Vladimir Martynov: «Church is at its best when it’s under pressure»
Vladimir Legoyda
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Composer and philosopher Vladimir Martynov and host Vladimir Legoyda discuss the end of times and the end of the composers’ era during the Parsuna TV show. They also contemplate how arts replaced religion and why great artists are terrible people.

Greetings to all watching us from home. This is the Parsuna TV show, where we are profiling our contemporaries. Greetings are also in order for today’s guest, Mr. Martynov.


We have five sections, each of them dedicated to faith, hope, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. And as per tradition, the first question is that regarding your identity. Here and now, who are you?

This is the exact issue I discuss in my latest book. Basically, I see myself as a homo errans, a wandering man. I believe that there is no other breed of humans. Those who do not identity as wandering are flat wrong and delusional. 

To get one thing straight, that is how you see the human race in general and yourself as a part of it?


And how do you identify yourself personally?

In a similar vain. 

How, exactly?

Well, I believe that sapiens (as in homo sapiens) should be replaced with errans, as our species is no longer reasonable. We are wandering.


Faith is the first item on our agenda today. I believe it was Berdyaev who believed faith to be similar to a jump into abyss. You jump and while falling down you don’t know whether you are going to crash into sharp rocks, get taken up by angels or survive the fall hitting something soft. What do you make of this comparison?

Well, it is a universal idea. It just so happens that it was Berdyaev, an Orthodox thinker, who came up with this metaphor, but we can find that sentiment in Zen as well as in Christianity. Any faith is about leaping, letting go, and putting your trust in something independent of your volition. So Berdyaev described this idea very well.

It seems to me that Berdyaev wanted to highlight the difference between faith and knowledge. If you have knowledge, then you either don’t jump or use something so that you would survive the jump. But faith can also give you this confidence. So the phrasing might be good, but the phrase is not fully adequate.

You are getting into some muddy waters there making an attempt to tell knowledge from faith. There is a case to be made in favour of drawing this line, as knowledge is achieved autonomously, but it also is a result of having a true faith. Faith is knowledge and knowledge is faith. These are profoundly inseparable things. But you can probably try to distinguish them on a more superficial level.

When we talk profoundness, do we mean knowledge as is? To my mind sciences deal with a different kind of knowledge, wouldn’t you agree?

As I said, you can probably try to distinguish them on a more superficial level. But we need to know about God in order to believe in Him. It is paradoxical to believe in God without knowing of Him. That is why I find it irrelevant to dwell on the distinction between the two, but we may say that they are both of the same root, and it is impossible to believe in something you don’t know and to know something you don’t believe in.

You’ve mentioned Zen, and it just so happens that I have just been flipping through a book on koans. It appeared to me that there is no faith in Zen as Christians understand it, though still Zen Buddhism is also considered to require faith of a different sort. Would you agree with me that it is hard to find faith (defined as trusting God) in Zen?

That is a tough question you are asking me. Is there a personal God in Buddhism and is Buddhism a religion at all...

What is your take on it?

It is of no relevance. Let’s get back to koans. They are basically about giving up all knowledge, all bias, etc., and this renunciation is the moment of faith that brings people together. It is also said in koans that o experience a koan, you have to let go and plunge yourself down, so… 

So that is also faith the way Christians understand it?

Without a shadow of a doubt.

For some reason in Russia we see koans as puzzles to be solved, although they are the opposite of that. 

Basically it is impossible to solve them. Koans are questions to which no answer can be given, a code without a cipher. 

When during one of the interviews you were asked to name movies which are not strictly religious you mentioned Lars von Trier… 


…and added that he shows how faith can become a horror and a nightmare. Why was it von Trier in particular that you brought up? Does it imply that you see no good movies where the faith would be shown directly? On a related note, all the movies that you listed are based on religious stories. Would you agree that sometimes it’s better for the movies to discuss faith without making that reference?

