Collectivism in the Russian World View and Its Implications for Christian Ministry
Steven R. Chapman
The origins of Russian collectivism can be seen even from prehistoric times. People trying to maintain their existence in a rather harsh environment needed to band together in order to survive. The zadruga--a clan or extended family commune--formed the basis for Slavic tribal society. This then evolved into the mir, an agricultural village commune. Understanding the communal life of the pre-communist mir can shed some light on the communalism of Russian culture today. Russian villages typically featured peasant huts, side by side, one per family. The surrounding land was communally owned by the entire mir and was unfenced.1 The primary function of the mir was to control the cultivation of the land, with each family being allotted a certain amount of land by it. The mir was led by an assembly of heads of households which met informally, often in the open air. While the discussion could become quite heated and animated, differences were not resolved by voting, but by consensus. Decisions reached unanimously became binding on the entire community.2 Later, as peasants began moving to cities, they formed workers' cooperatives called artels, which were modeled on the mir. Members worked as a group and shared their payments. According to researcher Richard Stites, hundreds of thousands of workers adopted this lifestyle before the 1917 Revolution.3
Russia also has been strongly shaped by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Father Anthony Ugolnik in his book, The Illuminating Icon, emphasizes sobornost, the strong sense of community that is so central to the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox believers de-emphasize independence and self-reliance in thinking. "Through their reliance upon tradition," Ugolnik notes, "they see the community as necessary to understanding." Russian sobornost, rooted in the strong Orthodox emphasis on the Trinity, contrasts sharply with the "individualism of the American mind" and the "'Jesus-centered' consciousness of popular American Christianity."4 When the church was suppressed after the 1917 Revolution sobornost did not disappear. It simply took on a different form. In the 1930s, Stalin replaced the mir with the Soviet collective farm. As Victor Ripp explains, "The Soviet kollektiv is sobornost with a communist slant."5 The Russian communal ethic survived, but with a highly coercive communist component.6
So the social roots of collectivism may be observed in the zadruga, the mir, the artel, and the Soviet kollektiv. It also is clear that collectivism's religious roots derive from the sobornost of the Russian Orthodox Church. Perhaps the question is not so much where collectivism came from, but rather how it survived relatively intact in contrast to the greater individualism that emerged in the rest of Europe and the United States. At least three factors are involved here. First, from a cultural standpoint, Russia never experienced the Renaissance with its emphasis upon individual creativity and potential. Second, from a religious standpoint, unlike Western Europe, Russia never experienced the Reformation with its emphasis upon individual reading of Scripture and personal salvation. Third, from a political standpoint, Russia almost always has been under authoritarian rule and has been relatively closed to outside contact.
One important element in the Russian communal mindset is a strong sense of egalitarianism, not simply fairness or equal opportunity, but a deeply held conviction that wealth should be equally distributed. In contrast to the Western drive to work hard and get ahead, Russians traditionally have tended to feel that doing very well financially is wrong, particularly if it is at the expense of others. "Most Russians," former foreign service officer Yale Richmond suggests, "would rather bring other people down to their level than try to rise higher, a mentality known as uravnilovka (leveling)."7 This is often referred to as a culture of jealousy.
Egalitarianism was not an invention of communism. Rather, it finds its roots in the culture of the mir.8 Hedrick Smith in The New Russians notes that the mentality of a person conditioned by the mir was to react "warily against anyone who tried to advance beyond his peers." This attitude is summed up well by a common saying among villagers, "Remember--the tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut down by the scythe."9 A person should not try to stand above the crowd, the collective.
One implication for cross-cultural ministry in Russia is that missionaries need to be very sensitive about issues of lifestyle and finances. Living at a material level above the majority makes it difficult to develop close relationships with those who are less privileged. Mission organizations which hire national workers have a difficult balancing act as well. On the one hand, they want to provide reasonable compensation as a just and nonexploitative employer. On the other hand, if this puts the income level of the national worker significantly above those with whom he works, resentments are predictable. Also, high salary levels make it very difficult for indigenous churches and ministries to compete for workers. They invariably have fewer financial resources available for employee compensation than their expatriate counterparts.
Russian society fosters a climate of dependence, which can have its positive side. Through my years of exposure to Russian culture I gradually have been coming to the conviction that the interdependence found in Russian culture may better reflect a biblical world view than does the individualism of American culture. We in the West can become so protective of private rights and property that we close ourselves off from deep, healthy interdependent relationships. We insure ourselves to the nth degree to avoid ever needing help from anyone. We believe that we ought to be willing to give to help people, in keeping with biblical teaching, but in reality we tend to do so reluctantly, resentful of what we suspect is personal irresponsibility on the part of the needy. Why can't people be independent and self-sufficient like us? After all, think of all the personal sacrifice we have made to get ourselves to the point where we don't need to rely on anyone else. I suspect that we rob ourselves of the koinonia of the New Testament church because we have elevated self-sufficiency to an abnormally high position on our priority scale. Russians have much to teach us about healthy interdependence.
But the dependence found in Russian culture also has its negative side. People who have always been dependent on parents, on the collective, or on the state often lack initiative and a healthy sense of personal responsibility. They easily may become dependent upon foreigners and their resources, which is not helpful to Russians in the long run. Missionaries, frequently finding themselves subjected to requests for money, must undertake a difficult balancing act: they must exhibit cultural sensitivity, but not foster unhealthy dependence.
