“Many of those who built the Soviet state were not originally atheists”

Elena Besschetnova about revolutions in Russia and religious feelings of Russians. Part 2

“Many of those who built the Soviet state were not originally atheists”
Photo: psmb.ru

There is still no unambiguous interpretation of the events of 1917 and 1991 in Russia. Someone perceives them as a disaster, someone — as a gift of history, giving hope for a better life. Elena Besschetnova in the interview with Realnoe Vremya tells about the view of Russian philosophers on the difficult relationship of society, government and religion in our country, which experienced so many shocks in the 20th century. Read the first part here.

“Solovyov guessed the character of the 20th century at the turn of the century”

The authorities in the USSR strongly planted atheism, and all the leaders of the new Russia grew up under state atheism. How did such a sharp turn happen?

I cannot judge about personal religiosity, as you said, of the leaders of the new Russia, as well as of any other person. After all, the sphere of person's relationship with God is a mystery to an outsider. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Let me remind you that many of those who built the Soviet state were not originally atheists. For example, Stalin was baptized and grew up in a religious family, studied at the Tiflis Theological Seminary.

Despite the long period of secularization from above in Russia, despite the “anti-clerical period”, propaganda of atheism, mass arrests of the clergy, religious life in Russia never died. Moreover, there was never an official ban on religion, under Stalin, the Moscow Patriarchate moved to a position of loyalty to the Communist regime, Patriarch Sergius was accused by many for compromising with the authorities, while others believed that it was the only way to preserve the remnants of Church life after mass repression. The Orthodox Church provided significant support to the state, not to the regime, but to the state during the Great Patriotic War.

But the faith was also preserved in the people, not everyone were subject to atheistic propaganda. And that's a fact. You know, Dostoevsky said: I am, first of all, an Orthodox Christian, and because I am an Orthodox Christian — I am a Russian. And almost the same thing this summer I was told by an 80-year-old woman who has lived all her life in a small village 100 km from Saransk. She was born in the thirties, that is, in the period of active struggle with the religious element in society, but she was born a Christian and carried the faith through the Soviet period, having worked on the farm for 60 years. In her 80s, she walks 5km every Sunday with her older sister, who is 83, to a nearby village for liturgy because in their home village the Church was destroyed back in 1937. For them, it is not an empty formality, for them faith is the basis, the stone of all life. Christianity is really perceived by them on a deep personal level. When we said goodbye, she said to me: “I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid of sins.” And that says it all, a small sentence, but how much sense does it make.

Soloviov V.S. Portrait of Yaroshenko N.A. in 1892. Photo: wikipedia.org

You have mentioned Stalin, who studied at the seminary. It turns out that religious education can have the opposite effect?

Religious education does not necessarily lead a person to believe and accept the values of a particular religion as the basis of his own being. Religious feeling is not the result of education, but rather the result of an inner personal revelation, without which any theoretical knowledge of the Holy Scriptures is powerless and fruitless.

But with Stalin it is another story, I think. Actually, I would never call him an atheist, and he did not call for a reassessment of values in the sense that Nietzsche put into this concept. After all, during the Great Patriotic War, the churches were not closed, the Church and the Patriarch personally were an active force in the military struggle, and the legend that Stalin ordered before the battle for Moscow to make an air procession, fly around the city on an airplane, on the board of which there was the Kazan Icon of the Virgin, is also for a reason.

But what you had in mind speaking about the opposite effect was very accurately described back in 1900 by Vladimir Soloviov in his famous A Short Tale of the Antichrist, the appendix to his last and key work War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations. So that's how Soloviov describes the Antichrist: he calls him the coming man, who appeared among the believers-spiritualists. Soloviov notes: “Conscious in himself of the great power of the spirit, he was always a convinced spiritualist, and a clear mind always pointed out to him the truth of what should be believed: good, God, the Messiah. He believed in this but he loved only himself. He believed in God, but in his heart he unconsciously preferred himself to him. He believed in Good, but the all-seeing eye of eternity knew that this man would bow to evil power as soon as it bribed him.”

In the 20th century, there were several such future people who came to the forefront of European history. Soloviov in his last work, imbued with prophetic pathos, guessed the character of the new century at the turn of the century.

