Friendship Circle as a Response to the Primary Challenge of Modernity

11 March 2016
The three-day conference 'Friendship Circle as the Beginning of Sobornost and Solidarity in Russia' brought together theologians, public leaders, priests, academics and charity representatives for a discussion that focused on issues such as revival of man, society, nation and the church

The international conference 'Friendship Circle as the Beginning of Sobornost and Solidarity in Russia' closed on 11 March in the Moscow region. The main focus of the conference was the 'friendship circle' phenomenon. 'This is a civilisation mechanism typical for Russia due the specifics of its national mentality, state organisation and spirituality,' explained Yulia Balakshina, Chairperson of the Conference's Organising Committee, Associate Professor of St. Philaret's Institute and the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia. According to her, 'such circles have been a significant creative driver in the society since the 19th century'.

Yulia Balakshina, Chairperson of the Conference's Organising Committee, Associate Professor of St. Philaret's Institute and the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia
Yulia Balakshina, Chairperson of the Conference's Organising Committee, Associate Professor of St. Philaret's Institute and the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia

The conference organisers believe that today friendship circles can address the lack of amiability and trust in the Russian society while providing a way of overcoming alienation and developing the basis for normal human relationships and sustainable social institutions.

The conference was attended by over 200 historians, sociologists, philosophers and theologians from Russia, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Latvia and other countries. All participants either had an academic interest or/and were directly involved in such circles.

They presented papers on friendship circles of the Pushkin times, the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the Soviet and the modern times. 'Friendship' in the social media was considered separately. Groups such as the Slavophiles, the Westernists and the Decembrists were mentioned along with friendship circles formed around Korney Chukovsky, the Shakhovskoy family, Aleksey and Sergius Mechyov, who were priests and church renewal activists in Petersburg. Attention was also given to Petersburg and Moscow cultural and academic circles.

What is the place and the role of friendship circles in the life of the church and society today? Are they a compensatory phenomenon or the norm in today's society? What is the correlation between informal friendship groups and institutions they put in place?

According to Aleksey Levinson, Head of Sociocultural Research at 'Levada Center', sociology "has little to say about friendship". "The ability to make friends is a major precondition of sociality," said Levinson. "Sociology does not recognise and cannot deal with anyone who is incapable of becoming part of a human social group. Either that, or the person is viewed as a special case, an anomaly, a sort of Mowgli. Here we have a paradox: sociology cannot tell us anything valuable about friendship since its basic preconception is that the person is someone who either could be or is a friend."

The researcher also noted that today, "we live in a society where it is not so much friendship but its unhealthy derivatives that dominate the space; while sociologically similar to friendship, they are essentially different from it".

What is a friendship circle in the context of cultural and political history? What can be said about the religious dimension of a friendship circle? Poet Olga Sedakova noted that when speaking about a friendship circle, one ought to "first and foremost consider it in the context of freedom and in relation to culture and education". In her opinion, a friendship circle is "the best and possibly the only environment for the creation of the new, be it in art, thought, science or history. It is a way for people to meet each other without losing their freedom".

One of the prevailing tendencies in today's society is virtualisation of friendship whereby a 'status' is the indicator of relationship quality and friendship no longer means fellowship but mutual following.

"Facebook sends you Birthday reminders for each of your friends. Simple aspects of interpersonal relationships that form the basis of friendships are starting to lose their value," said Victoria Merzlyakova, Associate Professor at the School of History and Culture Theory, Department of Sociocultural Studies, Russian State University for the Humanities. She outlined the specifics of redefining the term 'friendship' and the new functions it is acquiring in on-line communications.

The conference has the potential to contribute to the discussion on the issue of authenticity in human relationships. "I view this as a very promising subject," said priest Georgy Kochetkov, Rector of St. Philaret's Christian Orthodox Institute. "This is not simply about friendship circles contributing to the society and creating some institutions. Friendship circles are intrinsically valuable and provide a connection to the depths of the human spirit; they can enable people to relate to each other within communities and brotherhoods where relationships are not defined by efficiency or mutual benefit but by each person's inherent value and quality of fellowship."

In his opinion, it is crucially important for such circles to exist both in the social and the ecclesiastical context "of our depersonalised time, when people are unable to tell who is who in the church and society, when they fear any sort of informal associations, particularly within the church".

Priest Georgy Kochetkov
Priest Georgy Kochetkov

Conference papers were also presented by Vladimir Averchev, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies, Igor Sakharov, Honoured Worker of Culture of the Russian Federation and Head of the Institute for Genealogical Research of the Russian National Library, Nina Popova, Director of the Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House, Arseny Roginsky, Chairman of the Board for the International Memorial Society, Oleg Shcherbachev, President of the Russian Nobility Association, Paolo Petracca, President of the Christian Association of Italian Workers (AСLI) for the Province of Milan, Aleksey Kozyrev, Deputy Dean, Philosophy Faculty of the Moscow State University, Andrey Levandovsky, Associate Professor, History Faculty of the Moscow State University,Vladimir Berkhin, President of the 'Predanie' Fund, Lyudmila Davydova, Senior Research Fellow at the State Hermitage Museum, Nina Braginskaya, Head of the Sector of Classical Ancient Studies of the IOCS, Russian State University for the Humanities, and many others.

The conference was organised by the Transfiguration Brotherhood, St. Philaret's Christian Orthodox Institute and the Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House.

The forum was part of an annual conference series ('The Russian Plain.  Experience of Spiritual Resistance', 2013; 'People of Free Action. Unexpected Ways of Reviving the Person and Society', 2014) on the issues of overcoming the Russian anthropological disaster, progressing social solidarity and church sobornost.

Andrey Vasenyov, Sofia Androsenko
Photos by Alexandra Volkova and Alexandra Strotceva
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