East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Perceptions of a Great Country: Hunches and Pointers in Understanding Russia

Peter Lowman

How shall we understand Russia?  Perhaps no one can; perhaps what God and history have created here is just too vast to comprehend aright.  But it can help to have some starting points.  The following are a few perceptions from someone who has ministered in Russia through the last decade.  Perceptions here mean generalizations, with no claim to total accuracy--just hunches and pointers offered in the hope of provoking thought.

Not everything that greets the newcomer in Russia is strange, incomprehensible, or misleading.  This is so, partly because we are all human beings, and partly because the vast resources of Western culture and advertising are anyway fueling the global spread of  "McWorld."  In any Russian city one will encounter Western rock, cinema, fashion, and blue jeans.  Yet much about Russia remains irreducibly unique.  For the newcomer, the art of contextualization lies in recognizing both what East and West have in common, and where they are radically different.

A Vast Expanse
One of the first things one must grasp about Russia is its sheer enormity.  Moscow may seem a long way from the West, yet in reality it is on Russia's western fringe.  Novosibirsk is more the country's geographical center; and beyond that, Russia's eastward half extends across the depths of Siberia.  Everything in Russia is on the grand scale: the geography, the history, the passions, the emotions, the tragedies.  This vastness underlies, I believe, the Russian perception of God, highlighting His awe and His majesty; no other perception could have gained credibility in a country itself built on so grand a scale.  ("Nostalgia for...vast, unlimited space" is the starting-point of Nicholas Arseniev's study titled Russian Piety.)  Emotionally, too, everything here tends towards the grand scale.  While Dostoevsky's characters sometimes appear monstrous, fantastic freaks to readers from the tamer Western context, the writer himself insisted that his depictions were true to reality.  Few who have become involved with Russia will hasten to argue.

More Eastern or More Western?
Russia has a vast amount of history and is proud of that history.  Her Christian tradition extends back long before America was even discovered.  And there is an important messianic note to Russian self-perception.  This was very visible in the days of Marxism, with the national confidence that Russia carried the truth.  But it has a much longer history, embodied in the famous prophecy that Moscow had inherited the divine mission given to Rome, then Byzantium: "Two Romes have fallen, a third now is; a fourth shall never be."   The wise newcomer, then, will cultivate heartfelt respect for Russia.  Russians had to live through a terrible moment around 1990 when they discovered that their rulers had misled them enormously when it seemed that, on all counts that mattered, their longstanding enemies had been right, and they had been wrong.  ("What I want here," a taximan told me on the eve of Gorbachev's referendum on the continuance of the Soviet Union, "is the United States of America."  Surveys at that time showed most Moscow teenage girls wanting to marry a foreigner.  The song "American Boy, Take Me Away" rode high in the charts.  It is psychologically impossible to live like that for long, and the mid-1990s swing back to ardent nationalism was an inevitable reaction.  A settled, healthy, non-xenophobic self-respect is what we should pray for Russia in the next decade; but respect must mark the newcomer too.

The Strength of Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy obviously is a major factor in Russia's heritage.  It is not easy for Westerners to get a grip on Orthodoxy, partly because it derives from a Greek heritage in which what cannot be verbalized is more important than what can be, thus liturgy is closer to its heart than doctrinal beliefs.  Again, it is important for foreigners to begin with an attitude of respect for something so ancient and central to the Russian heritage.  Many Westerners will find that there is something for them to receive from the Orthodox tradition, even if they receive it mediated via the Evangelicalism that has developed within this environment.  Particularly, perhaps, we may grasp a new sense of the greatness of God--a perception empowered, as we have suggested above, by the greatness of the land--and then, consequently, of the seriousness of relating to Him.  To return from Russia to the trivialization (action choruses before communion) of many Western congregations is to feel a sense of shock and distaste.  And in this tradition, particularly in view of the Russian tendency toward the emotional, there is far less danger of arid over-rationalism than in the West.  Theology, to be meaningful, must always flow from and into worship.  "The Protestants taught me to think," a Russian colleague told me, "but the Orthodox taught me to feel."

