(3) A March 17 article from the Wall Street Journal on “The Russian World”
“Russian World” Is the Civil Religion Behind Putin’s War (link)
The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church see Ukraine as part of a cultural dominion to be protected from the values of an encroaching West
By Francis X. Rocca, Wall Street Journal
March 17, 2022
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently described the war in Ukraine as nothing less than an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil.
Its outcome, he said, will determine “where humanity will end up, on which side of God the Savior.”
Some Ukrainians—those whom President Vladimir Putin claims Russia is liberating with its invasion—have rejected “the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power,” the patriarch explained.
Those values are exemplified by gay pride parades, he said, which serve as admissions tests “to enter the club of those countries,” by implication the European Union and more broadly the West.
The Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active role in forging the ideology that undergirds Mr. Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.
It is a worldview that holds the Kremlin to be the defender of Russia’s Christian civilization, and therefore justified in seeking to dominate the countries of the former Soviet Union and Russian empire.
According to the Rev. Cyril Hovorun, a Ukrainian-born theologian and former adviser to Patriarch Kirill, these ideas emerged in the aftermath of communism’s collapse, when the Russian state sought to fill an ideological void at the same time that the long-persecuted Russian Orthodox Church asserted itself in a newly open public square.
That confluence of interests inspired what Sergei Chapnin, a former official of the Moscow Patriarchate, calls the “post-Soviet civil religion”: the concept of Russkiy mir (“Russian world”).
The term dates back to the 11th century, referring to the East Slavic lands that included much of today’s Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. According to a 2015 article by Marlene Laruelle, a political scientist at George Washington University, the modern usage of Russkiy mir was introduced in 1999 by writers at a Kremlin-associated think tank to mean the whole Russian-speaking world, including Russians living abroad.
Mr. Putin, who became president the next year, invoked the term in 2014 to justify the annexation of Crimea, which he said reflected the “aspiration of the Russian world, of historical Russia, to re-establish unity.”
For Mr. Putin, Russkiy mir refers to Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence, which includes the territories of the former Soviet Union and the Russian empire before it.
“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space,” Mr. Putin said on Feb. 21, three days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church embraced the term and lent it a religious character, within which Ukraine also played a special role.
The Russian Orthodox Church traces its origins to the 10th-century mass conversion in Kyiv known as the Baptism of Rus’.
In Ukraine, however, the religious conception of Russkiy mir, like the political one, has encountered resistance.
Many of the country’s Orthodox believers belong to a Russian-led Orthodox Church, but the country is also home to a sizable Catholic community as well as a Ukrainian Orthodox Church that has sought autonomy from Moscow.
In 2019, the global Eastern Orthodox Church’s spiritual leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, granted that autonomy.
The decision led to a serious schism within the Eastern Orthodox world.
Different national churches have taken sides with Moscow or Constantinople.
Patriarch Kirill has suspended communion with Patriarch Bartholomew and lamented that the latter is now helping to “mentally remake Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine into enemies of Russia.”
Mr. Putin accused Patriarch Bartholomew of doing the bidding of Washington.
Inside Russia, Russkiy mir has found deep religious resonance, especially in the military.
According to Dmitry Adamsky, an expert on the Russian military and professor at Reichman University in Israel, Orthodox clergy build troop morale and encourage patriotism.
Each of the three parts of Russia’s nuclear force structure—land, sea and air—has received a patron saint.
The church has also enthusiastically promoted Russia’s role in Syria’s civil war as a crusade to protect Christian minorities, Mr. Adamsky said.
The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed forces near Moscow, consecrated in 2020, furnishes a spectacular display of the fusion of the military and the religious. The cathedral commemorates Russian military action, above all in World War II—its floors are paved with metal from melted-down German weapons and tanks—but also in more recent conflicts in Georgia, Crimea and Syria.
Russia’s official National Security Strategy, approved by Mr. Putin last year, devotes several pages to “the defense of traditional Russian spiritual-moral values, culture and historical memory.”
