Mikhail Epstein.  Cries in  the New Wilderness: From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism. Trans. and intr. by Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002, 236 pp.





                        Editorial Reviews

                          From Library Journal
                          This Russian cult classic primarily consists of a
                          fictitious "Reference Manual" by Professor Raisa O.
                          Gibaydulina. Commissioned by the KGB, the manual
                          describes 17 sects out of hundreds that were supposedly
                          fomenting in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
                          These sects, "both broader and narrower than religion,"
                          are categorized by Gibaydulina as Everyday, Philistine,
                          Nationalist, Atheist, Doomsday, or Literary, with
                          comments from over 100 "editors," usually sect
                          members or investigators. Some resemble Western New
                          Age, neopagan, and evangelical groups, some have
                          ancient roots, and others are brand new. All, however,
                          are distinctly Russian, having emerged from the
                          spiritual malaise of official state atheism. Following
                          the manual are three appendixes: Gibaydulina's
                          post-Soviet writings, fictitious commentaries from
                          reviewers in other countries, and Epstein's afterword,
                          "The Comedy of Ideas," all of which alternately explain
                          and subtly satirize not just scientific atheism but a
                          staggering variety of ideologies. Although this
                          thoughtful and amusing book will be accessible to most
                          sophisticated readers, it seems more likely to develop
                          its own "sect" among Slavophiles, philosophers, and
                          related intellectuals. Recommended for most academic
                          and large public libraries.
                          Jim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico
                          Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
 

Cries in the New Wilderness does not read like a novel. It
purports to reprint an obscure 1985 research study in
Soviet political sociology, The New Sectarianism, edited by
Professor Raissa O. Gubaydulina of the former Institute of
Atheism, along with selected reviews, selections from
Gubaydulina’s literary archives, and a tribute to the late
professor. Yet in doing so, Mikhail Epstein takes on more
than state-sponsored scholarship. Allegedly the official
counterpart of samizdat, Gubaydulina's "Reference Manual"
examines numerous species of native religious enthusiasm,
the contemporary fringe of faith. Her contributors have
sifted classified intelligence, so the story goes, sorting
and distributing distinctive subspecies among so-called
Everyday, Philistine, Nationalist, Atheist, Doomsday, and
Literary sects. Passages from sources identified only by
authors’ initials glorify the peculiar dogmas and devotions
of, among others, Bloodbrothers, Sinnerists, and Steppies.
Yet the absurdity of these avant-garde sects’
“religio-mystical” practices undercuts their legitimacy,
despite the fulminations of a careful cross-section of
reviewers. If such niche denominations portray a desperate
hunger for faith, especially among the intelligentsia, they
can be taken only half-seriously. The joke is on Epstein's
doughty Marxist-Leninist editor, alert to the dangers to
materialism but unable to stem the tide. Efforts by
Gubaydulina and her cohort to obliterate all worship but to
the State became passe in Russia and elsewhere. Still,
whether descanting on the glories of spilt blood, the
sacrificial necessity of sin, or the irresistible allure of
open spaces, these imagined sectarians may indeed represent
a yearning for spiritual succor that continues to haunt the
land. If so, Mikhail Epstein, literary critic and cultural
theoretician, here takes aim not only at social scientific
research but also the insufficiency of traditional
religious practices to satisfy a rising generation. And his
aim, if not his manner, seems true. Michael Pinker.


                          Walter Laqueur, Chair, International Research Council,
                            Center for Strategic and International Studies  (Washington D.C.)

                          "Mikhail Epstein is probably the most important figure in
                          Russian literary theory in the post-Bakhtin, post-Lotman
                          era."

                        Caryl Emerson. Princeton University

"The prolific, inexhaustibly inventive Mikhail Epstein has produced a novel-almost.   Cries in the New Wildnerness isfiction, but (according to Epstein's own philosophy of "possibilism") not untrue: it has merely realized some of the vital potentials of post-atheistic Russian culture, where people thirst for a faith that can sacralizeeveryday practices while at the same time endorse a transcendent Whole. Whether you do Russia for a living or simply love the spectacle of dullness broken up into a thousand crazy glittering points of light, you will recognize, in reading it, apassion of your own."
                          Ilya Kabakov, artist
                          "A completely new view of the spiritual life of Russian
                          society . . . brings to mind the multivoiced novels of
                          Dostoevsky."

