Staunton, June 15 – Every nation chooses for itself its own epithet, an American poet wrote just after the end of World War II. England, he said, was “merry old.” France was “la belle France.” “And Russia was once called holy.” Now, ever more Russians again are referring to their country in that way – and commentators are seeking to define just what that means.
Two Orthodox writers this week offer both definitions of what “Holy Rus” means to them and perhaps especially important what the return of Russians to that idea means for the country, its government, and the world.
In an article on the Pravoslavie.ru portal, Andrey Gorbachev asks: “Why of all possible epithets for the word ‘Rus’ only ‘holy’ seems to fit? Why,” the Orthodox commentator asks, “is England for us old and good; Germany, great; France, beautiful; America, free; but Rus is holy?” (pravoslavie.ru/put/79922.htm).
One can hardly say that it is because of any “actual holiness of the Russian people, as since in Rus was always strong.” Indeed, he continues, “it has sometimes seemed that the Russian people is somehow especially inclined to sin” and that Russian saints have spent a large part of their time struggling with the immorality of their own people.
“In what then is the holiness of Rus? Someone could say that it is in our saints,” Gorbachev says. “But there were Orthodox saints in various countries – and in pagan and Muslim ones as well. On the territory of Turkey there lived a multitude of saints but it did not come into anyone’s head to call that country ‘Holy Turkey.’”
Instead, he argues, “Rus is holy because holiness is its imperishable ideal,” something that means that even those who attack Rus know that “’there is a country where truth lives’ and that any, even the worst sinner in Rus can be returned to this country.”
Russians, Gorbachev says, have always been infused with “the ideal of holiness,” something that means that they always “really recognize their fall” and always seek to repent and return to God. In short, they more than other peoples recognize their own sinfulness and they have faith that God is capable of lifting anyone up regardless of how far he has fallen.
“Faith and repentance are the foundations of [Russians’] spiritual life that convert ‘the original pagan Rus’ into Holy Rus,” he says; “and as long as we recognize our sinfulness and preserve faith in the living and saving God, we have hope that the expression ‘Holy Rus’ is not an historical anachronism for our time.”
A second perspective on this is offered by Archpriest Sergey Karmyshev, a publicist for the Rybinsk bishopric, in an article entitled “Holy Rus as a Political Reality” on the Russian Orthodox and Russian nationalist Russkaya Narodnaya Liniya portal (ruskline.ru/news_rl/2015/06/15/svyataya_rus_kak_politicheskaya_realnost/).
The core meaning of the word “holy,” Father Sergey says, is “set apart and devoted to God.” By calling Rus holy, its leaders signaled the commitment to devoting “our Fatherland to the service of God.” Thus, “the holiness of Rus … does not mean its sinlessness.” Indeed, it may very well be, he argues that “the Russians are the most sinful of all the peoples of the earth.”
“In order to understand the idea of the holiness of Rus,” the archpriest continues, “let us reflect on the holiness of the Church.” There it is possible to believe only that which is not obvious.” And so it is with Holy Rus -- “Our sinfulness is obvious; our holiness is a matter of faith.”
“We believe not in our exceptionalism as do some who speak about the exceptional quality of some nation or other but rather in the holiness of the task laid on us.” And because Russians do, he says, they understand that “the closer an individual or a whole people comes to God, the greater Satan’s anger is as a result.”
That is what is happening with Rus today, Father Sergey says. Despite all its sins, Rus is “again standing on the path of converting into life the divine will” and standing up to the West whose “civilization has capitulated before sin.” That means that “Russia is finding within itself the strength to swim against the general current” on homosexuality and much else.
“When they spoke about Holy Rus,” he continues, “our distant ancestors had in mind not only a definite people but a definite state” because “in general, the state is the means of the existence of a people in this world. It is the carcass” which holds things together and allows for the preservation of faith.
“Only those who live without laws and the godless can be gladdened by the destruction of national states and the transformation of the unique peoples of the Earth into a common all-human herd,” Father Sergey says. When Rus was weak at the end of the 20th century, things were moving in that direction rapidly. But now Rus is able to stand up and resist not only for itself and but others as well.
“What is taking place now in Ukraine is nothing other than a war of the unclean forces against Holy Rus,” and Russians must be strong in hope and faith, he argues.
Half a millennium ago, Filofey told Moscow’s Grand Prince Ioann Vasilyevich that the first two Romes had fallen, that Moscow was the third, and “’a fourth there shall not be.’ Here he had in mind a state which served as the external defender of the Holy Church.” But his prophecy has not yet been completely fulfilled, Father Sergey says.
Not all former Christians have turned to Rus as their defender, and consequently, “in these conditions, Rus must correspond to the height of its calling – to be a light for the peoples of the world.” Russians must imitate the lives of the saints, and they must strengthen their state to prevent its slide “into a hellish abyss.”
If they do, the church commentator says, anyone who attacks “the fortress of the Russian state,” regardless of “the beautiful words” he may use, will be defeated, and Holy Rus will win out.