Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russians Caught Between Post-Imperial and Russian Identities, Orthodox Editor Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 10 – Russians today find themselves between a very real post-imperial identity and an ethnic Russian one, a situation in which they find it difficult if not impossible to define themselves or to consider their country or their nation in a positive way, according to the editor of the leading Russian Orthodox journal.

In an article posted on polit.ru based on a presentation he made to the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in April, Sergey Chapnin, the editor of the “Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate,” argues that these difficulties show that Russians routinely use the wrong terms to describe the reality surrounding them (www.polit.ru/country/2011/05/05/culture.html).

On the one hand, the editor says, Russians very much want to describe the world in which they live as Russian. But on the other, they continue to live in a post-Soviet one, a world that is “not a ‘frozen’ post-Soviet one, but rather an actively developing one,” even 20 years after the collapse of the USSR.

The values of post-Soviet culture, he continues, are “extremely contradictory and do not form a single picture.” Instead, they are so contradictory that “we have lost the ability to speak about ourselves, our ancestors and one another in a positive fashion and to create convincing and attractive models.”

As a result, “neither in high culture, nor in its mass variant is there any positive model of contemporary Russia. We do not like ourselves and we do not respect one another. An integral model of the present is lacking. The image of the past is mythologized … [and] there is no clear model of our future.”

As a result, “at the center of the new national mythology is only one event – the Great Victory in the Great Fatherland War,” a victory “conceived as the single ‘holy’ event of our history of the 20th century” and one whose celebration is “constructed as a religious action in which participate or at least sympathize the majority of Russians.”

And from this, Chapnin says, a kind of “civic religion with its own rules and rituals. The theme of victory is so ‘holy’ that to speak about it is possible only in the framework” established by “mass post-Soviet consciousness,” a situation that distorts both history and the consciousness of it.

“At the basis of this civic religion lie pagan values, meanings and symbols which were only partially modernized by communist propaganda,” including the eternal flame before which all bow but whose meaning within the traditions of Christianity is contradictory or even profoundly negative.

The cult of the Great Fatherland War entails a number of “extremely dangerous aspects,” the Orthodox editor says, including “the preservation and cultivation of ‘the image of the enemy,’” “the total heroization of war,” a sense of loss since victory, and “a primitive (pagan) understanding of patriotism.”

But perhaps the most serious of these is “the justification by virtue of the victory of all that happened in Russia in the10th century and above all with the totalitarian regime and Stalin personally.” And not surprisingly, in recent years, this “post-Soviet civic religion” has come into conflict with Russian culture as “inspired by the evangelical ideal.”

Because the Russian Orthodox Church is “a big Church,” it does not, indeed cannot provide “a common position” on all issues which are not directly part of Church doctrine. Instead, there have emerged what Chapnin calls three “church subcultures,” each with its own views on the Soviet past.

The first of these is “prepared to incorporate elements of Soviet culture” on the basis of a claim that “Soviet culture was more Christian by its content than is contemporary mass culture.” This is the largest of the three and includes almost all those who joined the priesthood in the last decade or so.

This group strives toward “social and cultural self-isolation,” shows “extreme lack of faith to any forms of ‘Western’ values,” and thus opposes ecumenism, changes in the Church itself, and any steps by the state which appear to threaten the Church including electronic numbering systems.

In reality, Chapnin argues, one can say that “this is Orthodoxy without tradition,” and “its representatives continue to struggle with the church problems of the past Soviet epoch – ecumenism and agents of the KGB within the Church,” even though “today these are already not real problems but phantoms.”

The second Church subculture is the successor to the Church underground of Soviet period, when the Church was persecuted. “This group,” Chapnin says, “consciously and consistently accepts nothing that is Soviet,” but it does so “peacefully and non-aggressively” because it recognizes that overcoming the past will take a long time.

Representatives of the second group also “well understand the universal character of Eastern-Slavic culture, but they know, love and value those forms of the cultural tradition” which exist within Russian Orthodoxy. A small group, it is will become smaller because its supporters are those who became priests in Soviet times or who were part of the Orthodox Church Abroad.
Finally, the third subculture combines a claim of links to the catacomb church but “on the other hand completely accepts the Soviet cultural matrix. In essence, this group has preserved the stylistics of Soviet propaganda and only replaced a number of terms and definitions, dropping ‘Soviet Union’ in favor of ‘Holy Rus,’ and ‘communist’ for ‘Orthodox.’”

Each of these groups supports a different version of Russian nationalism and Russian national culture and is in turn supported by them. And consequently, because the Church does not speak as one on these questions, it is not in a position to lead Russians along a single path to overcome the divisions in society which now exist.

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