Clergy and Monastics Deacon Nicholas Kotar Interviews Jordanville

“I Find Much Beauty in My History, in My Culture and in Folk History”

I Find Much Beauty in My History, in My Culture and in Folk History

Meet a deacon, choir director, author and thinker from ROCOR’s intellectual center in Jordanville.

Our Russian Church Abroad is rightly known for its faithfulness to piety and liturgical traditions. Beside that on a regular basis we have music and youth conferences. From time to time some historical conferences take place in Jordanville, but other than that there is not much intellectual life within the Russian Church Abroad. Therefore, the author and scriptwriter who is at the same time is deacon, our own choir director, and seminary instructor deserves to be celebrated.

Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us. Can you explain your work and projects?

Well, I’ve written for a very long time, since I was a child. It started with derivative, basically rip-offs of popular cultural things like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it’s always been something that I’ve done with a great deal of pleasure and with a moderate amount of ease. Writing came naturally to me, almost from the beginning. It helped that I was well educated by my mother of course. [laughing] But as many writers will tell you, there’s an inner kind of desire. A kind of necessity to let things out, for each writer it’s a different form. Could be poetry, could be fiction, it could be nonfiction, it could be history, it could be whatever. But for me, it was always some form of fairy tale or fantasy. I’ve read Lord of the Rings many times and for me, it started out as a childish appreciation of the adventure. And as I became older, I started to appreciate Tolkien as a thinker and Tolkien as an apologist in some sense.

“We don’t draw people to Christ by proclaiming loudly how right we are and how wrong they are but by showing them,” but by showing them a light that is so lovely, that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Because he and C.S. Lewis and others consciously wrote “popular” fiction in a way that presented a complete and Christian worldview that was beautiful and interesting and exciting. And so, for a long time, I can’t even remember if it was a conscious decision or not, but for me to write wasn’t a simple desire. It was a need, something like an itch inside. You don’t feel calm until you’ve put it on paper.

And on the other hand, it was also a way to make sense of my own worldview for myself and then, later on, to make sense of that worldview for others. Like Madeleine L’Engle, who’s a Protestant author of both nonfiction and fiction. She said, this is a quote that keeps coming up in my mind, and I often use it when describing why I do what I do. She says, “We don’t draw people to Christ by proclaiming loudly how right we are and how wrong they are but by showing them” [meaning those who are not Christians or those who don’t understand our worldview],”- but by showing them a light that is so lovely, that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

And it’s a beautiful thought for me because it’s exactly why I do what I do. Why I write stories that are fairy tales or fantasies, that some people might even think are frivolous. But the intention, the idea is a sub-creation as Tolkien would say, of something that is intended to be beautiful. Whether or not I am capable of doing that is a matter of craft and ability and other people I suppose. [laughing] Other people’s taste, but the intention is certainly to show people something that is universally beautiful. Not something that is only for us, so that’s why I do what I do. And what I do is write-the official designation is epic fantasy, it’s basically what Tolkien wrote.

But rather than following Tolkien’s inspiration, Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon mythology, for me it’s all about the Russian fairytale and the Russian experience of folk culture and folk history. So, I also blog about that, I started out about a year ago blogging on folk history and folk culture and history in general in fairytales on my author site and as I just told you, I also have a blog on Ancient Faith.

The fact that I am on Ancient Faith proves my point about universal appeal. You do not specifically push forward a Russian mindset or Russian way of life or kind of Russo-centric way of thinking. But rather, me being Russian, I find much beauty in my history, in my culture and in the folk history and culture of my people. And my desire to share it and to share the beauty of it is I think what is appealing to a certain kind of reader.

Right, right, right. And you just recently finished and published your second novel?

Yeah, it’s technically my first. The short history of that is that three years ago, I completed a novel, it was called Raven Son. And there were a few people who were very interested in helping me put it out into the world, who were willing to give their time and their energy for free. One of them was an artist and another was a graphic designer, so they pushed me to put out this product into the world saying basically, “Let the world see it.” Kind of them, but it wasn’t ready. It was very much a work in progress.

As soon as I published it, in my continuing desire to improve myself as a writer, I started to read a lot more books on the technical side of writing novels. And because writing is like an apprenticeship, it is very much a matter of learning the specific technical skills first. If you approach it the other way, trying to make beautiful work before you’ve managed to make nails as a smith might do. Before you can make something gorgeous out of raw iron, you have to make a nail.

