I know no Russian who has any knowledge of Russia’s representation in Britain who is not strongly critical of it. I too am depressed by it, specifically because I think that it is intellectually and morally demeaning, and counter-productive to a dangerous degree.
-Dr Catherine Brown
I could not agree more with these words. They describe the sentiments held by all of my Russian friends, of all religious persuasions, and of all political persuasions. Of my Russian friends–only three of whom are from Moscow, and none of whom are active members of Putin’s political party– all of them nonetheless strongly support President Putin’s policies, believe he has had a strongly positive impact on their country’s economic development, and believe that Crimea, historically part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev drunkenly signed it over to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, is now rightfully once again part of nasha strana.
Noted British professor, author, and academic Dr Catherine Brown recently published a superb essay “Deconstructing Russophobia” on her blog. By her own admission, Dr Brown has “no ethnic, financial, professional or political ties to Russia whatsoever. It follows that I am not a Russian expert – but nor am I, on the other hand, parti pris. I am a friendly, distanced observer of the country.” This is the way I would describe my own godmother, a lifelong Russianist who has no ties to Russia save her abiding interest in the pre-Soviet Tsarist period, especially its magnificent artistic, cultural, and religious heritage.
Dr Brown, while not claiming herself to be “a Russian expert”, is nonetheless immensely qualified from her decades of direct experience with all matters Russian to write on the topic. Her academic resume is of the highest calibre:
My academic position is as Senior Lecturer and Convenor (Head of Department) of English at New College of the Humanities in London.
I took a BA in English Literature at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, then an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the London School of Economics. I lived in New York and Moscow, and learned Spanish and Russian, before coming back to literary academia with an MA in Comparative Literature at University College London, and a PhD at Caius College Cambridge as an Anglo-Russian comparatist.
I taught English at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Greenwich, before starting in my current position in London in 2012.
Dr Brown begins her essay by reeling in her readers with a gentle yet damning satire of the ongoing idiotic British and American narrative of Putin as a tyrant and thug:
Imagine that Vladimir Putin were not a murderous autocrat and kleptocrat who has spent his fourteen years in power living up to his KGB past and dragging Russia ever back towards Communist autocracy, illiberalism, and expansionism. Imagine that instead he were the one of the greatest leaders that Russia has had, whose policies have helped produce a massive rise in living standards and life expectancy, recuperation of national pride, and enforcement of the rule of law, who has tackled kleptocrats and gangsters wisely and well, whose foreign policy has on balance been realistic, diplomatic, and conducive to peace, who has presided over a country of which the human rights record is considerably better than that of the United States and in which civil rights are improving, and who richly deserves the steady support of 65% – currently at a Ukraine-related high of 83% – of the population that he possesses. It is my understanding that the reality is closer to the second scenario than the first…
Dr Brown notes that, since the early 2000s, she has noticed a steady improvement in the conditions of life for ordinary Russians under Putin’s tenure as President and then Prime Minister:
A year later, on a visit, the situation was slightly better. The most extravagant misery was no longer apparent. A year later, better still. And that has been the consistent pattern on all my visits since then. Capitalism has been getting its gloves back on. Public facilities are in a much better state. Nothing is sold in dollars and Western brands have Russian rivals. A sensible tax structure means that businesses and salaried employees can and do pay their taxes. One sees no-one drunk in public. Muscovite women no longer exaggerate their femininity in a way which testifies to financial insecurity and a strenuous imitation of a pornographically-imagined West. And most reassuringly of all, to Westerners used to this custom, people have begun to smile. Even the hardest cases – the babushki guarding the museum rooms, and the border guards at passport control – will now return a smile. Last year, for the first time, I felt that Russia was in a new phase – the post-post-Soviet, in which people are no longer waiting for normality to be re-established, or yearning to live in a ‘normal’ country. A new normality, and a new optimism, have emerged.
Dr Brown also notes how the Western condemnation of the Russian government’s prosecution of activist group Pussy Riot for their “punk prayer” on the solea of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was both grossly inaccurate and flagrantly hypocritical. She also observes how Pussy Riot are anything but a legitimate musical band or decent political activist group, noting that prior to their desecration of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, they had done even more offensive things in public to attract attention:
In certain respects the operation of the Russian law is more lenient than the British. Prior to their ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, members of Pussy Riot had performed public sex in a museum, and thrown live cats at workers in a McDonalds restaurant. In Britain such acts could have resulted in prison sentences of at least two years, whereas in Russia they were not prosecuted at all. One reason why Pussy Riot were prosecuted for their ‘punk prayer’ was that it disrupted and parodied a religious act of worship, which is specifically prohibited under Russian (as also British) law, and which is particularly comprehensible in a country with a history of state persecution of religion.
Dr Brown goes on to note how the Russian human rights record is far superior to that of the United States, with Russia incarcerating fewer prisoners, the death penalty no longer practiced at all there, and Russia not allowing its President to “authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial” as the United States has done since the authorization of the Patriot Act.
Let us compare Russia to the United States (China being of course much worse than both). The US has around 730 to Russia’s 598 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. It uses the death penalty, executes minors, and empowers its President to authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial. Russia does none of these things. The US government has significantly curtailed Americans’ civil liberties under the Patriot Act, extensively spies on the media activities of its own and other countries’ citizens, and detains hundreds of people without trial in an international network of secret prisons. Russians’ civil liberates are now more strongly guaranteed by law than are Americans’; there is no evidence or suggestion that Russia kidnaps individuals abroad or outsources torture, nor that it runs a torture camp resembling Guantanamo Bay, nor that the FSB spies on Russian citizens to anything near the extent that the NSA spies on Americans, let alone on foreigners. In this respect – the extent of spying on their own citizens – Russia and the US have changed places since the end of the Soviet Union.
Dr Brown’s essay is refreshing in that she analyses Western media’s biases against Russia from a purely secular perspective. Thus, her analysis appeals to the majority of Russian scholars in Britain and the United States who are not Orthodox. Nonetheless, I think her essay would have befitted from one additional area of analysis: religious identity. This is a core difference between American and British civilization and Russian civilization. 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, void 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’ («Спаси тебя/вас Бог» means, literally, “God save you” ). 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.