Eschatology is a religious doctrine about the ultimate destiny of mankind and the world, about what will happen at the end of time. It is well known that our troubled age, having mastered the secret of nuclear self-destruction, has often been on the verge of bringing the entire history of the human race to a catastrophic end. The uneasy fears and presentiments that have taken root in this soil have sometimes been given religious interpretations of an eschatological color. It is said that the end of the world is now inevitable, that our nuclear arsenals have become weapons of punishment in the hands of an angry God. Mankind must pay for its sins, for its declaration of independence, for the reckless challenge it has thrown down to God by remaking the world to its own specifications through science and technology.
The sectarian views presented in this section are quite varied. One group, the "Arkists," believe that salvation is possible in the coming catastrophe-though only for the elect, of course, among whom they number themselves. Their model is Noah, the righteous man of the Bible who built an ark, a house of salvation for himself and his family, under the direct instruction of God. The Arkists have tried to follow his example by building themselves the "private refuges" to which they devote the best years of their life. But the catastrophe has not come, the human race has not perished; and this is certainly not because the "elect" have been specially saved; it is because humanity as a whole has found the will and the good sense to hold back from the edge of the nuclear abyss.
There are also sects like the "Skin and Bones," which, instead of seeking to be "saved alive," are preparing for the last days by putting on the trappings of "mourning" in advance: they go about in grief, black crepe and haggard faces. Into this general category fall the "Defectors," who profess atheism as a "sign of the last days," preposterously turning the meaning of faith inside out and proclaiming that everything unclean and desecrated is "holy." The Defectors' differ from the atheistic sects mainly by the eschatological tendency of their prophecies: since, at the end of the world, "the first will be last and the last first," they conclude that all religious values and anti-values will have to be reversed: true faith changes places with unbelief, and a heap of trash turns into a sacrificial altar. In a garbled way, the Defectors' movement represents the revaluation of all values actually achieved by contemporary society. The truth of their sectarian eschatology, however, is not some impending historical catastrophe, but the inevitable crisis or "last days" of religious faith itself.
Russia has its own long tradition of eschatological prophecies. Some Russian (and like-minded Western) thinkers have declared that "the end of the world will begin with Russia," where the "abomination of desolation" will ascend the throne. This is in effect the view of the so-called "Steppies." What they love about Russia is the emptiness of the steppe. For them it's as if Russia has no need to fear the end, for she herself is already the end of everything-which means, according to them, the site of God's presence. "Prepare ye a way for the Lord in the wilderness," they cry, appealing to the prophet Isaiah in support of their belief in the holiness of the empty steppe. Their rites and rituals are in the literal sense acts of draining off some vacuum into the void, and thus can hardly be subjected to content-analysis. The essence of the Steppie doctrine is simply "nothing."
One of the most bizarre sects is that of the "Glaziers." Their supposed direct or indirect connection with Masonry has not been confirmed by any reliable historical evidence. In the allegorical language they use to spread their doctrine, "glass" is just a metaphor for clear vision and the coming of the last, "transparent" days. The Glaziers may seem like a relatively harmless bunch of cranks and daydreamers, inclined to see in every "unremarkable" fellow a possible savior or a new messiah. But such expectations of a miracle at any moment, a supernatural manifestation of heaven on earth, can prepare the soil for mass religious psychoses. The Glaziers' devotion to "invisible work" or "transparent methods" compels us to pay special attention to them-all the more so since they are always trying to usurp certain symbols of our reality, such as the red stars of the Kremlin.
All in all, it is crucial to identify those genuine problems and anxieties of our times that foster eschatological ideas. Whenever someone says that "the end" has "already" come, or that it is "still" possible to be "saved," we must point out that the life and death of mankind is in our own hands. The only counterweight to the threat of civilization's self-annihilation is its own will to self-preservation.
The Defectors (otherwise known as Garbagemen) are an apocalyptic sect closely related to the Atheans (q.v.). For them, defection from God is the chief sign and watchword of the end of time.
