Vasilenko is an artist with a remarkable drive for the happiness and restoration of wholeness much needed, indeed, in the crisis-ridden world of post-Soviet Russia. This artistic penchant, recognized by her critics as a trademark of her work, was aptly termed by Helena Goscilo a “salvatory principle.” Goscilo points to the gendered character of salvation in Vasilenko’s fictional world, where the males personify aggression and destruction, while females are redeemers and restorers. While female characters of this type are prominent in several of Vasilenko’s works (Shamara, Going after Goat Antelopes), in her novel-vita Little Fool, a female redemptive figure is the main character. Indeed, Little Fool is essentially a work about Russia’s salvation by a woman.
Published in 1998, Svetlana Vasilenko’s Little Fool was considered by many the best novel of the year in Russia and was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize. In its themes, motifs, and imagery, it is thoroughly representative of Vasilenko’s oeuvre. The author structures the narrative as the female protagonist’s redemptive journey through the tribulations of twentieth-century Russia. Vasilenko’s focus is on two time periods, described in the frame narrative, which is set in the sixties, and the embedded narrative, set in the thirties. The novel deals with the events and developments marking the latter period, such as collectivization and famine, political repression and its consequences, the secret police and banditry, giving a panoramic picture of Russia’s turmoil. The secret military research town of Kapustin Yar, with its young pioneers, civil defense drills, and ever-present threat of a nuclear cataclysm, characterize the former period. The frame narrative is related by the protagonist’s brother, Marat. Thirteen years ago his parents got rid of their “shame,” Marat’s little sister, Nadka, who was born mentally deranged. They sent the baby on a raft down the river only to get her back—also on a raft, by the river—thirteen years later. The embedded narrative tells the story of another deranged girl, the orphan Ganna, whose biography is also that of a foundling. Ganna’s traits—she is mentally retarded and is a deafmute, yet has a beautiful singing voice and icon-like features—are strikingly similar to Nadka’s. Parallels in the narratives concern not only the girls’ personalities but also their life companions: Ganna’s make-believe husband Marat and Nadka’s brother Marat; Traktorina Petrovna of the thirties and of the sixties; Kharyta and Granny Manya (Maria Bocharova).
Ganna’s story is set amid the horrors and perils of the Soviet thirties, where she descends to the lowest rings of that dystopian hell. She is imprisoned in an orphanage and hunted by the NKVD, constantly being in mortal danger. The calamities of Ganna’s life reflect her country’s spiritual crisis, which is shown as the disparity between the sacred and profane realms and which culminates in the imminent apocalyptic denouement of the sixties. Ganna’s unrelieved sufferings as one of the downtrodden eventually result in her metamorphosis from a village fool to a fool for Christ. In this role she travels on a raft to the sixties, where she realizes her potential as a savior, which is reflected in her two names, Ganna (Hannah/Anna, Hebrew: grace) and Nadka (Nadezhda, Russian: hope). Using the unambiguous directness and concreteness of folk and hagiographic imagery, Vasilenko evokes the bleak reality of the Soviet dystopia, showing Russia both at the height of its communist enthusiasm and on the threshold of its inevitable demise. Having displayed a terrifying close-up of the world within minutes from an imminent nuclear cataclysm, Vasilenko resolves the situation through a miracle. Yet there is nothing of the deus ex machina in the miraculous redemption of Ganna’s tragic land and the universe that contains it. Vasilenko’s protagonist-savior is particularly convincing because she derives the sum-composite of her salvatory hypostasis from the figures of archetypal Russian intercessors and redeemers: the holy fool, the Mother of God, and Mother Earth.
These three hypostases of Vasilenko’s redeemer will be at the center of our discussion of Little Fool. This essay will explore the Orthodox Christian and folk aspects of Vasilenko’s female savior, as a holy fool, as a mother, and as a Mother of God figure, in order to elucidate the overall textual meaning. I will argue that Vasilenko implements the salvation of Russia and the salvation of the world in a traditionally Christian way. It is one who is meek and powerless—the holy fool Ganna/Nadka—who saves the world. Humility is the foundation of the holy fool’s endeavor. Yet Vasilenko enhances her holy fool’s humility and liminality even more by making her a woman. Then she enhances the protagonist’s redeeming significance even further by hypostasis of motherhood. The latter will be discussed within the Orthodox Christian and folk frames of reference, which reflect a traditional Russian veneration of motherhood. The protagonist’s folly, however, will be explored within the hagiographic and phenomenological paradigms of holy foolishness, and will be treated as the protagonist’s paramount meaning. Indeed, while Ganna/Nadka’s role as a mother is prominent in the redemptive denouement of the novel-vita, her role as a holy fool is prominent throughout. The importance of this role has been recognized by the previous critics of Little Fool, including Helena Goscilo, Olga Slavnikova, Elena Malikova and Tatiana Taiganova, all of whom comment on Vasilenko’s holy foolish redeemer. Taiganova points to the importance of the protagonist’s non-violence, defiant muteness, as well as her role as the antithesis to the evils of the epoch. Malikova traces Ganna/Nadka’s meekness to Boris and Gleb (119), considers it her chief characteristic, and observes that the little fool’s physical and mental deficiencies reflect the evils of her “social milieu.” Goscilo points to the significance of the little fool’s figure and discourse (xvi), comments on the meanings of this work’s characters and its thematic continuity in relation to Vasilenko’s oeuvre. In this essay I will expand on the discussion of Vasilenko’s holy foolish redeemer, further explicating folk, Orthodox Christian, and hagiographic aspects of this work.
Vasilenko’s choice of protagonist and the general movement of the narrative towards redemption determine the peculiarities of the work’s structure and form. Her innovative novel-vita combines the characteristics of the novel—the most recent, most flexible, dynamic and complex prose genre, which features a great diversity of subgenres—and those of hagiography—which is one of the oldest genres and is no longer evolving, possessing fixed, rigidly set parameters. Vasilenko’s fusion of the two genres transcends their boundaries and expands on the meanings of both. Quite in line with the genre of the novel, Little Fool has multiple thematic layers, numerous characters, and reveals complex dynamics and considerable density of plot. At the same time, the narrative is constructed in accordance with the rules of the vita, featuring as it does a two-dimensional portrayal of reality, employing hagiographic structural components, and displaying a thematic orientation toward the protagonist’s recovery of her divine self. Thus, in Little Fool the protagonist’s path to salvation depicts a transition from the profane to the sacred plane of existence; showcases the protagonist’s imitatio Christi; dwells on the acquisition by the people of a saint and their ensuing hope for salvation. Finally, as in a traditional vita, the narrative culminates in a miracle that grants people grace and redemption through the newly acquired saint.
