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    painting of the ruins of an empire

    Who Can Repair the World?

    The novels of Eugene Vodolazkin hold visions of tikkun olam.

    By Nadya Williams

    December 1, 2023
    • Matthew Pound

      Thank you for this thoughtful article. As someone who works with vulnerable children and families in Asia, and sees a good deal of brokenness, this article raised some of the difficult questions we often find ourselves raising here. I often wonder if our efforts are part of the whole redemption God is working. In a word, I sometimes wonder if it is worth trying to do at all. There are many examples of well-intentioned efforts to heal, that end up doing more harm than good. We are flawed human beings ourselves, and it can feel presumptuous to attempt to heal others while our own healing is so incomplete. One step forward and two steps back is something we feel often.

    In 2018, a teenager started protesting weekly in front of the Swedish Parliament, advocating boldly for the need to address the deleterious impact of climate change on the planet. Just fifteen years old at the time, Greta Thunberg quickly became a household name worldwide because of her youth, obvious pluck, and eloquent articulation of a desire that, it turns out, so many others share. Whether it is to advocate for the planet, protest wars, or push back against racial violence, to name just a few causes, activists now abound. Their dream? To fix some aspect in that which is broken – the world.

    Can people repair the world? Modern secular and religious visions of justice alike presume that the answer is yes, even as those relentless dreamers who devote themselves to this mission often despair at the seeming futility of their efforts. But then this is the story of the human race since expulsion from Eden. Perhaps the one thing on which we can agree after centuries of concerted efforts is that the world looks more broken, not less.

    But we moderns are not so special after all in wrestling with this question of who can fix the brokenness of this world. In late antiquity, Jewish theologians who put together the Mishnah, a written collection of oral traditions for the interpretation of the Torah, first coined the term tikkun olam – literally “repair of the world,” based on Zechariah 14:9. Continually interpreted and reinterpreted over the ensuing centuries, tikkun olam today has come to be a social-justice-oriented pillar of Reform Judaism, emphasizing the obligation of people to work on fixing the brokenness around them, increasingly leaving God out of it. But the original vision, as Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff explains in offering a history of the different meanings of the term, recognizes two important truths: that the world is horribly broken through the actions and ill will of people, and that God alone can fix it, even if acting through the hands of people.

    But – and this is key – tikkun olam might not look like what we, mere humans, might expect. Christians, who have our own version of the divine mandate to participate in repair, might feel this especially acutely. Jesus’ first coming – the biggest step toward cosmic repair since the Edenic break – did not look like what anyone imagined. Perhaps the long-awaited second coming, described in Revelation, will be no less confusing to witness.

    One region where visions of repair and despair have left a particularly mournful footprint in the past century is the former Soviet Union. Yet these visions bear a striking witness to God’s promises. Reflections of the writers from the region on broken lives, both their own and those of others, show in sharp contrast the despair that atheism propagates and the hope for tikkun olam that only God can offer.

    A century ago, the Russian Revolution was a dream of restoration, a godless attempt at cosmic repair, abounding with promises of justice, happiness, and a bright future for the proletariat. “All great things are yet to come,” songs promised. Instead, seventy years of oppression, state-enforced atheism, and utter disrespect for human dignity followed.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to offer hope for healing change, but like in 1917, these dreams of repair have relentlessly clashed with the realities of despair in the decades since. The repeatedly broken promises of abusive governments and leaders have been the backdrop for the writing of one of Russia’s greatest contemporary novelists, Eugene Vodolazkin.

    A man wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there, why he is there to begin with, and – most disconcerting of all – who he is. As for the when, he has no idea what year it is either. Soon he finds out that he is in St. Petersburg, and the year is 1999. But complications follow as he remembers more and more of his past.

    His story is the subject of Vodolazkin’s 2018 The Aviator. Born and educated in Kyiv, Vodolazkin spent the first half of his life under USSR governance and the second half in post-Communist Russia, largely in St. Petersburg. These experiences have shaped his writings at least as much as his academic expertise in the Middle Ages – experiences of brute reality and shattered lives that cannot seem to be made whole. And the question to which he keeps returning again and again in his novels is, indeed: Is there any hope of repair here and now in this ugly, broken world?

    painting of the ruins of an empire

    Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836

    And so, back to the man in the hospital. His name is Innokenty Petrovich Platonov. Innokenty – the innocent one, who didn’t deserve the evils that befell him. He just happened to live in the wrong place at the wrong time. Born to a bourgeois family in 1900, Platonov is a youth during the Russian Revolution and the early paranoid years of the USSR’s existence, those years of Leninist purges that would soon give way to Stalinist purges. Neighbors readily inform on neighbors, and any shadow of suspicion is enough to lead to an arrest and possible execution. Such is Platonov’s own fate.

