Xenophobia Versus Charity In Contemporary Russian Orthodoxy

Father Georgii Chistiakov

Almost two decades have passed since the era of glasnost and perestroika, when religion in Russia was allowed to escape the “ghetto” to which it had been confined in the Soviet Union. Until the mid-1980s, officially permitted religion existed under harsh state control. Churches were open, but far from all of them. Only 44 of the approximately 1,000churches in Moscow remained open; in Leningrad, only ten, and in provincial regions, typically from one to three (although some had no churches at all).

It is impossible to watch new churches and bell towers being opened, renovated, and appearing in previously empty places without experiencing a feeling of excitement. One recent spring, in a small village about 40kilometers from Moscow where I sometimes spend my free time, a new church began to group. It was a tiny log church, built directly on the banks of a small stream near the forest. This is happening everywhere.

The Language of Worship

However, this idyllic form masks a quite complex reality. Orthodox religious services are conducted everywhere in medieval Slavonic, which is almost completely incomprehensible to churchgoers. The Slavonic language, while marvelous in itself, is analogous to Catholic Latin; for the modern individual it is an obstacle on the path to religious enlightenment. It makes the long Byzantine-style services inaccessible to most people, as they cannot understand what is being read and sung. It is important to understand that neophyte believers predominate in the church today, people who had no ties to Orthodoxy or church life before the start of perestroika. As a model for behavior, they naturally chose to imitate previous generations, that is, those people who preserved Orthodoxy as a confession and way of life in the Soviet era. This hearkens back to the second half of the nineteenth century and the preservationist tendencies of Orthodoxy of that time (in the broad sense, from the late Slavophiles and Konstantin Leontiev to Konstantin Pobedonostsev and the “Black Hundreds”).

Anti-Semitic Tendencies

Such an idealization of the past – and not the past of the apostles and the gospels, or of the great saints like Sergei of Radonezh, but of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries –led to calls for the canonization of Nicholas IIand the members of his family who were killed in 1918. In the 1990s, this became the main issue for many believers and for others who identified their political views and broader worldviews with Orthodoxy. Many of those longing for the quick canonization of Tsar Nicholas and his family demanded that the murder of the tsar be treated as a ritual murder, that is, carried out by Jews for ritual purposes. They praised Nicholas II as the “Tsar-Martyr, ”One Anointed by God,” and the “Preserver of Orthodoxy” who had been “Tortured by the Yids.”

Suspicion of the Other

The above facts raise sharp questions about the self-conceptualization of Russian Orthodoxy. A modern religious society in Russia – not rooted in the life of the divine service, the life of prayer, and the generally mystic life of Eastern Christianity – is beginning to take shape without developing deeper vision of Orthodoxy. Rather, it opposes itself to Christians of other traditions – both Catholic and Protestant - and does so not through Russian or Western concepts but through the Communist paradigm of a“bourgeois, enemy civilization in opposition to us. “Orthodox consciousness quickly becomes xenophobic, closed, and highly intolerant of other faiths and the West in general. This image of the enemy is connected with extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. Anti-Semitism within the realm of the Church is accepted quite broadly. “Yid-masons” are blamed literally for everything.

In both Moscow and St. Petersburg, Sergei Nilus’s well-known book, It is Near, At the Gates (2000), has been published and reprinted many times, most recently in a print run of 7,500 copies, and is sold in many Orthodox churches and in kiosks in the Moscow metro. This book includes the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic tract which Hitler used extensively in Mein Kampf. Orthodox traditionalists Anatolii Makeev and Ruslan Bychkov go even further: “We Russians are in captivity in our own land.” After condemning mixed marriages, they state, “Let the world ‘get kinky-haired, dark-skinned, and speak with an accent,’ but Vanya’s blue eyes must never darken. Therefore, we repeat again and again: Purity of Faith and Purity of Blood!

Orthodoxy: Universal or Particular?

One of the basic forms of xenophobia is intolerance in relation to other Christian faiths. In Soviet times, Catholics and Protestants were seen as brothers whose support helped Russia’s Christians survive under state atheism. Now, however, they are seen as enemies, threatening the very existence not only of Orthodoxy, but of Russia itself. Orthodoxy is declared the Russian national religion, and calls for Christian unity are understood to be directed against Russia, against her past and future, against her national identity. In this way, Christianity becomes a means with which to express a national soul and a national spirituality. In this situation it inevitably loses its universal character, setting aside Christ’s call to “let all be as one” and becoming, as one Orthodox priest from America put it, a Russian tribal religion.

In addition to this intolerance of other Christian traditions, today in Russia many feel defensive about Orthodoxy itself. When believers know little about their own Orthodox faith, about its depth and spiritual treasures, they begin to think that they can prove their righteousness only through aggressive struggle against other confessions. This leads them to a constant, forceful rejection of Catholics and Protestants, which reinforces an image of the enemy in their own consciousness. For example, a young artist announced on Russian national television that “Not a single other people has icon painting that can compare to ours.” He made this statement and yet knew nothing about the religious art of other traditions, including that of other Orthodox peoples(Greeks, Cypriots, Romanians, and Bulgarians).

