In mid-September of 1991, a few weeks after Boris Yeltsin persuaded the soldiers and tanks of the Soviet Army to neither arrest him nor open fire on Moscow crowds during the August 18-22 coup attempt, I travelled from the medical school where I worked in Los Angeles to a medical meeting in Kiev, the cultural center of ancient Russia and the capital of modern Ukraine. A flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt was followed by one from Frankfurt to Kiev. The Union of European Phoniatrists, physicians who specialize in medical aspects of voice and speech, was holding their 17th congress in Kiev on September 17th through 21st, at the invitation of the head of the Moscow research institute of phoniatry, Dr. Yurii Vasilenko, whose Ukrainian origin was obvious in the accent with which he spoke Russian. I had met him two years before at a large medical meeting in Prague, where he had promised to invite me to this Kiev meeting, which at that time was already being planned.
The meeting was fascinating, with a group of mostly German European physicians meeting together with mainly Russian and Ukrainian physicians in a hotel located on the periphery of Kiev, but the groups were largely separated by language. I was the only Russian-speaking Westerner besides an Israeli physician and one East German physician. I had been asked to lecture in English, which was understood by most of the Europeans, but when Russians conversing with me in Russian asked when I would speak, and what language I would speak in, their disappointment was patent when I replied that I had been asked to lecture in English. So, after a day or so of this, one afternoon I went back to my room and sat down and wrote out my lecture in Russian. When the time came for me to deliver my talk, it turned out that the slides were inverted in the projector. So I looked out over the auditorium and commented in Russian while the projectionist inverted the slides, "the projectionist wanted to show that I came from the other side of the world, where everyone is upside down!" When the Russians laughed at once, and then a few seconds later so did the Europeans when they got the translation of my comment, I knew that everything would work and the lecture would go well.
For the Russian and Ukrainian physicians, the meeting was a valued opportunity to
catch up with Western medical knowledge and to make personal contacts. I in turn was happy to be able to make further contact with European and Russian colleagues in the
scientific specialty of the physiology of the larynx. Furthermore, since I spent much of the first part of my academic life in the pursuit of Russian and Byzantine-Slavic studies, my visit to Kiev was also an exposure to the realia of ancient Slavic Christian religious culture. When I walked through the ancient Cathedral of St. Sophia in the city of Kiev, dating from the 11th c., at first I was puzzled at the familiarity of the Old Russian inscriptions scratched on the columns, until I recalled that I had read them long before in a Russian archeological monograph on the cathedral that was on my bookshelves at home in Los Angeles.
However, the most startling view of the trip had no horizon. It was the tunnels underneath the Cave Monastery in Kiev, on the riverbank above the Dnieper. The Cave Monastery, dating from the same period as the Cathedral of St. Sophia, shares with it the distinction of being part of the cradle of Russian Christianity. When invaders would ride into Kiev a thousand years ago, it was to these tunnels beneath the monastery that the monks would retreat, to emerge when the enemy departed. Religion also took a dreadful beating in Soviet Russia, and religious artefacts were systematically destroyed, sometimes in bonfires of icons. But, here at the Cave Monastery, Russian religion was reemerging, like the monks coming out of their caves.
The caves contain many artefacts and mummies of medieval monks. I had to restrain myself from discussing them with my fellow visitors, since we were forbidden to speak above a whisper in the caves. When I talked with the monks, only a few of them were older and well educated. Many were very young, and not well educated either about historical Christianity beyond the customary rituals, or learned in the Old Slavic langue of the earliest Slavic books, still the language of the Byzantine Slavic liturgy. I ached at this, and felt that I would like to come back to Kiev in a different persona and teach them the ancient language of the earliest Slavic Christian books, which served as the first common literary language of Eastern Europe in the middle ages, like Latin in the West. In the course of writing my doctoral dissertation on details of the grammar of the Old Slavic language, I had read through all of the published texts of the earliest manuscripts preserved in this language, all of which were works translated from Greek Christian literature, as well as their Greek originals, until the language of the Old Slavic texts was as transparent to me as the New York Times. However, at the Cave monastery, I realized for the first time the extent to which not only many Russian Jews, but also the Christians, had been deracinated by the years of the Soviet regime. And eerily, cliche'd though it sounds, suddenly I realized that here, in the winding tunnels beneath the Cave Monastery, I could easily imagine that I might hear the soft thud of the heartbeat of Russia.
Russia's ancient religious traditions have been a part of Russian nationalism, and sometimes part of a system of enslavement, both political and intellectual. At times they make the content of Western European religion clearer by contrast. The resentment of Western missionary efforts in Russia is partly nationalistic, but it is also part of the awareness of the extent to which East European cultural identity has been organized around the traditions of Byzantine-Slavic religion, with an intellectual style very different from the West. Those who bridge Western and East European religious traditions, like Jaroslav Pelikan and Ihor Shevchenko, have combined different worlds as surely as scholars like Harry Wolfson, who worked at the boundaries of Jewish and Christian traditions. Sometimes it is only by coming to know others that we truly recognize ourselves.