    Sent to a proto-Gulag on the Solovetsky islands, Platonov faces sure death – no prisoner ever left these islands alive. But fate intervenes. Hot in pursuit of immortality, Stalin himself sanctions a secret scientific project: an attempt to cryogenically preserve people for the future, allowing them to be defrosted into a new life decades later. These isolated islands with their population of condemned prisoners offer the perfect location for these laboratory experiments. Platonov, who had already survived horrific torture and hard labor camps, is just one of a number of men who choose to be frozen instead of facing a more traditional execution. To the surprise of all, including Platonov himself, seven decades later he becomes the only one to be successfully defrosted.

    In Russian, the concept of a broken, mangled life – izkalechennaia zhizn’ – implies more than just brokenness. There is a certain evil, an irreversible ugliness to it all. This implies something that is done to a person – thence the passive voice – but could never be undone in this life. And yet, throughout this novel, it seems like repair is possible, is just there, only barely out of reach. Platonov moves into the same building where he had lived up until his arrest. He falls in love with Nastya, the granddaughter of his beloved from eighty years ago – who looks just like her and even shares her name. Soon, they are expecting a baby together. Can it be that, following his first tragic life, happiness will finally be possible in this one? Alas, as all those who have lived through the Soviet Union’s collapse know, the answer is not so simple. Neither is it for Platonov, whose miraculously defrosted body begins to fail, and quickly.

    Pause on Platonov and consider another man, separated from him by time, yet also his spiritual peer through their shared life as the brainchildren of Vodolazkin. The author’s protagonists from different novels could all be seen as sort of siblings – the sons and daughters of their creator, but also products of his time and life experiences. So it is for the man of many names – by turns over the course of the many stages of his long life Arseny, Ustin or Rukinetz, the monk Amvrosy, and at last the ascetic Laurus. He is the eponymous protagonist of Vodolazkin’s medieval saga of a novel.

    While Laurus is set in late medieval Russia, the view of society that Vodolazkin offers – people’s lack of genuine care for each other, depravity, greed, and lack of respect for others’ personhood in the age of the plague – speaks no less directly to contemporary Russia than Vodolazkin’s novels set in the post-Soviet period. In this way Vodolazkin responds directly to Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin, who has relied on a mythologized version of medieval Russian history to underpin his own regime and its imperial ambitions. The latest manifestation of these, of course, is the brutal war in Ukraine. The world of Laurus is a world defined by tragic loss and needless death, no less than Russia and Ukraine over the course of Vodolazkin’s entire lifetime.

    The losses are both social and individual. Laurus himself experiences a tragedy in his youth that defines the rest of his life, when the woman he loved but never married dies in childbirth, attempting to deliver their dead son. A renowned healer himself, possessing a divine gift of healing, he is unable to heal her, unable to save either her or their baby. How can anyone mend the cosmic rift that death perpetrates? Death heaped upon death, living flesh reduced to the food of worms in mere days, these are images of despair that will continue to haunt Laurus throughout his long life, even as he seeks to reverse the curse of death in the world around through practicing his gift of healing.

    When considering people’s agency and ability to fix this broken world, Vodolazkin implies time and time again that people cannot fix broken things; only God can and will. This belief in divine intervention gives Vodolazkin’s novels a striking tinge of hope that is absent in the writings of his contemporaries. Award-winning writers Svetlana Alexievich from Belarus and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya from Russia, for instance, focus on the pervasive despair in post-Soviet societies.

    In her Nobel Prize-winning Secondhand Time, Alexievich considers the epidemic of suicides following the collapse of the USSR. Individuals whose experiences she documents, both those who flourished and those who suffered during Soviet rule, wonder in its aftermath: If one’s whole life was a lie and no redemption is possible, why live? The belief that the world is beyond repair, in other words, leads to despair that surely kills the body as well as the spirit.

    Petrushevskaya’s short stories and novels repeatedly show a continuous thread of misery and abuse of humanity running through the tapestry of life in everyday Russia. In vain do her characters try to escape it. Perhaps Petrushevskaya herself most sympathizes with the narrator of her devastating novel, The Time: Night. There, a mother whose own life and her grown children’s lives have turned out to be so tragic, spends her nights remembering everything that went wrong. Her daytime is spent trying to carry out the Sisyphean task of taking care of her grandchildren, even as hints abound of further tragedies that loom. At least this mother does not leave her children and grandchildren, the way Petrushevskaya’s own mother left her.