As Vasilenko develops the hagiographic dimension of her work, she employs a number of staple hagiographic topoi and structural elements. However, she does not model the hagiographic aspects of her narrative on the canonical pattern, but, rather, on its apocryphal counterpart, which emphasizes the narrative importance of the mythic and folk planes. Folk components permeating the texture of the narrative range from fairy-tale imagery and characters (Traktorina as Baba Iaga, Egorych as ogre, Kharyta as a helper; Ganna as a mermaid) to the essential fairy-tale compositional elements identified in Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (the rite of passage, descent to the never-land, recovery of a lost treasure). At the same time, the mythological component is prominent both in the evocations of Russia’s mythical past (the tales about Stenka Razin and Dmitry Donskoi) and the world creation/ regeneration myth (birth of the sun) as well as biblical and evangelical references and imagery (the twelve fishermen and a traitor, Exodus imagery). The abundant folk elements as well as a major mythological penchant render the narrative mythological in character and epic in scope, contributing to its apocryphal quality, which allowed the Russian literary critic Slavnikova to suitably identify this hybrid genre as a “literary version of popular apocrypha.”
Vasilenko’s amalgam of the novel and the vita is not only imbued with mythological and folk dimensions, but also incorporates a number of features peculiar to the genre of the holy fool’s vita. These include Nadka’s/Ganna’s homelessness and nakedness; the peculiarities of her discourse and its interpretation; the fool’s ambiguous stance, which manifests itself as the perpetual question “is she a mad person or a saint?”; the hardships and torments inflicted on her by the profane world; the blindness of the world to the fool’s holiness; the holy fool’s role as a messenger of God and the ensuing parallels with the life and Passion of Christ; and ultimately her miracle-working and posthumous recognition as a saint.
THE HOLY FOOL
In choosing a fool for the role of a national redeemer, Vasilenko follows in the steps of Dostoevsky and supports in her work Russia’s time-honored bias toward the down-trodden and sufferers as well as the national propensity to invest the figure of the iurodivyi with boundless faith and irrational hope. To a certain extent the fool/iurodivyi is Russia’s national hero and redeemer par excellence which was acknowledged by a great number of Russian scholars and creative artists.
Originally, iurodstvo was an Eastern Orthodox ascetic practice of feigning madness. Holy foolishness allowed its practitioner to submit herself to inhuman treatment by the profane world for the purpose of dissociating herself from its values. It was the ascetic’s extravagant way of shunning the world’s recognition and at the same time an extreme measure of safeguarding his/her quest for God from the dangers of pride. Yet the most important aspect of holy foolish asceticism is not personal but communal. Rejecting her own selfhood, the fool for Christ fully dedicates herself to recovering the genuine, divine self of her people. S/he assumes the role of the people’s servant, becoming their guide to the divine realm. As s/he leads the way, s/he follows in the steps of the Christian redeemer, Jesus Christ, mirroring his agenda, philosophy and image.
Russia inherited its predilection for holy foolishness from Byzantium, yet while Byzantium canonized only eight fools for Christ, the Russian canon numbers almost forty. In addition, there were hundreds of holy fools who were venerated locally. In pre-revolutionary Russia, the cult of the “poor in spirit” assumed massive proportions. Eventually, the reverential attitude toward holy foolish ascetics was extended to lay individuals, including the mentally deranged and feeble-minded. Ganna is just such a figure. She is retarded from birth and her mental deficiency is viewed by the community (Kharyta and her village) as a sign of her being touched by God.
The holy fool’s story is essentially a Cinderella’s story, where the life of the most insignificant and unassuming character culminates in the triumph of her recognition. Such was the story of the first hagiographic holy fool, St. Isidora (IV c.), whose dirty rag was ultimately recognized as a halo and whose saintliness exceeded that of other sisters in the convent. Ganna/Nadka’s character is in line with this model. From the very beginning her figure is marked by humility and meekness. She is the protagonist, yet she is not a catalyst to the events. Rather, she is the embodiment of the repressed people of her country. This time-honored role of the fool is richly illustrated in the hagiographic tradition, where in accordance with the evangelical truism about the importance of recovering the lost (Luke 15:4), the holy fool continuously associates with the lowliest, most destitute strata of society, going to those who need his/her help and mentorship. At the same time, s/he represents this stratum of the society, because of his/her own utmost lowliness. In the beginning of the narrative, Ganna and her compatriots are portrayed as equally lost and helpless. The narrative’s events—collectivization, famine, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear disaster—are factors shaped by forces beyond their reach. The fool is swept up by their effects, as is the rest of her countrymen. Her lowly station and marginality as an orphan, exile, and fool mirror the predicament of the oppressed people of her country.
The topos of marginality and homelessness is vital for understanding the holy fool’s uncompromising non-allegiance to the values of the profane world. A quintessential pilgrim and figure “not of this world,” the holy fool is truly unanchored in the mundane. As a paradigmatic ascetic, s/he unflaggingly cultivates the fundamental ascetic principle of non-attachment and non-belonging. On the other hand, the holy fool is marginalized by the society as a mad person, who by definition does not fit into a society obsessed with normality and conformity. Vasilenko reiterates the topos of iurodivyi’s marginality, continuously dramatizing Ganna/Nadka’s non-belonging. Indeed, the little fool comes from nowhere (131), does not belong either to the orphanage in the thirties or to the school in the sixties and is continuously on the move. As a paradigmatic iurodivaia, she sleeps in the dust at the Kapustin Yar market place (169) and by the road (177).
