28 May 2019

An updated trichotomy of Russian political theology


I wonder if this isn’t something I should flesh out into a fuller-length academic paper, but here it goes. One of the things that kind of gets my goat about online discussions of ‘convertodoxy’ (to which, as an Orthodox convert not uncritically sympathetic to Russia, I tend to react a bit defensively) is that Russian Orthodox political theology is presented as something of a monolith. Part of the reason that I react defensively is because I deliberately try not to be a ‘that guy’ convert. But another thing that annoys me is that even though much of the ‘convertodox’ impulse is (purportedly) guided by Greek authors like the late Fr John Romanides, and even though Fr John Romanides’s most convincing scholastic critics within Orthodoxy came from the Slavic and particularly the Russian tradition, for some reason all of the pathologies of Western ‘Convertodoxy’ all get pinned on Russia.

I say ‘for some reason’, as though I’m being coy. I know very well the cause, unfortunately. This has to do with the political perception that Russian Orthodoxy is somehow singularly in a ‘special relationship’ with a particular brand of reaction in the United States, both theological and political. And this political perception is common among both hostile commentators of the Russiagate variety, and sympathetic reactionaries of the Charlottesville variety. Never mind that our current crop of political reactionaries are, generally speaking, anything but theologically conservative. But even on its own merits, this perception is misguided. As I said back in 2016 and have been saying ever since, any idea that Russian political life or Russian church life is engaged in some kind of ‘bromance’ with Trump specifically or American conservatism generally is pure fantasy. The collapse of the Russiagate story and some recent Pew polling data, in fact, both seem to demonstrate that this is the case on both sides. And my own interactions with Russian Orthodoxy, both in the Rodina and in the various diaspora communities, demonstrate a tradition which can in fact be far more diverse politically than the American electorate itself.

Drawing on this experience, and noticing several broad trends within the various Russian Orthodox communities – the reason for the plural to become apparent momentarily – I feel a need to ‘sketch’, the same way the religious historian GP Fedotov did, a kind of historical-political-theological trichotomy of Russian Orthodox social thought. Fedotov remains immensely invaluable, as sensitive as he was to what he called ‘historiosophy’, the inner workings of Russian spiritual life as it played out in history. He was able to diagnose, through Russian treatments of political violence and sex, three distinct theopolitical strands that emerged from the Kievan Rus’ polity. He identified these strands with the ecclesiastical centres of the Rus’ after the fall of Kiev: Novgorod, Moscow and Galich. And he clearly sympathised most ardently with the Novgorodian strand of Russian spiritual life, which he felt most jealously preserved and transmitted the radically-charitable legacy of Kievan Rus’ spirituality. Fedotov held that Galich became too westernised through its contact with Poland-Lithuania, and began adopting various Western styles of thought and sanctions of political violence; and he began to suspect that Moscow had developed an internal cynicism and a too-easy adaptation to the ugly realities of political power. As I’ve said before also, Fedotov’s typology is typical of the diaspora Russian left-liberal views of his day and age, who were quite fond of Novgorod and sceptical of ‘Muscovite’ theology. But given the rather surprising rôle-reversal of Novgorod (along with Saint Petersburg) and Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union, and also the post-Soviet travails of the Russian Rodina and the diaspora in the years since 1991, Fedotov’s trichotomy stands rather badly in need of an expansion and update. Allow me to put my cards on the table, then, and I invite all thoughtful and constructive critique particularly from my Russian friends who are more knowledgeable and more attuned to these cultural shifts than I (a convert observer with novice Russian language skills) am.

I notice three very distinct ‘styles’ in Russian political theology, which can be drawn like elliptical orbits around a single common focus. The first orbit is that of the Rodina itself, in which fall both Novgorod/Saint Petersburg and Moscow – the chief concern of the Rodina’s political theology is the problem of suffering. The second orbit, drawn around the Rodina in all directions but elliptically sweeping westward, is the near diaspora. The near diaspora is concerned with the problems of minority politics, and with the unique problem of composing plurality-minority populations in Eastern and Central European post-Soviet polities which belong to a ‘bigger’ civilisational world. I would liken them, in many respects, to the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and Indochina, because the key concerns are soft power, civilisation and the retention of modest gains in social welfare and political rights. It is in the near diaspora, more so than in the Rodina or in further reaches, that the idea of the Russkiy Mir draws the most serious and careful attention. The third and broadest orbit is what I call the far diaspora: these are the people whose cross, whose podvig, is to deal with being ‘rootless’ and thus free and existentially-untethered in Mother Maria’s sense of the word. Some in the diaspora deal with this rootlessness in far healthier ways than others. I would not characterise the entirety of the far diaspora this way, but it is mostly in the far diaspora that you see the extremes of white émigré politics both reactionary and liberal; it is here that you see the most craven forms of liberal gharbzadegi and the most intriguingly-contorted forms of transferred nationalism for ‘Holy Russia’.

