Magazine article The Christian Century

Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia

Magazine article The Christian Century

Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia

Article excerpt

Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia

By John P. Burgess

Yale University Press, 280 pp., $30.00

Exactly a century ago, Russia's Orthodox Church entered a period of persecution and suffering perhaps greater in scale and severity than was ever inflicted on any Christian body. Contrary to the mythology created by the Bolshevik tormentors, the church was no mere haven of reaction and bigotry. Russian Orthodoxy in 1917 was blessed with a vibrant spirituality and a dazzling cultural outreach, which left its mark on many of the pioneers of modern art, literature, and music worldwide. A distinctive form of social gospel activism extended church influence into working class and peasant life.

Yet within two decades, all seemed lost. Clergy and faithful laity were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands, institutional life was all but eradicated, and church buildings were smashed or stolen. Any thought that such a nightmare could ever be reversed was confined to crazed mystics dreaming of the end times. Holy Russia, it seemed, had departed forever.

But, to coin a phrase, forever changes. Since the 1990s, the collapse of Soviet communism (and of the Soviet Union itself) has sparked a mighty revival of that church. If there was a single symbolic moment of liberation, it was the announcement in 1990 that henceforward Christmas would once more be celebrated as a national holiday. Christian life again flourishes across Russia, and churches and monasteries are being restored and reinhabited as rapidly as their predecessors were obliterated in the 1920s. Since the fall of communism, the number of parishes has grown from 7,000 to 33,000, while monasteries have swelled from 30 to over 800. We live today in one of the great historic eras of church construction and restoration.

Even more striking, these restoration efforts are powerfully backed by the Russian government, which is closely allied with the Orthodox hierarchy. For better or worse, the regime of Vladimir Putin presents itself as the faithful friend and patron of that restored church. Putin and the hierarchs compete in making the most ambitious statements of religious-nationalist ideology, the boldest vaunts of a once and future Holy Rus' that stands resolutely against Western secularism, materialism, and immorality. The Dostoevsky who in 1880 offered his legendary Christian nationalist manifesto in his Pushkin Speech would feel very much at home today.

Is such church-state coziness unsettling, and even potentially perilous? Evidently. But the context must be understood and appreciated. In 2017, as in 1910 or 1860, religious language and traditions are essential to understanding Russian attitudes toward the West, not to mention Russian behavior in such sensitive regions as the Baltics and the Middle East. In contemporary geopolitics, Christianity matters more than it has for generations.

This context gives great value to John Burgess's sensitive, scholarly and wide-ranging account. It is difficult to over-praise the quality of Burgess's research or his dedication to his project. He and his wife lived in Russia for several years, immersing themselves in local parishes and taking every possible opportunity to visit religious establishments around the country. Clearly an excellent and knowledgeable listener, he has interacted with clergy and believers from all levels. He has taken thoroughly to heart the Orthodox principle that a church is understood through its liturgies, not its libraries. …

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