Visible Factors

From: "Sociology of My Mental Life", in: Allen, P.J., ed. Pitirim A. Sorokin in Review. The American Sociological Forum. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1963. Xxii; pp.4-36

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As a general rule, the contents of the unintegrated and yet-unfilled mind of a child are largely determined by the contents of the mental life of persons and groups among whom the child is born and reared, and with whom he interacts. To a large extent this rule happens to be correct in my case. The character of the mental life of my early sociocultural milieu shaped most of the contents of my early mentality.

A. My native and learned languages.

Since I was born and reared amidst the Komi people, speaking the Komi and the Russian languages, these languages have spontaneously, without any purposive intention on my part, become my native languages. At a later period of my life, again spontaneously, even contrary to my wishes, and exclusively because of lack of practice (caused indirectly by social and cultural factors), I largely forgot the Komi, and my Russian language was somewhat impaired. (These facts, by the way, show the fallacy of the prevalent contentions that all our mental and overt actions are purposive and have invariably some goal.) At a later stage of my life I learned the Latin, the French, the English, and, to a lesser extent, the German and Slavic languages. In these cases, however, I learned them intentionally. They did not enter my mental equipment spontaneously as in the case of "the native" languages, but were learned purposefully through rational determination and a great deal of labor. Knowledge of these languages was the necessary condition for enrolment as a student in a Russian university, for doing scientific work, for obtaining an academic position, and for earning my living as a university professor and scholar in Russia as well as, after my banishment, in the United States.

B. Early religious and other beliefs.

Since the religion of the Komi people was the Russian Orthodox religion, supplemented by the survivals of pagan beliefs, these beliefs and their rituals spontaneously became my religious beliefs and ritual practices. Their imprint upon my mind was greatly reinforced through the occupational work of my father in which, together with my elder brother, I participated during my boyhood. This work of painting, silvering, gilding, and ikon-making was done mainly for churches of various villages. A large portion of our time we spent in, around, or on church buildings, painting them, and making, silvering, and gilding their cult objects. In this work we naturally met, talked, and interacted with the village clergy. In brief, in my boyhood years this religious climate was one of the main atmospheres in which I lived, worked, and formed my early beliefs, rituals, moral standards, and other values. Its influence was so strong that, after reading several old volumes on the Lives of the Saints, I tried to become an ascetic-hermit and many times retired for fasting and praying into the solitude of the nearby forest. This religious and moral climate served also as a stimulus and outlet for the development of my creative propensities. Participation in church singing made me a popular singer at the church services and, later on, a conductor of church choirs; participation in the occupational work of our family made me the best craftsman-designer, painter, and ikon-maker in our family team; learning by heart all the prayers and psalms of religious services and the main religious beliefs, I became a good preacher-teacher at the neighborly gatherings of peasants during the long winter evenings. The splendor of religious ritual, the beautiful landscape of the countryside viewed from the top of church buildings, especially on clear, sunny days, these and hundreds of other situations enriched my mental life—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, and morally. Despite a low material standard of living, my early life was rich in joy and sorrow, in adventure and experience.

C. Early schooling.

I do not remember exactly how, when, and where I learned the three R's of elementary school education. The nomadic sort of life of moving from village to village, with a temporary stay in the villages where we found some work, prevented me from regular attendance of, and graduation from, an elementary school. In these nomadic conditions I could only sporadically attend, for a few days or weeks, the schools of the villages where we were staying. The earliest of my teachers was merely a literate peasant woman who taught in her house the beginnings of the three R's to a few boys of the hamlet where my illiterate peasant aunt lived. In that "school" I received my first— and the greatest of all—prizes for my excellence in learning. The prize was the paper-wrapping of a single piece of hard candy. I still vividly remember the yellow-green picture of a pear depicted on the wrapping and all the joyful pride with which I accepted it, showed it to my aunt, and then carefully fixed it on the wall of my aunt's log house, near the ikons. None of the diplomas, prizes, and honors granted to me at a later period of my life by various great institutions of learning has elated me as much as this simple prize.

Somehow or other in this erratic way I acquired elementary school knowledge, and I greatly increased it by voracious reading of all sorts of books which I could get in the villages of the Komi, by the instruction of my father and elder brother, by talks with the village intelligentsia—teachers, clergy, clerks, and medical practitioners—and by conversations with wise, though often illiterate, peasants. Our nomadic life (our "social mobility") also contributed a great deal to my life-experience and knowledge in the way of meeting ever-new people, situations, and challenges in different villages in which we stayed and worked.