A troubling moral issue related to the Russian collective mindset concerns cheating. One of the constant frustrations of Western missionaries involved in theological education in the former Soviet Union is how to keep students from cheating. The Western inclination is to conclude that seminary students who cheat lack the integrity needed for ministry; they have a significant character flaw; and they should be expelled. But this issue requires an additional cross-cultural perspective.
In a communal society relationships are more important than rules. If a neighbor needs help and you can provide it, you must. If you need help and your neighbor can provide it, you ask for it. You and your neighbor are not competing; you are working together to further the common welfare. The thought of potentially damaging a relationship just to maintain what is considered in Russia a silly, arbitrary rule is unthinkable. In Russia this mentality is instilled from the earliest years and pervades the entire educational system. Children in school often work together in groups. Teachers sometimes give answers to struggling students during an examination to help raise their grades to the level of the majority.
I do not conclude from this collective dynamic that cheating among seminary students should be condoned. On the contrary, seminarians are precisely the people who need to be taught how to hold up their culture to the light of God's Word to make corrections where necessary. The transformation of culture begins with those who uncompromisingly preach the Word of God and effectively apply it to everyday life. Cheating is wrong; personal integrity is crucial. But we need to be sensitive to positive elements in Russian culture and be humble enough to question our sometimes individualistic approach to education. Is it possible to adapt the communal spirit in a positive way to enhance the educational process and to avoid putting students in the position of being torn between relationships and rules?
Implications for Russian Evangelicals
The collectivism of the Russian world view has both a positive and negative effect upon Russian Evangelicals. On the positive side, churches can exhibit a wonderful spirit of community. Believers are always helping each other and often exhibit a sacrificial spirit. New believers often talk about having a close sense of family with their brothers and sisters in Christ, which they had not experienced in their own rather dysfunctional families. I remember hearing a 16-year-old youth lamenting the fact that he would be gone for a week or two and expressing how much he would miss his church family. Members will drop in on each other unannounced and enjoy spontaneous fellowship.
On the more negative side--from my perspective--is the tendency toward authoritarian leadership in the church. A high degree of control may be exercised to maintain the "unity" of the collective. Church discipline can seem quite harsh at times from a Western perspective. Some churches have excommunicated significant numbers of people. The reason for this seems to be that within the Russian Evangelical subculture, church elders equate independence and lack of conformity with spiritual pride and arrogance. To disagree with the pastor can be viewed as blatant pride, and by so doing, believers may be placing themselves outside of the collective. In this kind of environment, individual initiative and expression are often suppressed.
Russia today is in the throes of a fundamental cultural struggle as it seeks to come to terms with modernity. Slavic collectivism of many centuries' standing is now rapidly giving way to a new individualism, although Russia is still far less individualistic than is the United States. (Geert Hofstede's Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind reported that of 53 cultures studied, individualism was strongest in the U.S.)10 This shift in Russia toward individualism is particularly prevalent among young people, and so the struggle often takes on intergenerational dimensions.
Implications for Western Missionaries
American missionaries must note that they come from one of the most individualistic cultures in the world. In addition, U.S. Christians willing to venture abroad often have more than their fair share of individualism, even by American cultural standards. The biggest difficulty facing American missionaries in Russia today may not be the stress of living in another culture, the language challenge, or the lack of financial support. Often, the biggest challenge is simply getting along with co-workers, whether expatriates or nationals. While I do not want to suggest that American missionaries are more prone to relational problems than their Korean, German, or Finnish counterparts, Americans do tend to respond to such problems by following a deeply ingrained instinct to strike out on their own in lone ranger fashion. If there is a sense that certain teammates or national partners are hindering the accomplishment of certain goals, there is the temptation to isolate oneself from them or to ignore or bypass them.
A final implication for the Western missionary enterprise stems from the fact that Russia is a highly relational society. Relationships mean everything. Degrees, skills--even ministry success--mean relatively little in comparison. In Russia a strongly task-oriented approach, which makes light of relationships, may achieve short-term results, but is unlikely to flourish in the long term. Missionaries need to understand that effective long-term ministry can only occur in an ethos of trust and respect created by healthy relationships. These relationships require time and flexibility in schedule that does not come naturally to Westerners. But such relationships can be richly rewarding and may open the door to significant, lasting ministry.
Steven R. Chapman served as a missionary in Moscow and Tatarstan, 1994-96, with the Evangelical Free Church Mission. He completed an M.A.R. degree at Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL, in 1998.
1. Yale Richmond, From Nyet to Da: Understanding the Russians (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1992), 14-15.
2. Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1977), 122.
3. Richmond, Nyet, 15.
4. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 93-94; 114-15.
5. Victor Ripp, Pizza in Pushkin Square (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 114-15.
6. Richmond, Nyet, 20.
7. Ibid., 37.
8. Ibid, 34.
9. New York: Random House, 1990, 203.
10. London: McGraw-Hill, 1997, 53.
|Children learn to think in terms of "we."||Children learn to think in terms of "I."|
|Harmony should always be maintained and direct confrontations avoided.||Speaking one's mind is a characteristic of an honest person.|
|Relationships prevail over tasks.||Tasks prevail over relationships.|
Source: Geert Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (London: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 67.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report