An Ordinary Miracle. Valery Panyushkin on a beloved and dangerous national characteristic of Russians

26 January 2024

by Valery Panyushkin


My almost seven-year-old son lost a tooth. This was the fifth tooth he’d lost, and each time the boy had put the tooth under his pillow before he went to sleep in hopes that the tooth fairy would exchange the tooth for a coin during the night. The kid apparently still believed in this miracle, and for some reason I supported this belief with all my might.

This time, though, the tooth fairy nearly blew it. While the kid was drifting off, I was busy with something else, I was distracted, got tired, and went to bed without exchanging the tooth under my son’s pillow. I slept badly. I kept waking up, tormented by some kind of unfinished business, as the Americans say. Finally, at four in the morning, I jumped up as if I’d been scalded: I forgot the tooth! How could I have forgotten to exchange the tooth?

Despite the late hour, I quickly got up, found a coin, carefully extracted the tooth from under the boy’s pillow, and replaced it with the coin.

Only in the morning when the kid was rejoicing at the miracle that had happened again and complaining that due to the economic crisis tooth fairies were now more modest than previous times did I think, Why do I do this? Why the heck am I willing to spend a sleepless night just to maintain my son’s belief in some miracle?

When my older daughters were nearly ten and started doubting the existence of Father Frost, I also went to great lengths to preserve their belief. I realized that secretly placing presents under the tree and leaving boot prints outside the window was no longer working. Then I resorted to logic. I asked the girls whether they thought my love for them existed. They said yes, it did, and it was out of that love that I got presents for them, only why play games with fairytales about Father Frost and not say honestly, “I love you and that’s why I’m giving you presents”?

Then I asked, “Does my love for you exist without me? When I’m gone, will my love for you remain on earth?”

The girls gave this serious thought.

Then I proclaimed triumphantly,

“There! My love for you, which exists independent of me, my love, which will continue to exist even when I’m gone—that’s what Father Frost is!”

I think what I said gave the children a good scare. I don’t know whether they accepted that fishy theory of Father Frost’s existence or not, but for the first time they definitely imagined their papa not being there and cried bitterly over this.

I was compelled to state that I saw the main objective in raising children in instilling them with a belief in miracles. I could let them pay hookey, I could let them not study English, I could fail to insist that the younger read books, and I could turn a blind eye to their abominable horseplay at the table. But I was ready to go through fire and water for their belief in miracles, although in my right mind I couldn’t for the life of me explain why they needed this belief.

And if we move on from my personal case to the general rule of great Russian culture, it behaves the same way. All Russian literature is full of magic. Just take Pushkin. Do you remember how “The Captain’s Daughter” ends? Pyotr Grinev is arrested, and Masha Mironova goes to Petersburg to tell the empress about this injustice. And then Masha goes into a park and . . . the first person she encounters is, of course, the empress herself, to whom Masha immediately complains and who immediately restores justice.

I could cite a million more examples. Russian literature—from Tolstoy to Bulgakov, Okudzhava, and Prilepin—is about miracles.

Our favorite films—and I’m not talking about An Ordinary Miracle but also Irony of Fate and the directly pertinent Christmas Trees—are about miracles. About how it can’t be that way but should be that way and so happened that way.

I would dare propose that this belief in miracles, characteristic of the nation, is a significant root of our misfortunes. The dictatorship in Russia was concocted by evildoers, of course, but it was people who believe in miracles who let themselves think that here we’re not going to do anything for the sake of establishing a just regime but by some miracle the Lord himself will establish it and give us a good tsar. The warped economy was the work of thieves, of course, but it was allowed to happen by people who believe in miracles and think that it might not work, but the Lord will still give us blessed oil. Support for the war in Russia is founded on that same feeling. The war was started, of course, by cruel villains used to breaking everyone over their knee and instilling fear in one and all. But the war is supported by simple-hearted believers in miracles who have gotten it into their head that now no one likes us and we’re doing even more so they won’t, but somehow the Lord will fix it and everything will be fine.

God knows why they would think that. So why do I try with all my might to instill a belief in my children that I think is harmful?

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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