Why could he not have stated this in another way, for example, that Russian icon painting is such that any people would admire it? This would be true, and still very flattering for the Russian people. It is not an accident that a copy of Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” became the primary sacred object and a symbol of the SteTrinite Catholic Church in Paris, while reproductions of the icon Our Lady of Vladimir can be found in Catholic churches almost everywhere.

Orthodoxy as Substitute Ideology

The religious situation in Russia today results primarily from the almost blind search for a new, mandatory ideology by a society raised on Marxism-Leninism now seeking the next “one true path.” As a result, in the minds of many, including pure and honest believing people, Orthodoxy has become a new ideology just like the old one. Apart from this, the situation can be explained by the extremely low level of knowledge about faith, about God, about the gospels, and, most importantly, about the nature of Orthodoxy itself. So, most people see the Julian Calendar, 13 days behind the modern (Gregorian) one, as a major symbol of

Orthodoxy even though the majority of Orthodox churches, including Constantinople, rejected it long ago. When Metropolitan Vladimir (Kotliarov) suggested during a sermon few years ago in St. Petersburg, that the Russian Church should follow the examples of the Constantinople, Alexandrian, and Antioch Orthodox churches and adopt the new style, a scandal ensued. In the pro-Communist newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia (Soviet Russia),religious activists subsequently called the Metropolitan a heretic and an enemy of Orthodoxy.

This same newspaper and its regular contributor, K. Dushenov, called MetropolitanFilaret (Vakhromeev) of Minsk and Slutsk a heretic for his consistent ecumenism. Paradoxically, the same Communist Party that for 70 years cultivated a warlike atheism, destroyed churches, and shot believers, now adopts the role of defender of Orthodoxy. Of course, Communists are not interested in Orthodoxy itself, but they do support those who favor a politics of national, spiritual, and cultural isolationism. For this reason, the interests of some Orthodox fundamentalists coincide with those of today’s Communist leaders.

There is hope that with time these “growing pains” will be overcome. Over the last few years, the tendencies described above have become somewhat weaker. But the tortuous, slow, and inconsistent development of civil society in Russia means that an isolationist worldview, rather than a vision of life rooted in the New Testament, which opposes all xenophobia and feelings of exclusivity, still predominates.

Signs of Hope

What are the prospects for the progressive development of the religious situation in our country? They are, on the whole, not as bad as they may seem. Over the past 20 years, Christianity in the Russian Orthodox tradition(within Russia as well as beyond Russian borders) has given the world such glorious people as Father Aleksii Mechev and Archimandrite Sofronii (Sakharov), Father Sergei Bulgakov and Mother Maria (Skoptsova),Fathers Nikolai Afanas’ev and Aleksandr Shmemann, Archimandrite Tavrion, Metropolitan Antonii (Blum), and Father Aleksandr Men.

The joyous Orthodoxy of the recently canonized Father Aleksii Mechev, the spiritual teachings of Sofronii(Sakharov), the holy life, literary work, and icon painting of Mother Maria (a Russian nun from Paris) – all this is spiritual capital indicating that Orthodoxy lives and still possesses the evangelical spirit that makes Christians true disciples of Christ. Mother Maria, a philosopher, poet, and scholar, dedicated herself completely to the poor and destitute. During the war she saved Jews in Paris and for this was sent to the gas chamber.

Let us also recall the literary renaissance connected with Father Nikolai Afanas’ev in Paris and Aleksandr Shmemann in New York, as well as the teachings on prayer of Metropolitan Antonii (Blum). Think of the living, service-oriented communities that they created. According to Jesus in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, it is precisely work among those who are sick, who suffer, and who have been cast into the streets that heals Christians from spiritual illness and keeps our faith from corruption. Finally, it is impossible to forget the works of Father Aleksandr Men, killed in the time of perestroika.

His scholarly and pastoral activities epitomized the work of those mentioned above and, of course, we remember his openness to Christians of other faiths, and indeed to all of humanity. We must keep in mind that there are as well many spiritually healthy people in the Church today. It is important only that they do not fear the “Black Hundreds” who announce themselves much more loudly than do quiet and diligent believers. Faith is not an ideology and not a call to battle with ever-present enemies. Orthodoxy cannot accept racist, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic attitudes because such attitudes are contrary to the gospel which Christ gave to all peoples without exception.

Society in Russia is developing and tearing away the isolationist ideology that today attracts mainly those on the margins. Aggressive nationalism is not the ideology of the majority. The main task facing the community of academic religious scholars, historians, and political scientists is therefore to ensure that people receive serious, factual information on religion and on the essence of the faith (the gospels and church history). Russians must be fed not on propagandistic myths, but on concrete facts. Myths lose their attractiveness once people possess information about what phenomenon actually represents. It is vital to build an open society in Russia. Once that occurs, the situation in the Church will normalize as well, and quite quickly.