An Overview of Syncretism in Russia: Orthodoxy and Sovietism

socialist-clipart-K9cR4BbTeBy: Padraig McGrath

The Synthetic Public Ideology of Putin’s Russia

The reconstruction of the Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky is a microcosm of a broad social reality



OLDENGLIituated adjacent to the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol, the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky is a magnificent structure. Gilded onion-domes, Greco-Roman columns and pediments – it looks every bit as classy as a well financed Orthodox cathedral should be. On entering, a question occurs to me, however – why are the icons not completely flat? The depictions of the various saints seem almost crypto-Catholic, more three-dimensional than you’d expect, not like Byzantine iconography. Novgorod it ain’t.

My friend Nikita explains that the local bishop is a western Ukrainian, so this style of iconography just seems more natural to him. Locals refer to it as “Disney-style.” I smile at this answer – is there a residual attempt toward “Ukrainianization” at work? Nikita doesn’t think so – any Orthodox bishop in present-day Crimea pushing an agenda of “Ukrainianization” on any level whatsoever would very quickly find himself without an office – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

14012145_1058264960922671_1388749002_nThe rebuilding of this cathedral has been a long time in coming. Started in 2000, the project ran into financial difficulties, but was almost complete by the time of Crimea’s re-unification with Russia in March 2014. At that point, there was a federal cash-injection to accelerate the final phase, and authorization was received to name President Vladimir Putin as the project’s political sponsor. Most renovations or reconstructions of buildings of cultural significance in Russia have named political sponsors. For example, the planned Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Ak-Mechet area of Simferopol is sponsored by the current governor of the Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov.

Right outside the cathedral-fence, there’s a memorial-space dedicated to the Great Patriotic War. The centre-piece of the war-memorial is a T-34 tank mounted on a marble pedestal. Somebody, probably a member of the public, has hoisted a Soviet flag on the hatch of the tank, and there is a candle-holder placed beside it. Right next to the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky. This is striking when you consider that the original cathedral was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1930. It is also noteworthy in that this war-memorial was redesigned in 2003, when Crimea was still under Ukrainian administration – for those living under Ukrainian jurisdiction, Soviet patriotism had not been a taboo until quite recently. But then again, this is Crimea.

It is almost inconceivable that these two spaces, the cathedral and the war-memorial, were not conceptualized in tandem. There seems to be a quite conscious fusion of Orthodox Christian and Soviet symbols. Ideological synthesis par excellence. And, however much it has subsequently been deemed problematic in crisis-ridden Ukraine, you will find this symbolic fusion of Orthodox Christianity with Soviet patriotism throughout Putin’s Russia today. The claim that, under Putin, there has been a “re-Sovietization” of Russia is far too simplistic. The public ideology of Putin’s Russia is synthetic and amorphous. It manifests itself in architecture and on public holidays rather than through formal argumentation. One of the central modalities of that ideology is to continuously invoke symbols from the two worldviews which have most shaped Russian people’s collective historical experience – Orthodox Christianity and communism. Whatever tensions may or may not be seen to arise between the formal propositional contents of these views of the world, there are also deep commonalities, most notably the emphasis on ethical collectivism. And this taps into the zeitgeist quite well – at street-level, there are a lot of Ortho-communists in Russia today.

In Russian group-consciousness, in Russian thought about society and morality, there is a self-aware tension between two contradictory impulses. We could label these impulses “the transcendentalist impulse” and “the historicist impulse.”

The transcendentalist impulse is evident in a whole range of manifestations of Russian culture and Russian self-consciousness. We can see it in the work of Leo Tolstoy. We can see it in the heroic stoicism which Russians have displayed during their periods of most dire social crisis, and their resulting capacity for self-sacrifice. It’s there in front of you every time you step inside an Orthodox church. Of all of the variants of Christianity still to be found in the world today, the one with the most transcendental conception of God is Orthodox Christianity.

However, this transcendentalist impulse operates in continuous tension with the historicist impulse. Ultimately, Russians see collective historical experience as the acid-test of a worldview’s validity. That is to say, their epistemological criteria for evaluating views of the world are explicitly not transcendental. At the risk of a reductive transcription, this is something akin to what American philosophers refer to as “pragmatism” – the belief that the truth is that which works. For example, take the relationship which many Russians have simultaneously with Orthodox Christianity and Marxism as belief-systems. 57% of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians but, in many cases, their philosophical and political coordinates are still broadly Marxist. More generally, however, we could describe the prevailing synthetic ideological impulse as “Ortho-Sovietism” rather than “Ortho-communism” or “Ortho-Marxism” – the communist symbols are usually more an expression of Soviet patriotism than about theories of political economy.

