Russia’s ‘Orthodox Jihad’
Last night on BBC Radio I heard a Russian soldier who is fighting in Ukraine describe what he and his colleagues are doing there as fighting “a holy war” for Mother Russia. That reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a few days: this analysis by John Schindler, who contends that there is a nationalistic-religious dimension to Russia’s war on Ukraine that Western analysts are not seeing, or are downplaying. He calls Putin the leader of the “anti-WEIRD” coalition — diverse peoples and states around the world who are opposed to Western style modernity and its global spread by state and non-state forces. Excerpts:
Nearly all Western experts, being mostly secularists when not atheists, paid no attention to these clear indications of where Putin was taking Russia, while the view of the few who did notice was colored by the perception that this simply had to be a put-up job by the Kremlin. But what if it is not? Skeptics are correct to note that Chekists have had a toxic and convoluted relationship with the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] ever since Stalin, that failed Orthodox seminarian, resurrected the remnants of the Church, what little had survived vicious Bolshevik persecution, during the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War to buttress the regime with faith and patriotism — all tightly controlled by the secret police. There was the rub. Under the Soviets, all senior ROC appointments were subject to Chekist review, while nobody became a bishop without the KGB having some kompromat on him. This was understood by all, including the fact that a distressing number of ROC senior clerics were actual KGB agents. It’s not surprising that Putin omits from his CV that he worked for a time in the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which supervised religious bodies, leading some to speculate that Putin’s relationship with certain ROC bishops extends deep into the late Soviet period.
The ROC is not Russia’s state religion, as Putin and top bishops have been at pains to state, but it cannot be denied that the Moscow Patriarchate’s close ties to the Kremlin grant it a very special relationship with Putinism. Whether this actually is symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church which is something of an Orthodox ideal, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state, remains to be seen, but Orthodoxy has become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin in recent years, a preferred vehicle for explicit anti-Western propaganda.
ROC agitprop, which has Kremlin endorsement, depicts a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style, while ROC spokesmen constantly denounce feminism and the LGBT movement as Satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family, and nation.
Well, it hardly requires one to endorse Russia and Putin to say that the ROC agitprop is onto something. Schindler says that Putin is a devotee of the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954). More:
A devout Orthodox, Ilyin espoused a unique vision, a Slavophile take on modernity and Russia’s predicament under the militant atheists. He espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Of greatest relevance today, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Ilyin’s take on responsibility for Bolshevism — and its cure — merits examination, as he explained:
The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia … Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism … In order to overcome the global moral crisis, we have to return to eternal moral values, that is faith, love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland and nation, but above all faith and love.
Although Ilyin died sixty years ago, he remains to his admirers “the prophet of the new Orthodox Russia which is being born and which alone can give the contemporary world a viable future, providing that it is given time to grow to fruition in contemporary Russia.” As Ilyin wrote to a friend near the end of his life, when the fall of Communism was still decades off:
What are we to do, squeezed between Catholics, Freemasons and Bolsheviks? I answer: Stand firm, standing up with your left hand, which goes from the heart, for Christ the Lord, for His undivided tunic, and, with your right hand, fight to the end for Orthodoxy and Orthodox Russia. And, above all, vigilantly watch those groups which are preparing for Antichrist. All of this – even if we are threatened by apparent complete powerlessness and total solitude.
