Papers by Melberg
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[Note for bibliographic reference: Melberg, Hans O. (1996), What can we infer from
a black square? Religion as a cause of the distinctiveness of the Russian culture http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/papers/960920.htm]
What can we infer from a black square?
Religion as a cause of the distinctiveness of the Russian culture
Review of Per-Arne Bodin, Ryssland och Europa: En kulturhistorisk studie
("Russia and Europe: A cultural-historical study"), Natur och Kultur, Stockholm
153 pages, no index, ISBN: 91-27-03593-X
by Hans O. Melberg
Jon Elster once wrote that historians, unlike social scientists, often hide the
scaffolding in their work: The causal connections are implied, not explicitly drawn; The
methodological positions are not explicitly argued; but the author's views are implied in
the text. The style of historians need not be a disadvantage since it is possible to have
a good methodology even if it is not explicit. This, of course, requires the historian to
think about methodological issues before he writes. In the book under review,
"Ryssland och Europa: En kulturhistorisk studie" ("Russia and Europe: A
Cultural-Historic Study") by Per-Arne Bodin, I believe the main flaws stem from a
lack of thinking about methodology. Hence, the scaffolding is not only implied, it is also
Bodin's main argument is that "there are really two European identities - one Russian
or East European and one West European ..." (p. 9). When we ask what this difference
is and what its causes are, Bodin answers:
"A general answer to this question can be found in the two different Christian
traditions - respectively the Eastern Church and the Western Church which represents two
different cultures, two different ways of thinking. The difference between these two
European Christian cultures is reflected in their views on the written language and the
inheritance from the Antique, in the relationship between church and state, in the
expression of religious piety ... (p. 77)
The question is then how well Bodin establishes his theses. To answer this I have
divided my review into two parts. First, I shall argue that some of Bodin's claimed
differences rely on over-interpretation of his evidence. Second, I shall question Bodin's
thesis that religion is the main cause of the differences.
The evidence that the East is exceptional
Bodin points to a large number of differences between East and West: Their cyclical view
of time instead of the Western linear view; Their conception of power as inherently evil;
the imperial attitude caused by the idea of a Third Rome; Their fascination with ritual.
To undermine his statements Bodin uses poems, icons, literature, mythology and archeologic
evidence. The danger of this approach is that one might use evidence selectively to
establish ones prejudices. It is often easy to find an isolated poem which supports your
view, but this need not be a representative poem. I want to give three examples of this
since I think this is a major flaw in Bodin's book.
One example is Bodin's discussion of the differences between Icons and Western paintings
(p. 23). Icons are two dimensional and use what is called the reverse perspective. Western
paintings are three dimensional and use what is called the central perspective. Bodin then
draws the conclusion that the icons prove that the Russians have a different view of time
and the source of knowledge than we in the West. For example, in the icon of John the
Baptizer there are two heads: one is cut off and one is still on the body of John the
Baptizer. This is used as evidence that the Russians do not think in linear time.
Furthermore, Bodin, citing Pavel Florenskij, argues that the reverse perspective is
evidence for an intuitive, complex and non-rational view of the source of knowledge, truth
and reality (p. 23). To me this sounds like an over-interpretation of the importance of
the central perspective.
Secondly, on page 104, Bodin cites a Russian farewell poem put in writing by Derzjavin in
1816. He then goes on to argue that this poem "not only expresses an isolated
individual's feeling when facing death, but also a whole culture's experience of the lack
of deeper meaning in everyday life." (p. 105). As an illustration of a feeling the
poem is acceptable, but as a proof of what the Russian culture is like as a whole,
it is not adequate. To go from one poem to the whole Russian culture is to commit the
fallacy of composition. One might ask whether this argument invalidates all use of
literary examples to support a statement about culture. The answer is no, since, as F.
Gaenslen has showed (World Politics, 1986), it is possible to avoid the fallacy of
composition by analysing a large number of texts.
A third example is Bodin's argument that "Malevitjs black square contains both a
European revolt against the whole bourgeoisie civilisation and a Russian longing for God
in the darkness ..." (p. 131) In short, it seems to me a little doubtful whether a
picture of a black square can be used to prove the nature of Russian culture. How do we
know whether Bodin's interpretation of this square is correct? How do we know whether this
interpretation can be generalized to the whole Russian culture?
Is religion the main cause of the Eastern culture?
Bodin argues that religion is a key determinant of the cultural differences between the
Russia and the West. In the Russian Christian belief system, unlike the Western, there is
no neutral zone between Hell and Paradise. According to Bodin, this lack of a neutral zone
caused a particular Russian bipolar way of thinking (p. 127). Everything is either
absolutely good or absolutely evil and change is abrupt and violent. What was previously
viewed as bad became good and what was previously good became bad. (Bodin is here
influenced by the theories of Lotman and Uspenskij, as he himself notes). This bipolar
mind is viewed as the fundamental motor which explains Russian history. For example, Peter
the Great, Lenin and Gorbachev are all "explainable" in this model since they
represent abrupt change which tried to turn what was previously seen as bad into good.
Once again I have to confess that I believe Bodin over-interprets his evidence. First of
all, I want empirical evidence that the Russians really are more bipolar in their thinking
than other cultures. Even if I get this evidence, Bodin still needs to give a better
causal story of the connection between religion and culture. Maybe other factors, such as
the climate (violent shifts), could explain the bipolarity as well as religion? We are
given causal stories which may or may not be true, but we are not given the evidence to
determine if they really are true.
The emphasis on religion as opposed to other possible determinants of culture, is typical
of Bodin's book. The Russian view of time is traced to religion, not to the geographic
features of Russia (long, steppe). The imperialistic culture is traced to the religious
idea of a Third Rome, not to the simple geographic fact that there were few natural
borders around old Russia. The cause of anti-materialism is the other-worldly concerns of
Eastern Christianity, not cognitive dissonance as a result of lagging behind the West.
This determination to trace cultural traits back to religion, reflects a lack of thinking
about methodology. A cultural trait is explainable in many ways and to focus on one
approach is bad methodology. Even more so is the lack of reflection on the cultural
approach as a whole. Maybe alternative approaches to explanation, such as rational choice
and institutional-structural, are better than cultural explanations? (see M. McAuley
(1984) for more on this)
The cultural approach to history has many methodological problems and Bodin does not
confront these explicitly. He does not reflect enough on the reliability of the evidence
he is using to prove his point; He focuses too much on religion as opposed to other
determinants of culture (such as geography, climate, internal psychological mechanisms).
As a result his book becomes one sided and unbalanced. For example, one might read Keenan
(1986) to get a completely different - and almost equally one-sided - account of why the
Russians are what they are. In any case, I do not feel I "understood" Russia
(whatever that means) after having read Bodin's book. Understanding requires elaboration
of causal connections, not mere description of supposed cultural continuities.
Bodin, Per-Arne (1993), Ryssland och Europa: En kulturhistorisk studie, Stockholm:
Natur och Kultur.
Gaenslen, Fritz (1986), Culture and decision making in China, Japan, Russia, and the USA, World
Politics 39 (1), pp. 78-103.
Keenan, Edward (1986), Muscovite Political Folkways, The Russian Review 45 (2), pp.
McAuley, Mary (1984), "Political Culture and Communist Politics: One Step Forward,
Two Steps Back" in Archie Brown (1984), Political Culture and Communist Studies,
Note: Translations of quotes (imperfect) by the author of the review.
[Note for bibliographic reference: Melberg, Hans O. (1996), What can we infer from a
black square? Religion as a cause of the distinctiveness of the Russian culture http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/papers/960920.htm]