Is Mikhail Prishvin a Liberal or a Conservative?
‘The Bard of Nature’ and His Place in Today’s Ideological Landscape
February 21, 2024
  • Boris Knorre

    Non-Resident Fellow, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), George Washington University

Attempting to find philosophical and ideological support for the paradigm of Putin's era, the Kremlin turned to the works of Mikhail Prishvin, better known in Russia as a "bard of nature" for his naturalist writings. Boris Knorre insists that the attempt to fit Prishvin's works into the narrow framework of anti-liberalism is unjustified, as it contradicts the breadth of his ideas.
Russia’s current ideological landscape features several writers-cum-columnists who oppose liberal ideas and see Russia as the bulwark of Eastern Orthodoxy and anti-globalism in today’s world. The well-known and well-studied names include Alexander Dugin, Yegor Kholmogorov, Alexander Prokhanov, Zakhar Prilepin, etc. They can be seen as the bread and butter of Russia’s current ideological playbook. Yet there are thinkers who are less famous but whose influence on Russian culture is nonetheless also quite significant.

One such thinker is Mikhail Mikhailovich Prishvin (1873-1954), a writer with a foot in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, as he started writing long before the 1917 Revolution and would only put down the pen in the middle of Soviet history. His books earned him a popular reputation of a naturalist describing the world of nature. This perception was solidified by his fairy tale The Sun’s Storehouse, which was even included in the Soviet school curriculum. In Russian culture, Prishvin was seen as a “bard of nature,” and his ideas contributed to the development of environmental movements.

However, post-Soviet readers began to discover a Prishvin who was far more than merely a “bard of nature.” The change in the perception of Prishvin, who came to be seen as a philosopher and a religious thinker pondering the urgent political issues of his day, was driven by the publication of his works where he sought God, printed only after the collapse of state-mandated atheism. In post-Soviet Russia, Prishvin's works enjoyed huge demand. This is because he touches on almost all the most painful issues like national identity, Russian history and 20th-century political events (of which he was a contemporary), in particular nationalism, liberalism and conservatism, the nature of power in Russia, religiosity, the role of the Orthodox Church, the revolutions of 1917, messianism and socialism.

After the so-called political “conservative turn” of 2012, there were several attempts to make Prishvin suitable for the ideological paradigm of Putin’s time, which strives to present Russia’s imperial and Soviet periods as mutually binding links in a single historical chain. Several publications have tried to present Prishvin as a protagonist of the “Russian World,” a proponent of “traditional values,” a promoter of the centralization of state power, etc. Even the news program Vesti on state television dedicated an episode to him in February 2023; the show used Prishvin’s out-of-context anti-liberal snippets to present the writer as an outright anti-liberal. The show host insisted that Prishvin had seen Stalin “not as a blind accident, but as a logical response of Russian history to the tragic errors and lies of Russian liberalism.”

How valid are these attempts to interpret Prishvin in this manner? They are clearly at odds with the complex world of his ideas. Prishvin’s statements do have one common denominator: a refusal to accept things forced upon people, massification and subjugation to the official ideology, be it tsarist, Bolshevik or Stalinist. Clearly, Prishvin intends to protect his personal freedom and creative work from being subsumed by totalitarian norms, be they secular or religious. Both his political and religious statements manifest his opposition to oppression. For instance, while criticizing the Church, he spoke against ideational and ascetic oppression based on the teaching of original sin and distorted human nature, while his criticism of the Soviet authorities mostly focused on direct physical and ideological oppression that denies human dignity and individual people’s personal freedom of choice.
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