Orthodoxy in Danger
On the other hand, there are very important areas in Orthodoxy where biblically-minded Evangelicals will have many questions: the basis of authority for doctrine, the meaning of the gospel itself in Orthodoxy, the place of the cross, and the nature of discipleship--the place of Bible reading, the place of personal prayer, the impact of faith on the world as distinct from monasticism, and the directness of relationship to Christ as opposed to Mary, saints, and angels.  But there are wider cultural issues too.  Many of the West's weaknesses may be related to what happens when Protestantism goes sour: excessive individualism, for example, or excessive rationalism.  A similar pattern appears in Russia.  The emphasis on the greatness of God can be enormously positive; but where it is coupled with lack of belief in a clear, profound step into new life that comes by repentance and faith, the result can be a sense of distance from God that can produce a spirituality marked by sadness and guilt, and overall, perhaps, a sense of grimness in the culture.  During the Divine Liturgy, Orthodox constantly repeat "Lord, have mercy."  One is left wondering what has happened to the joyous assurance of forgiveness voiced by St. John: "I write these things to those of you who believe...so that you may know that you have eternal life!" (1 John 5:13).  Where forgiveness is unsure and the almost unimaginable God comes to seem distant, the result can be a tragic approach to destiny that borders on fatalism and leads to a profound sense of hopelessness.  We see it at the level of the despair of a poet like Andrei Biely; we see it all too often in the grim hopelessness of the everyday Russian individual.

The Difficulty of Dissent
There are social issues too.  The enormous stress on unity in Orthodoxy, coupled with a downplaying of the individual compared to the community, can and sometimes does tend towards suppression of dissident thinking and hence to totalitarianism, rather than the encouragement of individual decision.  "We paved the way for Communism," a radical Orthodox told me in 1990.  "We trained people to give their souls away to the Church; and then when the State came and demanded their souls instead, they were used to it." That same fundamental emphasis on unity can make it hard (and we see this among Protestants in this environment too) to face and handle disagreement, to affirm and love while disagreeing.  One overt conflict can mean someone becomes quickly and lastingly marked as an enemy:  either 100 percent friend or 100 percent foe.  It did not help that Communism could not teach, as a democratic system must, that some primary principles are non-negotiable while other secondary issues may be disputed amicably.  Unfortunately, the uncompromising style of thought this encouraged leads either to authoritarian demands for submission or to division and fragmentation.  It seems to me also that, as in many Catholic cultures, lack of a doctrine of new birth as a profound step leading to a radically changed life (cf. 1 John 3:9) can result in a tolerance of imperfection that undermines public morality, the legal system, business ethics, and law enforcement.  These problems, in turn, tend to paralyze economic growth.

What else might we say are the effects of 70 years of Communism?  First, it seems to demonstrate the failure of the deified state.  C. S. Lewis suggested that if we deify anything less than God, we not only rob ourselves of God, we destroy the idol we create.  This surely is what Communism did to the entire public sphere.  When I first arrived in Russia in 1990 it was striking to see how little interest or care there was for anything belonging to the public sector.  Communist deification of the communal almost ended up destroying the communal.

Communism as Religion
Of course Communism itself was a religion.  Perhaps no system could have become so "total" without taking on a religious character.  Russians are a deeply spiritual, emotional, intuitive people; Marxism could hijack or distort this spirituality, but it could not amputate it.  I do not believe that a Russian could have written Das Kapital, with its monstrous, arid rationalism.  Instead, Russians turned Marxism into a religion.  "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live" ran the often-quoted words of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky.  Children's propaganda that still decorated schools in the 1990s presented Lenin as a bearded, gentle Christ-figure, kind to birds and little children.  "He was my grandfather, they told me at kindergarten," a friend said recently, "and I loved him.  He was my god.  He was everywhere."  And when Lenin died he was kept in Red Square as close as Communism could bring him to resurrection.  It was that schizophrenia--trapped between the desperately inadequate materialism of Marxism, and the Russian soul's religious intuition of the real universe--that made Soviet Communism so impossibly self-contradictory.  Russians are living with the resultant chaos of belief today.

A Legacy of Leadership Styles
We also should ask what leadership patterns Communism left behind.  Perhaps, just as Westerners import other dangers reflecting their culture's leadership patterns--carnal managerialism, for example--leadership in Russia sometimes is marked by an authoritarianism that reflects the Communist past.  Perhaps this explains why some pastors fail to affirm and encourage their flock.  I recall attending a regional Baptist meeting in the early 1990s and hearing a young Baptist say, as he looked at the seating and how things were set up, "It's exactly like the Communist Party." We all tend to copy the models of leadership we know.

Editor's note:  The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Peter Lowman holds a Ph.D. in English literature from University College, Cardiff, Wales.  He has worked and lectured in Russia extensively since 1990.

Peter Lowman, "Perceptions of a Great Country: Hunches and Pointers in Understanding Russia," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Spring 2000), 1-3.

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