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Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia

by John Garrard

The Prop of the Knout

A review by Leon Aron

Goditsya -- molitsya, a ne goditsya -- gorshki pokryvat. "If it fits, then we'll pray to it. If it doesn't, then we'll cover pots with it." Vissarion Belinsky, the father of "social" literary criticism in Russia, cited this Russian saying about icons in 1847 in his lengthy retort to Gogol's Select Passages in the Correspondence with Friends, in which, among his other sins against the progressive credo of the day, the author of The Inspector General and Dead Souls admired the allegedly innate religiosity of the Russian people. Belinsky's contention seemed to be borne out after 1917 by the savage Bolshevik assault on Orthodoxy, in which thousands of churches were robbed, desecrated, and destroyed, and tens of thousands of priests and monks were tortured and murdered. (One popular mode of winter executions was to push the victims under ice in rivers and lakes; another was to tie them to a stake and pour water over them until they were inside a pillar of ice.) In full view of millions of reputedly fervent Orthodox believers, Lenin did to the Orthodox Church what Stalin, who owed much of his success to an uncanny sense of how far to go at a particular time and in a particular place, did not dare do to the Catholic Church and its priests in occupied Poland after World War II, correctly fearing a popular uprising.

This history may be useful in thinking about Russia's Orthodox renaissance, which this meandering, mistitled and -- despite its earnestness, its erudition, and its deep affinity for the Russian people and their faith -- disappointing book seeks to describe and to explain. Orthodoxy is now all the rage among the Russian elite. The formerly godless KGB and Komsomol graduates who rule the country and own much of it are suddenly gripped by religious fervor. Vladimir Putin kept a small private chapel next to his Kremlin office (I know this from someone whom he invited there), and undoubtedly he now has another one in the government's "White House" building on Novy Arbat. In a series of widely publicized photos from Putin's summer vacation in 2007, an Orthodox cross was featured prominently between the president's bare and mighty pectorals, a rifle with a telescopic sight firmly in his strong hands and a hunting knife dangling from his belt. Following the "National Leader," government officials and industrial "oligarchs" have been endowing religious orders, restoring churches, paying to make and install bells (which were removed and mostly smashed in the Soviet era, when ringing them was a crime), and occasionally repatriating some of the Church's treasures, such as the eighteen brass bells returned to the St. Daniel's Monastery in Moscow this past September from Harvard, where they had been part of the graduation carillon since the early 1930s.

Last May, the president-dauphin Medvedev--to the prime minister-regent Putin, that is -- effectively made the Orthodox prayer part of the presidential inauguration, after he repaired to the oldest of the Kremlin churches and the most hallowed of Russian places of Orthodox worship, the Uspensky (Annunciation) Cathedral, immediately after the swearing-in. There he received blessings from Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II. Medvedev was presented with an icon of Russia's main protectress, the Vladimir Mother of God, and crossed himself in accepting the gift. A public prayer by the president was, of course, in direct violation of the Russian constitution, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion, as it does a "state ideology," but who cares today about Russia's gloriously liberal constitution of 1993 -- a relic of the democratic revolution that is now officially designated as a time of "humiliation" and "chaos"?

The Kremlin that not long ago savagely oppressed now just as extravagantly extols. The Russian state taketh away and, now, giveth back. What else is new? The really important questions are whether the Church is finally moving away from its subservience to the state and, more important still, whether it is undergoing a vitally important transformation (or even "reformation," which it has never had and which some radical priests are calling for), which would enable it to begin to fill the awful spiritual vacuum left in the rubble of communism, and in the process to become a major force for a post-communist moral regeneration, without which no lasting social, political, and even economic progress is likely to occur in Russia. Or will the Orthodox church in Russia continue as a quasi-state religion, perhaps no longer as servile but still inseparable from and subjugated to the state?

