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What Do You Expect? This is Russia!

My family business‘ adventure with the Russians began in 1987, when I went to Washington to visit, with my first Russian representative, the then Soviet commercial consulate. The two of us met in the same hotel where Ronald Reagan had been shot six year earlier; the consulate was just around the corner. While walking here we discussed the scandal they were having over the Soviets using the consulate as a listening post. His opinion? “What do you expect? This is Russia!”

That’s the sentiment I’ve had in reflecting on George Weigel’s piece on Fr. Alexander Men and the current state of Russian Orthodoxy:

In the last decades of the U.S.S.R., Fr. Men became a prominent reformist voice in Russian Orthodoxy, a spiritual adviser to Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and a magnet for conversions to Christ among the Russian intelligentsia. Communism, Men preached, was a “colossal historical pathology” that had “virtually destroyed” Russian culture; the damage it had done “lives on in people’s souls.” To help repair that damage, a post-communist Russian Church had to repent of its degrading cooperation with Soviet power. Out of that repentance, he hoped, would come a Russian Orthodoxy whose Christocentric voice would help build a renewed Russian civil society.

I don’t think that either Weigel or Men had it quite figured out.

The first problem is with Orthodoxy itself: it was born in Caesero-Papism and it endured in this state for over a thousand years. The fact that today we find Orthodoxy divided by ethnicity doesn’t change that heritage. As Moscow observed many years ago, it is the “Third Rome,” which has achieved what the first two have lost. Adding to that problem is Orthodoxy’s concept of itself. If you listen to really serious Orthodox people long enough, you come to realise that their idea is that Christ didn’t come to save people as much as he came to start a church, and if you’re outside of that church, you’re outside of Christ. (Thus, the Russian troops burning Bibles in the Ukraine.)

In the early years, the relationship between the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church was more symbiotic. When the Church, for example, decided that they were not “the Joneses” of the Orthodox world and decided that one should cross oneself with three fingers and other practices, people like Avvakum and the Old Believers took it hard from Tsar and Patriarch alike.

It was Peter the Great who made the ROC a department of the state. He saw the Church as an impediment to the westernisation of the country. His model was none other than the Church of England, which he noted was under the “broad seal” of the monarch. He came back to Russia, the Patriarch died, and he abolished the Patriarchate, replacing it with the Holy Synod. This state of affairs persisted until 1918, when the Tsar was gone and the Patriarch was restored, just in time to be bulldozed by the Bolsheviks.

Now of course we have the best (or worst) of both worlds; the ROC is ruled by the Patriarch, but the Church is very much a department of the government. Russia’s two attempts at democracy in the last century failed miserably. Democracy just doesn’t happen: it is the result of a long process of change in a country, and neither Russia (or China) were able to get it off of the ground. The fact that Americans, who are in serious danger of losing their own democratic system, are completely incapable of understanding this, and continue to make mistakes pursuant to this error, only show that we have wasted a great deal of time and money raising up the elite that we have.

The United States has two options: it either needs to understand that certain parts of the world will be under some kind of autocracy, or it needs to be prepared to spend blood and treasure to change things. Given that many of these places have nuclear weapons (we have facilitated Iran in that regards) the results of that campaign are unthinkable. (The fact that we can’t afford such a campaign should also give us pause.)

Alexander Men was a brave man who gave his life for what he believed in, but the history of his church and his country was against him from the start. My second Russian rep told me that he didn’t think that Russia would change because it was too “Orthodox.” Now everybody knows what he was talking about; the serious question now is what to do about it. Our elites have messed this situation up; we need to look elsewhere for answers.


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