The Losers

A conversation with an Arkhangelsk councilman about healthy protest against despondency, and how Russian citizens are rediscovering Russia

The Russians have shown interest in their country again, and it gives us hope, big time,” recounts Eduard Volodenkov, member of the Arkhangelsk regional parliament.

Siya monastery of St. Anthony Siya monastery of St. Anthony   


It really doesn’t matter to me if it’s almost midnight, but I really do care that the road leading to Onega is thickly covered with ice and the cars have to go as slow as ten kilometers per hour. Those cars have people inside, you know. So, their fate and their health is also a matter of concern. I reiterate: Send the road cleaning equipment ASAP there and take care of that section of the road. I am here, waiting for your report back. What? I don’t quite understand why you expect a local councilman to call you so that you’ll do your job. The weather forecast was on your table as early as yesterday. So, please do,” Volodenkov threw the phone on the seat. It didn’t take too long to receive a call back. In a matter of a few hours, the road was sprinkled with sand.

He immediately remarked that it is a sad mistake when one travels to the lands of Arkhangelsk but fails to visit the Siya monastery of St. Anthony.

—First of all, it is a holy place. Have you heard about Venerable Anthony? Ah, good. Secondly, it is currently being restored. And you know, what joy it is when you see with your own eyes that justice is restored! Thirdly, it is, in my opinion, a good example of developing love and respect for the Motherland and the Faith. Following the Church, Russia gets up from its knees. Well, sadly, we owe it to the crisis, darn it. But it is a blessing in disguise. And, as I see it, there is more blessing than grief. Because before, we didn’t know Russia at all—we lost a whole generation to all those Egypts-Turkeys-Switzerlands.

Would you agree if someone says that a Russian today knows much more about foreign lands than his own?

—I am convinced of the validity of this opinion on a daily basis! I know some Arkhangelsk locals who will expertly tell you about the Louvre or the Dresden Gallery but will shamefacedly grow silent once the conversation shifts to the masterpieces of wooden architecture of the Onega or Kholmogory district in our own Arkhangelsk Region. However, I must admit that there is nothing new about it. Back in the Russian Empire, the educated classes were accused—and rightly so, in my opinion—of lacking knowledge of their own country. It is ignorance that turns into disdain for the Motherland, and it results in troublesome consequences —equally for the country and its clueless citizens. Remember how the Russian Catholic poet Pecherin once said: “How sweet it is to hate your land! And be agog for its demise! And realize in its destruction the rise of universal evil!” Let’s cite Smerdyakov’s1 words: “I hate all of Russia.” I think that today, to my great regret, we can’t boast of having overcome this “sweet hatred.” Gogol’s words painfully reverberate in our hearts: “How great is our ignorance of Russia within Russia!”


What’s the reason for it, in your opinion?

—I think, on the one hand, it has to do with the aftermath of the “allure of the West” we so relished in great abundance. True, it has almost faded away these days; the people have traveled, gawked around in that fabled West, and the romantic gloss has faded away. Rational thinkers have concluded—and they are absolutely right—that we should take from the West only what will truly benefit our country or what will make it more beautiful. The time of getting their stuff, chewing gum or candies is long gone—Russia must get involved in doing completely different things.

On the other hand, and I see it as even more dangerous that some of our media outlets inflict a great deal of damage, since they are absolutely inept at presenting true Russia to its viewer, listener and reader, but instead circulate lies, sweet-talk, and vulgarities. At their behest, our country, its culture and history come across in the form of matryoshkas with samovars and ice hole jumping and all that sort of knick-knackery. But any defiant neglect, disrespect for the knowledge, feelings, and qualities that should be, in the truest sense of the word, cultivated in our society will trigger predictable protest. Simply put, we breed ignorant foreigners and spiteful people who live in “this” country where they were so “unfortunate” to be born and live.

When do they start seeing things differently?

Quite a bleak picture. No chance for “what ifs”?