According to a study for NATO Defense College by Julian Cooper, a British scholar, the values in question are a mostly generic list including life, dignity, patriotism and strong families, but they are framed in contrast to those of the West, which encroach on Russia’s “cultural sovereignty.”
In a speech last fall, Mr. Putin deplored what he identified as prevalent cultural trends in Western Europe and the U.S., including transgenderism and “cancel culture.”
“We have a different viewpoint,” Mr. Putin said. “We believe that we must rely on our own spiritual values, our historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation.”
The Kremlin and the patriarchate have framed Ukraine’s western ties and aspirations for membership in the EU and NATO not only as a geopolitical concern but as a threat to the spiritual integrity of Russkiy mir, according to Regina Elsner, a theologian and researcher at Berlin’s Center for East European and International Studies.
A video posted last month on the website of the World Russian People’s Council, a Moscow think tank headed by Patriarch Kirill, makes the connection explicit: “If the actions of our president to recognize [separatist regions in the Donbas] relate to the political, military sovereignty of Russia—that is, we are trying to stop the advancement of NATO, missiles on our borders—then the moral problems associated with the protection of traditional values are aligned, and they are no less important than political and military aspects.”
Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for Patriarch Kirill, responded to a request for comment by affirming the religious unity of the “Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian nations” and stating that “the Russian Orthodox Church prays every day for the restoration of peace.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be undermining the very ideology that inspired it, however, by dividing the people it purports to unite.
Since the invasion, some of the Orthodox clergy in Ukraine affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate have ceased to pray for Patriarch Kirill during their liturgies to protest his support for the war, and some clergy have spoken of withdrawing their allegiance to Moscow.
According to Kristina Stoeckl, a professor of sociology at the University of Innsbruck, the war undermines Mr. Putin’s campaign for traditional values, which had drawn the support and admiration of some conservative Christians in the West.
Or as Olivier Roy, a French political scientist, put it in a recent interview: “Putin sacrificed all the soft power he had acquired over the last 20 years, which allowed him to be a global player, for a purely territorial vision of Russian power.”
Write to Francis X. Rocca at [email protected]
(4) Article from La Civiltà Cattolica from one year ago, March 24, 2021
“Russia resists the cultural influence of the postmodern West and rejects its values not because it is so different from the West; indeed, in many ways it is much more similar to the modern West than Russian political and religious elites would like to be. Russia, however, as has been stated has experienced the process from premodern to postmodern dismemberment and individualization of society differently from the West. It never fully embraced the modern, and some strata of what was still an archaic society were forced to accept what is now called postmodern, first violently by the Bolsheviks, and then, in the period of perestroika, by the powerful who wanted to reshape the nation on the Western model.” —Father Vladimir Pachkov, S.J., a Catholic priest who lives and teaches in Moscow, in an article in the Rome Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, dated March 24, 2021, almost exactly one year ago — so, well before the beginning of this present conflict on February 24, 2022, four weeks ago…
“This is why Russia is resistant to any attempt to promote postmodern values.” —Ibid.
The West and Russia: Why do we not understand each other? (link)
By Vladimir Pachkov, SJ / Politics / 24 March 2021
Cultural roots of a confrontation
After the end of the Soviet Union, both the pro-Western Russian elite and the vast majority of the population harbored the hope of becoming part of the Western community, or rather, of becoming part of Europe again, after having traveled their own path since the October Revolution.
There was a belief that this would be a natural path for Russia.
However, after all the vacillating of the 1990s, it became clear during Vladimir Putin’s second term that this path was by no means a foregone conclusion.
Europe did not want Russia, and Russia no longer wanted to bind itself to contemporary Europe and its values. Both were mutually disappointed; they had a false image and false expectations of each other.
Europe, as well as the West in general, was convinced that with the overcoming of the Cold War the “end of history” had arrived and that the rest of the world, including Russia, would follow the Western model.