However, as Vasilenko builds on this paradigmatic holy fool’s topos, she restates it in an idiosyncratic way. In the narrative the little fool’s homelessness in the social dimension of her land is generously compensated for her inherent belonging to the cosmic dimension of nature. Thus, while Ganna/Nadka is abused and chased by people, she is protected and cherished by nature, which proves to be her real home. River, desert, steppe and fields—the whole of creation!—embrace and protect Ganna. She is sheltered by the river and shielded by a prickly blackthorn bush, both of which faithfully protect her from the NKVD. So does the camel, Suleiman, who facilitates her escape (196).
The topos of the holy man’s harmony with nature is a staple component of the hagiographic tradition. Through the unflagging cultivation of their divine self, holy men and women attained harmony with and control over nature and were invariably protected by God. Thus, a canonized Byzantine fool in Christ—an ascetic from the Desert tradition—Abba Vissarion (V c.), traveled in the Egyptian desert without any water, relying exclusively on God’s protection. The holy man is in harmony with creation, yet the holy fool is an active agent of harmony, as in her daily encounters with the congregation s/he strives to facilitate people’s oneness with God and created by Him world.
The hagiography of holy foolishness features the topos of the saint’s control over nature in the lives of St. Vasilii the Blessed (d. 1552) and St. Prokopii of Ustiug (d. 1303), both of whom stopped storms; as well as in the lives of St. Michael of Klopsko (d. 1455) and St. Avraamii of Smolensk (d. 1221), both of whom relieved drought. Holy fools also revealed their oneness with and awareness of nature when they predicted forthcoming disasters (e.g. St. Simeon of Emesa predicted an earthquake; St. Prokopii of Ustiug predicted the advent of a destructive storm). Yet another aspect of the same topos is featured in numerous stories about the holy men’s ability to tame animals (e.g. the desert Fathers’ lions, St. Francis’s wolf, St. Jerome’s lion), whose docility and devotion underscored their masters’ godliness and goodness.
Yet the holy men also confronted nature. This was especially true of the holy fools, whose constant exposure to the elements is an integral part of their homelessness. The topos of the holy fool’s voluntary exposure to the elements is prominent virtually in all the hagiographic and fictional portrayals of fools for Christ, where it figures as a part of the ascetic mortification of flesh. In keeping with this convention, Ganna suffers from the scourging sun of the desert (199) and from the salty water of the lake, which burns her wounds (200). Her exposure to the elements is enhanced even further by her recurrent nakedness.
The fool’s nakedness itself is a persistent hagiographic topos, which reflects the fool’s unshielded life of complete reliance on God. The holy fools walked around naked, thereby shocking foreign travelers and filling their compatriots with awe. In fact, Vasilii the Blessed of Moscow was known as Nagokhodets “the one who walks around naked,” and consequently was depicted naked in icons and church frescos. The topos of nakedness exemplifies the purity of the holy fool’s soul, his/her return to Adam’s state of innocence in Eden. At the same time, it reflects his/her permanent reenactment of the Passion of the humiliated, naked Christ. Interestingly, in hagiography and iconography this topos does not concern female holy fools, who—as well as male holy fools later in history—were depicted wearing scanty or dirty clothes (cf. the governor’s resentment of Lizaveta Smerdiashchaia’s “indecent” outfit in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) or as transvestites (e.g. Ksenia of St. Petersburg). This issue is raised in the life of a Byzantine holy fool from the Desert tradition, Serapion Sindonite (d. c. 356), who challenges a female recluse to disrobe in front of the church. She refuses to do so, providing a rationale for the inappropriateness of such an act for a woman: “I would scandalize many [by] doing such an indecent thing…”
Vasilenko’s holy fool is the first female holy fool in Russian literature who goes around naked. As Ganna, she strips naked when she goes for a swim with Marat (156) and when she crosses the river Akhtuba (185); as Nadka she removes her clothes in front of Marat in the shower (227). She is seen naked as she rides the camel Suleiman (196), as she emerges from the river Akhtuba (186) and as she goes to the mill (157). As a true holy fool, in all these instances she challenges the onlookers, bringing to the fore the truth about them. Thus Marat, though mesmerized by Ganna’s beauty, is also concerned for her chastity (156). On another occasion she challenges some fishermen to see her as an object of desire or as a defenseless child—it is the traitor, a pockmarked man, who sees her as a woman and betrays her as a khan’s daughter, i.e. a member of a hostile class. On the other hand, the kind-hearted Forelock sees Ganna as a child and defends her from the pockmarked one. Unadorned and unprotected, the naked little fool keeps the issue of her safety urgent at all times. The fact that in both her incarnations—as Ganna and Nadka—the girl is raped is the inevitable outcome of her naked vulnerability. At the same time it is an indictment of the moral condition of the world. Thus, on a par with the fool’s ascetic exposure to the elements, she exposes herself to the cruelties of the human world, and it is the latter encounter that proves to be the more dangerous. Apparently, unlike people in the narrative, nature does not present a mortal danger. The little fool successfully deals with the rigors of nature—surviving in all circumstances—proving to be nature’s true daughter. As such, she finds in nature a vital source of her miraculous redeeming powers. Quite in line with this understanding of her role is the narrator’s statement that Nadka was impregnated by a poplar seed, deriving her messianic motherhood from nature.
Another, and more readily accessible, explanation of Ganna’s/Nadka’s pregnancy proceeds from the actual events related in the narrative—Ganna’s rape by the bandits and Nadka’s rape by a group of soldiers. The rape brings Ganna to the limits of victimization and therefore emerges as a rite of passage into a radically new stance. Just like her country, the girl is violated and abandoned to perish, yet she rises from this catastrophe not only invigorated but holy. Thus, after having drunk her fill of suffering, the little fool receives her new divine identity as a fool for Christ, which manifests itself as a gift of miracle-working, a boundless desire to cure, and a sense of responsibility for the community.
