Belief in Russia

Last week at Juicy Ecumenism, Metropolitan Jonah,  the former primate of the Orthodox Church in America, rejoiced that Russia has risen from the grave of secularism:

Churches and houses, businesses and stores, even government buildings and public squares proclaim the Paschal joy of Christ’s Resurrection. Festal processions of tens of thousands of people, led by hundreds of vested clergy, wind through the streets of Moscow, Red Square and the Kremlin, singing the Paschal hymns, as all the bells in all the churches and bell towers, from the Kremlin to the countryside, toll in joy.

This was unimaginable thirty years ago. It is still unimaginable to many in the West, and outrageously politically incorrect. Who could permit the faithful Christians to process from their churches, some at the heart of the center of the government buildings, with Christ is Risen! hung on the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House? It might offend someone! Choirs of students gathering in the quads and halls of the State Universities to sing the Paschal hymns and shout Christ is Risen! Call the Police! The CIA! The NSA… [sic] Homeland Security!

What has arisen in Russia, Jonah says, is not just a restored Orthodox faith, but a distinctly Christian national outlook and mission. Having drunk the cup of secularism to its bitter dregs, Russia died with Christ and has now arisen, purged from the Soviet spirit.

A new “Holy Russia” emerges as a defender of Christianity against Islamism—in Jonah’s words, against “the formation of a new Caliphate.”

Jonah then indulges in flatuous geopolitical commentary. Western criticism of Russia’s aggression against Eastern European border republics is uncalled for, he says, and Russia’s seizure of Crimea is merely equivalent to Western encouragement of pro-Western governments in the region.

Russia took back Crimea, whether we like it or not. That does not mean they want to take over Ukraine. However, Western meddling installed its own regime in Kiev, and has not ceased provoking Russia. To provoke a war? The ignorant media even refer to Russia as the Soviet Union, a comment as tasteless and insensitive as toasting Hitler at the commemoration of the Holocaust.

Although Jonah does not mention Vladimir Putin by name, he suggests that Putinesque autocracy is healthy and natural in the Russian context:

When its reintegration is mature enough, Russia will likely enthrone a new Czar, an autocrat consecrated by the Church as an icon of Christ’s reign on earth.

It is worth comparing Jonah’s vision of “Holy Russia” to David P. Goldman’s insightful perspective on the matter. Like Jonah, Goldman has no patience with the flaccid anti-Russian posturing of Foggy Bottom neoliberals. America should put up or shut up—but rather, we ought to learn to understand Russia’s international outlook and goals, which are different from ours. Russia, Goldman says, is not a nation but an empire, which protects its center by establishing Russia-friendly buffer states in places like the Baltic, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Syria.

While Goldman and Jonah agree to the extent that they both believe opposing Russia’s regional imperialism is counterproductive to Western interests—do we want Israel to survive, or not?— Goldman’s assessment of the Russian imperial character is more sober and less fantastic than Jonah’s “Holy Russia.” For one thing, it is clear that Vladimir Putin aspires to be a secular prince, not an “icon of Christ’s rule on earth.”

It is one thing to consider whether countries may, in God’s providence, have distinct spiritual or religious vocations. Many countries are certainly characterized by specific religious phenomena, whether Evangelical Protestantism in the United States, or Anglicanism in Britain, Lutheranism in Germany and northern Europe, or the many national and regional inflections of Roman Catholicism. Perhaps even now China is developing its own potent and unique form of Christianity.

As David Goldman observes, Russia is an empire, not a people. Still, she may perhaps become a new Holy Russian Empire, heir to Byzantium as the Holy Roman Empire was heir to Rome. Who can say? But these empires and nations and religious movements are not Christianity itself.

Jonah and his idea of “Holy Russia” remind me of Shatov, a character from Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Shatov is a student who renounces the atheistic international anarchist movement he once embraced. In a conversation with his former friend, the irredeemably wicked Nicolai Vsevolodovich, Shatov passionately defends his new, Russian faith.

“Do you know,” [Shatov] began, with flashing eyes, almost menacingly, bending right forward in his chair, raising the forefinger of his right hand above him (obviously unaware that he was doing so), “do you know who are the only ‘god-bearing’ people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world… Do you know which is that people and what is its name?”

Shatov recounts how, before the atheist Stavrogin turned to evil, he proved that Russia and Christianity were one:

Do you remember your expression that ‘an atheist can’t be a Russian,’ that ‘an atheist at once ceases to be a Russian’? Do you remember saying that?

“Did I?” Nikolai Vsevolodovich questioned him back.

“You ask? You’ve forgotten? And yet that was one of the truest statements of the leading peculiarity of the Russian soul, which you divined. You can’t have forgotten it! I will remind you of something else: you said then that ‘a man who was not orthodox could not be Russian.’”

“I imagine that’s a Slavophil idea.”

“The Slavophils of to-day disown it. Nowadays, people have grown cleverer. But you went further: you believed that Roman Catholicism was not Christianity; you asserted that Rome proclaimed Christ subject to the third temptation of the devil. Announcing to all the world that Christ without an earthly kingdom cannot hold his ground upon earth, Catholicism by so doing proclaimed Antichrist and ruined the whole Western world. You pointed out that if France is in agonies now it’s simply the fault of Catholicism, for she has rejected the iniquitous God of Rome and has not found a new one. That’s what you could say then! I remember our conversations.”

Shatov has himself risen, returned from the deadly ideology of international anarchism, which was a forerunner of the international communism which destroyed Russia. Having been an anarchist and an atheist, he now strives for nationalism and Christianity. But just as anarchism and atheism have been closely linked in his mind, so, now, he can make no distinction between the Russian “nation” and Christianity itself. Even his belief in God is in a way contingent on this national idea.

Nikolai Vsevolodovich looked coldly at him. “I only wanted to know, do you believe in God, yourself?”

I believe in Russia… I believe in her orthodoxy… I believe in the body of Christ… I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia… I believe…” Shatov muttered frantically.

“And in God? In God?”

“I… I will believe in God.”

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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