On (In)Tolerance in Russia: Response to Roman Silantyev

Paul Mojzes

At first when I read the anti-toleration statements attributed to Roman Silantyev I thought that some substance may have been impairing the poor man’s judgment. Otherwise, he is a woefully undereducated person who seems to need an internet-savvy teenager to explain to him the meaning of the term tolerance. Unfortunately, Silantyev (mis)uses the medical definition of tolerance by (mis)applying it in the realm of the social sciences.

Internet sources suggest that Silantyev is a rather controversial Russian Orthodox sociologist who is considered a specialist on Islam, but from whose work both Muslim and Orthodox authorities distance themselves. Currently he holds a minor post in the Russian Orthodox Church.

When Silantyev declares that, unlike in the West, peace is inherent among the peoples of Russia, he is clearly suffering amnesia. One only needs to mention Russian state persecution of Old Believers, Russia’s conflict with Muslims in Chechnya and elsewhere, rampant Russian anti-Semitism, including pogroms, Russia’s turbulent relationship with Eastern-Rite Catholics, and Russian repression of what Silantyev calls “destructive pacifists” to realize that he has no historical memory.

If Silantyev were an isolated case, it would not be worth writing this piece. But if he reflects a significant constituency among Orthodox hierarchs and opinion-makers, then his intolerance of tolerance is a serious concern. All those who demean tolerance need to recall the painful and tragic consequences of intolerance during the Soviet period. We know that those who have been abused tend to become abusers. Analogously, those who were not tolerated tend to become intolerant in turn.

Nearly two decades ago, in Religious Liberty in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.: Before and After the Great Transformation (Boulder, CO: Eastern European Monographs, 1992), I developed a four-fold typology regarding religious liberty in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: Type A – ecclesiastic absolutism (total control by the majority church, repressing all others); Type B – religious toleration (considerable expansion of freedom for most, but not all); Type C – secularist absolutism (total control of all religions by atheists); and Type D – pluralistic liberty (a maximum of collective and individual liberties). With the fall of the tsarist regime and the emergence of the Soviet Union, Russia moved from Type A to Type C, accompanied by nearly incomprehensible violence toward religious people.

After the collapse of Communism some of us were hoping that Russia would move from Type C to Type D or at least to Type B. Regrettably, Russia seems to be moving full speed in reverse to Type A. It could be that Silantyev and his ilk are expressing the true sentiments of Russian Orthodox leadership. I pray this is not the case. My former professor, the late Fr. Georges Florovsky, shared with me, his Protestant student, a much more charitable vision of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Paradoxically, if, by the 20th century, the West had not evolved the practice of tolerance, millions of Russian Orthodox in diaspora in the West would not have flourished unimpeded in the exercise of their faith at a time when their coreligionists were not granted tolerance in their own country. F

Paul Mojzes is professor of religious studies, Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and co-editor of the journal Religion in Eastern Europe.