Friday, October 21, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Deep-Seated Spirituality”

*Note: This is the fifth in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.' The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Russia’s Unique History

Millennium Celebration of the
Russian Orthodox Church, 1988

In 1988, Russians celebrated 1000 years of Christianity in their country, a celebration that was a problem for the ruling Communist Party, with its atheist ideology. But the reality of a millennia of Orthodox history could not be ignored in a country with such deep-seated spirituality. The events of 1988 focused on Prince Vladimir and his decision to adopt Christianity as the religion of his realm, and during this period of celebration Mikhail Gorbachev came to the realization that he needed to sever the link between Communist ideology and atheism – a radical decision that went largely unnoticed in the West. The Communist regime was established by Vladimir Lenin as an explicitly atheist system, utilizing Karl Marx’s famous slogan that religion is “the opium of the people.” Gorbachev concluded 70 years later that this was not true, and he passed a law on freedom of conscience and religion that was one of the most progressive laws in the world.

Even before the collapse of Communism, Party leaders realized that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be denied. At times, this realization was grounded in a cynical pragmatism, for example when Joseph Stalin asked Russian Orthodox Church leaders for their help during the dark days of World War Two, after decades of persecuting Orthodox priests and their congregations. Gorbachev’s dramatic change did not appear to be motivated by a desire to manipulate church leaders, like Stalin, but rather by a realization that Russians were deeply spiritual people and that religious people were some of the most loyal, most hard-working citizens in the USSR.

As a Westerner visiting Moscow for the first time in 1990, I was immediately struck by the irony of the Soviet government declaring itself an atheist regime while headquartered in the Kremlin with the magnificent gold-covered, onion-shaped domes of its cathedrals – the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, and the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. Historians tell us that before Moscow was burned down by Russians as Napoleon approached the city in 1812, there were hundreds of churches in the nation’s capitol. Even today, one is struck by the number of active churches in Moscow and scattered across the countryside.

Russia’s Literary Legacy

The greatest of Russian literature, highlighted in the 19th and 20th centuries by the names of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostosevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few of my favorites, is characterized by deep philosophical and religious themes. Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita is an amazing, complex novel written during Stalin’s Great Terror in which Bulgakov uses Satan to prove the existence of God and makes fun of anyone who is silly enough to believe that there is no God.

The Religion of the Communist Party

Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square
Despite the original intention of Bolshevik leaders to create “a new Soviet man and Soviet woman,” who were thoroughly secular, Stalin – a former seminarian – realized that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be ignored so he deliberately attempted to build a “cult of Lenin” as the “Marxist Messiah.” The funeral and subsequent construction of Lenin’s tomb on Red Square were clearly designed to have religious symbolism; the tomb itself was built like an altar. National holidays were created to mirror religious holidays, and celebrations generated by the Communist Party were often made to tap into the religious “DNA” of the Russian people.

Contemporary Attitudes toward Religion

Despite seventy years of the worst persecution of Christianity since the days of the Roman Empire, the deep-seated spirituality of the Russian people has survived. Unlike secularized Western Europe, where there is often open hostility toward any religious beliefs, in today’s Russia there is a great freedom to talk about spiritual issues. In many ways there is a greater freedom in Russia to discuss spiritual issues than there is in the United States, where the “separation of church and state” argument is often used to stifle substantive discussions of religious issues. In the States, religion is acceptable if you keep it private; this kind of privatized religion is less evident in Russia.

According to a poll in late 2006, only fifteen years after the collapse of the atheistic Soviet Union, 84% of Russia’s citizens believe in God. 63% described themselves as Russian Orthodox, 6% Muslim, and 1-2% Protestant. Atheists -- at 16% -- are a clear minority in Russia.

The challenging issues that have yet to be determined in Russian society are as follows:
  • Will different religions and theological traditions be given equal freedom to exist or will the Russian Orthodox Church insist on its primary status as a “national religion,” thereby making all other faiths second-class?
  • Will Islam be allowed to develop without severe restraints from the Russian government?
  • Will Russian spirituality survive the onslaught of Western materialism?

