Old Wine in New Skins or New Wine in Old Skins? Conundrums of Vjačeslav P′etsux’s Theology

Mark Swift, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Vjačeslav P′etsux consciously continues the traditions of what he calls nineteenth-century “Russian Christian Realism” (Elisabeth Rich, South Central Review). His narrators and characters “conduct relaxed discussions on the eternal questions” (Basinskij, Literaturnaja gazeta) and he has earned acclaim as a writer whose gift is to breathe new life into traditional themes of Russian literature by transposing them into contemporary settings (George Gibian in Ewa Thompson, ed.; also Tarošina, Literaturnaja gazeta).

P′etsux’s antecedents in Russian thought include Čaadaev, Berdjaev, Solov′ev and Dostoevskij. In response to an interviewer who pointed out that his philosophising heroes appear so intelligent because they don’t cite their sources, P′etsux confessed a lack of erudition that causes him on occasion to “reinvent the bicycle”; that indeed, since the realm of human thought is limited, all writers since Ecclesiastes in effect only perceive and articulate the same notions.

In the context of contemporary Russian society and in his inimitable narrative that combines the comic tone of a Zoščenko-like chatterbox with the perception of “a suffering intellectual” (Lev Anninskij), P′etsux develops traditional themes: the fate of Russia and the Russian national character, the relationship of literature to life, the nature of evil, questions of morality, mortality and the existence of God.

In discussions surrounding religion and spirituality in post-Soviet Russia, P′etsux’s voice has been one of moderation. In his prose fiction and non-fiction essays alike, he develops an eclectic humanistic theology that comprises elements of Christianity, pantheism, primal religion, agnostic spirituality, and intellectual skepticism. He “defamiliarizes” common concepts with novel definitions. For example, “faith” in P′etsux’s jargon is not a dogmatic certainty, but “an ability of perception, somewhere between longing and hypothesis, knowledge and hope.”

P′etsux’s theology is an amalgamation of certainty and vagueness, of views both traditional and liberal. His rejection of the exclusiveness, legalism and preoccupation with ritual common to religious traditions appeals to the modern sensibility. At the same time, his relativistic faith and belief in a God “who doesn’t care whether people believe in Him or not” presents challenges of a different order which this paper explicates: How does P′etsux reconcile the notion of expiating suffering with his rejection of life after death?; how is it that all can be both forgiven and also accountable?; how does he handle monotheism’s central problem of theodicy?