In Russia, however, hopes of being readmitted into the circle of European states proved illusory, not only because the nation was, in fact, far less “European” than had been imagined, but also because Europe, since the beginning of the 20th century, had changed considerably.
The two main cultural currents that connected Russia with Europe – the labor movement and bourgeois culture, with its humanistic education and historical consciousness – had dissolved and were replaced by a completely different current.
The transition from modernity to postmodernity, which in Europe and the United States took place between the 1960s and 1980s, arrived in Russia with perestroika, but was quickly rejected.
Russia has therefore once again become a bastion of conservatism.
Just as in the 19th century when it was the stronghold of conservative forces in Europe, so too today it is the nation that opposes the dominant ideology in the West.
It is even seen as the driving force behind European right-wing movements and those current governments in Eastern Europe, which are also generally considered right-wing.
On what does this depend? Does it imply a real, historically based ideological and spiritual affinity?
The division between the West and Russia not only has political and geostrategic bases, but, as the German publicist and philosopher HaukeRitz wrote in a scholarly essay for the Oriental Institute in Wismar, it also has a cultural dimension.
The reason lies in the fact that Russia and Europe have different worldviews, despite their historical, geographical and cultural proximity.
That conflicts between neighbors are easily triggered is clearly seen in the differing reactions of Western elites when deviations from Western standards occur in the United States, Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland), Turkey, Russia, or China and Saudi Arabia.
If in the case of Eastern Europe it is a question of safeguarding the unity of the European Union – and this is understandable – in the case of the United States the reaction to Trump’s election has shown that the slightest deviation from ideological unity was not tolerated at home.
Turkey and Russia, as different as they may be, are judged by the same criteria.
They are not the West, and yet they are expected to orient themselves to Western values; and if they do not, it becomes necessary to take action against them.
However, the same is not true in the case of China and Saudi Arabia.
The fact that in the West there is practically no criticism by governments of issues concerning human rights and religious freedom in Saudi Arabia probably depends not only on economic interest, but also on the fact that this nation is considered as “different,” as part of the Muslim world, which has its own laws.
This concession is not made to Russia.
Yet members of the current Russian elite, particularly Putin, consider themselves the “true Europeans” and guardians of European civilization, which today has been replaced by multiculturalism.
So, is Russia really an “authentic Europe”?
And is Putin “the authentic European,” as he wants to appear in the eyes of conservative movements in Europe?
Or is the reference to traditional European values just rhetoric for the Kremlin, and is Russia not a “real Europe” but, at least as far as economic and political elites are concerned, part of the postmodern globalized world where patriotism and faith in ancient values are left to simple citizens?
The postmodernity of the West and the reaction in Russia
It is said that in the West “modernity” has been replaced by “postmodernity,” whose values Russia – along with Turkey and many other non-Western countries – does not want to accept.
By the term “postmodernity” we are not referring here to philosophical debates, which have nothing to do with Russia, but to political and social factors and their consequences.
In his essay, Ritz states that “postmodernity” was created as a response and an alternative to communist postmodernism.
While Russia since the French Revolution has taken up fraternity and equality, the West has focused on liberty.
This process was intentionally carried out during the “Cold War” in order to create an alternative non-communist left.
It is undeniable, in fact, that the development of the non-communist left movement in the West must be understood as a reaction to communism.
In 1950 the “Congress for Cultural Freedom” was founded in Paris, with the task of directing cultural policy in Western Europe, in order to reduce the influence of the Eastern bloc in that area.
From that Congress were born, in West Germany, Britain and Italy, networks of intellectuals and artists who quickly exerted their influence in their own countries.
Ritz states that “the leftist discourses and debates of that time were analyzed minutely.”
A number of themes that could be borrowed from communism were brought forward: the critique of racism, the emancipation of women, the struggle for minority rights, the protest against environmental destruction, and sexual freedom.