Russia’s “DNA” includes a deep-seated spirituality, but cultures do change. As one of Russia’s most famous pollsters noted a few years back, Russian young people are some of the richest in their society. “They know how to make money.” In addition to their materialism and lack of interest in politics, he also noted that among Russian young people “there is a total absence of any larger ideas or values. . . . They have no concept about any long-lasting values in life.” It is an open question whether or not the spirituality of previous generations will be passed down.

Originally circulated in May 2007

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Giantism”

*Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.' The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Russia’s Unique Geography

Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of area, covering one-eighth of the earth’s inhabited land. The country’s 10,672,000 square miles (17.1 million kilometers) includes the world’s deepest lake and Europe’s highest mountain and longest river. Russia extends 5,625 miles (9,000 kilometers) from east to west and includes eleven time zones. Russia shares its 13,125-mile border with fourteen countries and is only 55 miles across the Bering Straits from its fifteenth neighbor, the United States. Russia’s global position and size contributes to the sense of its rulers and its people that it is a “giant,” a major power in the world, and to a sense of entitlement in terms of international leadership.

A Real-Life Parable
The Church of Christ our Savior
in Moscow
In my judgment, the story of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow captures this sense of “giantism” that is a part of Russia’s DNA. The Cathedral was originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander I on Christmas Day in 1812 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. Its construction near the Kremlin began in 1839 and was completed forty years later. Konstantin Ton, the Cathedral’s architect, used an original neo-Russian design mirrored on the traditional plan of a Russian Orthodox Church, but on an unprecedented scale. When construction was complete, its enormous golden dome was visible from all over central Moscow.

Joseph Stalin, at the peak of his power in the 1930s, decided to destroy the Cathedral and replace it with a new “temple” – the Palace of the Soviets. Stalin’s dream was to erect a giant building that would exceed the height of the Empire State Building in New York, and to top the building with a massive, 100-meter-tall aluminum statue of Lenin. In the middle of one night in 1933, the Cathedral was demolished and preparations for construction of the Palace of the Soviets began.
Palace of Soviets

However, Soviet engineers soon realized that the ground on which the Cathedral was located would not hold a structure of this massive size, and numerous delays ensued as they tried to figure out how to fulfill their dictator’s instructions. With the outbreak of World War Two, there was no time to work on this project and steel was desperately needed for armaments and weapons in the battle against the Nazis. After the war, the plans for the Palace of the Soviets were set aside and a massive outdoor swimming pool was constructed on the site of the Cathedral. I remember visiting this huge outdoor pool in 1990 in the middle of the winter and being impressed by the size and audacity of its creation.

In 1990, with the radical changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church approached the federal government and the city government of Moscow with a proposal to rebuild the Cathedral on its original location and to its original size and design. In the midst of the tumultuous 1990s, despite all of the radical economic and political changes that the Russian Federation was experiencing, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt. By 1995, the foundation of the restored Cathedral was finished; by the following year, the main cupola was restored and the massive golden cross installed. The Cathedral was completed and open for worship in 2000. Once again, the Cathedral is the largest church in Russia and one of the largest in the world.

The rebuilding of the Cathedral was more than just an act of benevolence to the Russian Orthodox Church that had suffered at the hands of the Communist Party, it was also an effort on the part of the government to restore Russian patriotism and to make a statement about the newly restored power of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally of the state. Every facet of this story involves facets of “giantism” -- building the biggest, the largest, the first cathedral of its kind.

But Wait! There’s More…

One of the Kremlin’s most popular tourist sites is Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower, which is said to mark the exact center of Moscow and resemble a burning candle. Completed in 1600, it is 266 feet high and, until the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was the tallest structure in the city. Until 1917, in fact, no buildings were allowed to be taller than the Bell Tower, a law that changed under Soviet rule. Right next to the Bell Tower are the Tsar Bell and the Tsar Canon, two curious monuments to Russian “giantism.” The 16th century canon weighs 40 tons and has an 890 millimeter caliber – but it has never been fired. The 18th century bell, weighing 200 tons, has never been rung. When they were built, these monuments were the biggest cannon and the biggest bell ever constructed -- but they never worked. Why these symbols of Russian non-functioning “giantism” have not been removed, I do not understand. Russians themselves have poked fun of this bell and cannon for decades, and yet, these giants remain, forever a testament to this potent strand of Russia’s DNA.”

