20 August 2012

More silliness: the theological orientalism of Sojo

I liken my own position on Pussy Riot to that of Dr Barry Sautman of CUHK on Liu Xiaobo. I oppose the two-year gaol sentence as excessive and unmerciful, but I do not think that they deserve to be hailed as heroes of any sort, particularly when their domestic champions are kleptocrats like Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, or racist cockroaches like Alexei Navalniy. Moreover, I object to their (and their white-knights’) targeting of the Russian Orthodox Church (or any of its sister churches) and the theological orientalism which usually goes into such arguments. What do I mean by theological orientalism, you ask?

As John from EifD commented on my last post about Pussy Riot, Russia is today being treated with the same contempt and condescension in Anglo-American academic circles as the Byzantine Empire once was: to them, Russia is irredeemably backwards, corrupt and tyrannical, with an ah-so-inscrutable, mystical religion doing the Tsar’s bidding by keeping the populace in a state of meek, stupefied subservience. The more I read the comments about the case, the more valid the charge against Anglo-American theology seems. For example, the recent article by Mr Christian Piatt in Sojo (usually a fairly progressive evangelical publication) runs straight down the line on these stereotypes. In Mr Piatt’s reckoning:
this state church has been in the pocket of the government for quite a long time, it turns out. In reading up a little more, the choice of such a church for their protest seems less shocking and more concertedly poignant, given the church’s complicity in promoting the agenda of the Powers that Be. Rather than standing up in the face of authority as an advocate for the poor and oppressed (arguably one of the principal responsibilities of a church), they have joined in the subjugation of human rights in Russia.

So, where better to turn the tables over than in the so-called house of God, turned over time into a gilded bed for political opportunism?
One should be led to ask precisely what ‘reading up’ Mr Piatt has done on the subject. Apparently, he touched no material on the matter on how the Orthodox Church resisted the Bolsheviks until the Second World War was practically on the doorstep. Or about how it was brutally suppressed by Stalin up until the 1940’s, and then again (less bloodily) by Khrushchev in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Were they ‘in the pocket of the government’ when they stood up against the scorched-earth shock-therapy ‘reforms’? Were they not ‘advocat[ing] for the poor and oppressed’ when they issued this statement: ‘We have to learn to resolutely reject criminal amorality in economy and refuse to cooperate with dishonest and unscrupulous people. Those who do not pay wages in good time, humiliate the worker and stifle business through red tape deserve persistent and staunch public condemnation. Economy should be not only effective, but also equitable and merciful, addressed to the human being, not only money and goods’? Or what about the longstanding relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s trade unions, even abroad where Orthodox faithful joined such groups as the IWW? Yes, the Russian Orthodox Church sometimes advocates a level of respect for temporal authority we in the West might find uncomfortable (even if it is in keeping with the missive of St Paul to the Romans). But the reality of the matter is complex; the Russian Orthodox Church has not lost its sense of economic justice, and not to acknowledge that is to engage in a vicious and insidious form of stereotyping.

Particularly when it comes to Putin. If one really wants to advocate for the poor and the oppressed in Russia, one cannot ignore that Putin has in truth done more on their behalf than any Russian leader before him. Between 1999 and 2008, under Putin’s watch, the real median income more than doubled, and the real median wage tripled. Unemployment fell from 12.9% in 1999 to 6.3% in 2008. The poverty gap index fell from 4.9% of total household income to 1.2% over the same period. Even the Gini coefficient stayed pretty much flat over the period (inequality, even if it did not get better, at least did not get worse). The biggest problem with this was that it was all on the back of the minerals and petrol sector, one of the few economic resources remaining under domestic control after everything else had been sold off under the gangster-capitalist rule of Yeltsin. Neither Putin nor Medvedev have yet engineered viable solutions for these recurring problems.

Has Putin been an ideal leader for Russia? Far from it. Can more be done in Russia for the equality and dignity of the downtrodden, the working class and women? Absolutely, and I would encourage Mr Piatt to continue thinking on how best to do that. But it makes zero sense for him to blame the Russian Orthodox Church for having abrogated its duties in that regard in their support of Putin, particularly when none of the present political alternatives to Putin are even remotely appealing for such a mission. In the meanwhile, using outmoded stereotypes of a detached, mystical, inscrutable and corrupt ‘Eastern’ Church (as opposed to our enlightened, accessible, trendy and politically-conscious ‘Western’ one) is distasteful and silly, as well as being morally wrong. We may be well-advised to take out the logs in our own eyes before we reach for the mote in our Orthodox brothers’ and sisters’.


  1. I largely agree with this. If not Putin, who? Whatever you want to say about him he's better than Yelstin, and far, far better than the CPSU. Putin is no worse than your typical Latin American caudillo, a type which the USA had no trouble cutting deals with during the Cold War.

    Two years is a bit much but the Russians are understandably touchy about this particular Cathedral since it was dynamited by the Communists before being rebuilt in the '90s. I wonder how many western commentators realize this.

    One thing I don't understand is why the transition to democracy and a mixed market economy was so badly bungled by Russia (which is what led to Putin being seen as the better alternative) when it was for the most part successful in the rest of Eastern Europe? This is true even in countries that had far more repressive Communist parties in power prior to 1989, like Romania.

  2. Hello again, Benjamin, and welcome back to the blog!

    Yes, the context of the Cathedral is indeed important, but the self-righteous among the Anglo-American liberal punditry generally don't think it worth paying attention to. I am also not a particularly big fan of Putin's brand of politics, which is something of a blend between Bonapartism and - yes, I think you characterised it quite well - Bolivarism. Still, better him than Navalny or Mitrokhin or Zyuganov.

    That said, I am not quite sure where you are coming from on the rest of Eastern Europe. I don't necessarily disagree, but I would be curious to know the details of your position. Even Poland's transition has proven fairly problematic when seen in the long run, even though it made the smoothest transition to a democratic market economy (having rejected shock therapy and opted for a more gradualist policy). The Ukraine has made some admirable progress, and Belarus also, since the end of the Soviet era; even now, though, both countries continue to have fairly serious political and economic worries.

  3. As I see it, sections of the old communist elite class wanted neoliberal capitalism because they saw that they would profit greatly from it, certainly more than they would under a reformed form of socialism or social democracy. It seems Putin's brand of state capitalism has at least ended the worst abuses from the '90s.

    I would say that there is a general lack of understanding among some Westerners about how bad the transition was for many people. It easy to look at the success stories while forgetting about the women who drifted into prostitution, or the men who have to live like nomads looking for work in the West. Plus the increases in drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. Marxism-Leninism was a very bad ideology, but at least its evils were obvious. Neoliberalism is outward glitz hiding inner rot.