There is zero doubt that these late Tarkovsky movies that I mentioned as examples, The Sacrifice and Nostalgia, are not about Church, but are undoubtedly about religion. Bergman’s work, be it The Silence, The Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers, or The Virgin Spring are also profoundly religious, but in a subtle way. You have to understand, however, that both Tarkovsky and Bergman belong to the generation of great directors, whereas Lars von Trier is following in their footsteps. And it is quite easy to make a much more straightforward movie, like The Island. I mean I am friends with Lungin, we co-authored that movie, but it still is 100% stereotypical. The real problem that von Trier discusses in his movies is that of god-forsakenness, which Heidegger describes as non-thereness of God.

Let’s get back to my previous question. Why was it von Trier and not Bergman or Tarkovsky that came to your mind? Was it a matter of context or something more profound?

You see, if you take the great classic movies of Bergman and Tarkovsky, these go back to 60s and 70s, and if you want to find something more recent it has to be von Trier. It would be perfectly alright to bring them or even Luis Buñuel up in a context of religious movies, even though Buñuel’s work obviously takes a more critical approach it is still in essence religious at its core.

On one of our shows I happened to have a very engaging talk with Lev Karakhan. We discussed the Red Snowball Tree movie, and he said that it was a very un-Soviet film. And I thought it was a loss of faith movie thematically, where this loss is approached in an unexpected way.

It might as well be that way, but to my mind the Red Snowball Tree is a characteristically Soviet film, and in a good way. Unlike Tarkovsky and Parajanov, Shukshin is very connected to the Soviet life. I would also argue that loss of faith and faith itself are not his pet themes. In one episode, the protagonist is seen crying with a ruined church in the background, but the scene isn’t informative of the Shukshin’s preferred subject matter. What he does explore however are people like the protagonist, wandering and very animate weirdos finding themselves in this pretty inanimate Soviet time.

What I’ve heard is that people who got into Christianity back in the Soviet times have stronger faith than those joining in the early 90s and make up a majority of Church goers nowadays. So in a way it is easier to come to God when there is pressure on the believers. 

Couldn’t agree more.

You have no doubt about it whatsoever?

To my mind, it's a given. Back when I joined the Church, it was completely different. Faith back then was invigorating. This atmosphere is something that is mentioned in the Everyday Saints and Other Stories. I remember startsy, the elders of the Church, being approachable people. I remember how easy it was for us to visit fathers Nikolay, John (Krestiankin), and Ambrose of Balabanovo. The spiritual uplifting that took place from the late 70s to early 80s, and was probably happening even earlier, is hard to imagine nowadays. This is why I am certain that the Church is at its best when it is under pressure. 

But you can’t get under pressure yourself, I reckon. What should the Church do when there it’s under no pressure, Vladimir Ivanovich?

There is nothing to be done, it is a reality to be reconciled with. I simply wanted to note that some people get luckier than others in that regard, and it’s the will of God, not something you can change. It is important however to notice these things, because we are changing, the regimes are changing, and the institute of Church, of course, is also prone to change. We have to understand that there is a difference between Church as the Body of Christ, of which it is said that “not even death will ever be able to overcome it”. But Church is also an institution affected by the tide of history. And from what I’ve seen, the way the tide is turning might be pretty upsetting. 

That is also a given. Saint Augustine wrote of it in The City of God.

It is true. The fact is that I was lucky enough to witness this 70s and 80s Church revival just before the very end of it, and the uplifting that took place back then is hard to imagine today.


The five words we use to name the five parts of our interview are both commonplace, universally understood and worn out to such a degree that the intuitive understanding of these words is lacking. We have to use other words to clarify what we mean when we use them. What words would you use to define hope?

It is not a challenging question for me at all. You see, the Nicene Creed ends with a following line: “I await the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the coming age”. If this is your vantage point, then everything else becomes bleak in comparison with this hope. Another quote that comes to mind is “Come, Lord Jesus!” at the very end of the Revelation. So this is what you are hoping for as a Christian. The rest of human history with its greatest discoveries and other most glorious events, as well as the best works of art humanity has to offer simply stand in the way of what I’m hoping for, which is the Advent of our beloved Jesus Christ. And there is nothing else to truly hope for in this context.

