I’m currently reading a book about the WWII battle of Kursk called Last Citadel by author David L. Robbins. In a chapter describing a night attack by the Russian all-female bomber group called the Night Witches there is a passage that goes:

That’s what Papa taught. Fear puts a bitterness in the mouth. The bitterness is your soul, Papa said, come up to see what you’re doing. On her eighteenth birthday, Katerina Berko had galloped wide open down the main street of her village waving a saber. She’d sliced in half every melon hoisted on the poles, no one else cut as many, not even the boys, and she was the champion dzhigitka of the Cossack war game. She’d stood in the stirrups at a rollicking speed and slashed her father’s sword, she didn’t fall then. Once in a while your soul wants to see a podvig, a feat, to prove you’re alive. -pg 45

That word, podvig, caught my eye. A little research on the net reveals that there is not a singular, simple English translation for it. Russian author Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book named Podvig that is called “Glory” in its english translation. The Literary Encyclopedia, had this to say about the title:

Glory’s title, both in Russian [Podvig] and in English, indicates its relationship to chivalric ideals of the knightly quest. Written in Russian in 1930, while Nabokov was living in Berlin, and first published serially in 1931-32, the novel was given at least three tentative titles before Nabokov (then writing as “Sirin”) arrived at Podvig (“Deed” or “Exploit”). Two of these, Zolotoi vek (“Golden Age”) and Romanticheskii vek (“Romantic Times”) indicate the centrality of chivalric romance to the novel.

So it would appear that podvig translates as “glory” or “quest”, but it’s not that simple. Podvig appears to have roots in Russian Orthodox Catholicism where it is used to define a “spiritual struggle”. It has to do with the never ending internal battle between our desires and the “better angels of our nature”. They quote St. Paul’s saying:

I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate…. for though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not, with the result that instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want.

So in Orthodoxy, a podvig represents an ascetic discipline undertaken to purify oneself from the earthly passions that draw us away from God. Which sounds very similar to the Buddhist concept of “attachment” and the Four Noble Truths. The Russian Orthodox site I linked to above says this about embarking on a podvig:

All of podvig is a form of repentance, of turning around and getting back unto the correct path. Because it is so intricately linked to repentance, no one should ever undertake a specific podvig without the approval of his father confessor/spiritual father. The evil one is very crafty and he wants nothing more than to drag us into the same pride through which he fell. He will try to use the very means with which we are trying to overcome our sins to lead us into the sin of pride. Yes, we can become prideful and vain glorious over our own podvig! In fact, it frequently happens that an astute spiritual guide will tell his spiritual child to abandon his podvig.

When we take on a podvig it is for the sake of opposing the body which draws us down to the earth and away from God. Do I eat too much? Then I must take a podvig of additional fasting or denying myself the special foods in which I tend to indulge Am I lazy? Then I need to work harder. Do I not want to get out of bed in the morning? Then get up earlier to pray. The list goes on and each person, with the help of his father confessor, knows which vices particularly afflict him. Every vice has an opposing virtue and in striving toward that virtue, the vice can, with the help of God (for nothing can be accomplished without prayer and grace from the Lord!), be overcome, or at least lessened to a great degree.

I think that there are some interesting parallels between the podvig and the “martial lifestyle”. The “martial path” requires discipline and sacrifice. If the true warrior realizes that they are out of shape, they should take on the podvig of physical conditioning. If they find themselves slacking in their training they need to take on another podvig. Instead of a “father confessor” to provide guidance, the warrior needs to find competent instructors to guide them along “The Way”. And as in the Orthodox version, the person on the podvig needs to be alert against becoming “prideful and vain glorious”. How many martial artists wander from “The Way” by identifying themselves and their worth as “warriors”? Do you do this for ego or for something deeper?

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4 thoughts on “Podvig”

  1. I did some digging and you are right. It is a loaded term with a lot of stuff packed in the meaning. In a way, it reminds me a bit of the term/practice of “Jihad” in its true sense (not the pop/media based understanding of terrorism or hate), in the Muslim faith. A person who embraces the Podvig concept and/or a religious “Jihad” (to purify himself or herself) is driven to purify themselves through discipline, dedication, and selflessness.

    As Americans, I think it is very difficult to understand the worth in such devotion to an ideal at an extreme denial of the self.

  2. The difference between Podvig and Jihad as I read it, is that Podvig is more of a personal feat. My quest to 2X BW deadlift is my “Podvig”, if I was doing it to adhere to a religious mandate to treat my body as gods temple it would be a Podvig as well. While Jihad (as I have come to understand it) is more of an “overall mission”..not necessarialy a violent (war) mission, but a la the Catholic “Jihad” against abortion. Or my “Jihad” to wrest the “Warrior” title from hobbiest martial artists and meditation groups. 🙂

    So the way I interpret it, a “Podvig” is a short term goal or singular “feat”…giving up smoking. getting up earlier for prayer, while “Jihad” is the long term “struggle”. Almost a Podvig=Battle Jihad=War metaphor.

  3. I can see that.

    Jihad is most commonly known as ‘external’ or the ‘good fight’ type of thing, true. I have heard from a couple of Nation Of Islam types that I came into contact w/via ECC about personal Jihad to address weaknesses or build strength (quite smoking, eat better,…as you mentioned) because it isn’ the smoking or junkfood as the goal but the means. The goal is to live with more strength of character that manifests as the outcomes mentioned.

    But, as you say, Podvig seems far more personal development/purification and Jihad has a wider scope.

  4. I would be interested in knowing whether Arabic-speaking Christians use the word “jihad” to mean the same as Russian-speaking Christians mean by “podvig”. If not, what word do they use?

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