The German publicist writes: “By the 1980s, the non-communist left in Europe had become so strong that it created a new guiding culture. At the same time, there had been a weakening and finally a collapse of the labor movement. The more this lost its traditional role, the more the Soviet Union lost its chance of culturally influencing Western Europe.”
If one admits that, at least in part, it is true that the emergence of cultural postmodernity is linked to the contrast with communism, one can understand how postmodernity does not have universal appeal and how outside Western culture it is rejected.
This is the case in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, but also in the Islamic world.
This, however, differed from the attitude towards the influence the West had in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when some of the achievements of European modernism – such as secularism and parliamentary democracy – were also embraced by non-European countries.
Ritz argues that it was much more difficult to transfer the values of postmodernity to other cultures because, “since postmodernity was born during the Cold War, the unambiguous reference to the values of the French Revolution became fundamental to its value system.”
Thus the West has developed a culture that is based on only a relatively small part of the European tradition, abandoning all those aspects of the Enlightenment that in the Cold War had been claimed by socialism.
European culture and Russia in history
From a historical point of view, since Peter the Great, Russia has been part of the European cultural milieu.
The peak of this development was reached in the period from the reign of Catherine the Great until the beginning of the 20th century.
In the 19th it seemed that there was a sense of the unity of the European continent that included Russia.
It cannot be denied that Russian artists, writers and scientists played an important role in the development of European art, literature, music and science in that century.
And, likewise, the influence of European culture on Russia was also considerable.
It could be said that almost all spiritual currents, from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th, found an echo in Russia, although they resonated here in a different way than in Western Europe.
This can be seen in the case of Marxism.
More importantly, the apparent unity of the European continent manifested itself in Russia only at the level of the elite.
The ideas that came from Europe never reached the Russian peasants, workers, or even the petty bourgeoisie.
An example of the cultural unity of the European continent in the early 20th century is to be found in what Thomas Mann describes in his novel The Magic Mountain (1924), in the international setting of a Swiss sanatorium.
When one speaks of a sanatorium in Switzerland or the south of France, one can still think today, as in Mann’s time, that the unity of Europe has never been lost.
However, today as more than 100 years ago, only a few can be part of it, at least as far as the people of Russia are concerned.
The October Revolution and the subsequent civil war eliminated that thin layer of European- leaning elites that acted as a bridge between the Western and Russian worlds, worlds that were very different.
The communists, however, did not want to distance Russia from Europe: they wanted the nation to participate in European development, but according to Marxist ideology.
They wished to achieve by force what Peter the Great had wished to achieve with the mass of Russians who were not Europeans, trying to make them become such.
They took Germany and the United States as models.
However, the only concrete result they achieved was to destroy traditional Russia.
As early as the 1920s, the Russians tried to do what is called in Europe the “deconstruction” of culture, that is, to replace traditional culture with a completely new one.
The leaders came to power in an agricultural environment that was rich in so much potential, but backward.
The difference between cities and villages in Russia at that time – as well as in many places today – can be compared to the gap between the commercial cities and inland areas of China.
Before the Revolution, the cities of Russia, both culturally and economically, were examples of modern industrial society, but in the countryside – where more than 70 percent of the population lived – archaic conditions often prevailed.
Even more serious was the fact that in Russia, at the beginning of the 1920s, as a consequence of the civil war, the city had practically disappeared: industry had been destroyed, the workers had returned to the villages, the bourgeoisie and the nobility, as well as the old intelligentsia, had been eliminated.
Now, in a land of peasants, the Bolsheviks had the task of building socialism, which, according to Marxist theory, could only be developed in a modern industrial society.
They could only achieve the modernization they needed for their own purposes by force.
With Stalinist collectivization and industrialization, the old Russian village world was destroyed along with its values.
After the October Revolution, Russia in many ways anticipated what would happen in Europe after World War II.
Decolonization progressed, along with the assertion that the former Russian dominant culture was reactionary and obsolete.
The Church was removed from public space.
However, unlike the situation in the countries of Europe, a clearly defined ideology was imposed on society in the Soviet Union.