The topos of the fool’s stepping onto the path of iurodstvo is modeled on the famous episode from the vita of St. Andrew the Fool, who may be regarded an archetypal fool for Christ and whose vita is the single most influential text in the Russian hagiographic tradition of holy foolishness. Like St. Andrew the Fool, who was denied help and abandoned to freeze by the callous citizens of Constantinople, in the final act of humiliation and brutality, after being raped Ganna is abandoned in the forest where she is about to freeze to death. However, instead of dying, she is initiated into a state of grace, undergoing a transformation from village idiot into fool for Christ. While the Mother of God’s annunciation of the fool’s being chosen (“You are the Lord’s beloved daughter,” 221) and her divine mission (“Go and heal people,” 221) are in keeping with the archetypal holy fool’s initiation, the motivation for this new, though anticipated role, derives from the Russian understanding of the sacramental role of suffering (“Me?” Ganna asked surprised. “But why me?” “You suffered.” 221).
Another important narrative dimension that proceeds from St. Andrew’s vita is an inseparable link between the holy fool and the Mother of God that Vasilenko’s narrative fully represents. This conflation is celebrated in the holiday of Intercession (Pokrov), which is rooted in St. Andrew the Fool’s vision of the Mother of God covering a praying congregation with her protective veil. Russian Orthodoxy has a great number of texts and icons where the Mother of God is empowered by Christ to be his proxy, serving as a savior and intercessor of the people; yet it is St. Andrew’s vision that provided foundation for one of Russia’s most important Orthodox holidays.
The holy fool is a marginal figure par excellence and so also are the displaced and exiled people of Kapustin Yar of the 1930s. Hence, upon Ganna’s arrival in Kapustin Yar, she is compared and contrasted to them. People of that locality are either deprived of their former identity and trade (e.g. the village priest, the Canaries) or are resettled there by force, reflecting the Soviet policy of repressions, deportation, and dekulakization. They present a diverse, reticent, and mutinous crowd, whose rebellion is passive—they pretend to be deaf and mute, thereby refusing to cooperate with the Soviet authorities. Ganna is also mute, yet, quite in line with the holy foolish paradigm, she is mute in a revealing way. She cannot talk, yet she can sing, and she sings beautifully. This talent of Ganna’s points to the latent strength of her people, who, however suppressed, are shown as potentially powerful and capable of regaining their liberty and selfhood. By their voluntary muteness they transfer themselves to a mythic dimension of primordial innocence, evoking the redemptive, cleansing function of non-verbal communication. Their quiescence and refusal to communicate with the domain of evil are paralleled by Ganna’s muteness in yet another way. Her muteness is a notable messianic marker (compare Moses, Ezekiel), portending her forthcoming role as a redeemer.
This role of Ganna/Nadka’s is dramatized through parallels with the figure of a Hebrew prophet and it reverberates in the protagonist’s identity as a iurodivaia. Like a Hebrew prophet, the holy fool is a herald of times to come, the barometer of people’s spiritual health, and a constant reminder of their spiritual identity and obligations. Both these figures are marked by their cryptic discourse, non-allegiance to profane values, uncompromising devotion to their function as God’s heralds, rootlessness, and marginality. Ganna/Nadka’s role as a savior and messiah is first hinted at in the scene describing her unusual arrival, which evokes the story of Exodus and draws a parallel between Ganna and Moses. Furthermore, it implies the resemblance of the exiled people of Kapustin Yar to the Hebrew nation under the Egyptian yoke: ‘She is an orphan from birth,’ relates Kharyta, ‘She came on a raft, down the river, in a crib. She lay there on a crimson pillow, like a doll. … She was still a little baby; the whole village helped to raise her.’ (131) While Ganna’s mission as a savior is first hinted at in her messianic origins, it is realized in the narrative through various biblical and mythological aspects of her character. Her entire life is an ordeal, which brings to mind both Christ’s Passion and the tribulations of the Hebrew prophets—two paradigms that inform the tradition of holy foolishness.
Ganna’s holy foolishness gives her role as a savior a specifically Russian meaning. Because of her dissociation from the profane plane of existence, the holy fool is seen as an embodiment of the Christian ethical ideal of virtue and divine wisdom. S/he lives a life of uncompromised service to the community, offering her entire life as a reminder of Christ’s Passion and paradox of salvation. Throughout the narrative Ganna/Nadka loyally performs this paradigmatic cultural role, providing remedy for iniquity and hope for overcoming it. This hope resounds in her songs about essential humanity (“Always be ready to be a human being,” 138) and in the Easter hymns about Christ’s resurrection (144). It is insinuated in her continual survival against all odds, in the miracles she performs and, finally, in her pregnancy.
Her seeming insanity is perceived as a mark of God, reflecting a time-honored aspect of Russian Orthodox spirituality. Yet at the same time it confronts the community with a challenge to reveal its true self. Thereby, the holy fool serves as a benchmark of people’s spirituality and acts as an agent of discernment. This role of the protagonist proceeds from the key topos of holy foolishness, the ambiguity of the holy fool’s stance. The sanctity or deviance of the iurodivyi, and the corresponding attitude toward her, are a permanent dilemma, which confronts all those who are exposed to her presence. From the holy fool’s ambivalence follows his/her foremost literary function, which is to uncover the inner essence—spirituality and humanity—of those around her. Ever since the iurodivyi established his/her standing as a markedly Russian literary type, discernment became this character’s staple role and literary function. Thus, in Tolstoi’s Childhood , reactions to the holy fool Grisha provide eloquent and succinct characterizations of the novella’s characters; in Gleb Uspensky’s short story Paramon the Holy Fool , tsarist Russia is condemned for its cruel treatment of the iurodivyi and its blindness to his spiritual pursuits; and in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov , the town fool Lizaveta Smerdiashchaia serves as an unbiased agent of discernment of people’s spirituality and humanity and provides the final and crucial detail to the portrayal of the depraved Fedor Karamazov. Vasilenko also dramatizes the ambiguous stance of the holy fool. It is through their dealings with little fool and their attitude toward her that the true self of the people is uncovered. Indeed, Ganna has a place in the individual worlds of everyone she encounters, and this place is revealing. In accordance with holy fool’s hagiography, people in the narrative are divided into two camps—those who love and those who persecute Ganna/Nadka. Kharyta, Marat, the Canaries, Katerina, and Forelock express their love for the fool and take care of her. Their benevolence toward Ganna/Nadka brings to the fore their goodness. At the same time, the maltreatment of the girl by Traktorina and Egorych, the Director of the collective farm, and the NKVD agents reveals their wickedness. As a genuine holy fool, she sees through people and does not accept help or offerings from the evil ones. Thus, she turns down the help and hospitality offered by the NKVD agent; and she rejects the attempt by the Soviet henchman Traktorina to act as her mother. Yet the lack of a mother’s parental love and care is the most urgent problem facing Ganna and her country, and constitutes the narrative’s central thematic concern.