—Thank God for those “what ifs”! Against all the odds, we suddenly discovered that, despite all our obeisance and apologies, we haven’t become more loved in the West—we will still be treated with distrust and caution like aliens. On top of that, there is also the legitimate bemusement on the part of our compatriots—sort of, make up your mind, buddy: Are you one of us or are you neither here nor there? Add to this an infamous crisis, economical and political. So, our eyes are slowly opening wide and Russians are slowly coming to understand that hatred towards own country and the people is an age-old joke, known all too well; and no declarations about the necessity of “bringing Russia into the family of ‘civilized’ nations” would ever conceal it. We’ve been there already, so there’s no sense in listening to our dear “civilizers” from across the globe all over again.

That’s when healthy protest and the feeling of shame reawaken; like, honestly, it’s a shame that we traversed the globe far and wide, but we know practically nothing about one sixth of the Earth’s land. That’s how you develop the urgent desire to get to know your own country; and once you do it in earnest, you will joyfully learn, even if belatedly—but ah so crucially—to love and respect your own people.

Eduard Volodenkov Eduard Volodenkov Isn’t it too late?

—I don’t think so. The question is whether we truly feel this way. We do see that there is a great need for self-respect and it keeps growing exponentially. Such a healthy aspiration can’t but elicit an outward response. That’s why we try to tell people about the Russian North and showcase it to as many of our compatriots as possible. I am speaking not only from a position of a government employee interested in the economic development of the Arkhangelsk land; although it surely does influence my line of thinking as well. But I am just so happy that we are moving towards overcoming the division that belittled us in our own eyes. Believe me, it truly brings joy to know that the people are rediscovering their Russia and finding out that it actually isn’t too backward a country. And, as it turns out, the notion of “freedom” is commonplace and organic to our nature. The unfree and dimwitted “baste-shoe wearers” couldn’t possibly learn seamanship, erect breathtakingly beautiful churches and monasteries, fortification complexes, or enormous settlements boasting of prosperity and dignity. Not to mention our literature or art —everyone should come and see it himself. That is, we are talking about overcoming the stereotype: “Russia and the Russians are the losers of world history.” “Losers,” right! And how about those losers developing the Arctic and Antarctica? It’s just one example.

We are currently witnessing the surge in the opening of new memorial places and work to commemorate the prominent men and women of the Arkhangelsk land

We are currently witnessing the surge in the opening of new memorial places to commemorate the prominent men and women of the Arkhangelsk land. This is not only about the heroes of the war, but also the scientists, writers, local historians, and others—all of a sudden, we have realized that have achievements and people we can be proud of. With all due respect and honor to Mikhail Vasilyevich, Lomonosov wasn’t the only one born in Pomorye.2 We can name straight off hundreds of scholars, seafarers, engineers, writers, poets, genetics scientists, musicians, power engineers, etc… Our culture, science, and the state wouldn’t be what it is today without them.

St. Artemy of Verkola monastery St. Artemy of Verkola monastery   

By the way, the airport in Arkhangelsk is named after Feodor Abramov —it would be good if we learned about the creative activity of Feodor Alexandrovich, one of the preeminent representatives of such a valuable literary phenomenon as village prose. He was born not far from the city, in Verkola. The local monastery of Righteous Artemy has recently been restored, but it was Abramov who was the first to trumpet the need for restoring this monastery in the 1980s.

Overall, you take any village or a settlement here and you will always find things and people to share stories about, not only in the fairy-tale manner of Stepan Pisakhov, even if he is well loved here, too.

Currently, according to my own observations, the people take less interest in the economic dimension than spiritual aspect. And this is very important; it seems as though we are gradually coming to the realization that even though money and the comforts of life do matter, there are other things that still matter more. Hence, I think we are getting our priorities straight.

Noble opposition

But you can’t walk away from the truly desperate situation of the Russian village life. I won’t reiterate here the words by Abramov and other village prose writers, but the fate of the Russian village seriously causes alarm—even given our great commitment to spiritual matters. I will say two words: “optimization” and “depopulation.” What should we do with that?