During the Great Patriotic War, churches were not closed, the Church and the Patriarch personally were an active force in the military struggle. Photo: kazanchurch.pravorg.ru

“Arguments about who is ‘big brother’ to whom upset the balance between the Church and the state”

Total prohibition of religion, and then total freedom. In the ‘90s in Russia, there was a boom of various sects, groups similar to religious associations. Were people so hungry for spiritual knowledge?

This is not about spiritual knowledge, but rather about the appeal of mystical experience, irrational, unique, free from the establishment of rigid norms. Besides, such religious associations relied rather on the deliverance from instability, suffering, difficulties that have to be dealt with in a situation of socio-political and economic turbulence on their own, it often involved the apocalyptic theme, and all together waited for the Second coming and deliverance.

It is interesting that if after the revolution of 1917, there was a religious revival of the free Church, then in the ‘90s there still prevailed informal sects, which clearly opposed themselves to organized religious life in the Church, which was perceived, perhaps, as an authoritarian institution, encroaching on freedoms. The sects were more attractive. Although, in fact, it’s the opposite.

In the 21st century, is the Russian secular power the “big brother” for the Church? How much does the state govern (implicitly influence) the situation in the ROC and in other faiths?

First, let's see what meaning is put into the concept of “Church”. After all, the Church is, first of all, not a social institution, but an assembly (from the Greek ecclesia), or convoked. In other words, it is an assembly of believers, that is, not an institution, not a building, but people. For a Christian, the Church is the body of Christ, all who have received salvation through faith in the resurrection, it is one and indivisible, according to Paul the Apostle: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given one Spirit to drink. For the body does not consist of one part, but of many.”

But the state is just an institution, an institution of power and management of society, the institution of maintaining order in it. The state is a secular environment, not a community of believers. Ideally, it is assumed that in such an environment peacefully coexist and express their opinions not only representatives of different faiths, religions, but also people who are non-believers, so the religious component cannot affect the legal status of citizens.

Meeting of the local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. 1917. Sixth from the right — Evgeny Trubetskoy. Photo: wikipedia.org

Actually, in Russian thought this is a common place, about the non-confessional character of the state and the need for equality was written by Vladimir Soloviov, who spoke with sharp criticism of the subordination of the Church to state interests, with criticism of the actions of the Holy Synod and its chief prosecutor, as well as speeches in support of the Poles and Jews, and all this was happening in Russia under Alexander III. It is interesting that, being a religious thinker, Soloviov in 1891 published the essay ‘On the decline of the medieval worldview’, in which he made a revolutionary idea that caused the indignation of many of his contemporaries, in particular Konstantin Leontiev. It is the idea that unbelievers were also the engines of modern progress, who acted in favoгr of true Christianity, undermining the false medieval worldview.

But there is a nuance. For example, for Soloviov and Trubetskoy, the state, being outside the inner life of the Church, must still serve religious purposes. In what way? The state is a powerful institution that ensures order in society, that is, the state does not interfere in the affairs of the Church, does not replace the Church, but creates such conditions under which free choice, free personal religious experience, internal revelation are possible, without which the Church is no longer a Church in the sense in which this word was originally laid.

Trubetskoy formulated it as follows: “It practically means that the state should receive a guiding norm not from an external order of the spiritual power but from religious belief.”

Actually, the correct relationship between the Church and the state exists in modern Russian society at the legal level, there is also a principle of non-confessional state, unlike, for example, the situation that was in the Russian Empire. And the maintenance of this balance is the task of society, believers and non-believers, and the attempts to get carried away with the arguments about who is who's “big brother” break this balance. It all because the majority does not have a clear idea of the tasks of the Church and the tasks of the state.

Vladimir Soloviov who spoke with sharp criticism of subordination of the Church to state interests, with criticism of actions of the most Holy Synod and its chief prosecutor. Photo: citywalls.ru

What do modern religious thinkers say about our time?

Modern religious thinkers — it is put very well. In my opinion, they do not exist today. There are researchers who studied the history of Russian religious thought, ideas of Russian religious philosophers and through the prism of their ideas continue to uphold those same ideals. The emphasis is on the religious and metaphysical aspects of human existence.

Philosophers usually focus on the identity crisis associated with the lack of obvious success of the European official policy of multiculturalism. It takes place against the background of the active transformation of European values generated by Christian civilization, and the emergence of forces against their implementation. Actually, the theme of the crisis, being on the edge of culture and a transitional moment in the history of European humanity is again in the spotlight, so those moves aimed at overcoming the crisis situation and proposed by Russian thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century are again relevant.

By Matvey Antropov