Russians who adhere simultaneously to both Christianity and Marxism as worldviews do so because, ultimately, they do not attempt to justify either in terms of some set of transcendental criteria. They take both worldviews as normative because both have been huge influences on their collective historical experience. Collective historical experience is their core epistemological criterion. By espousing both simultaneously, Russians implicitly KobaIconcommit themselves to the most material of all possible gods – the Hegelian-Feuerbachean-Marxist deification of the process of history itself (a curiously post-Protestant kind of god). By taking collective historical experience as that which confers normativity, their god suddenly becomes a historico-existential god rather than a transcendental one. Ultimately, Russians who are sympathetic to both Marxism and Christianity see no need to resolve the (purely formal) contradiction – both are taken as normative because both were brought forth by “History,” and so form the basis for social glue, for collective experience and collective normative self-awareness. Russians’ collectivism leads them to the deification of history. Russia has its own internal culture-wars, like every other country, but Russians still tend to see the cat-fights between religious believers and atheists in the west as absurd, as the worst excesses of 18th century transcendentalist epistemology.

But make no mistake, the tension between these two impulses runs far deeper than the contradictions between two competing ideologies. It is a tension between a metaphysics of the sublime and a metaphysics of history. It is, in another form, the eternal tension which lies at the heart of Christianity itself – the interplay/tension between the transcendental father and the immanent son, the tension that inheres within a religious faith whose deity who becomes fully spiritual only insofar as he is kenotic, only insofar as he de-transcendentalizes himself. But for Russians this inner tension, homologous with a paradigmatically Christian metaphysics, collapses insofar as it is ultimately sustained by historicity itself. Ultimately, it is Russians’ faith in the god of immanent history which enables them to live out their transcendentalist impulse. In short, many Russians justify a Christian faith through a Marxist-historicist epistemology, thus dissolving the purely formal contradiction between their respective propositional contents. It is a classically Hegelian “negation of negation.” But this means that both impulses are self-ironizing. It is the self-awareness in relation to these inner tensions, and therefore the implicit understanding that they do not need to be resolved, which creates the cognitive space in which to be Russian.

It cannot be overstated just how deeply Team Putin understands all of this. The red star and the red flag have re-appeared, neither explicitly encouraged nor discouraged by the federal government, but Putin’s political technologists still capture and draw upon the iconographic power of Soviet symbols with great skill – they understand perfectly well that a lot of punters will bring the red flags to the party. The public celebrations of the 2nd anniversary of Crimea’s re-unification with Russia in March could have been a Soviet festival – during the concert given in Simferopol by the band of the Sevastopol Black Sea fleet and the Kuban Cossacks Choir, Lenin Square was awash with Soviet regalia. People who have never lived in Russia might not fully grasp the extent to which, as a civic faith, the Soviet Union still exists.

However, the federal government is quite open in its patronage of religious institutions. Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, as the faiths traditional to Russia’s kaleidoscope of small “narody,” are all seen as naturally constitutive of the country’s social and cultural life. On this basis, the federal government offers financial assistance, not only for the renovation and rebuilding of Orthodox churches, but also for the building of very flashy mosques. A federally financed super-mosque is planned for Marino in south Simferopol. In such an endlessly multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-confessional society, this pluralistic religious policy has always been essential to prevent the country from breaking up. Ivan the Terrible conceptualized Russia as “the third Rome,” but its religious policy, of necessity, has always been more similar to that of the Persian empire. The genius of Putin’s team of political technologists is in how they pre-discursively synthesize all of these symbols together – a few years living in Russia will gradually make you less logocentric – you begin to understand that, whether the symbols which it invokes are religious or secular, iconography is very important.

