This is an excerpt from a longer essay published in 2015. The first part of this essay, omitted here, is in praise of an excellent and widely-read essay by Dr. Catherine Brown, a well-known UK literary critic, criticizing Russophobic attitudes of UK elites, entitled Deconstructing Russophobia.
Since this essay first appeared, the Christian revival in Russia has gained significant force and momentum.
Neither Britain nor the United States have been defined by a single unifying, common religious heritage, whereas all of Russian history is closely tied to the country’s embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity over a thousand years ago. Unlike the mostly non-religious country of Britain, Russia saw no inter-confessional religious wars, and large Muslim and Buddhist religious minorities continue to live in Russia today.
British history is marked by years of intermittent violence between Catholics and Protestants, with the pendulum of persecution veering from the targeting of both Catholics and Lutherans under Henry VIII, to savage persecution of Catholics under Edward VI, to the Marian persecution of Protestants under the infamous “Bloody” Mary I, to a less intense but still damning level of persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I and James VI and I.
The English Civil War was fought in large measure because Puritans despised the High Church Anglican King Charles I, whom they feared was sympathetic to Catholicism, while in 1689 the English Bill of Rights specifically disenfranchised English Catholics and made them second-class citizens under the law.
The United States is the first nation in history to have been uniquely founded without a national confession, a single, unifying religion, and so we have no concept of what it means to have a people’s national identity married to their religion. Suzanne Massie, American author, Russian expert, and President Reagan’s adviser on Russian culture and history, understood this when no one else did: that a significant factor behind the disconnect between Russia and the U.S. was the complete unfamiliarity of Americans, on a cultural level, with the notion of a nation being founded on one religion. Reagan called Massie “the greatest student I know of the Russian people.” Massie writes in her memoirs Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and Me that:
“There were reasons for our official blindness, among them that in the United States we have the tendency to see everything as a reflection of our own beliefs. Being “like us” is equivalent to being “right.” We in America can choose our religion as if we were shopping for a new car, changing at will, and harbor thousands of offshoots and sects. Because our history is founded on personal choice for all religions we have no experience or understanding of a religion that represents a nation, and we find this somehow disturbing. The history of Russia is the opposite, and the communist regime of the Soviet Union always understood this fact completely.” (135).
In fact, far from having “a religion that represents a nation,” our national identity is in many ways influenced by our lack of a single, unifying religion. Russian history, devoid of the religious wars that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation, is one of largely peaceful coexistence between the Orthodox majority and local religious minorities. While we have all read of the infamous anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century during the Tsarist period, the inescapable reality is that all of these tragedies occurred not in Russia proper, but in Ukraine, predominantly western (Greek Catholic) Ukraine.
I interviewed Suzanne Massie in late November 2014 after Liturgy in the Holy Archangels Chapel in Washington, DC, where my spiritual father regularly presides over the divine services. She and I share the same godmother – my godmother is a dear friend of hers – and we were both received into the Church within a year of each other. Massie told me that to know Orthodoxy is to know Russia, and to know Russian history is to begin to know Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is inextricably bound up in Russia’s national identity. The only intellectual force — if one wants to so denigrate the term “intellectual” — that ever pushed for the separation of this dual Russian and Orthodox identity was Marxist-Leninism, or, more properly, what came to be Soviet Bolshevism.
What Massie insisted that Reagan learn, and what President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their advisers remain sadly ignorant of to this day, is that one cannot hope to understand Russia today without first coming to understand its religious history. Russian Orthodoxy is the only cultural and religious institution that survived Soviet rule. It is the single and deepest connection Russians have to the pre-revolutionary period, to the thousand years of Russian history before the Soviet nightmare. If you dismiss Orthodoxy’s role in shaping Russian history, as both Obama and Cameron clearly have, you will remain profoundly ignorant of the most basic aspects of Russian cultural history.
The Orthodox Christian faith has influenced the very foundations of Russian society. The Russian word for ‘Sunday’ is воскресенье (voskresenie), [Christ’s] ‘Resurrection,’ while the most common phrase for ‘Thank you,’ спасибо (spasibo), is a compound of Spasi bog— literally ‘God saves.’ The Russian word for peasant — the vast majority of Russians in Russian history — is крестьянин (khrestyanin), literally, a Christian. These nuances are all tragically lost on those who rule in Washington, London, and Brussels today.
The very heart and soul of Russia — the Orthodox Church — is experiencing a steady, imperfect yet unstoppable revival, and all that this merits from senior U.S., British, and EU policymakers is cynicism.
Take for example the widely circulated yet disputed figure from the Pew Forum that, as of 2008, only 7% of Russians attend Orthodox services every month. This claim merits deeper examination. Even if we take that statistic as accurate, Russia’s population is currently 144 million, so seven percent of this figure is just over 10 million people. By contrast, in England, which still has an official, state-funded Church, only 800,000 Britons attend Church of England services weekly, out of a population of 64 million.
Russia is experiencing a cultural renaissance, a rediscovery of its true identity after seventy-four years of enforced atheism and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Should we miss the opportunity to reach Russians where they are, at this moment in their history, I fear we will lose a crucial chance to genuinely come to better understand Russian society’s past, present, and future.
One cannot understand the religious revival taking place in Russia today if one does not first understand, and contrast it, with the state-sponsored suppression of and attempted extermination of religion under the Soviets.
When the Bolsheviks had taken power, Massie writes, they attempted to completely destroy all vestiges of religion, considered the chief obstacle to building an ideal socialist state:
“. . . all religion was considered Enemy Number One, but Orthodoxy the most dangerous, to be eradicated with all the ruthlessness they could command.
They set out to commit what can only be called a genocide of the Church. In 1918 they began to wage what they called a “war on God.” All manifestations of religion were prohibited as were all Church holidays, even Easter and Christmas. Liturgical music was banned until the mid-1980s. Sunday was made a compulsory work day. . . the word god was always to be spelled in lower case.
Thousands of historic churches and all their treasures were destroyed outright. . . Millions of icons were destroyed, broken, or sold abroad along with other treasures of the Church.
Multitudes of priests and believers were murdered outright, more imprisoned or sent to labor camps. (136-37).
A quarter-century after the fall of the USSR, the most important national institution in Russia today, the only one to outlast the Soviet Union, remains the Russian Orthodox Church.
It is impossible for anyone hoping to understand Russia to do so without first coming to understand the guiding role the Church played — and continues to play — in forming the country’s national identity.
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