The sort of uncompromising faith Ilyin stood for, which bears little similarity to Western Christianity much less to post-modern notions of “tolerance,” is made abundantly clear in his numerous writings and speeches. Of particular interest is a speech Ilyin gave in 1925, extolling Lavr Kornilov, a White Russian general who fell in the struggle against Bolshevism (and, not coincidentally, exactly the sort of Orthodox-believing yet non-noble White counter-revolutionary figure much admired by Putin). Ilyin defined what Russia and Orthodoxy now needed: “This idea is more than a single man, more than a feat of one hero. This idea is great as Russia and the sacred as her religion. This is the idea of the Orthodox sword.” He cited the fatal shortcomings of pre-revolutionary Russia as “limp sentimentality, spiritual nihilism and moral pedantry,” and to counter those Russia needed a strong dose of fighting faith. As Ilyin explained:
In calling to love our enemies, Christ had in mind personal enemies of man, not God’s enemies, and not blaspheming molesters, for them drowning with a millstone around their neck was recommended. Urging to forgive injuries, Christ was referring to personal insults to a person, not all possible crimes; no one has the right to forgive the offenses suffered by others or provide for the villains to offend the weak, corrupt children, desecrate churches and destroy the Fatherland. So therefore a Christian is called not only to forgive offenses, but to fight the enemies of God’s work on earth. The evangelical commandment of “non-resistance to evil” teaches humility and generosity in personal matters, and not limpness of will, not cowardice, not treachery and not obedience to evildoers.
This is the vision — uncompromising faith and patriotism, without any sentimentality or weakness — that animates Russia’s holy warriors today, from Fr. Chaplin, and perhaps Vladimir Putin too, on down. Russian Orthodoxy’s church militant is a special breed that tends to mystify Westerners. Certainly the West finds the motley crew of Kremlin-backed Orthodox adventurers and mercenaries battling in the Donbass to be equal parts comical and sinister, yet they have an ideology which they hardly hide. As an Orthodox priest ministering to Russian fighters in Donetsk explained a few months ago — a bearded cleric and tough veteran of the Soviet Afghan war, he is a creature straight out of Ilyin’s dreams — what they are battling against is not the Ukrainian government, nor American neoconservatives, rather the Devil himself. The goal of Moscow’s enemy, as he elaborated, is perfectly clear to the eyes of faith:
The establishment of planetary Satanic rule. What’s occurring here is the very beginning of a global war. Not for resources or territory, that’s secondary. This is a war for the destruction of true Christianity, Orthodoxy. The worldview of the wealthiest men who own almost all the material goods in the world is Satanism. Having summoned the elements of the First and Second World Wars and a Third Information War, and having laid hundreds of millions of the slain at the altar of their father, Satan, they have initiated the Fourth World War. They are intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist.
As with [ROC spokesman] Vsevolod Chaplin, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as the ravings of a lone nut, but these are no longer fringe views in Putin’s Russia. Jihad is not a word to be used lightly, given its sinister connotations to the West after 9/11, but this bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.
Read the whole thing. Schindler, who clearly does not endorse Ilyinism, says it would be ironic if the last defender of traditional European Christianity was a Russian Orthodox ex-KGB colonel. I think Schindler’s take on Putin as leader of the Anti-WEIRD coalition is perceptive. Excerpt:
I’ll elaborate what Putinism actually is, but before I do, it’s important to understand why President Obama and countless other Westerners cannot see what is right before them. Putin and the Kremlin actively parrot their propaganda, they are doing anything but hide it, yet we still cannot make it out.
This is simply because we are WEIRD. That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.
Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.
Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.
Of course, this also happens to explain why some Westerners who loathe post-modernism positively love Putin, at least from a safe distance. Some far-right Westerners – the accurate term is paleoconservatives – have been saying for years that the West, led very much by America, has become hopelessly decadent and they’ve been looking for a leader to counter all this, and – lo and behold – here he is, the new “leader of global conservatism.” Some paleocons have stated that, with the end of the Cold War, America has become the global revolutionary power, seeking to foist its post-modern views on the whole planet, by force if necessary, and now Putin’s Russia has emerged as the counterrevolutionary element. Cold War 2.0, in this telling, has the sides reversed.
Schindler says he is “skeptical” of these views, but that it is important to note them. He continues, saying that Western WEIRDoes believe that our values represent the pinnacle of human achievement, failing to notice that the Old Left in Eastern Europe and Russia, under communist dictatorship, insulated its people from the New Left in the West, with its insistence on the primacy of race, sex, gender, etc. More:
Faith aside, it’s not hard to see why Putin wants to fight off Western values based on individualism in the sexual realm that have unquestionably led to lower birthrates, which is something that Russia, which is already facing demographic disaster, cannot afford. The existence of the country itself is at stake, so we should not expect Putin to back off here, especially because he may actually believe all this as a matter of faith, not just natalist practicality.