                          Alexander Genis, writer, journalist
                          "The best example of . . . theological fantasy that strikes
                          a precise equilibrium between search for God and
                          struggle against God."

                          Publisher's Weekly
                          ". . . Epstein’s truly unusual reckoning with the
                          disintegration of communism--and ideology itself--is
                          well worth a look."

                          Book Description
                          Inside the disintegrating Soviet Union, Raisa Omarovna
                          Gibaydulina, a professor of scientific atheism at the
                          Moscow Institute of Atheism, compiles a selection of
                          excerpts from the articles, sermons, manifestos, and
                          other writings by members of banned religious sects.
                          Copies of this classified reference manual, The New
                          Sectarianism, are smuggled to the West, where
                          intellectuals attempt to assess the late-Soviet spiritual
                          movements. A record of Gibaydulina’s own spiritual
                          quest is preserved in the notes and letters she writes
                          during the post-Soviet years before her death in April
                          1997.

                          Such is the form of Mikhail Epstein’s Cries in the New
                          Wilderness, a work of extraordinary artistic and
                          philosophical imagination, begun in Moscow in the
                          mid-1980s and now available for the first time in
                          English translation in an expanded version. Drawing on
                          his own participation in Moscow’s intellectual
                          associations and in expeditions to study popular
                          religious beliefs in southern Russia and Ukraine, Epstein
                          recreates the spiritual experience of a whole Russian
                          generation. His is not a documentary book, however, but
                          a "comedy of ideas," in which he constructs from the
                          voices he hears in the culture around him the religious
                          and philosophical worldviews of his fictional sects:
                          Foodniks and Domesticans, Arkists and Bloodbrothers,
                          Atheans and Good-believers, Steppies and Pushkinians.

                          Cries in the New Wilderness is filled with the voices of
                          these sects, from the mystical Thingwrights and the
                          absurdist Folls to the messianic Khazarists and the
                          doomsday Steppies. As a counterpoint to this medley of
                          comic, grotesque, poetic, banal, poignant, and harrowing
                          voices is the voice of the commentator, Professor
                          Gibaydulina, who struggles to maintain the purity and
                          objectivity of her scientific atheism in the face of an
                          amazing variety of religious experiences. Epstein’s
                          depiction of the inner drama of Gibaydulina’s response to
                          the crumbling of the Soviet Union and her quest for a
                          new, creative atheism adds a tragic note to his
                          polyphonic work

                          An award-winning essayist and critic, Mikhail Epstein
                          has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges for his literary
                          inventiveness and to Walter Benjamin for his acute
                          observation of cultural phenomena. Transcending genres
                          and disciplines, Cries in the New Wilderness is a
                          brilliantly imaginative work of fiction that illuminates
                          the spiritual condition of the Soviet Union as it reveals
                          unsuspected affinities between Russian and American
                          culture. In the mirror of Soviet society, we recognize
                          our own enthusiasm for alternative spiritual
                          experiences, our worship of technology, our doomsday
                          cults. We may also recognize that we ourselves are
                          participants in many of the sects Mikhail Epstein
                          describes, sects that seem at first fantastic and
                          outlandish, but prove to be the religious basis of our own
                          lives.

                          About the Author
                          Mikhail Epstein was born in Moscow in 1950 and
                          graduated from Moscow State University summa cum
                          laude in philology in 1972. He was the founder and
                          director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in
                          Moscow. In 1990, Epstein moved to the United States,
                          where he spent a year in Washington, D.C., as a fellow at
                          the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is now
                          Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and
                          Russian Literature at Emory University.

                          Epstein's recent books in English include After the
                          Future: Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary
                          Russian Culture; Russian Postmodernism: New
                          Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (with two
                          coauthors); and Transcultural Experiments: Russian and
                          American Models of Creative Communication (with Ellen
                          Berry). He is the author of 15 books and approximately
                          400 essays and articles, translated into 14 languages. In
                          2000, Mikhail Epstein was the recipient of the Liberty
                          Prize, established in 1999 and awarded once a year to
                          prominent Russian cultural figures who have made an
                          outstanding contribution to American society. He has
                          also received, among many other awards, the 1995
                          Social Innovations Award from the Institute for Social
                          Inventions (London) for his electronic Bank of New Ideas,
                          and the 1991 Andrei Belyi Prize (St. Petersburg) for the
                          best work in literary criticism and scholarship.
 


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