By Claire Hunt
Special to Moscow Times
Among the photographs of writers and thinkers covering the walls of Stephen Lapeyrouse’s study hangs an ambiguous handwritten sign: “Life is a loan.”
Gazing out the window with knitted brow and gesturing animatedly, Lapeyrouse explains. “It was something that came to me in a dream,” he says. “Loan is a medieval word for gift, but it’s a gift that you have to give back, as is life.”
Thoughts on the meaning of life are a typical conversation starter in the Moscow home of the 45-year-old American, who has trouble answering when new acquaintances ask him what he does.
“I tell Russians I am an ‘independent scholar,’ and they just say I am a philosopher.” And philosophy was what originally lured Lapeyrouse, a scholar of Western intellectual history, to Russia in 1986.
“I came following the theme of the Sophia, the Third Rome, and the mystery of the Palladium,” he says. He was inspired by the assertion of 19th century philosophers that the Palladium – symbol of wisdom – was in the hands of the Slavs, and that Russia was “the new center of civilization.”
“If the West is Rome, then the Slavs are the Germanic tribes of our time,” he says. “They will not conquer and destroy us, but blend in and somehow create a new culture.”
After repeated visits to Moscow both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lapeyrouse was sufficiently satisfied with the theory to move here for good in 1994.
“I decided to give up my life in America,” he says. After 20 years of intellectual life in California, he grew disgusted with “the materialism, the low level of culture.”
“America is heading toward a dead end,” he says. “The Russians have something that we don’t have.”
And that something, Lapeyrouse says, can only be described as a deeper spirituality, which he attributes in part to the nature of the Soviet state.
“When there was such an oppressive system, everything that was personal and cultural was precious,” he says. “It was like being forced into a monastery – with little TV, no Internet, no Hollywood – and people treated the Conservatory like a cathedral, and conversations were gold.”
“There were few distractions then, so all the feelings of the human soul were focused on a small spectrum of human relationships. Many people then were more noble and deeper than they usually are.”
Stark polarization between Russia and the West forms the bulk of Lapeyrouse’s scholarship in a long essay he self-published in 1990 with the ambitious title of Towards the Spiritual Convergence of America and Russia: American Mind and Russian Soul, American Individuality and Russian Community, and the Potent Alchemy of National Characteristics.
Lapeyrouse finds the major difference between America and Russia to be one of the individual versus the collective.
“Russians are a more collectively-minded people, in part because the soul is not as independent as the intellect,” he says, while likening Westerners to “independent castles,” victims of a hyper-individualism that is starting to afflict Russia.
Lapeyrouse says that much of the characteristic “Russian soul” has been lost since 1991, and he is disappointed with the direction in which Russia is now heading.
“People are trying to copy the West, so they are losing what was unique,” he says.
Lapeyrouse has little patience for expatriates in Moscow, and prefers to spend his time with Russian intellectuals whom he has met while lecturing everywhere from Moscow State University to private homes. But he says he is giving up lecturing in a new attempt to focus more on his writing.
Despite Russia’s shaky present and uncertain future, Lapeyrouse says he finds enough to keep him here for the long-term. He does not balk at the prospect of perhaps another 20 years of searching for the synthesis of soul and intellect, of the collective and individual. Russia is worth the wait, he says, citing the popular Tyutchev quote: “You can’t understand Russia, you can only believe in it.”