Culture, Identity
Relationships and Russia

Sermon (18 February 2001) at Hull Unitarian Church

This sermon was given after seeing Elena Kursheva, and reflects personally on culture, sexuality and xenophobia.

I have sometimes been accused, when giving a sermon or an address, of being too academic, remote and unattached. I understand the point but in the end rejected the criticism. I have in fact always related what I say to what I am thinking or doing, so my sermons have been personal, although, I expressed these concerns in generalised points. And this is what I am doing today. You all know about my visitor from Russia who, all being well, intends to settle with me and make a life with me. In making reference to this, as I will more explicitly, I am thus speaking from the heart, but still I shall make generalised points. I must not indulge myself; after all or some of you may be completely uninterested in my life, but have come here to seek something for your life. But then let us communicate, and communicate experience.

After all, all religion should be about personal experience: all religion is about reflection. Reflection, though, is always collective, never an individual in a vacuum, and reflection is form of a communication: even the most isolated mystic in his cave withdraws into isolation in the context of a society out there. They, out there, know he or she is gone away, and isolation is done for them as well as for that individual self. The meditating Buddhist becomes enlightened for everyone else too; otherwise, it has no point: it is not enlightenment.

So here we are, where we are, in the West, in one corner of it, in 2001. We live within a culture of meaning, in fact we live within cultures of meanings, flying about and bombarding us all the time from all directions. We live, at this moment, in a Western culture seemingly devoid of meaning compared with only twenty years ago. There seems to be no overall general purpose anymore. But, even so, we have to live, we have to make meaning, and there is still a whole bombardment of signs and symbols in language which provide for us the means of personal reflection. We still have culture, we still have language, we still reflect within its richness, and we try to make a purposeful meaningful life with others.

I refer to this generalised point of our meaninglessness in the West before coming to discuss love within meaninglessness, and before I come to discuss love, I want to mention meaninglessness in Russia. Russia is where my love now lives. Russia is a land of turmoil and has been so, more or less, for the last hundred years, and it has had other periods of turmoil in its history too.

In the late nineteenth century Russia still had a self-indulgent monarchy in amongst terrible and widespread poverty, and the new tensions of local, industrialising cities caused that monarchy to be overturned. The power brokers of the time used the ideology of capitalism and socialism to overturn this feudal system of control, and a small democratic experiment seen as transitional by some was overtaken by those who wanted to impose socialist power early according to the ideology they were using. They created a dictatorship of the proloteriat. The dictatorship became a nightmare and yet all the time justified itself through ideology. The centralised imperial state became a centralised socialist state. Eventually, that state settled down in domestic terms into systems of party and bureacratic control, with still an ideology of expansionism abroad. Its existence was framed against a more democratic but powerful capitalist system with its own expansionary logic and perceived threat.

In Russia and the eastern bloc this ideology gave the people a sort of ordinary liveable life, nothing fancy, but enough for the basics and to live well enough. There was an absence of freedom, and an inequality of the Party and bureaucratic machine, but it was a life. When that machine overstretched itself abroad, and in the end collapsed, and the internal freedoms came, a sort of stability gave way to a new chaos.

The aim of Gorbachev to produce a critical and criticisable socialism, a freer more dynamic and responsive reconstructed state, but this simply evaporated under all the political tensions which the old bureaucratic regime had once smothered. Gorbachev's ducking and weaving could not go on, and Yeltsin, who removed him and Communists, and eventually blasted his opposition when they threatened him, introduced a free but raw society to live in. And so ordinary people lost those comforts of life, all the certainties went, life became nothing but struggle with a transition to a raw capitalism and crime and corruption that simply has not worked well.

No wonder that ordinary people see Breshnev as a time of stability, when once they could live. Now there is no doubt that Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, if with difficulty, are success stories of change to dynamic and free countries. Yet in these places, and everywhere, the loss of the socialist ideology, which was supposed to mean liberation but which meant oppression, has unleashed localised racism, nationalism, war and, at the samed time, a sense of general meaningless. These are democratic times but still dangerous times.

In this country this meaninglessness is handled by a popular and populist press; it translates into different forms of moderate and mild, and yet on the urban streets, sometimes quite vicious, xenophobia. We trade in fear. We know about fascism as a danger, and many once experienced it, feared it absolutely, or have learnt about it. I mention fascism because it is always the end product of meaninglessness, and one smells the early ingredients of it. Fascism fills the vacuum, as in Nazi Germany, as it becomes the imposition of a false grand xenophobic ideology, a distortion over a descent into cruelty and lack of human values.

