Church, State and Society in the Former Soviet Union. Lessons of the 2013 Year

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Feb 2014

Post-Soviet territories remain heavily, almost one-sidedly dependent on events inside Russia. Last year was a successful one for Putin's diplomacy. Russia was able to regain influence in Ukraine, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and it is now using this influence to actively impose a more aggressive form of economic and military cooperation. In Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are already members of the Customs Union, tightening political and religious oppression have appeared in Putin's wake. The dependency on hydrocarbons and loans from Russia is blatantly evident in the replication of religious policy. What Patrick Buchanan rashly called Putin's "conservatism," his defense of "traditional values" is just a way of legitimizing Russia's imperial policy towards neighboring territories and its repressive policies against non-titular or non-conformist religious groups.
            In Russia itself, manifestations of civil and religious liberty are severely limited for reasons of national security. Rallies in honor of the Bolotnaya prisoners, gatherings by people against crime and government inaction, and even meetings held by sympathizers after the attacks in Volgograd have been violently dispersed. Unprecedented security measures and restrictions on freedom have been enacted on the eve of the Olympics in Sochi. At the same time, symbolic concessions have been made to the international community – December, 2013 saw the release of victims of political repression:  Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the band Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina. Amnesty International had recognized all of them as prisoners of conscience.
            Characteristically, the Kremlin's tough stance against prisoners of conscience is fully shared by the Russian Orthodox Church. And this can be explained by its habitual "symphonic" relations with the state. What is harder to understand is the sympathy in Russian society and the Christian community toward the rigid policies out of the Kremlin, the call for a "strong hand," anti-Western sentiments, legal nihilism, and anti-democratic fashion. This can partly be explained by fear, partly by lack of information, and partly by religious traditions.
            Fear compels people to avoid dangerous topics, to bury their heads in the sand, to focus on the simplest personal interests. In a society of fear, believers do not talk about social responsibility, justice, truth, freedom, solidarity, the transformation of society. They prefer to talk about what is extremely remote and abstract – about the soul and eternity. 
            The lack of information justifies passivity and conformity. As a result of aggressive government propaganda and restrictions, the independent media has turned into the monopolization of informational space. This has also affected religious organizations, their official positions and information policy. As Russian folk wisdom puts it, "The less you know, the better you'll sleep." In an environment where knowledge is dangerous, they prefer not to know, but if you do know, then don't speak, and if you do talk, then it's only to utter the most mundane phrases.
            But post-Soviet religious traditions themselves restrict civil and even religious activity itself – there where it intersects the social dimension and touches on painful questions. In local traditions, the practice is to endure in silence, to make whatever compromises if only to save the Church. Therefore, even evangelical churches, most of which were victims of Stalinist repressions, sent congratulatory telegrams to Stalin as a "great friend of all believers," and their leaders assured the West that "the Soviet Union has no prisoners of conscience." This is why the Russian Orthodox Church, which was almost completely destroyed by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s, publishes an obsequious Stalin calendar in 2014 (by the Dostoinstvo [Dignity] publishing house of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra). This is why the leaders of the Protestant associations in Russia talk in the very same Stalinist spirit about the machinations of the West in Ukraine's Maidan [central square in Kiev], repeat the myths about brotherly Slavic nations and the older Russian brother and strangle the neighboring republics in these fraternal embraces.
            What lessons from the past year are worth reaping, so that our attitude to what is going on in the post-Soviet world is more objective and compassionately active?
The primary impediment to civil and religious liberties is not the excessively active intervention of the government, but the passive state of society and indifference of religious organizations. As the cautious Ukrainians say, "It's no concern of mine." [Literally, "My hut is on the edge"].
            Only a strong society can confront the state in pursuit of its legitimate rights and freedoms. How to awaken and strengthen society in the absence of civic institutions? Who can accomplish this, who is capable of coming up with an inspiring and transformative initiative? Given a weak civil society, the most effective of its members may well be the religious organizations. This is why the keys to transforming society are in the hands of the Church. In turn, the transformation of the Church, critical self-examination, reassessment, a renewal of its traditions are possible only in a dialogue of traditions, in close cooperation between national churches and the global Christian community, through international partnerships and networking with experts, through educational, informational, social projects aimed at creating a new generation of leaders for the Church and society.
            Thus, in post-Soviet society, the path to the transformation of society is through the reformation of the Church. What can transform the Church? Training new leaders, interdenominational partnerships, informational accountability by media and society, the activity of independent experts, quality analytics of trends in relations between the Church, society and the state, international support for progressive initiatives, a broad movement of lay Christians extending beyond the mission in professional spheres.
            At the same time, it is now that the most disturbing trends have emerged in the social and theological positions of the post-Soviet Churches: The nostalgia of the Church for Soviet stability; the demonization of Europe, and anti-Americanism; disappointment in Christian opportunities in social reforms; distrust toward the younger generations, the preservation of key positions behind the leaders of the Soviet era; the quiet politicization of the Church ("silence implies consent").
            These negative trends are hardly reversible in the short term. Hope is linked with the new Christian generation that grew up after the USSR. As Thomas Kuhn put it when speaking about scientific paradigms, more often than not proponents of new paradigms triumph not through persuasion, but because the representatives of the old paradigm die out.
            The most positive sign of the new times, of the new (post) post-Soviet era is, I believe, the Ukrainian Maidan – as a manifestation of civil society, as a peaceful form of protest against a corrupt government, as a manifestation of freedom. The foundation of the protest movement is made up of students – the generation of the future. They took upon themselves the brunt of the blow by the police on the night of the violent dispersal on November 30. The second pillar of support is comprised by the journalists, the fifth and for now the only independent estate in the country. The third power is the Church. It is Church who opened its doors to the students hunted by the special police units and protected them. On the night of December 11, internal military forces from the Berkut special units launched a second assault on Maidan, and the Churches rang their bells, summoning the people to help. This is similar to what happened 800 years ago when the Mongol armies of Batu Khan stormed Kiev. Then, the last defenders took refuge in Desyatynna Church [the Church of the Tithe]. Today, the last refuge of freedom and the bulwark of civil society is the Church. It is regrettable that after twenty years of freedom other institutions of civil society never took shape. But it is better to support what there is. The Church, the students and journalists – a worthy triad, and the owners of the future of the post-Soviet countries. The church bells call the people to defend their freedom and to be worthy of it. The extreme social situation returns the Church to a leading role in the development of civil society in post-Soviet countries. The Ukrainian Maidan was the last important event of the outgoing year, and there is hope that 2014 will bear the mark of this peaceful revolution of dignity.

            We must not forget that 2017 is drawing near—the 100 year anniversary of the bloody Russian Revolution and 500 years since the Reformation of Luther. Events could proceed either along the path of the Revolution, or along the path of the Reformation. Without the Reformation of the Church and its active social initiatives, society will go the way of escalating violence, restrictions on freedoms, and the dictates of the state. The Church can prove to be either the object of revolution, or the subject of a Reformation. And so the fate of the post-Soviet history of the Church and the fate of the people are still inextricably linked, which is why the Church's social initiatives are critical to the life of the state and society.
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