As a result of this sort of education I did not have any difficulty in being admitted to a higher kind of school (corresponding to American grades eight, nine, and ten) opening in the village of Gam when my brother and I happened to be working in that village. The day of the entrance examination in the new school was an important event in the life of the village. A large part of the villagers, including the boys aspiring to become the school's pupils, attended the public "show" of the entrance examinations. As one of the curious onlookers I attended also, with no intention of taking part in the tests. After listening to the test questions and finding them easy, I spontaneously volunteered to be examined also. I passed the tests with flying colors, was enrolled in the school and given a scholarship of five rubles ($2.50), which paid for board and meals in the school's dormitory for the whole academic year. (How fantastic this sounds in the range of present prices and scholarships!) In this entirely incidental way my regular school education began in this advanced grade school.

This was the first step of a number along an educational path that led me to the university and professorship as my main life work. Five teachers of the school, headed by the local priest, were very good men and excellent educators. Its library and other modest facilities were notably better than those of the elementary schools. Most of its students were capable boys, sound in body, mind, and moral conduct. The total atmosphere of the school was mentally stimulating, emotionally happy, and philosophically idealistic. As I happened to be the brightest student I was given the scholarship of five rubles for each of three years of the school curriculum. These five rubles paid for my room and board during nine months of each year. During the remaining three months I earned my living by carrying on my previous occupational work in company with my brother, and by helping my peasant uncle and aunt in their farm work.

These three years notably increased my knowledge, enriched my cultural equipment, awakened my creative propensities, and tangibly integrated my Weltanschauung. It was an idealistic world view in which God and nature, truth, goodness and beauty, religion, science, art and ethics were all somehow united in harmonious relationship with each other. No sharp conflict and no inner contradiction between these values marred, as yet, my peace of mind. Despite several sorrows and painful experiences inevitable in human life (the death of my father and peasant uncle, the growing alcoholic proclivity of my brother, my pneumonia, and other unwelcome events), the world appeared as a marvelous place in which to five and strive for its great values.

I did not foresee then that in the near future this harmonious and secure world view would be severely shattered by revolt and reassessment of its values. Obviously impressed by my mental brightness, teachers of the school and the higher educational authorities of the county and province strongly advised me to continue my education in a denominational teachers college in Kostroma province of Russia. In addition, they helped me to procure a scholarship there to take care of my very modest needs for subsistence. It was, then, my coincidental attendance of an exciting community event and my fortuitous participation in the examination at the school that tangibly conditioned my subsequent educational course that led to a university studentship, a professorship, and a fairly distinguished scholarship as my main life work.

D. Early moral, aesthetic, political, and economic mentality.

My ideas, tastes, and convictions in these fields were also determined mainly by those of the Komi people and those which I learned from my father, teachers, clergy, and playmates, from doing my occupational work, and from the books I read. The morality and mores of the Komi peasant communities were well integrated around the precepts similar to those of the Ten Commandments and of mutual help. The houses of the peasants did not have any locks because there were no thieves. Serious crimes occurred very rarely, if at all; even misdemeanors were negligible. People largely practiced the moral precepts they preached. Mutual aid likewise was a sort of daily routine permeating the whole life of the community. Moral norms themselves were regarded as God-given, unconditionally binding, and obligatory for all. The same was true for the common law of the peasants. Living in this sort of a moral community I naturally absorbed its moral norms as well as its mores. The same can be said of my aesthetic tastes and preferences. My world of beauty was made up, first, of the beautiful world of nature: pure big rivers and lakes, not yet contaminated by industrial and urban pollutions; endless forests extending for hundreds of miles; flowery meadows and fields surrounding each village; vast expanses of pure snow in the winters; mainly blue and sunny sky with brilliant stars at night; and other scenes of an unspoiled nature in which the villages and hamlets were mere specks lost in an ocean of such geographic grandeur. It indelibly impressed me for the rest of my life and conditioned my mild dislike of big cities and industrialized surroundings. The life of wild animals of this environment was another realm of my aesthetic experience. Swimming in pure rivers, fishing in silvery streams and lakes, observing the animal life and ever-changing natural scenery, walking, and working amidst this kind of nature well satisfied a large portion of my aesthetic cravings.