Then the only hope we have is Christ…

Yes. The Christ that comes as was prophesized in «Come, Lord Jesus!» or in «I await the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the coming age». All other hopes are… Well, normal. You can set up a successful business, create wonderful works of art, have a splendid career, be popular with women, and you can hope to achieve all of that. But it all becomes bleak in comparison with the coming of Lord Jesus. The rest is immaterial. 

Talking to another guest on this show I was reminded that in most languages the Doomsday is referred to as the Last Judgment, but in Russian we would say strashny sud, which literally means the Terrible Judgment, and this particular way of looking at the event plays out in Russian culture. One example is how the image depicting it terrified Vladimir the Great, convincing him to be baptised. Have you ever considered the reasons behind such a specific view of the Last Judgment?

I don’t see any difference between Orthodox and Catholic points of view on the subject. The Last Judgment is indeed terrifying both by death and the torments that await soul after death. In the Revelation the words “Come, Lord Jesus!” come after all these horrors. And not all people and even cultures are to live through them. This is something Lars von Trier explores in his works. And, by the way, in Nostalgia we can see similar themes.. All hopes are shown to be futile as nothing good comes out of the torments, and that seems to be a profoundly religious message to me.

Are you afraid of death?

Sure! Who isn’t? 


That’s kind of a silly question. You see, we Christians see death not simply as death, and I don’t talk about those who suffer greatly before they depart to a better world. We see death as a prelude to ordeals.

These ordeals may be understood not in a doctrinal vein, but in an educative one. 

From my perspective the only way to look at them is neither doctrinal nor educative. We should take them at face value. You see, I have witnessed agony in my life and I have not been able to understand whether these were paralleled with ordeals or not. However everyone has to go through this. And Christians are not unique in this regard. Try telling a Buddhist that Bardo Thodol, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is some kind of a doctrinal text, they will tell you that it is a day-to-day behaviour manual. Same applies to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. So this is another universal thing that has one foundation but is viewed differently in various traditions.

Mr. Martynov, would you claim familiarity with despair, an antithesis of hope?

I am no stranger to despair. Not everybody knows hope, but despair is known to all of us.

Quite well-known indeed!

It is the most well-known sentiment to me. Sometimes there is also some semblance of hope, but despair is the most prevalent state of my mind.

Is it hard to overcome despair?

It is. What is really impossible, though, is to overcome it on your own without God’s grace or some other intervention. I’ve noticed that all the creative ideas that come to me both when I write and compose do so without any effort on my behalf. I’m not saying that they originate with God or cosmos, but they are not really mine, they are born from trying to overcome despair. 

Quite peculiar. Speaking of composing, here is what I’ve read in the Origins of European Music by father Peter (Mescherinov): “Aesthetically, music that used to be a form of high art has become a pass-time for herds, masses of people filled with sound-bites”. Do you share this sentiment?

This is a sentiment which relates not only to music but to culture as a whole. All culture has been reduced to entertainment of the masses, not only music.

On that note, when you say that the composers’ era is coming to an end as well as the history, culture, etc. in general, you tend to see it as a positive, a new beginning. Is that correct?

It is. But what I would like to clarify is that when I talk about the end of composers’ era I don’t imply the end of music. It was only in the 11th century Western Europe when we saw first composers, music had existed without them and will go on once their time comes to an end. There is no tragedy to that. Some of the best music came to be without composers. Echoes chant, plainsong, Maqama and Noh Theatre do not owe their existence to composers, but are not worse than the music created by composers. As a matter of fact such music is frequently even better than results of composers’ work. 

It’s nice to hear that there is no tragedy, but is there any hope in that? What are you hoping for in the world of music today? 

There is little hope in music today, as well as in the world of culture at large. But it doesn’t mean that there is no hope at all. I recall Heidegger’s favourite line from the Hölderlin’s Patmos: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” You see, it is when there is seemingly no escaping the danger that the saving power comes to your aid. So when Heidegger writes of the danger that is enframing, he always comes to a conclusion that it happens in a mysterious way, I could even tell what I think is actually behind that enframing, but…

Oh, it would be wonderful if you shared your thoughts about it!

