Russian Nationalist Orthodox Theology
A Russian Jesus
The power of Russian nationalist Orthodox theology is in its underlying motive expressed in the identity of the Savior. Any hint at His Jewish roots is deleted, and a new image, the image of a Russian Jesus, is constructed. These efforts led to publications such as the article, “On Jesus Christ’s Ethnic Origin,” published in the Duel, a weekly newspaper. This article was widely referred to in other periodicals, including Russkiy poradok [Russian Order] of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity. The author, E. Klimchuk, a member of the Russian Academy of Military Science, expressed the opinion that Jesus looked Slavic and spoke ancient Russian. The level of Klimchuk’s scholarly awareness can be revealed by this opening phrase, “There is practically no problem concerning the racial affiliation of our Savior. No one ever painted Him as an African or Chinese.” Evidently, he was exposed neither to portraits of the Black Messiah by Ronnie Harrison, Janet MacKenzi, Gulis Mavruk, or N.E. Hailes, to name just a few, nor to the exquisite ink images of an Asian Jesus painted on silk by He Qi, Li Wei San, and many others.
Klimchuk also states that all the apostles except Judas were non-Jewish, and the proof of that is that all of them were killed by Jews except Judas. It was St. Paul who, according to Klimchuk, distorted the teaching of Jesus and convinced everyone that Jesus and the Twelve were Jews.
The title Christ, traditionally understood as a Greek translation of the Jewish term messiah, is given a new meaning in Klimchuk’s article: It turns out to be a Greek, somewhat distorted, transliteration of Jesus’ patronymic. Like all Russian people, Jesus has a patronymic added after his first name; for example, Ilyich in Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is “son of Ilya.” Thus Christ means nothing else but “Son of the Creator,” which comes from an ancient Russian name for God the Creator, Kryshen.
Jesus’ Russian ethnicity can also be proved, Klimchuk believes, by Jesus’ last words on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:33). These are, contrary to the traditional understanding, uttered not in Aramaic but in Sanskrit/Ancient Russian (the latter two languages Klimchuk believes to be identical) and must be translated, “O God the Creator, Your representative on Earth offers Himself as a sacrifice.”
Blond Hair and Blue Eyes
To prove that Jesus’ appearance was also non-Jewish, Klimchuk presents “irrefutable” evidence: The icons allegedly made on the basis of the mystical imprint of the features of the suffering Savior on a piece of cloth given to him to wipe his face. Evidently, that must have been a colored imprint of high quality, as Klimchuk mentions blond hair, blue eyes, and very white skin.1
A year later Sekretnye materialy, one of the most-read tabloids, gave floor to a Hermitage Museum employee, B. Sapunov, who used police investigative methods to prove that Jesus was “almost Russian.” Sapunov related to a reporter a long account of his collection of different descriptions of Jesus from unspecified apocryphal and historical sources, sorted according to facial features. Then Sapunov gave this material to his “friends and colleagues” who, luckily, were no less than experts from the Federal Security Service (FSB, former KGB). They, in turn, constructed “the first identikit picture” of the Savior. Jesus turned out to have brown hair, yellow eyes, a thin nose, and an indisputable non-Jewish origin. According to an unidentified anthropologist friend of Sapunov, Jesus must have been of Greek-Syrian descent, which is close to the Russian ethnic group.2
Jesus: A Jew or a Galilean?
Even an American movie may become a source of inspiration for Russian nationalists. Sovietskaya Rossiya, a Communist daily newspaper, published a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The author, E. Badyakina, is not a movie critic but a journalist best known for her reports about the violated rights of Russian Cossacks in Chechnya. In her review Badyakina casually mentions, “Many mistakenly believe that Christ was a Jew . . . while He was a Galilean, and the Jews and the Galileans were completely unrelated nations, both ethnically and politically. This is why in Gibson’s movie Christ always preaches in Aramaic.”
