The Organised Sects
The tragic death of the monk Rasputin made a deep impression upon the
civilised world, and truth was lost to view amid the innumerable legends
that grew up around his life and activities. One leading question
dominated all discussions:--How could an individual so lacking in
refinement and culture influence the life of a great nation, and become
in indirect fashion one of the main factors in the struggle against the
tral Powers? Through what miracle did he succeed in making any
impression upon the thought and conduct of a social order infinitely
superior to himself?
Psychologists are fascinated by the career of this adventurer who
ploughed so deep a furrow in the field of European history; but in
seeking to detach the monk from his background, we run the risk of
entirely failing to comprehend the mystery of his influence, itself the
product of a complex and little understood environment. The misery of
the Russian people, combined with their lack of education, contributed
largely towards it, for the desire to escape from material suffering
drove them to adopt the weirdest systems of salvation for the sake of
deliverance and forgetfulness.
The perception of the ideal is often very acute among the uneducated.
They accept greedily every new "message" that is offered them, but alas,
they do not readily distinguish the true from the false, or the genuine
saint from the impostor.
The orthodox clergy of the old Russian régime, recruited under deplorable
conditions, attained but rarely the moral and intellectual eminence
necessary to inspire their flock with feelings of love and confidence;
while, on the other hand, the false prophets and their followers,
vigorously persecuted by official religion, easily gained for themselves
the overwhelming attraction of martyrdom. Far from lessening the numbers
of those who deserted the established church, persecution only increased
them, and inflamed the zeal of its victims, so that they clung more
passionately than ever to the new dogmas and their hunted exponents.
These sects and doctrines, though originating among the peasantry, did
not fail to spread even to the large towns, and waves of collective
hysteria, comparable to the dances of death of the Middle Ages, swept
away in their train all the hypersensitives and neurotics that abound in
the modern world. Even the highest ranks of Russian society did not
escape the contagion.
We shall deal in these pages with the most recent and interesting sects,
and with those that are least known, or perhaps not known at all.
Beginning with the doctrines of melancholia, of tenderness, of suffering,
of exalted pietism, and of social despair--which, whether spontaneous or
inspired, demoniac or divine, undoubtedly embody many of the mysterious
aspirations of the human soul--we shall find ourselves in a strange and
moving world, peopled by those who accomplish, as a matter of course,
acts of faith, courage and endurance, foreign to the experience of most
These pages must be read with an indulgent sympathy for the humble in
spirit who adventure forth in search of eternal truth. We might
paraphrase on their behalf the memorable discourse of the Athenian
statesman: "When you have been initiated into the mystery of their souls
you will love better those who in all times have sought to escape from
We should feel for them all the more because for so long they have been
infinitely unhappy and infinitely abused. Against the dark background of
the abominations committed by harsh rulers and worthless officials, the
spectacle of these simple souls recalls those angels described by Dante,
who give scarcely a sign of life and yet illuminate by their very
presence the fearful darkness of hell; or those beautiful Greek
sarcophagi upon which fair and graceful scenes are depicted upon a
background of desolation. These "pastorals" of religious faith have a
strangely archaic atmosphere, and I venture to think that my readers will
enjoy the contemplation of such virgin minds, untouched by science, in
their swift and effortless communings with the divine.
The mental profundities of the _moujik_ exhale sweetness and faith like
mystic flowers opening under the breath of the Holy Spirit. In them, as
in the celebrated _Psychomachy_ of Prudence, the Christian virtues meet
with the shadows of forgotten gods, Holy Faith is linked to Idolatry,
Humility and Pride go hand in hand, and Libertinism seeks shelter beneath
the veils of Modesty.
This thirst for the Supreme Good will in time find its appeasement in the
just reforms brought by an organised democracy to a long-suffering
people. Some day it may be that order, liberty and happiness shall
prevail in the Muscovite countries, and their inhabitants no longer need
to seek salvation by fleeing from reality. Then there will exist on
earth a new paradise, wherein God, to use Saint Theresa's expression,
shall henceforth "take His delight."