We must turn our backs on the God of the previous religions so as to meet the rising God face to face. Atheism is our about-face from the first Revelation to the Second Coming. Atheism is the midnight of universal time, when the rays of Christ's First Coming have already faded away, and the dawn of eternal light is still just a glimmer in the hopes of those at the limit of despair. We ourselves must become like the night to share the night's wait for the dawn. For the dawn does not come at noon; it comes only in the dark of night. (A.M., "The Hour after Midnight: Light to All Seekers!")
Whereas pure Atheanism is a fairly intellectual movement, most Defectors are manual laborers with little education, and their preachers are marked by a rather crude rhetorical style. Since the Defectors presently have their densest settlements in Siberia, we quote here from a work by specialists from Ulan-Ude, "Religious Beliefs of the Peoples of Siberia, Part 2: Small Socio-ethnic Groups":
They call themselves Defectors because they abandon God in order to seek God. Holy Scripture, temples, dogmas, sacred utensils, rituals-all these are only the image of God as manifested to the world. But the genuine God of the future will appear only where there is not yet even an image of Him. His Coming will take place in the most profane of places, a place He has never entered. Therefore, the Defectors are waiting for God as far as possible from all the religious centers of civilization. That is why most of them live in Russia. Some immigrated in the twenties and thirties, since they found in Russia the country with the fewest churches, a country that had renounced religion and trashed its religious monuments. Many Defectors were exiled to Siberia in the Years of Lawlessness, and later the rest followed them there, believing that the Hand of God was drawing them as far as possible from the light, into the heart of darkness. They think that God will appear in glory and triumph, and glory and triumph can nowhere appear more bright and dazzling than in a far-off, godforsaken, unconsecrated and even sacrilegious place. For this reason, most Defectors are to be found where there are fewest signs of holiness. Sometimes they say they have a "reverse mission": where the usual missionary brings the light of faith into darkness and unbelief, the Defectors bring their darkness and unbelief to meet the coming Light.
As a rule, Defectors make their homes on the periphery of a settlement. This is why they are sometimes called Edgeniks. But they are "on the edge" in every other sense as well: they attribute a sacred meaning to the most disgusting objects, the most sordid jobs, even the bodily functions. They offer supplications to God before relieving themselves, hymns of praise when they've finished, and various prayers throughout the whole process, all in the conviction that they are engaged in a sacred act through which their bodies are being made anew from dust and freed from impurity.
Defecation is the holiest of our earthly callings, because it purifies us from inner filth. All kinds of external purifications, including the bathing of the body in various religious cults, are only preliminary stages leading to the mystery of defecation, which turns our insides out and brings to light their bulk and feculence. Is it not in this same way that the Lord will come to relieve us of sin, discharging the whole stinking load from the belly of our soul? Pray to God when you are straining to relieve yourself, for this straining is the prayer of our body, our belly's cry for salvation. Let this cry resound in your soul as well: "Help me, Lord! Lord, I am weak, break the yoke of my belly!" (M.N., "Theology of Defecation")
Defectors penetrate into the most far-off, godforsaken, abandoned corners of being-wherever it is most squalid, poor, and dirty. They usually earn their living as sweepers, trashmen, sewage-system workers, and attendants of the sick. Of those few still remaining in the major western cities of the country, most work as shoe shiners, taking upon themselves the daily duty of bowing down before filth, stooping before the human load of dirt.
Bow down before human feet, for they are coated with the filth and dust of the earth-bow down to them and stay bowed while you do your cleansing labors. A scholar cleanses human minds, a poet cleanses human souls, but a shoe shiner cleanses the lowest thing man has, and therefore there is more grace in his trade than in any other of man's services to man. The mind flies high and the soul even higher, but man, created from dust, willy-nilly returns to that dust with his every step. A shoe shiner is posted to the struggle with this most elementary form of dust, serving on ordinary human roads. (I.G., "The Despised Profession")
In general, whatever is most unclean evokes the Defectors' greatest reverence. Some raise a floor mop as their banner, others a nose-rag-sacrificial fabrics that receive uncleanness in order to cleanse the inner organs or the external surroundings. Defectors are put into a prayerful mood by slop-buckets, trash bins and garbage dumps, which they revere as sacrificial places that receive heaps of filth so that other places may be clean.