And here I tried to create something beautiful without understanding the elementary steps of how to write and I realized I was doing a lot of things wrong. So, I took it down, I unpublished it, which is possible in this brave new world of self-publishing. [laughing] And I rewrote it several times, I send it to an agent, an agent picked it up, he was interested in it. It didn’t end up getting picked up by any publishers, so eventually, I parted ways with my agent and decided to send it to a professional editor.

He shared my enthusiasm for the topic, and I republished it under a new title and a new cover as, The Song of the Sirin in June-July of 2017. I’ve already finished a novella sequel. A roughly 30,000-word sequel that I’m sending for free to people who agree to subscribe to my mailing list and I’m preparing the second full-length novel with the intention of this entire series, which will be three full novels and two novellas to be completed and published by possibly the end of 2019.

Is that what you meant previously when you mentioned epic? Is that a mix of epic and fantasy?

Well the epic is not just the number of pages, although that does play a role.

Or a number of volumes?

Or number of volumes, it’s more epic fantasy if you look at the technical meaning of it. It’s basically a fantasy that is more interested in large scale questions of good versus evil rather than smaller stories of maybe family problems or conflict between individuals. Epic fantasy deals with the great questions of a dark lord coming to overtake the whole world and what small individual people can do to stop that.

Right on time.

Right on time, he knows we’re talking about the important things. Basically, epic fantasy is a way to tackle the great questions that were tackled by 19th-century realist fiction, the literature of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but in a mode that is more fairytale. So, we can talk more about this, but I agree with Tolkien and others of his ilk as well that realism has sort of run its course. Especially in the 20th century, realistic literature, readers of “serious literature” are very desensitized to the truth being told to them in a realistic fashion.

They know what you want from them, so they’re very good at recognizing when a writer starts to preach to them, so they’re very resistant. Especially nowadays, to any sort of Christian-forward plot. So, if the plot involves any sort of faith-based transformation, they automatically turn off. So, for me, what the epic fantasy genre ends up doing is that you can tell the truth-because it’s safe. Because people think it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.

Maybe if you would allow me at this point to make a transition to the next question. So, the larger part of my life was spent here in the Russian Church Abroad, but my most important formative part was spent in Russia. And sort of formed here, my understanding, when you hear about a guy who’s very much in fairy tales you kind of think, “When he’s going to grow up?” Yes. [laughing] And especially kind of this with all of my Russian Church Abroad, there is a huge dose of sentimentality.

Yeah, absolutely.

And you kind of think, “Well, this might be part of all this” sort of, all this romanticism and idealization, especially the notion of Holy Russia. Like a notion of Holy Russia versus modern Russia, which was sort of “defiled Russia.” And then when you hear about a great fun of fairy tales, you naturally place this person into this context.

Yeah, well I think there are two questions that you’ve asked there, or two realities that you’ve alluded to. One is the reality as assumed by many people that fairytales are for children. But they’re not. And why not? If you seriously, carefully read most fairy tales, they’re quite dark and they’re quite stark and they’re quite violent and they deal with sometimes the worst nightmares and the worst sort of impulses of human nature. But they deal with them not in a romanticized way, it’s in the fairytales that the monsters are the scariest and the monsters are often human. Or we recognize people in the ogres or the trolls, we can see very clearly their representations of some aspect of the human experience. Not if you were just a child but if you read them as an adult, which is why serious writers like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, who was widely regarded as one of the greatest scholars of medieval history and medieval philology of his time, were able to write in this genre without feeling silly.

Because there’s something about the human mind that appreciates these sort of generalizations. There’s even been scientific studies about this, there are certain patterns in the way stories go that the human mind automatically clicks into it and understands, now whether it’s because these same stories have been told since the very beginning or it’s something that’s innate to us, I don’t know. But in any case, the human mind is attuned to specifically storytelling modes in ways that it does not when it is reading plain factual information or history books. Effectively, it’s a way of bypassing the rational part of the brain and getting to the deeper levels of consciousness.

Like with children, you’re always amazed at how children say they can live in several realities. I mean you can see, they can live in Star Wars as in one reality, church could be another reality.  And their realities are not the compartmentalized ones. It’s all together. Like in the fairy tales: “Okay, and they ate him alive.” [laughing] Right, it’s happened, no questions asked.

Nope, it’s fine, you just move on. It’s interesting, because children are able to deal with the darkest of fairytales much more easily than adults. Adults read them and they are horrified but really, there’s something about that way of speaking, that mode. Ivan Ilyin, the Russian philosopher who yes, is very much a proponent of that Holy Russia sort of thinking, but is also a very effective philosopher who’s well respected in his field by his peers. He gave a speech in Berlin in the 30s called “The Spiritual Meaning of Stories”. He says that what stories are so adept at doing is basically turning off the critical brain and the part of the mind that constantly is ready to find mistakes in everything and is unable to accept truths as they are. The mind is constantly trying to deconstruct them, but stories are able to access a deeper kind of consciousness, a dream-part of the mind.