MOTHERHOOD AND MOTHERS
The importance to Russian spirituality of the hypostasis of motherhood was repeatedly emphasized by Russian philosophers and thinkers. Thus, in his treatise The Russian Idea , Berdiaev states the supremacy of Russia’s reverence for Mother Earth and identifies motherhood as a fundamental category within Russian spirituality. He goes on to underscore the primacy in Russia of the Mother of God, Russia’s foremost protector and defender, whose standing is even higher than that of either the Trinity or of Christ. Indeed, miracle-working ability is often ascribed to the icons of the Mother of God and seldom to those of her son. In Russian Orthodoxy, she is considered an intercessor and redeemer of all, the mother of all humankind. This system of values is fully embraced in Vasilenko’s novel-vita, where the protagonist’s redeeming maternity saves the entire human race. Besides its important Orthodox Christian meaning, the protagonist’s divine motherhood includes a folk dimension, reflecting peculiarities of Russia’s faith. Indeed, in Russian spirituality, where Christian and folk aspects are often inseparable, the cults of the Mother of God and Mother Moist Earth merge. This fusion yields diverse imagery, which is richly reflected in Vasilenko’s Little Fool, and provides an additional key to understanding of her protagonist’s role as savior.
In the narrative the theme of motherhood is articulated as need of and search for mothering and is first introduced when Ganna arrives at the orphanage. The image of Russia as an orphanage reflects the devastation of the Soviet subjugation of Russia. There Ganna finds her place side by side with other orphaned children, all of whom are the abandoned progeny of imprisoned and annihilated parents. Just like them, Ganna is a motherless child in a motherless country. And, like their country, the children are being tortured and crucified by the regime that left them to perish in the hands of their Soviet mentors, the “ideologically programmed sadists” Egorych and Traktorina. In accordance with the folk meanings of these surrogate parents, as Baba Iaga and ogre, they represent death, and relentlessly inflict it on the children. Egorych, who is believed to have eaten children’s flesh during a famine, continues to be a murderer at the orphanage. He beats and later kills Marat and attempts to capture and murder Ganna. Egorych’s accomplice, Traktorina, deprives children of nourishment, abuses them verbally and physically, attempts to thwart their initiation into spiritual life, and ultimately reveals herself as a murderer. In the thirties she participates in the murder of Marat; she kills children by withholding food from them and infecting them with cholera, and she attempts to murder Ganna. In the sixties she invites death as she reveals the children’s hiding place by the bonfire:
She built a bonfire in the night.
“Let America see us, let it aim better at us,” Traktorina Petrovna said to the black sky—right into the starry eyes of America, which was aiming at us. (237)
This meaning of Traktorina is intuitively perceived by Nadka’s brother, Marat, who sees her as death in the apocalyptic night of anticipated nuclear attack (239). Both Traktorina and Egorych relentlessly torment and oppress the children, whose sufferings are paralleled to Christ’s Passion. Indeed, children of the sixties are shown as sacrificial lambs (239), while those of the thirties are portrayed as cross-bearers—not only are they destined to die at the hands of their Soviet custodians-torturers, but they are also marked by the crosses shaved across their heads so that they cannot escape:
And the boy took off his hat…Kharyta stopped laughing: a cross was shaved on the boy’s head—one strip from ear to ear, another from his forehead to the back of his head—with one vein throbbing. What’s this, lad, who gave you the cross and why? So that we wouldn’t run off, Granny, wouldn’t run away. (128)
Traktorina is a true anti-mother. She does not suffer herself, yet she inflicts suffering on the children. Powerful and ruthless, she represents the Soviet regime and its doings, epitomizing the lawlessness and inhumanity of totalitarianism at its worst. “I execute if I please. I pardon if I please. I don’t trust nobody,” (131) says Traktorina. Soulless herself, she has no respect, regard or compassion for other human lives or souls. As her name Traktorina indicates, she is a machine, a soulless mechanism devoid of humanity. Early in the narrative Kharyta notes that this is not a human name (159). Her view is confirmed by Traktorina herself, who says that she is not a human being, but a communist (159), thus pointing to the disparity between the two notions. As an atheist and communist, Traktorina denies the soul’s very existence. This viewpoint is reflected in her attitude to Ganna:
“Weak minded?” Traktorina Petrovna rejoiced, God knows why. “That means ‘devoid of reason’? That means ‘an animal.’ Like a monkey. And every monkey can be turned into a human being. So, let’s use her as an experiment.”
“She’s not a beast. She’s a human being!” Kharyta objected.
“What’s the difference between a human being and an animal? The presence of reason! So, she’s an animal.”
“She has an immortal soul.”
“The soul’s simply prejudice. There is no soul.” (132)
Another aspect of Traktorina’s identity as an anti-mother is reflected in the utopianism of her education, or rather reeducation, of children. In line with the utopian concept of the targeted perfect society—Traktorina’s “squeaky-clean new world (131)—an individual as s/he is, is deemed unacceptable. In the narrative, both the children and the Kapustin Yar community are seen by their supervisors as enemies (147) who need to be remodeled. “You’ve been exiled here to be reeducated,” (145) says the Director to the people in the market while Traktorina voices her reeducation intent to Ganna (131). Their reeducation is rather a suppression of the individual. Both the Kapustin Yar community and the orphanage children are treated by their mentors with utter contempt. In the long run the Director and Traktorina would rather kill their subordinates. “You should all be shot!” (147) cries out the Director. Traktorina, on the other hand, sees the children simply as raw material—or, in her words, monkeys—whom she wants to turn into human beings, i.e. ardent communists. She implements her reeducation project by incessant brain-washing (songs, slogans, her Soviet discourse) constantly resorting to brutal means (beating of Marat; depriving the children of food; constant verbal abuse) and she achieves the desired results. Indeed, the children obey and even claim that they live well. “It’s really good at our place!” says Marat (128). Ganna is the only one who successfully resists communist reeducation. Indeed, Ganna cannot be reached through the mind, blocking Traktorina’s reeducation by her alleged deafness. In fact, as proven by Charlie (133-134), Ganna can hear, yet she does not listen (cf. people of Kapustin Yar) and therefore cannot be brain-washed. Ganna lives by the heart, where—as a symbol of Russia—she keeps her knowledge about the spiritual and cultural heritage of her land, which in the narrative is expressed through Christian hymns and songs. Traktorina, who is frustrated by her inability to reach Ganna, attempts to humiliate and later annihilate her. Soviet ideology provides Traktorina with the underpinning for her fascist attitude to Ganna, who, Traktorina believes, has to be liquidated because of her mental inadequacy: ‘Creatures like her should be exterminated right in the hospital. She is not a human being!’ (235).