Traditional values were replaced by new values, but only a few took them seriously.
The communist ideology succeeded in unifying society only briefly and superficially, and was destroyed in the period of perestroika and the 1990s.
After this second “deconstruction,” Russian society found itself spiritually facing the abyss.
This is how one can explain the current paradox: the fact that Russia, closer to postmodern Europe than it ever was, is certainly much more European than before the 1917 Revolution.
Two “deconstructions” in a century were enough to discredit the belief that there could be a “true” ideology in Russian society.
All authority disappeared.
Egoism and self-pity took their place, even to a greater extent than self-realization.
Society threatened to implode.
The immediate consequences of this total collapse of values have been the severe economic crisis and the selling off of state assets to a few “new style of billionaires,” who have declared themselves the “new elite,” feeling more at home in New York or London than in their native country.
After the collapse of the communist ideology – which was an attempt to artificially replace the lack of meaning in modern society – Russia was left without any driving idea.
The characteristic of postmodernism, namely, the lack of a coherent system of values and beliefs, became a reality.
The consequences were a hedonistic ethic promoting unlimited self-realization and the profession of faith in personal freedom.
From pro-Western orientation to traditional values
Already in the 1990s, attempts were made to halt this process.
But neither the Orthodox Church nor the patriotic nationalist movements were strong enough.
However, they created in the country the atmosphere that led in 2003 to the election of Putin, and also to the victory of the United Russia Party, which presented itself as patriotic and traditional.
This delivered President Putin considerable support even in Parliament, resulting in a volte-face from pro-Western orientation to traditional values.
This was not only the result of political tensions with the West, but above all the conscious decision to create a new state ideology, based more on patriotism than on individual freedom and liberalism.
This new ideology thrives on patriotism and traditional values, endorsed by the Orthodox Church.
But has it really succeeded in permeating Russian society?
Only in part.
The Church currently enjoys a great deal of credibility: according to a 2016 Levada Center poll, 60 percent of citizens surveyed acknowledged that state policy is influenced by the Church, and only 31 percent said they live in a secular state.
However, this conviction remains only theoretical when it comes to decisions that people must make for their own lives.
How little real influence the Church has can be seen in the issue of abortion.
The Orthodox Church strives to prevent abortion being funded with public money, but these attempts are consistently rejected by parliament.
The Ministry of Health has explained that if the state stopped reimbursing the cost of abortions, it would lead to discrimination.
At the same time, the government is trying – in vain – to increase the birth rate with economic subsidies, expansion of childcare, and so on, but it does not want to limit abortions: in 2017, 648,000 were performed.
The institution of the family is still very weak; the number of divorces is very high.
In 2017, out of one million marriages 600,000 ended in divorce.
Rampant corruption is also a sign that, despite the rhetoric, many citizens consider their own interests much more important than those of the state and the people.
The same goes for consumerism – luxury cars, expensive vacations in exotic countries, etc. – which is an expression of individualism rather than collectivism and solidarity with the many less well-off citizens.
Russia resists the cultural influence of the postmodern West and rejects its values not because it is so different from the West; indeed, in many ways it is much more similar to the modern West than Russian political and religious elites would like to be.
Russia, however, as has been stated has experienced the process from premodern to postmodern dismemberment and individualization of society differently from the West.
It never fully embraced the modern, and some strata of what was still an archaic society were forced to accept what is now called postmodern, first violently by the Bolsheviks, and then, in the period of perestroika, by the powerful who wanted to reshape the nation on the Western model.
Glasnost was nothing more than socialist postmodernity, the deconstruction of actually existing socialism.
Individualism and loss of identity occurred in Russia much more dramatically than in the West, because the process was violent and unnatural, and because society, which had already lost its values and structures during the 20th century socialist experiment, was forced into it.
At the end of the last century Russia found itself facing the abyss, and only the instinct of self-preservation prevented it from taking the last step over the edge.