I’m not talking about hypnosis or any such techniques. I am talking about fairy tales as a very effective way of passing on essential and important truth. That is also why Christ spoke in parables rather than giving abstract theological information only. Not that the people who listened to him were stupid or too simple, which is unfortunately sometimes what we hear from theologians. Is it true that the common people didn’t have the necessary brains to understand complicated theological realities? No, it’s not that. Rather, the stories that Christ told were able to paint those realities with a lot more force than if he set up a dialectical comparison between two concepts.

And as for the other reality about the romanticizing Holy Russia. Yes, I was very much raised as coming from a family of exiled nobles, not very high up on the social skills so to speak. Oh, the frog prince is sick of hearing me and he’s like that’s enough, we’re getting into the serious stuff. Yeah, so of course I was raised on stories of Holy Russia, but like the children I am able to exist in several realities at once. I recognize the idea of Holy Russia as it may have been or should have been and never was and I recognize that it is something useful to have at least as a barometer. Just as the Holy Fathers always have the ideal human person in mind when they’re talking about what you should do, what you shouldn’t do. Naturally, that reality is never reached.

I recognize the idea of Holy Russia as it may have been or should have been and never was and I recognize that it is something useful to have at least as a barometer. Just as the Holy Fathers always have the ideal human person in mind when they’re talking about what you should do, what you shouldn’t do.

Being an amateur historian and a person who loves to read history, I am perfectly aware that there was not even a moment in Russia’s history where everything was perfect or even when everything was particularly all that good. Every time period had its pluses and minuses but certainly the ideal of Holy Russia is one thing that challenges me.

Precisely because it persists even though it never existed, it does persist and the ideal of heaven on earth is something that every novelist writes about, really. Because as somebody said, I can’t remember who, every novel is basically a story about the search for paradise lost. About Adam looking for that place that he lost. And that is Holy Russia. Holy Russia is the Garden of Eden really, it’s a very specific Garden of Eden of course for a very specific kind of national experience but that’s what it is. So, when Russians search for it, whether in their romanticized musings about the past or their hopes for the future, really what they’re looking for is Paradise.

You have very beautifully dealt with this issue, so that the best possible explanation. Yeah, yeah, okay.

I do tend to focus in my blogs on the positives of the history rather than the negatives as we talked about with you before and for me that’s just a matter of choice. Because historians do tend to focus on the negative side. [laughing]

But also, what really fascinates me. The Russian Church Abroad is right to be praised for its strong liturgical tradition, but I do see very little intellectual activity and here you are, who grew up in the Russian Church Abroad, who writes, who thinks, and that’s very powerful.

Well, I mean it is what it is, I couldn’t do it any other way. This is just how I was formed I suppose, I mean to blame it on my parents but I can’t sit still and I do recognize the lack of a certain kind of mission in (ROCOR) and that’s the flip side of being so strongly traditional. We’ve come to the point where a mindset that holds onto tradition at any cost can become a mindset that is incapable of bending.

Sort of ossified.

It becomes ossified, yeah, it becomes stone-like. I think we’re getting close to that, which I’m afraid of, I don’t want that to happen. But also, on the flip side, I also don’t see much successful conversation or mission on a cultural level. And I think you can only really attract people to the heart of the reality of being human, you can only really attract a person to Christ through a cultural context.

People are either attracted to God because they’ve had a very personal experience of something, and they have no other choice but to follow Christ. Because He’s come to them or spoken to them or they’ve had some deep tragedy, whatever. But if you look at historically the way that Christianity is always being assimilated by any nation. It’s always been through a very elaborate and well-developed cultural context. The Byzantines were very good at allowing for small local variations in practice and they were very good at assimilating local pagan traditions, assimilating local cultural traditions and making them holy.


Yeah, sanctifying them. Giving them new meaning through the light of the Son of God. The “son” I use here both in terms of as a sign of the Father and as a sign of the light. Because it’s true that many pagan traditions have, I don’t want to give off the wrong intention, but this is why I do what I do. Because if we are to have any sort of conversation with Americans… If we’re serious about not merely being a strange ethnic group living in America, not communicating with the outside world, if we’re serious about being Orthodox in America then we have to be able to at least have a conversation with Americans. And this is my way of having a conversation, it’s through culture because there is an existing framework within which you can work.

Conducted by Deacon Andrei Psarev

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