—Yes, it is the vice of the Russian village and, consequently, of all of us. But, I wouldn’t at this point fall into despondency or despair. There is opposition to this and it grows by the day. Because what we have here is this: once we give up and get despondent, as it often happens in such instances, the destructive process—not just of village life but of man himself—will go at breakneck speed. Someone succumbs to alcoholism, hard and fast. Someone else is trying all he can to “bag” more of the public funds assigned to improve the village life. Another one sells off the remaining village property for scrap or squanders timber. All of them follow the beaten path and point to the despondency, moral decay, and self-destruction of a nation.

But it is so unlike the good old Rus’ we have read about and were rightfully proud of. What’s causing it?

—I will cite Alexander Khmelnitsky, People’s Commissar of Justice of Soviet Ukraine, on the Bolshevik understanding of the nations’ rights and sovereignty. He said in 1919: “We must exterminate the very spirit of individual initiative, we must destroy the spirit of self-help and replace it with the principle of help coming from above, the principle of government assistance.” What we have today is our reaping the fruit of that spirit: inert passivity, religious belief in a “mighty powerful tsar,” sweating over a sweet spot at the civil service “trough” instead of having unabashed self-reliance, readiness to help one another and to establish business-like relationships with the state. It is one of the reasons, I think.

But resistance does exist and it’s quite powerful, effective, and productive. In this respect, every example of it is excitingly unique. You mentioned for example two dreadful words: “optimization” and “depopulation.” But I will say in return: The ‘Common Cause’ project. The restoration of churches in the Russian North. Over the course of ten short years, this one activity, I am telling you, has offered hope to many people and helped them to understand that the rest of Russia cares for them and their villages.

“The Common Cause” project helped many people to understand: the rest of Russia does care for them and their villages

Do you think that this project gets people involved exclusively during the warm time of the year? Not remotely true: Work continues throughout the year. It is about the material support, some minor work in the wooden churches, the setting up of exhibitions, scientific material preparation, conducting of conferences, and many other things. Besides, the local residents take part in this process on par with the professionals. Moreover, owing to this project, the villages, sites of magnificent monuments of wooden architecture, were formerly isolated from one another but have now grown closer: they jointly set up arts and crafts fairs and the village festivals… They simply help one another these days. I can tell of so many other examples—but it’s best to go and check it out yourself. Besides, it is only one such example.

There are others that help people defy despair and despondency and save the villages from dying out. Without such people, all the efforts on the part of the local authorities of various levels wouldn’t have produced any results. So, yes, there is fruitful cooperation. Should we acquaint the people from other parts of Russia with their country? No problem—let’s open a tourist center, say, in the Onega district. Let’s expand and do not only the scientific projects—because history and ethnography can be teachable, but at another level. Let’s revive the traditional crafts. You name it! Many of those projects are already in the works, but believe me—what I say here has nothing to do with bureaucratic mantras.

I suggest that those who are despondent should come and join those who work

Therefore, as it always happens to us, we are nowadays becoming witnesses of the battle between “basket case” hopelessness, with all the consequences that come with it, and healthy protest—the hard, yet never hopeless, physical and mental work to “gather stones.” Both sides have people from different social strata. I have no desire to condemn those who are subject to despondency—all I suggest is that they look into the possibility of joining those who work. Experience shows that it really helps. I reiterate: just go and see it for yourself. We’ve test-tried it. And we’ve never regretted it.

Stepan Ignashev
spoke with Eduard Volodenkov
Translation by Liubov Ambrose


1 A character in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. He was the bastard son of the Karamazov brothers’ father.—Ed.

2 Pomorye means, the coastal lands—another name for the Russian northern lands on the White Sea.—Ed.

Fr William Bauer PhD5/19/2022 6:18 pm
In the United States the media fills us with local trash about New York City and Washington DC. Thus we tend to see such junk as New York Times as worth reading (it is not). Here in Nevada we ignore anything said by someone who mispronounces the name of the State. The unusual idea given us by the real President Trump advises us to see America itself - and I assure you that the lands east of the Appalachians are not in the tour book.
Benjamin5/17/2022 10:48 pm
I find it really hard to believe Russians are as ignorant of their own history and country as Americans. Believe me, I've lived here my whole life, I can't imagine any group of people more ignorant than Americans-- especially those under 35
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