Let’s take me as an example. I am a minimalist composer. The fact of repetition comes from culture being so impoverished that we cannot aspire to create any new work. We even can’t recreate the prior work in a proper way. The only thing left to us is to repeat what has already been done, which may bring us the salvation. We may view it as relieving childhood stage of our culture. It is by repetition that a child protects itself from the peril and malignity of this world, by repeating a fairytale, a gesture. The repetition also has to do with a prayer. The words of the Revelation addressed to the church of the Laodiceans come to my mind, as I believe that we do live in the Laodiceans’ time. Jesus says there: “You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either one or the other! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth! You say, 'I am rich and well off; I have all I need.' But you do not know how miserable and pitiful you are! You are poor, naked, and blind.” To my mind our bad is not that we are poor and miserable, but that being poor we say that we are rich and have all we need and can achieve all we need by technological or any other means. If we feel that we are miserable through minimalism, then the saving power Hölderlin refers to might grow.

You are also on record saying that maybe this new beginning might start in a non-verbal form. Does it mean that music has a better shot at getting there than literature?

Not quite. The thing is that when we talk of words, we have to understand that we used to live in a cultural landscape dominated by literature. And since Monteverdi music has also been very literature-like in its language. The same applies to fine arts. But due to a number of circumstances this dominance is coming to an end now. The culture starts being focused more on the visual side of things with the word becoming a part of the brand. But it is not something I am focusing on. The new beginning will not come from the fact that human kind has no more verbal assets. What I mean by that is since the dawn of humanity we have kept on talking and accumulating these verbal assets. And now all of these assets have become a pile of garbage like the one that pollutes the Pacific ocean. Furthermore, the verbal garbage is actually worse than the material one. It deprives us of an opportunity to say something of value. If you turn the TV on, you cannot tell a soccer translation from that showing the Descent of the Holy Fire as they both enter through the same doors of perception. That is why the new beginning, the salvation will come through the unlearning of language and learning the art of being silent.

The things you are describing come off as a very strong metaphor. But how do you see that becoming a reality? They used to say that a writer cannot stop writing. Would this new beginning require writers to stop writing or stop striving for popularity? 

Writer has to write something, and that is where the vicious circle begins. The artists in general may make an attempt at being silent. John Cage does it with his great 4'33'' composition, which is four minutes thirty-three seconds of a person being silent on the stage. The Malevich's Black Square is another great example of such artistic silence. In short, even the best of us like Cage, let alone human kind in general, are not able to exist in this state of silence forever. Side-note: the silence we talk about here is the ultimate goal of most world religions. In Christianity we see the practice called hesychasm, and in Buddhism there is Sunyata. 

What you are describing strikes me as a cultural asceticism all of us have to practice.

It’s not only cultural, it’s much bigger than that.

I can see that, but here we talk silence in music and literature particularly, which are ultimately culture. 

Music and even culture at large are gibberish in the great scheme of things.

On that I agree with you.

We should make use of all means available to us to get to this state of asceticism, be it art, science, or tech. These are nothing but vessels to deliver us to the great silence. For me, culture is only of interest here as it shows the way towards that goal.


Humility is the Christian virtue often compared with tolerance. Humility among other things is probably knowing one’s limitations. Should the talent be humble, then? Does the artist know what is the necessary balance between talent and limitations?

If an artist is humble, he won’t achieve anything. Only after becoming great an artist may become humble. But generally humility is not the quality that helps you get anywhere in the arts. 

So there are no humble artists?

To be an artist, you have to be ambitious, audacious, and vain. I don’t say that this is either good or bad, you just have to be that way. Most artists are like that, Wagner and Beethoven are the brightest examples of artists not being humble at all. Humility is something that does lead to wisdom in many walks of life, but not in the arts.

Do you feel uncomfortable because of that, being an artist and a Christian?