The evidence of Russian “giantism” is present everywhere you look, both in Russian history and in contemporary Russia, especially in Moscow. The gigantic size of Russian missiles and nuclear submarines, a Metro system that is the largest in the world, the enormous size of Russian gas and oil corporations – all of these are indicators that Russians pride themselves in the size and strength of their country. This is a part of what it means to be Russian.

Originally circulated in April 2007

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Fear of Anarchy”

*Note: This is the third in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.' The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Russia’s Unique Historical Context

As Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky noted, “Russia is an exceptional place. In the 20th century, over a single lifetime – 70 years – it saw three civilizations. Each of the first two was rejected by its successor, forcing people to renounce their convictions. You can imagine the chaos of ideas and beliefs in their hearts.”

For those of us who have lived in the United States or Western Europe, it is hard to truly understand what it is like to be raised in a historical context like Russia’s. Hundreds of years of oppressive rule by Asiatic Mongol rulers, followed by three hundred years of autocratic rule by the Romanovs, created an historical legacy that is not easily overcome. As one historian wrote, “It is easier to imagine Russia without the people than without a tsar.” For centuries the Russian people have been impoverished, while the ruling dynasty enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle.

When Mongol rule began to collapse and local war lords emerged, the ensuing chaos created an opportunity for change. This period, known as the “Time of Troubles” (1598 to 1613), was a critical time in Russia’s development, and out of this turmoil came not a new political order, but one that resembled the old. The autocratic Romanov dynasty, greatly strengthened by Ivan the Great’s reign, was not unlike that of the preceding Mongolian clans. The fear of more chaos justified the creation of strong centralized rule.

20th Century Russia

The Assassination of Tsar Alexander II
in 1881
As the Romanov dynasty began to implode at the beginning of the 20th century, with increasing numbers of political assassinations, riots in the streets, and the pressures of the First World War for which the nation was not prepared, chaos was the order of the day. Russian nihilists called terrorism “the strength of the powerless,” and many Russian young people became cold-blooded killers, assassinating Tsar Alexander II in 1881, among many others. When, at a trial of terrorists, the prosecutor noted the death of innocent bystanders, the terrorist leader laughed. The prosecutor’s response, repeated throughout Russia for years afterwards, was “When people weep, they laugh.”

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917
Fyodor Dostoyevsky described this period of Russia’s history as “balancing on the edge of the abyss.” The subsequent end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 led to the creation of another regime, another civilization. Vladimir Lenin seized power with the dream of destroying the state only to create an even more ruthless state; he also railed against the Romanov bureaucracy only to create an even more powerful bureaucratic regime. The Bolshevik state created by Lenin was very similar to the ruthless monarchy of Tsar Nicholas I, and Stalin became an Asiatic Napoleon. Fear of chaos led to more autocratic rule, not less.

In 1991, when this second regime imploded – with very few defenders, as happened in 1917 – there was another opportunity for a new order in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the last two rulers of the 20th century, began the path toward freedom that resulted in the dissolution of the USSR. However, building a free society in a context where ruthless autocracy has reigned for centuries is very difficult. The tensions and the risks involved in this kind of radical change eventually drove Boris Yeltsin to seek solace in the bottle and this destroyed his strength and health, for which he was famous. The end of his reign was marked by chaos and corruption. I experienced this anarchy on a personal level when I was robbed by Moscow police at a Metro station in 1995.

Once again, the Russian people sought a strong leader to get them out of chaos and uncertainty. In President Vladimir Putin, they found a modern, young leader who is athletic, hard-working, articulate and self-confident. Stability has been restored and a new sense of a viable future is evident. The fear of chaos has been replaced by another strong Russian state under the control of a very popular Russian leader.

What Does the Future Hold?

The historical legacy of centuries of authoritarian political rule in Russia is an important factor in understanding Russia’s “DNA.” The fear of chaos and instability, especially when viewed together with the geopolitical context of a country that covers eleven time zones and shares borders with fourteen other nations, is important to understand when evaluating Russia’s development. Protecting human rights and political freedom has value to many Russians, but only if the nation’s well-being is secure.