The gradual re-invigoration of organized religion in Russia over the past 20 years is part of a process which Russians refer to as “dukhovnye skrepy” (“spiritual strengthening”). It should be noted that this is seen as having a primarily civic function insofar as it seen as indispensable to the country’s economic and (long-term) territorial self-defence, and to the maintenance of control over Russia’s vast natural resources. Loosely speaking, this has a precedent in Russian history – Peter the Great had abolished the office of the Patriarch in 1700, and effectively made the Russian Orthodox Church a department of state. This bore resemblances to the “national church” model of many European Protestant monarchies. Peter saw this as necessary to his efforts to modernize Russian society, and to turn Russia into a great European power. Putin’s gravitation toward the church, and the “dukhovnye skrepy” in general, can be seen in similar terms. Most Russians believe that, as a precursor to any tangible attempt to gain control over Russian territory or Russia’s natural resources, western institutional actors will first attempt to depoliticize and infantilize the Russian people. The “dukhovnye skrepy” is seen as a prophylactic against the geo-strategic threat of western soft power. This, in turn, helps to explain why many Russian non-Christians, for example Russian Jews, see themselves as adjunct-stakeholders in the Russian Orthodox Church as a civic, cultural and intellectual project.

Sometimes this synthesis of Orthodox Christian and Soviet symbols gets a little more sophisticated. Take, for example, a brief press-conference which Putin gave outside the Transfiguration Cathedral in Saint Petersburg at Christmas 2012, having just celebrated the liturgy there. A young journalist asked an obviously planted question – why had Putin come to this cathedral specifically for the Christmas liturgy? Why was he not celebrating the Christmas liturgy in a rural church, as was his usual habit?

Putin proceeded to explain that he had been baptized in the Transfiguration Cathedral. He further explained that he had been baptized in secret by his mother, because his father was “a member of the communist party, and a loyal and uncompromising man.”

It is entirely plausible that all of the key details in this story are factually true – during the Soviet period, many Russians were baptized in secret so as to circumvent the objections of communist parents or other family members. Nonetheless, he was still pressing all the buttons. The deeper ideological narrative in this story is quite sophisticated – he was saying “My contradictions are your contradictions – I myself am a product of the great ideological conflict which has defined our collective historical experience in this past century. Like you, I embody this conflict, and therefore I also embody the synthesis of these two things.”

And, in attempting to explicate the ideological subtext of Putin’s story in this way, my usage of the verb “to embody” should be unpacked further, because it has Christological connotations which would certainly not be lost on Putin or his team of political technologists, or for that matter, on a large segment of his political constituency. At first glance, Putin is telling a story about his mother, his father and the circumstances of his baptism, and so the story’s deeper ideological subtext is expressed through a biological allegory of sorts, in the same way that the Christian narrative itself works through a biological metaphor. Arguably the most historically influential tradition of Christology centres around a concept first devised by Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher – “spermatikos logos” (literally, “the seed of the word”). Among Christians, Christ is conceptualized as divine insofar as he is a manifestation of logos, or if you will, insofar as he embodies this logos – his subjectivity is the locus wherein this logos is manifested. Putin, in representing himself as a product of the conflict between communism and Orthodox Christianity, an ideological fault-line which defined the Russian 20th century, becomes the embodiment of their synthesis.

It would be simplistic to see this as mere “manipulation” of the masses by Putin and his image-makers, because that term would at least loosely imply that Putin’s political constituency was unaware of the story’s manifold subtexts. On the contrary, sophisticated Russians (at least) would regard the above analysis of Putin’s story as banal – they are perfectly well aware of the buttons which are being pressed and, by and large, they happen to like the couched ideological narrative very much. Ortho-Sovietism is the synthetic civic faith which secures their commitment, and Putin is its political expression.

However, not all of the modalities in this symbolic synthesis of Soviet ideology with Orthodox Christianity are unique to Russia. More globally, the Marxist tradition has gradually shed a lot of its original hostility to religion. Marx’s assertion in 1844 that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” has given way to an attempt within the Marxist tradition to understand religious movements from a phenomenological perspective. Marx’s critique was appropriate to the 19th century, when religion was still integrally a part of bourgeois society’s ideological apparatus, but it isn’t really anymore – if anything, religious movements now usually operate as sources of resistance to the rampages of Big Capital. Russia’s “dukhovnye skrepy” and the synthesis of Ortho-Sovietism as a civic church are part of a wider global pattern, which sees gradually more strategic (and sometimes philosophical) alliances between leftist emancipatory politics and religious movements.

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1 thought on “An Overview of Syncretism in Russia: Orthodoxy and Sovietism

  1. Thank you for this analysis. Some light, still, in the growing darkness of The Empire. Maybe Enlightenment has a chance to survive this darkness.

    The only chance for Russia to prevail is not to forget its history. Never ever.

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