These early ingredients can be smelt in many places. In Europe today gypsies are having a very difficult time. Some nationalism is but a sniff from fascism. In this country, and in Europe, we see it most in the reaction to this apparently modern, but not so modern, phenomenon, asylum seekers. This has become a hot political topic. The extremism of its language appears endlessly in newspapers, and it appears in the thugs too who beat up people from abroad, those who live in spare accommodation on council estates up and down Britain and are afraid to go out at night. Do these thugs do the work of the newspapers, the populists, the equivalent of those soccer hooligans who misrepresent the Union Jack?

Populations have always moved. Sometimes they move in small numbers, sometimes in larger numbers. Today Europe is a honey pot compared with the instability of the east, but sometimes the movement of people is very useful. I reflect on this, and suggest this: that today's movement of people is to a European Union where the population is growing old. This is a European Union that needs a working population, unskilled and skilled, to be productive and provide for the ageing population that we are all becoming. I say no more than this, that at the same time everyone is getting into a panic we are actually needing skilled and unskilled people to keep this economy running. Of course it is those countries which need to change and develop, but from purely selfish reasons Europe and Britain in Europe needs more people not fewer, at least from an economic point of view.

So there are more people on the move now. And there is something else facilitating this move, at a time of such inequalities between the nations. It is the shrinking world. This world of ours may not have a good sense of where it is going anymore, but we know it takes less time to go anywhere. It is not just travelling either, it is even the way ordinary people now make contact with ordinary people. They can be thousands of miles apart and yet speak on a daily basis as if they were once in the same village.

A man spoke to me in Barton library a few days ago. He wanted to use their Internet connection. He has relatives abroad; he said he only wants to communicate with them about once a year. One is in New Zealand, one is in Germany. He did not want his own Internet connection because he only communicates with each once a year. I said to him yes but with the Internet behaviour changes. You receive the once a year message, and it is nothing to send a reply. Then they send a reply. So behaviour changes with the means of communication.

So whilst the grand visions may have gone, but people are presently freer, ordinary people are getting closer and closer. In Russia, in Voronezh, my now girlfriend put her name on to the Internet using her University's Internet link. It works when the phones work, but it works often enough. Like a lot of intelligent women in Russia, they find that men there are fewer in number because of war and a bad male lifestyle. Not unlike in Britain, but far more extreme under Russia's chaos, men there are in crisis and they cannot adjust. In Russia now, men just do their military service and absorb their alcohol and for seemingly no great purpose at all, as they all struggle to find work and when they have it struggle to earn a decent living. Yet women have been educated to often very high levels in science and more, being one of the benefits of the socialist society, and just want to go on and live a decent, meaningful life.

No matter what happens, in this Internet age, in a world with no obvious competing visions, distances and barriers will not hold up. Despite xenophobic newspapers, and the irrational politics of the tribe, individual people will get together. Something happens between them.

So I indulge myself. I feel very easy with my girlfriend, which is her phrase about me. We find ourselves having compatible natures. She has a doctoral education in the sciences, and me in the social sciences, and she has found a similar difficulty in translating that into comparable employment, ending up in the equivalent of our Further Education instead of research; and like me she is tall, and whereas she gambled on coming here to an unknown house and person, I gambled on sending her the money to do it. And, like me, she is late in life in gaining a partner. Out of this is my self-interest and hers for sure, but something clicked. Marriage, which for me was something abstract and rather uninteresting, seems quite natural and normal. No doubt she could be a huge social and economic asset to this country, and I say this because the government is actively assisting Universities in seeking scientists from abroad. But it is actually a lot more simple and individual than this, that we love one another and seek to overcome the many obstacles starting with getting the fiancee visa, to other practical matters of living and setting up a life.

These are individual matters, but all the xenophobia and meaninglessness around counts for nothing when real contact is made between real people. This world is changing. We have to struggle to hang on to liberal and democratic values; we have to tell the thugs that they are wrong, people will do their own getting together.

There is a religious vision here. It is about love conquers all. It is about getting above and beyond the petty, and it is about developing values. Love is not just a general noble aim that the religious often most easily and comfortably refer to: no, like the Kama Sutra it includes erotic and sexual love grounded in a particular social environment. Love is full and rounded: the greatest potential for the future of this world is in its people, getting together and crossing boundaries. And if they do, and we learn from one another, and we communicate across all our diversities, eventually that love between people puts an end to the politics of fear and culture of meaninglessness, and underpins liberal and democratic values, values worth defending that have their root in human worth and human love.