To the surprise of many Western observers, Russia’s new middle class is politically apathetic, but in light of Russia’s history and her “DNA,” it is understandable. Will this situation change in our lifetime? This is an open question, in my judgment, but one thing is clear – it will take a new generation or two before any fundamental shifts occur in this aspect of contemporary Russian society.

Originally circulated in March 2007

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Lack of Trust”

*Note: This is the second in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.'  The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Just Ask the Russians

Recently a poll was taken that included this question: “Would you trust a stranger on a train to look after your bag while you use the toilet?” Probably not, if you are Russian. Seventy per cent of the people who were interviewed in Russia said “No, you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.” Only twenty-five per cent agreed with the statement that “generally most people can be trusted.”

One Russian analyst noted that “when institutions are good, you do not need mutual trust that much” because people know that their agreements are secure and pledges will be enforced. “Our institutions,” she said, “such as the judicial system, are horrible, so we need trust, but trust is nowhere to be found.” In a recent study of Eastern European countries, Russia was one of only two nations where more people said they did not trust “most people in this country” than said they did.

The leaders of SEN, an organization that works with young people in post-Communist Eastern Europe, have observed that the greatest victims of Communism were trust, hope, and the belief in truth. I can confirm this insight based on my years of working in Russia.

The Public/Private Dichotomy

Many foreigners who travel in Russia, especially those from the West, immediately notice the lack of warmth or friendliness on Russian streets. In the Metro, no one talks with strangers. There is little “small talk.” When taking a Russian language class, I asked the tutor which Russian greetings I would use when speaking with a stranger. The tutor looked at me in disbelief and said “Why would you greet someone you don’t know?”

Yet, once you make a friend in Russia, the warmth and cordiality of this friendship is often remarkable. Russian hospitality among friends is extraordinary. Even poor Russians will go to great lengths to host friends, spending money that they can’t afford to spend so that their guests are treated well. In the immediate circles of families and close friends, there is great warmth and trust, but once you move beyond this close-knit circle, there is little trust or willingness to confide in “outsiders.”

This public/private dichotomy has been present in Russia for centuries, and Russian literature is full of illustrations of this dimension of life under the Romanovs as well as in the Soviet period. The ever present secret police accentuated this behavior, because every neighbor was assumed to be an informer. The result is a “closed communication society” in which people developed these characteristics to protect themselves from the “authorities.” This social order persists today and this has impeded public activism and civic engagement. A profound “horizontal” and “vertical” distrust exists at all levels throughout Russia.

The Soviet Legacy

As Francis Fuyukama pointed out in his book, Trust: The Social Virtues & The Creation of Prosperity, culture involves ethical habits and habits change very slowly – much more slowly than ideas. Communism created many habits, such as excessive dependence on the state, which lead to an absence of entrepreneurial energy, an inability to compromise, and a disinclination to cooperate voluntarily in local groups.

One of the most devastating consequences of Marxism-Leninism was the thorough destruction of civil society. The ruling Communist Party elites deliberately set out to destroy all possible competitors to its power, from the “commanding heights” of the economy down to local farms, small businesses, unions, churches, newspapers and voluntary associations. This obliteration, after centuries of absolutism rule by the Romanovs, was of great significance because it created a “missing middle” in Russian society – the complete absence of strong, cohesive intermediate associations. There was the Soviet state, which was very powerful, and many atomized individuals and families with little in between. All of this contributed to the loss of trust.

The Rebuilding Process

Trust creates social capital. A healthy market economy is one in which there is sufficient social capital in society to permit businesses, corporations, and networks to be self-organizing. Without this capability, the state steps in to promote key firms owned by its ruling elites. The same self-organizing capability is needed to rebuild the political life of post-Communist societies, but private companies and political parties are weak in Russia and Eastern Europe because of this legacy. Elections are often based on the personalities of the candidates rather than coherent political programs. Rebuilding trust both vertically and horizontally is a necessary pre-condition to the construction of a dynamic, vibrant society and an expanding economy that benefits the entire nation, not just the elites.

Originally circulated in September 2006