Allow me to explicate some. My interactions with the thought of the Rodina have been largely through my friend Paul Grenier and the intellectual and religious circles he moves in in Moscow – and that includes also my colleagues and elders at Tetradi po konservatizmu. The works of Boris Mezhuev, of Aleksei Osipov, of Aleksandr Shchipkov – are incredibly and delightfully diverse, energetic, effervescent. The fact that they seem to defy conventional political classification, that they are equally willing to engage deeply and charitably with both Marx and de Maistre, is even better. But if I were to draw a single thread of commonality that could engage them all, it would be this: they are attuned with particular sensitivity to theologies of suffering.

One could argue with some justice that, in its roots, all Russian theology has been concerned with suffering for a long time – for example, that the preoccupation with suffering and its meaning was a hallmark of the literary theology of Dostoevsky. This is true and this is valid. There’s no question but modern Russian theology is self-aware in its debts to Dostoevsky. I hate to be too reductive here, because any too-pat characterisation I may make of the great philosophical minds I mentioned above would be insufficient. But the modern theology of the Rodina, even and especially in its more conservative and nationalist forms, all takes place in the light of the suffering of the 1990s, just as the ‘death of God’ theology in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s was a reaction to the horrors, devastation and heinous crimes of the Second World War (which also still shapes Russian theology).

It strikes me, particularly when reading the work of Mezhuev and Shchipkov, that the focus on suffering has this much more proximate catalyst. Whether we like it or not, neither Saint Basil the Great nor Vladimir Lenin rank high on the list of reasons that political thought in the Russian Rodina still so heavily rejects capitalism. Russia is not quite well-catechised enough to appropriate Basil in its spiritual vernacular, and the lingering Orthodox wariness of Marxism is well-grounded. Instead, capitalism in Russia is associated viscerally with shock therapy and the 1990s: gratuitous comfort and ease for a few; gratuitous starvation, alcoholism and despair for the many. Russian theology cannot help but reject capitalism; their experience of capitalism has been as an experience of a visitation by Antichrist.

In the near diaspora, Orthodox theology becomes a little stranger. We start moving away from the sufferings of ‘the people’ (that is to say the thede or the ‘narod’) and start moving toward specific experiences of the Orthodox as an abandoned ‘nation’ (‘natsiya’) in search of a broader civilisational belonging. The rejection of capitalism is, in most instances, still there – more on that later. But the questions of communal and cultural rights become more pressing concerns. In fact, even the term ‘near diaspora’ is something of a misleading moniker on my part; these people do consider themselves to be part of the Rodina, because they are Russian and they did not move: only a border happened to shift around them and they suddenly found themselves part of another polity.

This experience is particularly endemic to the Carpatho-Rusin people, whose long history goes something like this. The Rusins were, alongside the Bulgarians and the Serbs, among the first Slavic Orthodox peoples. At first they were Croats who were proselytised by Saints Cyril and Methodius whose feast we celebrated just this past week. Then they were incorporated into the Rus’ after the baptism of Saint Vladimir, and took for themselves the name of Rus’ which they have held ever since. They were conquered by the Poles and subject to Polish servitude, taxation, drudgery and abuse. They were conquered by the Hungarians and incorporated into the Habsburg Monarchy – and continued to be subject to servitude, taxation, drudgery and abuse. Many left Austria-Hungary for America, where they became miners, factory workers and union activists. The Rusins were incorporated into an independent Czechoslovak state of their own will, and got a much better deal œconomically, but no political autonomy. And then they were largely incorporated into the Soviet Union (and many sent to Siberia) or subject to Operation Vistula by Communist Poland. And now the Ukraine abuses them, oppresses them, tells them they are Ukrainians (albeit ‘uplanders’), and forbids them to speak their own language in school.

The Carpatho-Rusins present us with a rather extreme example, and the cultural politics of central Europe complicate matters for them to the point where I tend to consider them sui generis. Indeed, the question of whether Carpatho-Rusins are in fact Russians is a politically-contentious one. But at a certain level, the experience of the Carpatho-Rusins is paradigmatic of near-diaspora Russians generally in the post-Soviet world order: the people who didn’t move, but simply found themselves on the wrong side of a border (or four or five, in the Carpatho-Rusin case). Their passports were no longer valid. Their language was no longer taught in schools. Their pensions started to evaporate. Their freedom of movement was restricted. Their livelihoods came under attack with the imposition of capitalism. Their loyalties were subject to question. This situation, to varying degrees, describes Russians not only in the Ukraine, but also in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and the Central Asian ‘Stans’. Belarus and Kazakhstan present special cases wherein authoritarian governments guided by post-Soviet ideologies heavily curtailed Russian political rights, but historically kept their cultural, linguistic and religious communal integrity intact by sustained effort and political will. But in the other polities, democratic ideology has come into direct conflict with humanitarian praxis.