Her position reflects the historical truth of total elimination in the Soviet state of the holy fools and of the conditions for their cultivation. This aspect of Soviet policy is reflected in the narrative, as the Soviets’ eradication of the country’s religious life and heritage. Indeed, in the new society being built by Traktorina and her like, there is no place for God and faith and therefore no place for compassion and mercy, which Traktorina terms “perezhytki” [“vestiges”], primitive remnants of the Russia of yore. Icons, churches, the communal joy of religious holidays, and baptism are taboos, as are fundamental human aspirations. Personified as three defenseless orphaned little girls, Vera, Nadezhda, Liubov’ (Faith, Hope, Love), these primeval human aspirations—note their last name: Abramovy or the daughters of Abraham—are trampled upon.
The suppression of the Russian people is thus reflected in the suppression of their faith and the denial of their Christian identity. It is further expressed in a ramified metaphor of their muteness, which is epitomized by the tragic image of the muted bell. Consequently, the communal quest for the recovery of Russia’s Christian self takes the form of a mythical journey into Russia’s past, where the emergency reserve buried and hidden by the popular leader Stenka Razin—Russia’s enormous potential for revival—provides them with enough gold to create a new tongue for the bell.
The assault on Russia by the communists is shown as both physical (slaughter on the ice, slaughter of the children, the Director’s threats to kill everyone) and metaphysical (the ban on the Christian faith and its rituals, the suppressive power of Soviet discourse). The former is conveyed in a panoramic picture of a bloodbath showing that the new regime is truly built on blood. It stains the ice on the holiday of Baptism, it drips and pours from numerous wounds throughout the story, significantly culminating in a sea of blood seen by the narrator in a festive sea of red tulips (124). The flowers reach up to the knees of the monument to the Soviet state’s founder, Lenin, associating the doings of his creation with the sea of blood of its victims. Yet, it is the metaphysical harm, the assault on Russia’s spiritual selfhood that is identified as the most damaging. The mouthpiece of Russia’s grievances, Kharyta (from Greek “kharis”=grace, benefaction), voices this outlook in her words addressed to Traktorina: ‘We gave you everything: our flesh, our possessions, our works, and our thoughts, and we gave you our motherland, Satan. Leave our souls to us! Get thee behind me!’ (164)
Kharyta—a pious, kind, yet powerless old woman—is another mother figure in the narrative. She is Ganna’s guardian and caretaker and arguably personifies the pre-Soviet (i.e., pre-atheistic) Russia, with its reverence and love for the ‘poor in spirit.’ Yet Kharyta is a cripple, her predicament reflecting the thwarted psyche of the Russian land and its suppressed state under Soviet rule. In pre-Soviet times, Kharyta and other villagers adopted and nurtured Ganna, who, Kharyta believes, was entrusted to them by God. At the beginning of the framed narrative, Kharyta is forced by overwhelming circumstances—the famine of the thirties—to come to Kapustin Yar in order to transfer Ganna’s custody to the Soviets and thereby to ensure the girl’s survival. Traktorina’s adversary and antithesis, Kharyta assumes in the narrative the role of caretaker, nurturer, and mentor of those in need of mothering. Despite her crippled condition—Kharyta cannot walk—she does not cease mothering Ganna and other orphaned children. Thus, Kharyta attempts to relieve children’s suffering by protecting them from their Soviet custodians (132, 151) and by providing food (144). Yet, most importantly, she supplies children with spiritual nourishment, serving as a reminder of Russian Orthodox tradition. It is this function of hers that prompted Goscilo’s apt term, “a trans-gendered modern John the Baptist” (xxi). Kharyta introduces into the orphans’ lives the very essentials of Christianity: the rituals of baptism and Easter, as well as the ethics of communal love for each other and respect for a human soul. At the same time, she mothers the Kapustin Yar community at large, urging and helping people to recover their spiritual identity. Thus, she chastises the priest and helps him to regain his former role of a Christian leader and mentor (142); she attempts to sustain people’s faith through preaching the Gospels (132, 143) and she ventures to celebrate Christian holidays (142). Her motherly care for the community is textually expressed in recurrent parallels with the Mother of God. In fact, she is seen by the community as the Mother of God herself:
She came from the heavenly hold. An old woman on horse. She’d see a beggar and give him bread. She’d console widows. Bandage the wounds of the sick. Wipe the tears of kids in orphanages. Now, they say, she’s going to the prisons, to help the innocent. She’ll collect all of Russia’s woe, show it to her Son in heaven: “Lord,” she’ll say. “Help the Russians! They’ve suffered plenty. They’ve had enough!” (211)
From the time the Mother of God is first introduced into the narrative as Kharyta’s protective icon, she continuously reemerges in a variety of images and guises. She appears in iconic images (135) and in characters’ visions (cf. Father Vasily’s, 211; Ganna’s, 221) and is evoked in legends about Russia’s past (74). She is also continuously mirrored in other characters (e.g. Kharyta). Most significantly, the image of the Mother of God ultimately merges with that of the narrative’s protagonist, who assumes the role of savior and Mother of All. This crucial conflation recurs throughout the narrative, where, just like Ganna/Nadka, the Mother of God is ubiquitous throughout Russia’s history and where she also signifies hope. It culminates in Nadka’s heavenly labors yet it is first implied when Ganna descends into the Soviet hell of the thirties.