Apparently, Badyakina sees Aramaic as less Jewish than Klimchuk does in the above-mentioned article. Her review concludes with this passage:
Gibson’s film manifests the victory of the human spirit over the powers of evil. Today this battle is still going on, and Russia is at the forefront of this unseen warfare. Our goal is to bring closer the joyful day of our Fatherland’s renewal, and to this end let us add to the Easter greeting “Christ is Risen,” a phrase “Russia, arise!”3
Badyakina’s review clearly shows the purpose of the “research” carried out by Klimchuk, Sapunov, and other nationalists. While many of them claim total objectivity, they do not labor for the sake of scholarly interest only. Thanks to their efforts, the non-Jewish origin of Jesus today appears to be “common knowledge” in patriotic circles and may be used as the foundation for radical appeals such as “Russia, arise!” The importance of the Russian-Jesus Christology cannot be overestimated. The Savior’s Slavic identity not only makes him “one of us” for Russians, but also allows for his followers’ anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
An Ethnic Definition of Orthodoxy
The missionary policy of the official Russian Orthodox Church appears to support the exclusion of non-Russians from the privilege of salvation, contrary to the international appeal of Matthew 28:19. Archbishop Cyril, head of the Smolensk and Kaliningrad Diocese, states it plainly:
There are instances in Western Europe when local people come to a Russian Orthodox parish [intending to join it], but we give very strict orders to our clergy in Western Europe: “Do not Proselytize!” Practically, we forbid our priests to convert people.4
Yet, while Orthodox do not aspire to teach and baptize all nations, they are determined to completely convert one: All Russian people are seen by church authorities as their “own,” in fact (by virtue of their baptism), or in potential (by virtue of their ethnic origin). Any evangelism carried out by Catholic or Protestant preachers is bitterly resented and labeled proselytism. In the same interview, Archbishop Cyril expresses the view of the Moscow Patriarchy:
We believe that our unfortunate nation, which was 80 per cent baptized Orthodox but forcefully separated from Orthodoxy in the 1920s and 30s, has a right to return to its spiritual roots. Therefore, we consider any religious preaching aimed at our people, some of whom are formally baptized and some godless or far from religion, unacceptable. We do not want our people to be converted to any other faith.5
With the help of nationalist theologians, some Orthodox parishes become even more chauvinistic than the Moscow Patriarchy. For example, in Novosibirsk, a Japanese student tried to buy an audiocassette of Orthodox music at the All Russian Saints Orthodox Church, but the saleswoman asked him to leave the shop. Also, in Novosibirsk, two Italian priests came to the Virgin Mary’s Miraculous Birth Orthodox Church to pray before the icon of the Virgin Mary of Kazan, but were rudely escorted out of the sanctuary by a deacon. The attitude to aliens is so unwelcome that non-Orthodox and non-Russians are cast out like demons.
Russian nationalist Orthodox theology is a cynical approach to Christianity which creates the image of the Savior as a Russian Jesus who comes to save the Russian Orthodox people from their non-Russian and non-Orthodox oppressors. The danger of Russian nationalist Orthodox theology is in its extreme intolerance. The authors of Russian nationalist Orthodox theology have intentionally chosen to manipulate the masses for the purpose of achieving their own political and economic goals.
Four actions may be taken to prevent Russian nationalist Orthodox theology from gaining popularity. The first must be carried out by the current president and the other three by Russian Christians. First, measures should be taken by the Russian government to improve the economic status of the poor majority. It appears that Putin is already moving toward this goal. Second, Russian nationalist Orthodox theology should be discredited in the eyes of the poor majority, that is, in the eyes of potential nationalist voters. Third, a wholesome theology needs to be formulated and offered to the Russian people as a viable alternative to militarized, xenophobic Christianity. The Russian Orthodox Church should face the challenge of ethnocentrism and revive the spirit of the Great Commission, both in the Patriarchy and in the parishes.
Finally, faithful Christians ought to become involved in politics to improve the quality of life for the working population and to provide social security for disadvantaged groups through legislative means. While there seems to be no direct biblical reference that commands Christians to be involved in social and political action, John Stott rightly asserts, “Political action (which could be defined as love seeking justice for the oppressed) is a legitimate extrapolation from the biblical emphasis on the practical priorities of love.”6
In Russia’s move toward both a renewed national identity and a strengthened democracy, theology ought to become an expression of the true religious consciousness of a multi-ethnic Russia; it should promote self-esteem based on God’s likeness rather than a shaky notion of ethnic superiority; and it should encourage active participation in political life, thereby serving as an effective instrument of social change in Russia. ♦
1 E.A. Klimchuk, “On Jesus Christ’s Ethnic Origin,” Duel 3 (2000), 8.
2 I. Cherkasov, “The Identikit Picture of a Well-Known Defendant,” Sekretnye materialy 17 (2002). The Duel immediately reprinted Saprunov’s interview in Duel 44 (2002).
3 E. Badyakina, “Passionate Discussion of The Passion,” Sovietskaya Rossiya 47/48 (10 April 2004), 6.
4 A. Venediktov, “Interview with Archbishop Cyril on ‘Moscow Echo’ Radio Station,” 22 March 2001, Orthodox Covenant, www.zavet.ru/news/news-s010322.htm.
6 John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 350.
Julia Sudo has an M.A. from Wesley Biblical Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., and is a doctoral student at Novosibirsk State University, Novosibirsk, Russia.