East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Russian Christianity As a Possible Basis of Contemporary Morality in Russia

Irwin Weil

This reflection was written in response to the following question posed by a representative of an American conservative magazine:  "Is it possible that there are groups among contemporary Russian religious organizations or communities who can help revive a moral-ethical foundation for Russian society?"

A basic assumption here lies in the verb "to revive":  it implies that, some time in the past, there existed a commonly perceived moral-ethical foundation for Russian society.  This statement gets to the heart of some of the famous central questions, often called "accursed questions" of pre-Soviet Russian history, as well as Soviet history--and, perhaps, of post-Soviet Russian history.

In the Middle Ages, the followers of Nil Sorsky battled against those of Iosef Volotsky.  The latter believed the Muscovite Church should intervene in the daily affairs and politics of Muscovy and make people and their actions conform to the rules of Christian morality; the former urged Christian religious folk to flee the inevitably evil daily politics of this sinful, noneternal world in favor of the soul's eternal, nonworldly salvation.

In the 19th century, the extraordinarily powerful Christian thinker and writer, Fedor Dostoyevsky, pushed his beloved Christian protagonist, Alesha Karamazov, out of the monastery and into the everyday world, with all of its problems and pathology.  Dostoyevsky gave powerful voice to a gospel for the 19th and 20th centuries, a gospel which became a rallying cry for legions of religious people everywhere, and a fearful presence for Soviet Marxist revolutionaries.  For over two generations the Soviet government, pitifully, ineffectually, tried to blot out Dostoyevsky's penetrating words.

The revolutionaries, whose successors became the bureaucratic gatekeepers of the Soviet regime, tried to set up their own, non-God-based (they would insist on eliminating the capital letter) system of morality.  To a great extent they based their notions on the ideas of Dostoyevsky's early contemporary, Vissarion Belinsky--who spewed forth his contempt for what he saw not entirely inaccurately as corruption-ridden Russian Christianity. In its place  revolutionaries opted for a "class-based morality," a socialist code which would guarantee what they considered good social behavior in a state run for and by an abstracted entity called "the people."  Alas, this definition of "people" promoted the murders of tens of millions of "persons."  It soon became clear that such a corpse-based morality could hardly bring about a just or moral society.

One of the first things that surprised me when I came to teach and do research at Moscow University in the early 1960s was the ubiquitous presence of placards in the university halls listing the commandments ("zapovedi") of ethical socialist behavior.  Among its proscriptions were many familiar to those who grew up, as I did, hearing and studying Moses' Ten Commandments.  The trouble in the U.S.S.R. came from the fact that hypocrisy was the overarching rule, which was enforced by the actions of the establishment itself.  Lest the present writer himself fall into a similar trap, let it be immediately said that hypocrisy was not exactly unfamiliar to an observer who came from the lusty, brawling city of Chicago.  But it cut directly to the heart of the argument which claimed that "class-based" morality was somehow the basis for effective ethics in modern times.

Even during the Soviet regime, which loved to call one of its leading organizations The League of Militant Godless (Soyuz voinstvuyushchikh bezbozhnikov, a marvelous Russian mouthful).... Russians, and even Communist Party members, referred to churches, liturgy, and sacred music and art as the source of powerful beauty and moral stability.  The stronger the official propagandistic hostility, the stronger the religious feelings became.  True Christian feeling, like almost any true religious feeling, is no stranger to persecution and martyrdom.

After 1985, with Gorbachev's slogans of glasnost and perestroika, and after 1991, in post-Soviet times, the situation became far more openly confused and chaotic.  I emphasize "openly" because the Soviets made great efforts to hide the confusion for many years.  Over a quarter of a century visiting and working there, I was constantly surprised that the Western press, especially the conservative Western press, accepted the propaganda on uniformity as fact.  I still remember the late Senator Taft, from my home state of Ohio, shouting in too sweeping a generalization about the "godless, atheist Russians."

Increasingly, over the last ten years or so, many official voices in Russia have been proclaiming the need for a revived religious presence to restore traditional Russian Christian morality in society.  There is wonderful ironic humor in watching lumbering politicians, who had long proclaimed themselves atheist, godless people, now solemnly holding candles at Russian Christian services.

Now the question becomes whether or not the revived hierarchy of the Russian Christian church, with its own history of accommodation to the tsarist bureaucracy and persecution by and cooptation in the Soviet bureaucracy, can establish itself as a viable and autonomous moral force in Russian society.  Unquestionably, millions of Russians, who suffered in isolation during previous periods of official hostility to religion, look athirst in this direction.  Again, it should not be forgotten:  no small amount of religious people's prestige and moral authority among Russians comes from the religious resistance to this very persecution.

Today, many foreign Evangelical groups take aim at Russia, sometimes with tact and charity, sometimes loutishly without.  One must add to this the dregs of American popular culture which have washed over the unprotected body of Russia, sometimes in the nature of a plague or dread disease.  The West should be forewarned that these influences, together with current economic problems, can cause a backlash which encourages anything but a society with a firm moral-ethical basis. 

Irwin Weil is professor of Russian & Russian Literature at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.


Irwin Weil, "Russian Christianity As a Possible Basis of Contemporary Morality in Russia," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Winter 1996), 8-9.

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1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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