In the Russian apocryphal tradition, the Mother of God descends into hell in order to witness and partake in the sufferings of her children. So does Ganna, whose stay at the orphanage has all the characteristics of à descent into hell. The orphanage is housed in a desecrated church, whose crosses have been removed and whose bell has been muted. Ganna’s and other children’s existence in this place is marked by suppression, torture, starvation and death, and is nothing short of being hellish. At the same time, the hell of the Soviet regime is not confined to the orphanage, which reflects the condition of all of Russia. Thus, Ganna’s descent into hell continues after her escape from the orphanage. Her incessant flight from the imminent danger of being annihilated by the representatives of the Soviet state is set against the panoramic picture of her country’s calamity and parallels the people’s yearning for protection. Like the narrative’s protagonist, her country’s people attempt to resist the assault of the Soviets. They seek to recover and preserve their cultural and spiritual identity, continuously nourishing their hope by legends and myths, fairy tales and apocrypha. Their dreams turn to the Golden Age of Russia’s past, when its fearless popular leaders performed heroic deeds and the freedom-loving spirit was alive.
Continually positioned between the two contending camps of the legendary Russia of yore and dystopian Soviet Russia, Ganna/Nadka personifies hope in both epochs and is continuously present in her countrymen’s dreams and legends. Indeed, while Ganna’s struggle takes place strictly within the Soviet period, her figure is shown as timeless. She reemerges throughout the narrative as belonging to different epochs, always and everywhere representing a quest for love, liberty, and justice. She dwells in the steppe, river, forest, village, and town as the Khan’s daughter Tuba, mermaid, Ganna, and Nadia, and is always recognized by the local people. Through her timelessness and omnipresence the little fool comes to represent Russia herself and in this quality she is contrasted to her adversary, Traktorina.
Unlike Traktorina, who ages with the passage of time, the Nadka of the sixties remains thirteen years old and is as young and vigorous as the eternal hope she represents. Just as Nadka’s youth portends her eventual triumph, Traktorina’s old age indicates her mortality and the impermanence of the Soviet utopia. Furthermore, while Traktorina of the sixties fully reveals her essence as an anti-mother and death, the little fool fulfills her role as a life-giver and mother. On the other hand, while the Traktorina of the sixties is the same as the Traktorina of the thirties—malevolent, cruel, devoid of humanity—Ganna/Nadka undergoes a spectacular transformation from the (holy) fool to mother—the Mother of God—and savior.
While the protagonist’s path from the fool to savior is first dramatized through her descent into hell as the Mother of God, it is later transferred to the folkloric dimension. Indeed, represented in the Christian Feast of Intercession, the celebration of the Mother of God’s role as a protector and guardian has its pagan counterpart, the Saturday of Protection (Pokrovskaia subbota), which emphasizes the maternity and fertility of earth and nature, and celebrates the realization of the earth as mother. Thus, Ganna’s transformation into a saintly fool is inseparable from her motherly functions as the Mother of God and Mother Earth.
In the narrative, the conflation of Ganna’s roles as holy fool and mother takes place in the scene of the rape, when she is transformed into both a holy fool and a mother. Thus allusions to Ganna’s fertility as Mother Earth and her impending maternity are present in the discourse of Ganna’s rapists, who employ the imagery of plowed soil: “Ataman, … go take a sample, then we’ll follow you through the plowed soil” (219). Indeed, within the frame of reference of the Slavic pagan fertility cult, a symbolic rape is traditionally presented by the imagery of plowed and sowed earth. In line with this imagery, Ganna becomes Mother Earth, impregnated and transfigured by her anticipated role.
The miracle of the protagonist’s metamorphosis is inseparable from her role as hope for redemption, which is first insinuated in the hymn sung by Ganna:
Christ has risen from the dead,
Ending death with his own death
And giving life to the dead… (144)
Consequently, this promise fledges in her miracle-working ability, which manifests itself as the little fool’s gift of healing of her people’s wounds and traumas. In fact, Ganna becomes Mother of God herself, manifesting her boundless urge for mothering and healing. On the other hand, the little fool exhibits the power traditionally possessed by the “poor in spirit,” which is respected and nourished by her pre-Soviet milieu and anticipated by those who love her.
Russian popular belief holds that the mystery of spiritual self-realization and universal salvation cannot be readily perceived through the external, superficial faculties of reason. This mystery was rendered in Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, which proclaimed, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27). This manifesto of holy foolishness was repeatedly evoked in Russian literature from Archpriest Avvakum to Fedor Dostoevsky, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Venedikt Erofeev, all of whom drew on its Christian meaning to comment on the mystery of salvation. In Vasilenko’s novel-vita, this text is evoked yet again by Kharyta (132), who relies on it to counter the ‘rational’ stance of the Soviet butcher Traktorina.
In Little Fool, the assertion of the wisdom of fools and the strength of the weak links the textual anticipation of the miracle to the evangelical paradox. The implied reference to the Christian Savior, Jesus Christ, and his perception by the world as weak and powerless serves in the narrative as a powerful argument in support of the possibility and, later, the veracity of Vasilenko’s savior’s miracle. As Vasilenko develops the messianic role of her protagonist, she refers to a Russian Orthodox convention, according to which only the pure in heart are able to see the divinity of the holy fool. This convention is apparent in the words of the narrator of the frame story, the little fool’s brother Marat, who is constantly awaiting manifestation of Nadka’s extraordinary hidden nature:
“I always expect something from her. Everyday I expect her to suddenly hear me or start speaking or stop being a little fool. I always think that any moment now … or tomorrow…. It’s because I strongly sense Nadka’s kind, beautiful soul, encased, for some reason, in a stupid, deaf-and-dumb body, as if confined in a prison utterly devoid of sound.” (229)
Marat’s anticipation is realized as the little fool’s genuine—divine—self is manifested in the miracle of her ascent to heaven and the birth of the new sun. In this act, Nadka fulfills the redemptive promise of her muteness and at the same time demonstrates the peculiar essence of the holy foolish discourse.