    Vodolazkin implies time and time again that people cannot fix broken things; only God can and will.

    Vodolazkin’s characters inhabit the same mangled world as those of Alexievich and Petrushevskaya, all informed by their authors’ own difficult existence. But Vodolazkin’s relentless pursuit of miraculous, divinely ordained cosmic repair stands out in stark contrast. It insists: in God, suffering can be redeemed. The suffering of this world that makes us feel its brokenness so acutely is ultimately transcended by the faith, hope, and love that have come into the world in the person of Christ Jesus. Only through God’s work in people’s lives is the world being made new – in glimpses we can see but dimly now, but will see for certain in the New Creation one day.

    It is with these glimpses of cosmic repair through God’s goodness and provision that Vodolazkin concludes each of his novels. We see glimpses of Revelation, as God puts together the broken pieces of the shattered whole. While each particular outcome is unanticipated, its nature as divinely ordained is unmistakable.

    While the first half of The Aviator follows Platonov’s recovery of his memories of his life before the freezing, the second half follows the disintegration of his now defrosted body and brain. From dust we came, to dust we will return. Playing God, as the Soviet researchers had done, could not substitute for what God alone can do – raise the dead. Platonov realizes that his days are numbered. But in a final plot twist, facing the prospect of his accelerated death in an unexpected plane crash, he wonders, “If the soul is eternal, then I think everything connected with it will also be preserved: actions, events, and sensations. Perhaps in some other, withdrawn, form or maybe in a different sequence, but it will be preserved because I remember the inscription on the famous gate: God preserves all.”

    Did the plane crash or not? We do not find out. The novel concludes with his memories of childhood: “On the cabinet, Themis holds her scales, radiating justice. My grandmother is reading Robinson Crusoe.” God, as this memory reassures, preserves goodness. If not in this life, then in the next.

    A firm knowledge of the promise that “God preserves all” is what keeps Laurus going through his own long life of hardship and mourning. At last, after a lifetime of monastic wandering and dreams of atonement for the deaths for which he feels responsible, the final work of mercy and justice in his life is to deliver the baby boy of a woman unjustly expelled from the community. In a scene that mirrors the horrifying childbirth of his beloved early in the novel, this childbirth proceeds in textbook-perfect form. Holding this baby while the newly delivered mother sleeps – the sleep of life, unlike the sleep of death of his beloved at the beginning – Laurus falls asleep as well. In this glen, where he was long ago happy as a child with his own healer grandfather, he dies in his sleep while holding this other child, one not related to him by flesh and blood, but whose preciousness, just as the preciousness of the child’s mother, Laurus alone was willing to recognize.

    Is this not a glimpse of the world being made right, when the unloved are loved, those who had been rejected are welcomed, and death has no dominion? For Laurus’s body, it turns out, like the body of Lazarus before he walked out of the tomb, does not decompose or smell even after days in the open air. A glimpse of the resurrection here marks the end that is another beginning, assuring us that Laurus’s death is a comma, not a period.

    In many ways, Vodolazkin’s most recent novel, translated into English (and published by Plough) as A History of the Island, explores these same themes more boldly than his previous works. Even the Russian title Opravdanie Ostrova (“The Justification of the Island”) contains biblical echoes with cosmic implications. Just how is this island being justified, being made right with God? The answer the novel offers is clear: through the actions of its saints, the two miraculously long-lived rulers Parfeny and Ksenia, aged 347 years by the novel’s conclusion. Their self-sacrifice to save – justify! – the island at the end, in a moment when God’s judgment appears ready to destroy it Revelation-style, appears to spare the island from a volcanic eruption. And like the biblical Enoch, whose own lifespan of 365 was barely longer than theirs, these two righteous ones who have always walked with God simply disappear without a trace.

    God has always worked through ordinary people. And it is this faith in God’s people, no less than a faith in God’s goodness, that allows Vodolazkin to tell stories of life in the land of despair while asserting that this brokenness, while true, does not have the final say. Yes, there is much death all around. Yes, the innocent will suffer, see their bodies broken for no purpose other than the whims of those who abuse power – that is a story that Vodolazkin tells as openly as do Alexievich and Petrushevskaya and their many other contemporaries. But these abuses too are mere commas in the story that someone greater is writing. Tikkun olam, the repair of the world, requires a physician, one both great and good. He alone is up to the task.

    Contributed By portrait of Nadya Williams Nadya Williams

    Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity. She is Book Review Editor at Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.

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