On these and other essential matters, the discussion of which is promised by this book's title and, especially, by its subtitle, John Garrard and Carol Garrard touch briefly, if at all, before digressing -- again and again -- into the minutiae of Orthodoxy's (and Russia's) history and ritual, which is fascinating at first, then distracting, but soon, although admirably free of error, numbingly tedious. Among the longest detours are the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905; the 1905 anti-Semitic forgery of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" concocted by the Russian pseudo-priest Sergei Nilus and the political police, the Okhrana, and blessed by Nicholas II; the Orthodox hermit St. Seraphim of Sarov, 1755-1833 (his texts, the story of his canonization, and Nicholas II's and Empress Alexandra's obsession with his teaching); the August 1991 failed putsch; the career of the reportedly militant atheist Yuri Andropov; the complicity of the Orthodox Church of Serbia in the murders of Bosnian Muslims; and how Louis VII of France was like Nicholas II.

Truth in advertising dictates that the volume be re-named, in the manner of old books, something like A Brief History of the Russian Orthodox Church from Its Alleged Founding by St. Peter's Elder Brother, St. Andrew the First-Called, to the End of the Soviet Union, with the Accounts of Its Ritual and Liturgy, Its Struggle with the "Latinized Christianity" of Catholicism, Its Survival Under the Golden Horde, the Moscow Tsars, and Soviet Communism, and a Few Intimations of the Direction It Might Take in Post-Soviet Russia Presented as a Series of Vignettes and as Quotes from the Speeches of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II. Along the way, purplish patches, usually in the descriptions of liturgy and service, are surrounded by a grayish, cliche-ridden prose. Things "slip under the radar," bureaucrats "kiss up and kick down," "problems" are "located in the bosom of the church" and "explode," "full weight" is "thrown against" beliefs, and "legal muscles" are "exercised."

Still, with its genuine enthusiasm for the subject and the sheer volume of information that it provides, the Garrards' book cannot help but furnish several important observations even as it fails to explore them. Among the most forceful of these is how long, painful, and uncertain will be the church's road to becoming a significant force for moral renewal after the devastation visited by totalitarian atheism. While 82 percent of Russians may consider themselves Orthodox Christians -- the Russian word for peasant, krestyanin, is derived from khristianin, or Christian -- only 10 percent go to church at least once a month, and only 15 percent celebrate main holidays, and barely over half (54 percent) "trust" the church. The damaging and unusable past extends far beyond 1917 to the time when Peter I deprived the church of the last vestiges of independence in 1721, abolished the secrecy of confession, established the Synod as the state department led by the senior procurator, and made priests salaried civil servants. Some notable cases of heroic dissent aside, it is hard not to agree with Belinsky that, as a whole, the "Orthodox Church has always served as the prop of the knout and the servant of despotism."

The complete infiltration of the church by the KGB was never a secret -- the so-called Council for Religious Affairs, which cleared all clerical appointments, was the Fourth Department of the KGB's Fifth Directorate -- but the Garrards' disclosure that in 1988 Alexy II received a KGB certificate of appreciation (gramota) to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his service in the agency -- this does come as a bit of a shock. (Alexey Ridiger, who grew up in Tallin, was recruited by the Estonian branch of the KGB in 1958, within a month of his twenty-ninth birthday. A spectacularly swift rise in the Orthodox hierarchy followed.) Seeing on the front cover the photograph, taken in 2006, of Alexy about to plant on Putin's lips the kind of hearty male-on-male baiser perfected by Khrushchev and Brezhnev, one is tempted to conclude that sealed with that kiss was not just the camaraderie of these two KGB veterans but also the church's reversion to its customary role as an obedient servant of Russian authoritarianism.

Such a conclusion, the Garrards seem to argue, would be premature. They may be right. At the very least, a case might be made for the possibility of an alternate direction. Alexy has appealed for the "cleansing and restoration" of the church, and the church has softly but persistently called for a full confrontation with the horrors of the Soviet past. At least 1,500 of the bishops, priests, monks, and lay believers who were tortured and killed for their faith under the Soviet regime have been canonized as "new martyrs" (novomucheniki), and Alexy himself celebrated a Divine Liturgy in their memory in one of Russia's many dozens of killing fields, the former artillery range in Butovo, near Moscow, where tens of thousands were executed between 1937 and 1953. And there are other hopeful signs, such as the plea by a group of experts around Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad for the faithful to engage "in morally oriented social action" and to defend "human rights and freedoms"; and the statement of the Moscow Patriarchate that the "condemnation of communism," begun in the 1990s, had been "left unfinished," and that honoring the memory of the victims required removing monuments to "murderous leaders" from center squares of Russia's towns and "the Kremlin wall".