The holy fool’s inherently cryptic discourse is largely rooted in a spectacle, as s/he traditionally does not communicate verbally—she acts, allowing her actions to be witnessed and interpreted by the people. This tradition can be seen in the muteness of St. Basil of Moscow (Vasilii Blazhennyi) who rendered his messages through his deeds, be it a gift of a bloody piece of meat presented to the bloodthirsty tyrant Ivan the Terrible, his defiant rejection of Ivan the Terrible’s offering of wine, or his stoning of the houses of the pious people in the city. In accordance with this tradition, Nadka saves her country in a paradigmatic holy fool’s way—by acting. And in accordance with the tradition of holy foolishness, the spectacle of her message is interpreted by the enlightened onlooker. Indeed, the Russian tradition of holy foolishness knows special people who served as intermediaries between the holy fool and his/her audience, translating into plain language the iurodivyi’s cryptic messages. The deciphering of the message imbedded in the holy fool’s actions invariably needs spiritual insight on the part of the beholder. In line with this tradition, Nadka’s miracle becomes a spectacle observed and interpreted by her brother, Marat, who is both her hagiographer and the interpreter of her miracle:
Everything stopped at that moment. Only Nadka was flying up, higher and higher. We couldn’t see her anymore. In a few minutes, a sun appeared. It was born right before our eyes, where the earth and the sky met, a huge red sun, all sullied by Nadka’s blood. Nadka was giving birth to the sun…. The sun was totally different than before. It was a new sun…. And suddenly I realized that there will be no war, that today Nadka saved us, that there will be no nuclear strike, no missiles … There will be no death!... (241)
The knot of the little fool’s redeeming roles tightens up in the end of the narrative, when all of the fool’s aspects as a redeemer come together. Realizing herself as a savior and messenger of God—a kenotic, Christ-like figure—Nadka saves the world as she sacrifices herself. As a genuine fool for Christ, she loses her self for her people and finally becomes at one with the divine, thus providing proof of the crucial Christian claim that the last will be first. At the same time, the imagery of Nadka’s redeeming labors captures the homology between woman and nature as mothers. This theme was richly reflected in Russian and Slavic folklore, where the Sun is a masculine entity, and its daily appearance in the sky is interpreted as a miracle of its birth by female deities. Western Slavs give this important chore to a beautiful maiden-mother, Mother of the Red Sun (Matushka Krasnogo Solntsa), who contains him. Furthermore, the Sun is always accompanied by maidens—who can be seen as his (potential) mothers—and the Morning Star (Zoria) regularly gives him birth. In the pantheon of the Sun’s mothers, the Mother of God also has a place as an ever young maiden and mother who dwells in the skies. Finally, a mother or sometimes multiple mothers guard the Sun and thus protect the entire earth. This folk imagery is readily discernible in the last scene, where Nadka becomes mother of a Sun to assume her ultimate role as her land’s savior.
Vasilenko’s view of femininity as a life-affirming force reiterates the mother-centered worldview of Russian folklore, in which Russian Moist Mother Earth is a self-sufficient entity. Self-moistened and self-inseminated, she does not need a male partner to be her master. Her male companion is, rather, an equal—a sibling or a son. This concept finds expression in one of the most important Russian and Slavic festivities of love and fertility, the midsummer feast of Ivan Kupalo, which celebrates the union of sun and earth, often rendering their relationship as that of two siblings. Similarly, in Vasilenko’s narrative, Nadka is continuously accompanied and supported by her brother Marat. The significance of this alliance acquires even more weight when we contrast it with Ganna’s abortive alliance with her make-believe husband (Nadka’s brother’s namesake), Marat, who ultimately does not survive. Only Nadka’s brother Marat—the narrator and interpreter of the events—whose significance is paralleled to a folk escort of Mother Earth, proves to be her viable companion as he lives through all the calamities to finally witness Nadka’s glorious and selfless feat of motherhood.
In conclusion, let us return one more time to the protagonist’s holy foolishness and consider the significance of her gender in her role as a savior. Even though both male and female fools for Christ were known in the Byzantine and Russian spiritual and cultural traditions and even though there are numerous records of lives of female holy fools, male fools for Christ comprise the overwhelming majority. This is especially true of the canonized representatives of the holy foolish tradition. In fact, both Byzantine and Russian Orthodox traditions have just one canonized female holy fool each. In Byzantium, this is the fourth-century Isidora the Fool of Egypt, who inaugurates the hagiographic record of the holy foolish tradition. In Russian Orthodox Christianity, it is the eighteenth-century iurodivaia Ksenia of St. Petersburg. Yet, despite the prevalence of male fools for Christ, Vasilenko, a feminist writer, chooses a female holy fool for saving the crumbling world of her Russia. This choice is far from random. First, the feminine gender enhances the lowliness of Vasilenko’s protagonist’s standing, allowing for a more intense dramatization of the paradox of her redemption. Second, Vasilenko takes Ganna/Nadka’s lowliness even further through her dehumanization and rape. In her utmost humility, Vasilenko’s powerless, crucified female fool emerges as a highly improbable savior, thus reiterating the paradox of the evangelical story and investing her novel-vita with hope for Russia’s recovery of her selfhood. Third, the protagonist’s gender makes her capacity for regeneration and mothering truly boundless. It is as mother that she realizes her role as savior. Finally, by endorsing in the narrative a parallel between the female gender and holy foolishness, Vasilenko asserts that femininity is an enormous power that needs to be recognized, just like the ambiguous saintliness of the fool. Hence, the ultimate image of Russia’s redemption is seen in a fusion of holy foolishness and motherhood, which epitomize the awesome mystery of Russia’s salvation.
Svitlana Kobets, CREES, University of Toronto
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The episode of the Mother of God’s intercession not only constitutes a part of St. Andrew’s vita, but is also underscored in the liturgical service on the feast of Intercession and is a subject of extensive iconography. The representations of this event—featuring Mother of God as a centerpiece and St. Andrew the Fool, relating his vision to St. Epiphanius, in the right hand corner—is a staple component of the Russian church iconostasis.
Regarding the suppression by the Soviet regime of the Russian Orthodox Church, see Wynot’s monograph.
Basil’s muteness is mentioned in Dmitrii Rostovskii’s Cheti-Minei (Zhitiia sviatykh na russkom iazyke, XII, 1911: 39). Also see Kobets 166.