As a result, the idea of the ‘Russian world’, the Russkiy Mir, has a very different meaning and connotation for the ethnic Russians living in post-Soviet states, than it does for ideologically-Atlanticist strategists who analyse it as empire by other means. In Slovakia, the Rusins tend to embrace the left-populist politics of the Direction party. Ethnic Russians living in the Baltic states tend to embrace various forms of centre-left welfarist and green politics. And in Belarus and Kazakhstan, ethnic Russians and Russian Orthodox Church structures tend to be quietly supportive of their respective governments.

In terms of what this means for the political theology of the Russian near diaspora, it also tends toward a kind of anti-capitalism. But there is mixed into it not a meditation on suffering and loss (though some of these populations have indeed suffered greatly), rather a concern for shoring up various forms of political and œconomic security for vulnerable populations. The anti-capitalism of the Russians, including the Russian clergy, in ex-Soviet and Eastern European lands tends to be slightly more Western-leaning and slightly more petit-bourgeois in its fixations. They are happy to engage with Russkiy Mir thinking as a way of building solidarity and as a way of affirming continuity with the Russian civilisation; but they are also wary enough of gæopolitical games that – as in the case of Latvia’s Russians – they can and do distance themselves from the Russkiy Mir project when pressured. The civilisational-loyalty of the near diaspora is by no means absolute or non-negotiable.

And then we get to the far diaspora: the Russians who actually did leave the Rodina in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries either on account of Tsarist or Soviet persecution, and acculturated themselves in varying degrees to Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan. The political theology of the far diaspora is characterised by both genius and madness; both heroism and cravenness; both revolution and reaction; extreme Westernism, extreme nationalism; both nihilism and sublime personalism. The ‘Odinic wanderings’ of the Russian exiles have produced, if I may borrow the imagery from Tolkien, both Sarumans and Gandalfs. Far diaspora theology is, like the diaspora community itself, blown apart in a number of senses – and the keenest and most compassionate (but by no means uncritical) observer of the spiritual plight of the Russian diaspora was herself one of its most scintillating spiritual geniuses, Mother Maria Skobtsova.

Again, it is not and never has been my desire to ‘diss’ the far diaspora. Indeed, the fact that Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others are being read with rapt attention by clerics, monastics and religious scholars in the Rodina itself should be indication that there is a great deal of spiritual wealth and new life that has grown from this uprooted population. The far diaspora has indeed produced these beautiful blossoms of great creativity and spiritual vigour. But—this population has also been responsible, to an extraordinary degree, for a great deal of spiritual distortion, auto-orientalisation and thoughtless reaction, even and especially if that reaction is of a ‘liberal’ variety. The inability of certain segments of the Russian diaspora to accept the ascetic burdens of rootlessness (that is what they are!), has led them to entrench and embattle themselves against imaginary dæmons that still haunt their exilic past.

In some cases, this has meant locking themselves into an eternal Manichæan battle with the ghosts of long-dead Soviets, whom they now see lurking behind the façade of Western liberalism and progressivism. Sadly, commentators like Rod Dreher at The American Conservative seem to be bent on uncritically amplifying the voices of this particular subset of white émigré thought. In other cases, like that of the editors and commentators of The Wheel (Hovorun, Leonova, Denysenko et al.), this has meant mimicking Michael Ignatieff’s full-on embrace of Western liberalism and all of its gæopolitical accoutrements, as the only weapon to hand able to halt the advance of Stalinist Putinist ideology. Even though these two groups – the extreme white émigré reactionaries and the extreme white émigré liberals – are always at each other’s throats on social media, the irony is that they resemble nothing so much as mirror-images of each other. They exemplify the same sorts of narrow ideological stridency; the same blind, hostile reactivity; the same ressentiment. Both white émigré groups even exemplify – despite a superficial support for Israeli statehood claims – the same dank, telltale whiff of anti-Semitic conspiratorial thinking when the subject turns to ‘cultural Marxism’ or to post-Soviet Eastern European nationalisms. Fundamentalism and high modernism always were two sides of the same base coin.

Again, I apologise to my readers – particularly those for whom Russian is a first language and who are better-acquainted with the source material than I am – if what I say here is off the mark. I am attempting, after all, to describe various broad cultural and political trends from an ‘outsider’s’ (or, at best, ‘far diaspora’ myself) position. There are, I’m quite sure, distasteful and unhealthy trends in both Rodina and near diaspora intellectual and political life that I’m missing. I’m also open to the distinct possibility that I’m overstating my case, and that continuities exist between all of these communities that this trichotomy doesn’t account for.

Even so: the tendencies of the spirituality of the Rodina (Patriarch Saint Tikhon and the various catacomb saints of the Russian mainland), of the near diaspora (Saint John of Riga; Saint Iov of Ugolka) and of the far diaspora (Mother Maria; Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco), all display very different spiritual trajectories and styles, and some form of more careful differentiation is needed in light of this divided history. It simply won’t do to speak of ‘Russian Orthodox political theology’ as though it were a monolith – but it also won’t do to concentrate solely on ‘far diaspora’ thought as though the Russian heartland and mainland herself were spiritually inert; still less to attribute the various illnesses and hangovers of ‘far diaspora’ thought onto Russian political theology as a whole.

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