The Traveling Humanist: Russia

By Erin Williamson

Russia may be one of the most misunderstood countries by Americans in the world. Only about 20 years removed from its status as the heart of the Soviet Union, Russia is still perceived as many things: communist, autocratic, the “other,” a superpower, and of course, antitheist. Undoubtedly the Soviet Union structure elevated its leaders like Lenin and Stalin to demagogue status and outlawed all forms of religion other than what some recognize as the “state religion”- communism. However, Russia’s past goes far beyond the 20th century, and there are countless reasons for humanists to go see this mysterious and diverse land. Having lived and studied in Russia during the summer of 2007, here are a few highlights that would be of interest for humanists:

Moscow State University: It’s fitting to start at the place I called home for two months. Named after M.V. Lomonosov, the “renaissance man” of Russia, this university was established in 1755 as a center of education by Lomonosov himself. Today most of its faculties are located in the Sparrow Hills neighborhood of Moscow, primarily in one of the huge “Seven Sisters” buildings, built in the Stalin era, an imposing and impressive edifice. Today, over 250 years since the school was founded, it is the premier university in Russia, and one of the most respected institutions in the world, with faculties in natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, mathematics, and the arts. The campus hosts one of the largest libraries in Russia, and the only official baseball field in the massive country. Although you need a pass to enter the main building of the university, it really is a sight worth seeing. Several notable alumni include Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and 1980 Humanist of the Year Andrei Sakharov, Mikhail Gorbachev, author Anton Chekhov, and artist Wassily Kandinsky. As a haven for reason, exploration, and education, Moscow State University is a must-see for anyone who values those tenants of humanism.

Sakharov Museum: Andrei Sakharov is probably the most notable humanist in recent Russian history. In addition to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year award in 1980, he was also the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s International Humanist of the Year in 1988 and a signatory of the Humanist Manifesto II. As an accomplished physicist who contributed to the development of the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union, Sakharov later became an activist for human rights, peace, and nonproliferation. A small museum in his legacy in Moscow features exhibits on his life and activism as well as current issues facing Russia today, like violence against reporters, corruption, and of course, separation of church and state. Censorship by the Russian Orthodox Church by way of the Kremlin affected an exhibit at the museum in 2006 called “Forbidden Art 2006,” which made international news. This museum is definitely a gem—the curators are friendly, but if you go in the summer, bring a water bottle, as there is no air conditioning.

Lake Baikal: For those of you who appreciate Thoreau’s Walden as a commentary on simplicity and self-discovery, a visit to Lake Baikal in southern Siberia is a similarly provocative and challenging experience. Located north of Mongolia on a plain east of Irkutsk, the nearest city, the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world holds more beauty in nature than can be comprehended. A complete void of modernity treats visitors to a starry sky unlike any other and some of the most interesting and hospitable people I’ve met, the Buryats, whose naturalistic perception on life is to value the resources around you and give back to the earth. A grand scale Russian Walden Pond, the tranquility of Lake Baikal is a fascinating place to reflect on life, nature, and the universe. I highly recommend the Circum Baikal Express train that takes passengers around a portion of the perimeter of the lake, the nerpa reserve (nerpas are the only species of freshwater seal in the world, and are only endemic to Baikal), and a few nights on Ol’khon island where you can live in yurts (portable tent structures) and eat fresh fish from the lake with native hosts.

Hermitage Museum: St. Petersburg was built by Tsar Peter I after touring many Western European cities, and the beautiful architecture, cultural sites, and imperial flavor sample aspects of Vienna, Amsterdam, and Paris. Between intricate cathedrals, wide waterways, and colorful residences on the banks of the Neva, it’s difficult to choose the most beautiful part of the city. But for any humanist visiting Piter, as the locals call it, a few hours in the Hermitage Museum is well worth your time—the experience is on par with the Louvre or the Prado. The Hermitage exhibits everything from ancient art to modern day Russian paintings, so whatever your art preference may be, you will find it here. Of particular note to the traveling humanist would be the Hermitage’s outstanding collection of Rembrandt pieces, including restored Danae, which was partially destroyed by a visitor who threw acid on it and slashed it with a knife. Rembrandt is well known for his artistic examinations of the human condition and emotion, and over 30 of his works can be found in the Hermitage.

Global experiences, seeing what the world has to offer, and interacting with people are imperative to breaking down barriers of differences that divide people. Challenging your assumptions, perceptions, and judgments in many ways is a part of the hunger for enlightenment that we should never give up. If you plan to travel to Russia soon, I hope you find my picks from a humanist perspective useful. Enjoy your trip!

Erin Williamson is the development and communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.

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