Another part of my aesthetic world was a man-made world of fine arts of the Komi and Russian agricultural and hunter communities. My musical tastes were formed by the beautiful folk music of the region which was not, as yet, invaded by the vulgar-urban and commercial-crooning, jazz, and noise-making (Russian chastushki). In this region were still preserved the old folk songs of the Russian and the Ugro-Finnish peoples. From this and other adjacent regions they were collected by the eminent Russian scholars and composers: Rimsky-Korsakoff, Musorgski, Tchaikovsky, Kastalsky, and others. This explains why at a later age when, for the first time, I heard the music of these composers and also of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, many of their tunes and melodies appeared to me quite familiar: I had heard them in childhood from the Komi and Russian peasant women and men who ordinarily sang collectively during their community work, at fishing or harvesting, or at their communal festivities and important events in their fives, like weddings and funerals. Religious music of the churches was another type of music which strongly conditioned my musical tastes. It was the "traditional" music of the Russian churches, including the early Russian plain chant (Kievsky and Znamensky chants), and once in a while the simple religious compositions of eminent Russian composers like Bortniansky, Lvov, Archangelsky, Kastalsky, Tchaikovsky, and others. Though the Komi and Russian churches did not have great choirs or soloists, nevertheless, the above-mentioned forms of Russian religious music, being beautiful and great in their own way and performed in a church with my active participation as a soloist, or one of the singers, or a conductor of a little choir, indelibly impressed me and tangibly conditioned my musical tastes for the rest of my life. I still enjoy such music and often play many records of it on my hi-fi phonograph.

My literary education began with the folk tales, folk poems, fairy tales, and heroic poems of the Komi and of the adjacent Russian folk. This rich and imaginative folk literature was supplemented by the literature of the great Russian writers: Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoi, and others of whom I learned in school and from books I read. Even in the most elementary schools of the region pupils were taught a great deal of this literature and learned by heart a large number of poems of the great poets. The folk literature and the classics both represented genuinely fine literature, free from the vulgarity and ugliness of comic and "yellow" commercial publications of the urban-industrial centers. This accounts for my subsequent life-long aversion to all varieties of "pulp literature," commercial "best-sellers," and "yellow journalism."

My occupational work of painting ikons and other designs, of making "sculptured"—copper and silver—covers for ikons, and my living in the atmosphere of churches, with their frescoes, ikons, and many other—often beautiful—ritual objects, developed my sense of line, color, and form, and conditioned my subsequent interest in painting, sculpture, and architecture, and my aesthetic preference in these fine arts. Peasant folk dances, festivals, pageants, and ceremonial rituals replete with color, simple elegance, and quiet drama were another formative source of my aesthetic tastes. As to the formation of my political and economic views, "politics" and "economics," in their narrow sense, did not preoccupy my mind in my early life. The Komi and the Russian population of this region had never known slavery nor serfdom and democratically managed their local—political and economic—affairs by way of direct self-government of the village community similar to the German Gemeinschaft or to the Russian "mir," obschina. Village communities had their land in common possession, equitably distributed and redistributed among the individual peasant families (according to their size and increase or decrease in the course of time). A Gemeinschaft-spirit of mutual aid was still vigorous and manifested itself in many forms, including many activities collectively entered into by the whole village community. These conditions prevented development of notable inequalities and sharp-economic, political, and social-stratification within the village populations. There were neither notably rich, privileged, and "superior," nor particularly poor, disenfranchised, and "inferior" strata. Even the sexes were essentially equal in status. As a result, there was no real "class struggle," and there were no crystallized political parties with vested class interests. The power of the county elective authorities (zemstvo) consisted mainly in building schools, medical centers, and other educational and cultural institutions. Very limited also was the control of the central, Tsarist government. Among the many ethnic groups of Russia, the Komi group was one of the most literate and most democratic nationalities. Growing in these political and economic conditions I naturally absorbed the spirit of equalitarian independence, self-reliance, and mutual aid. Though my economic conditions were nearer to those of the poor than of the rich peasants and though now and then I did not have enough food, warm shelter, clothing, and other necessities of life, nevertheless, I did not have strong resentment against these conditions nor, except in a few short-lived instances, did I feel lonely, unhappy, and depressed. The life I enjoyed seemed to be wonderful, meaningful, and full of exciting adventures and boundless hope. I was a member of a peasant community at peace with the world, fellow men, and myself.

Such, in black and white, were the visible factors of my early mental life. All in all the outlined social and cultural conditions (often viewed by urbanized and "civilized" scholars as "primitive" and "backward") were essentially sound and rich in variety and fulness of life experience. Taken as a whole, they were less monotonous than social and cultural conditions of big cities, especially of city slums, and more favorable for vital mental and moral development than the environment of megalopolitan and industrial centers.