Not really. When you belong to a certain environment, you don’t want to be falling out of it. So you either adapt to it or you leave. I, for one, can’t say that I belong to the composing community. I do my best to avoid it, actually. But I still am in touch with the artistic circles, although I can’t say that I fully belong there. Anyway humility is very problematic. I understand that you can’t get anywhere spiritually without it, but practising it is not a realistic endeavour nowadays.

But is the new silence we’ve discussed earlier possible without humility?

Certainly not. But this new silence has to do with breaking social and other limitations humility makes us observe. It’s not that we shouldn’t be living in a society. For instance the Church is a societal institution. Why does the world exist? A humble righteous man that lives in a bedsit on the outskirts of Moscow is keeping it together by his prayer. And he is what shields us all from oblivion. So the real and fundamental humility is unseen by the public. And of course if you want to be a composer, a martial artist, or a king you have to start by letting go. You have to start from by being humble.

You said once that the ending of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury unnerved you in a particular way. There, people had to learn Don Quixote and Notes by heart, and you stated that one shouldn’t focus on that. On that note, I agree that it would probably be a disaster to know nothing but Don Quixote your whole life, although I adore that book. The question I have is then on the role the classical literature, for instance Don Quixote, plays in our life? Does humanity create anything comparable to the chef-d'oeuvres of the past? 

I would like to make my thoughts on Bradbury clear first. He either consciously or non-consciously makes a mistake of equating written and oral texts. Knowing Don Quixote, which is originally a literary text, by heart is silly. Folklore, on the other hand, is a different beast, a living and breathing one. Religious texts are also different. There is a ritual meaning to reciting them. Back in the day there were Christians who knew both the Book of Psalms and the Books of Prophecy by heart. The thing that sets the literary text aside is the authoritativeness its original possesses. The oral tradition is different as it allows for constant transformation of the original. So if Don Quixote would become a starting point for a new epic with varying individual interpretations I wouldn’t object to that. But here we witness the horror of the effect the printing had on the way we interact with texts, making one person forever a vessel that has to memorise a book deemed important by heart in its entirety.

But in Fahrenheit 451 they have to do it because there is no way to read the books.

Yes, and they are doing a very important job from this point of view. It’s just that I see this book as a good way to start a discussion of the difference between a literary text that has an author and an epic that belongs to the folklore. A good four-liner from Velimir Khlebnikov’s War in a Mousetrap comes to mind: 

Once Planet Earth goes up in flames, 

cools off and asks: "Who am I really?" 

 then we will create The Igor Tale —

or something a lot like it. 

So the world has to go up in flames and then The Igor Tale has to be created. But not simply the old text is to be brought back to life, but a new epic like The Igor Tale is to come into existence. The folklore is to be reborn. Not fiction is to dominate our minds after the world ends. Not Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, or Ulysses by James Joyce are to captivate our minds then, but an orally transmitted text which is not literature, but a living and ever-changing beast. 

If we return to my previous question, what do you make of Don Quixote and other classical books? Does humanity create anything comparable to them?

It does not, because there is no demand for it on a civilizational, social, and anthropological levels, nobody needs great works and great artists. But there are still some great names: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Musil. Celan is a great poet. And that’s it, there is no more literature beyond that. It doesn’t mean no more writers, because the inertia is still there, so there are writers and composers to satisfy this secondary demand. We may also treat the classical works as if they are relevant, be it Don Quixote, Montaigne’s Essais, or better yet Dante’s Divine Comedy. These all are great works which we may admire in silence, but we can’t engage with them properly. 

When I read what you though about 451 Fahrenheit, I recalled metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh’s words: “Every Christian community should strive to be a community potent of writing the Gospel anew.” Does that align with what you are saying? 

It does. What he refers to in this quote are Scripture and Tradition. Back in the 1970s he wasn’t the only one to say that both of these are important. Many elders said that, and many others insisted that Scripture is of no importance, as if we lose Scripture we always have Tradition, and without Tradition we can’t recreate Scripture. That’s why Tradition is in some ways more crucial for us. The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life.