The West, and the United States especially, have helped cause this by active promotion of the post-modernism that Russia now rejects. It is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination that the U.S. State Department encourages feminism and LGBT activism, at least in certain countries. When Washington, DC, considers having successful gay pride parades a key benchmark for “advancement” in Eastern Europe, with the full support of U.S. diplomats, we should not be surprised when the Kremlin and its sympathizers move to counter this. My friends in Eastern Europe, most of whom are comfortable with gay rights and feminism, have nevertheless noted to me many times that it’s odd that the U.S. Government promotes such things in small, poor Eastern European countries it can intimidate but never, say, in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, there remains the question of just how universal post-modern Western values actually are outside educated elites. There is ample evidence that many average people in Eastern Europe who fear Russia nevertheless are closer to the Kremlin’s positions on cultural matters than to America’s. In Georgia, where loathing of Russians generally and Putin particularly is universal, resistance to LGBT rights and feminism remains deep and broad, with the support of the Orthodox Church, while much the same can be said of Moldova, where fears of Russian invasion are acute, but so are fears of Western social values. Neither is this resistance limited to the East. It can be found as well in Central Europe, among NATO and EU members. In Poland, the Catholic Church continues to resist post-modern sexual values – what they collectively term “gender,” meaning feminism plus gay rights – leading one bishop to term this “ a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” Strongly Catholic Croatia last December in a national referendum rejected same-sex marriage by a two-thirds margin, to the dismay of progressives across Europe. One of the big talking points from the Kremlin and the ROC is that Russia represents the actual global consensus on such matters, while the West is the decadent outlier. Its postmodernism, proclaimed Fr. Chaplin recently, “is increasingly marginal,” adding that “it cannot cope with modern challenges,” while Orthodox Christian, Chinese, Indian, Latin American and African civilizations share opposite values and will play an active role in building peaceful relations between civilizational systems. Given recent trends in sexual matters globally, with India and countries in Africa enacting harsh anti-gay laws, it is worth considering if Moscow has a valid point.
Again, read the whole Anti-WEIRD thing. Schindler, by the way, is a former NSA staffer and Naval War College professor who favors the US sending arms to Ukraine, so he is not a Moscow apologist; in these posts, he presents himself as an analyst telling the West truths it would prefer not to hear.
Here, from last month’s Christianity Today, is another truth the West would prefer not to hear. Excerpt:
Evangelicals in Russia have become ardent fans of President Vladimir Putin because of Russia’s efforts to maintain its influence in Ukraine, its takeover of Crimea in 2014, and the widespread Russian belief that the West is to blame for the present economic woes on the home front.
This realization dawned on me during my November visit to Russia. The evidence is hard to ignore. Meeting in St. Petersburg back in May, the official Congress of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists ended their meetings with a strong endorsement of Putin just two months after brutal conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Addressing Putin, they said, “We express to you sincere appreciation for your labor in the post of president. . . . We reaffirm our principled loyalty with respect to state authority, based on the unchanged words of the Bible, ‘Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Rom. 13:1, ASV).” The evangelical congress also directly challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and the February 2014 overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
Originally, I suspected backroom state pressure must have been at play. But after conversations with more than a dozen Protestant and Orthodox believers in Moscow, I have to admit that no outside interference was necessary to generate such high praise for Russia’s president.
Putin is genuinely popular—and admired—by Russians across the spectrum: among believers as well as the religiously indifferent, among Protestants as well as Orthodox, and among academics as well as taxi drivers.
The author, Mark Elliott, is understandably troubled by what he found, but nevertheless, there it is.
UPDATE: A caution to readers: don’t mistake my posting all this as an endorsement of Putin. I genuinely don’t know enough about the complexities of Russian politics to make an informed call. I’m just presenting this for the sake of discussion.