Attempts were then made to halt the process and restore traditional values and structures, such as the family, religion and social solidarity.
This is why Russia is resistant to any attempt to promote postmodern values.
This can be seen in the contrast that occurs with regard to the issue of homosexuality, between the right of the Church to determine, at least in its own sphere, how one should behave (the case of Pussy Riot) and the sovereignty of the state, with attempts to place the problem under the influence of supra-state structures.
The memory of the Soviet Union, which reduced Russia to a “territory” on par with the other Soviet Republics, is still too vivid. The Russian Federation was the only one of the republics of the USSR that did not have its own communist party, which at the time meant not having its own government.
The current reaction is an attempt to find Russia’s identity and protect it.
“The disintegration of collective identities that postmodernism seeks has been rejected by Russia, which has cultivated at least some of these identities: for example, the national one, with the military parade that takes place every year on May 9 on Red Square. The collective identity of church membership also plays an important role in the country today and is publicly supported. Rather than individual rights, Russian cultural policy today is based on those of the family, thus striving to overcome the country’s demographic problems as well. Finally, Russia seeks to remain faithful to its 19th century cultural heritage. Art, literature and philosophy play a much more important role in public life in Russia than in the states of the European Union or the United States. In contrast, courses on postmodern topics – such as gender studies – are practically non-existent in Russian universities.”
All this is the result of a state policy supported by a large part of the population, which seeks to overcome the consequences of the two “deconstructions” of the 20th century.
It is a policy with significant support, but will it succeed?
This is a question that remains open.
With regard to Russia’s ties with the Eastern European countries, it is possible to recognize a certain spiritual closeness between them, which is based on the fact that they must each process the legacy of communist “deconstruction,” which sought to destroy their traditional societies.
The perspective on Russia’s development we have outlined can of course be questioned.
Is it not contrived and exaggerated to try to explain what is happening in Russia employing such concepts as “postmodernism” or “deconstruction” that come from the West and can be applied to the West? This objection is plausible.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that the entire evolutionary process of Russia, since the time of Peter the Great, has been characterized by borrowing Western ideas.
This process was discontinuous, fragile, and promoted from above by elites who were inspired by Western ideas, including the Bolsheviks and Mikhail Gorbachev.
These attempts at modernization, as well as the structures and ideas to which traditional Russian society was effectively forced, led to the consequences we have described.
Having failed to integrate the West’s heritage of ideas, Russia has lived forcibly under its influence.
Today’s Russian politics is a reaction to all this and also reflects the fragmenting of Russian society throughout history.
“Russia’s modernization did not take place as a process that involved the entire society, as in the West, but in an alternation of prolonged periods of stability and brief pushes for modernization, which did not present themselves as natural, evolutionary developments, but as radical, revolutionary ruptures.”
And if today the Russian ruling elite, in order to maintain power, emphasizes the differences with the West, this claim of Russia’s “special path,” as a kind of contrary reaction, only shows how strongly the country has suffered, and continues to suffer, the cultural influence of the West.
Communism took up and transformed many concepts that existed in Russia even before the October Revolution – those of a powerful empire, of collectivity, of nationalism – and has re-proposed them using new, modern ideas borrowed from abroad.
Now Russia tries to remain loyal to its tradition, and it retains of Soviet heritage only what corresponds to the ancient Russian tradition.
That is why the current Russian state still retains many features of the totalitarian order.
The predominance of politics over economics, of the state over society, and of political will over economic interests can be traced back to this heritage rather than to Western influence.
But there is a tendency to conceal this.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that Russia has much in common with the West: the crisis of the family, the demographic crisis, the crisis of values and religion.
The attempt of the Russian elite – unlike the more liberal elites of the West – to overcome these problems by strengthening the “traditional values” of family, religion and patriotism has made the country stand as a sort of counterpoint to the modern value system of the West.
And this must be taken into account if one wants to understand the contradictions in Russia itself and in its relations with the West.