ago, she was featured on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Anna appeared as one of two experts discussing the growing tensions between the US and Russia. She was featured along with Ambassador Steve Sestanovich, who was the senior Russian specialist in the Clinton Administration, in this interview. 

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