Alas, this book seems incapable of sustaining a line of reasoning for more than half a page, and keeps lapsing into a hodgepodge of anecdotes and historical set pieces. Among the many lines of thought started, abruptly abandoned, and then brought up again in its pages, the case for Alexy II as the church's (and Russia's) great hope for repentance, redemption, and moral rebirth is among the least convincing. The old trimmer -- who died a few weeks ago, less than three months before his eightieth birthday and who is reported by the Garrards to have been particularly effective in the Soviet "peace campaign" in the early 1980s, instilling the gullible and ignorant priests from the World Council of Churches with a firm belief in the freedom of religion in the Soviet Union -- is endowed by the authors with an almost supernatural tactical and strategic genius. His feats of politicking are compared to those of Hannibal at Cannae. His "strokes" are invariably "brilliant"; he "pulls off bloodless coups"; he is "adroit" and a "masterful manipulator." His cautious statement against "violence" during the August 1991 contest of wills between Yeltsin and the neo-communist reactionaries is said to have been central to the revolution's victory. The patriarch's pinning of the Order of St. Prince Daniel of Moscow, which he invented, on the top government officials and the military brass is portrayed as an irresistibly clever exercise of "soft power." (Putin reciprocated by awarding the patriarch the Order for Services to the Fatherland, First degree.)

In their epilogue, or at least in its first four pages, the Garrards appear to summarize their view of the church's evolution and aspirations before dissolving into the history of the Russian flag and the saga of John the Baptist's right hand, recently returned to Russia for worship among other newly recovered relics. Here we learn that Alexy "consistently" stated that he did not want Orthodoxy to become the state religion, because "sooner or later the church would become a department of the State." Yes, and...? Is there anything in the church's annals consonant with this bold declaration? We need more evidence! But here, too, we get more lists, quotes, anecdotes, none with anywhere near the power needed to corroborate, or at least put into a plausible context, so startling a statement. Thus the book's claims that the church "has come to reshape post-Soviet Russia," and that it has switched from the "defensive stance to the more complex structure of an offensive power" ("based, " to be sure, on "soft" rather than "hard" power); and that, most crucially, the church, which the authors correctly describe as only recently "despised and supine," itself has been "transformed" by Alexy and is well on the way to a future where "to be Russian and to be Orthodox is one and the same" -- all this optimism seems wildly premature, and almost fantastic.

Far more real than Alexy's lone protestation is the danger of the Orthodox Church reverting to its historic form of a state faith, praying for Putin's "sovereign democracy" as it has prayed for the Golden Horde, and for Stalin, and for the post-1953 Soviet state. The effective monopoly over the armed forces, where there will soon be more Muslims than Orthodox, and the classes in Orthodox Christianity that are now being made mandatory in many regions of the country, are not good omens. (In August 2007, Russia's Council of Muftis issued a statement opposing the possible introduction of such a course in all Russian schools.)

Most disappointingly, there is no sign that the church under Alexy has begun in any significant way to infuse Russia with the spirit of what must be one of the Orthodox canon's most striking and hopeful sayings, attributed to the canonized thirteenth-century prince Alexander Nevsky, the vanquisher of the Teutonic Knights and the subject of a great 1938 propaganda film by Eisenstein with a stirring score by Prokofiev: Ne v sile Bog, a v pravde -- "Not in might is God, but in truth." Instead, what Alexy said after receiving the Order of the Fatherland from Putin seems far truer of the church's intentions under his stewardship: "We educate our believers in the spirit of respect to the authorities, love of the Motherland, and aspiration to peace and accord." Or: not in truth, but in might.

Leon Aron is the author of the first full-length scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, and Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006, published by the AEI Press in 2007. He is currently working on a book about the ideas and ideals that inspired and shaped the latest Russian revolution (1987-1991).


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