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"Leaving for a monastery, joining the Cossacks, or a band of robbers, was the only way to obtain freedom in Russia"

Alexander Herzen, "The Development of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia", 1851

What is there in common between the church and revolutionary movement? It seems they have nothing in common. But this is correct only if we judge from today's perspective.

However, if we listen to an audiobook of a Russian historian Nikokai Kostomarov (1817-1895) "The Russian History in Biographies", we get a different impression. Kostomarov tells us about Theodosius Pecherski, who lived in XI century. In protest against everyday life of his times, he ran away from his home to monasteries, and later to caves. This was an attempt to start on "a righteous life". Kostomarov tells us how Theodosius, when he was a teenager, was silent and thoughtful. He desired to lead a simple life, and had contempt for various signs of social hierarchy. He wore the dress of the slaves and went with them to work. As he desired to be similar to slaves, he also wore chains on his body. The young man had a despotic mother who persecuted him because of his protest. So, he ran away from her: first to Jerusalem, and later to Kiev, to monasteries. However, he was not accepted in the monasteries, as he was

A religious cave in Russia

poor. So, he went to Anthony in his cave. Gradually, a number of hermits grew around them. Some of these were from rich families, for example Varlaam. This man struggled for a long time against his family and wife. So, he helped to build a church over the caves. The monks chose Theodosius as their Father Superior. 

Theodosius helps all brothers in their works. He himself does the most difficult work. He is the first to come to prayers. He is a talented administrator. He scorns the outer signs of power. However, he demands strict adherence to the rules of the monastery, and in this sense he is just as despotic as his mother. No one is allowed to have personal property. All must eat that which is offered at the common table. All must lead a beggar's life.

Theodosius set up a hospital for invalids. On Saturdays he sends bread to jails. He attacks paganism and drunkeness. He dies in 1074. A year before that a stone church was founded which stands on the ground of today's Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. The abode was independent of the rule of Kievite princes for a long time.

Another Russian historian, V. Kluchevsky (1841-1911) writes about the hermits: "To find a place where one could be alone was an important problem for a hermit; he was enticed by thick forests, swamps, mosses, and impassable thickets". On a chosen spot a small cabin was founded or simply a cave in the ground. Paul Obnorsky lived for three years in the hollow of a large old linden-tree; Cornelius, who came to the Komel' forest, started living in a lone hut, left by the robbers... Near the cell of a hermit, others set up their quarters, those who desired to live together with the hermit, and thus a brotherhood started... the hermits shared a common table, then there appeared a need to build a spacious temple with a dining hall, for the growing brotherhood. Thus, a separate living arrangment made transition to living in common". To work together and to eat together - this was a prescription for living of English communists, "the true levelers".

Reclusion was one of the early forms of protest aga


A copy of the cabin in which Thoreau lived near lake Walden

inst capitalism. For example, Henry D. Thoreau, in the middle of XIX century built himself a cabin near lake Walden in the state of Massachusetts, and lived there for more than 2 years, observing nature and his own thoughts, which served as foundation for the book "Walden" (listen to audiobook here).

Hermits have appeared in the former USSR, as a form of protest against that social society. For example, in an article from 8 November, 2002, under the title "The Recluses Who Have Spent 13 Years in the Siberian Thickets, Have Returned to People", we read:

"Before the beginning of their reclusion, Victor and Anna Antipins have burnt their passports. During the years of life in the forest, the couple has given birth to 4 children who have never, up to now, left the forest or saw other people. The parents have taught them how to read, to write and conduct home economy. They have also put together a kind of encyclopedia for children, in which it is told how to prepare food and doctor oneself".

In my travels around the modern Ukraine, I have met a number of hermits, or communes, which attempt


Tamara Kostuk, head of the S.P.A.R.T.A. commune

to live separately from the rest of society. One example is "S.P.A.R.T.A.", a commune in the Kharkiv region (read an article here, in Russian). There are several volunteers who live on the commune permanently, and they hire a number of farm hands to help them with the agricultural business. People who seek alternative ways of life come to visit them. I was one of them, in the spring of 2012. The people on the commune attempt to reach self-clarification by writing poetry and running marathons of 100 km. The farm is poorly mechanized and there is a lot of chaos. Their ideology is a mix of "Marxism-Leninism", i.e. stalinism, and Christian Orthodoxy. 

S.P.A.R.T.A. is an example of an intentional community

Another group of people who are close to hermits, recluses and separate communes are city "outsiders". Such people are represented by "counter-cultural movement", of which there are many sub-sections.  These are people who deny the values and traditions of the society they live in, and affirm their own values and ways of life.  One writer says that "outsiders" are people  who have fallen behind, or who have marched ahead of the existing society. Or perhaps they are both at the same time...


Richard Stallman

Outsiders are people who because of their main activity spend a long time by themselves, away from civilization. They can be artists, scientists, sportsmen, etc. One example of such a person is Richard Stallman in 1980's, a founder of a movement for free software ("freeware").

In conclusion: people who protest against the existing society often turn to running away from civilization, in one form or another, be it living as a religious hermit, or in intentional communes. Playing video games, or drinking alcohol, or doing drugs, can be another form of such escapism. 

Next: the cossacks

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