The sole purpose of every impurity is to purify you. All dirt, decay, and pollution is a sacrifice made on your behalf. Pray to the Lord to accept this sacrifice, and not to cast you into the sewer, into the fires of Gehenna. (M.R., "On the Sacrificial Aspect of Garbage")
This is the source of another name for the Defectors, "Garbagemen." They try to maintain constant smouldering in garbage dumps in order to prepare the garbage to ignite. In their view, "The spirit of God will descend onto smouldering garbage as onto a sacrificial altar" (ibid.).
In the words of I.V., from his work "Light in Darkness":
Light will appear from the direction where the darkness is densest. God entrusted the easiest work to men, the illumination of the relatively light places of the earth through art, science, politics, education, etc. But the hardest work-the illumination of the darkest darkness, the cleansing of the dirtiest filth-is beyond man's powers: God has taken it upon Himself, and that is why His Last Coming into the world is necessary. In filth and darkness-that is where His light-bringing foot will step onto the earth."
Anyone who has met the Defectors knows their genuine zeal for the "dirtiest" work, the work of cleaning. Many have seen with what religious fervor, with what prayerful ecstasy in their eyes, they go about the garbage dumps, stamping them down and compacting them, painstakingly separating the clean from the unclean, so as finally to light the sacrificial fire,
an image of the brightest blaze from the rotten core. For fire is nothing but the quickest form of rot; it has long been smouldering in the depths of the world, against the day when it will be lit with tongues of fire. Then that slow rotting called history will become the instantaneous rotting called apocalypse. After its long, slow burn around the edges, the world will suddenly catch fire in the very core.(V.T., "Communion of Fire")
Some Defectors have gone so far as to accept atheism "in its most banal and hopeless form," that is, they have taken up the spiritual position furthest removed from God. They suppose that atheism, i.e. godlessness, is the worldview in which the coming God will reveal Himself first, precisely because it denies God. In fact, the Defectors are one of the few sects that consciously program change and evolution into their doctrines (whereas the majority of sects cling tightly to established dogmas). Theirs is a deliberate forward motion towards the greatest possible atheism, towards "faithlessness as an apocalyptic faith." They don't follow the Sun, i.e., the old Revelation already setting in the past; they go in the opposite direction, to the black East, where they hope to be the first to meet the Sun of the new Revelation. For them, Siberia is "where the deepest darkness is waiting for the Light, where the utmost silence is waiting for the Voice." (I.V., "Light in the Darkness")
In their daily life they take special pleasure in doing the laundry, washing the dishes, and mopping the floors, because in these activities they see an image of the divine actions that will purify the world, a presage of the Apocatharsis, the final and universal purification. Some of them prefer purification by fire rather than water, so they sear their food instead of washing it. This is a remnant of the ancient belief that, whereas in the beginning the world was baptized by water, in the end it will be baptized by fire (cf. 2 Pet. 3.5-7). Among the Defectors, trash-burning fires become holiday rites with special "apotropaic" gestures: they remove a piece of their clothing, usually a shoe or a hat, and throw it into the fire, so as to "be like trash and bring upon themselves the fires of purification" (V.T., "Communion of Fire"). They prefer the burial rite of cremation to all others. Some people think they are descended from Persia and Assyria, where the cult of fire was widespread, but the Defectors themselves deny any connection with fire-worshipers. "The God we worship is not fire, but the Lord of the fiery furnace, Who will smelt the world in His fire" (ibid.).
In general, the Defectors or Garbagemen occupy that area on the map of contemporary sects where "atheistic" and apocalyptic doctrines border upon one another.
Mikhail Epstein was born in Moscow in 1950 and graduated from Moscow State University summa cum laude in philology. He was the founder and director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow. In 1990 Epstein moved to the United States, where he spent a year in Washington, DC, as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is now Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University.
Epstein's recent books in English include After the Future: Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture; Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (with two coauthors); and Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication (with Ellen Berry). He is the author of 15 books and approximately 400 essays and articles, translated into 14 languages.
In 2000 Mikhail Epstein was awarded the Liberty Prize, given each year to prominent Russian cultural figures who have made outstanding contributions to American society. He has also received, among many other awards, the 1995 Social Innovations Award from the Institute for Social Inventions (London) for his electronic Bank of New Ideas, and the 1991 Andrei Belyi Prize (St. Petersburg) for the best work in literary criticism and scholarship.