Staunton, September 1 – The Moscow Patriarchate backed by those in the church especially close to Vladimir Putin is promoting the peasant values of the 19th century more consistently than it is disseminating truly Christian ones, according to Ilya Ilyukovich, a theologian specializing on cultural questions.
In an essay entitled “Peasantry or Christianity? Social Aspect of Present-Day Orthodoxy,” the scholar says that the Russian church now works on the basis of an image of Russia that is rooted in the idea that Russia somehow has remained a primarily peasant country (ahilla.ru/krestyanstvo-ili-hristianstvo-sotsialnye-aspekty-sovremennogo-pravoslaviya/).
The problem here is not that many parishioners are “simple people” but rather this supposed “’simplicity’ is being cultivated by the church itself and supported in an artificial way” at a time when Russia has changed but when the church itself has refused to do so, Ilyukovich continues.
The priest as the little father of the peasants remains central to the Patriarchate’s image of itself. The church hasn’t taken note of the rise of a middle class or even of an educated stratum. Instead, it remains rooted in a vision of society from the 19th century or even earlier that is designed to keep the population at the level of irresponsible children the powers will control.
The Russian as peasant at the basis of this vision is “a child of the land, not independent and not completely responsible for his actions. The figure of the peasant in culture inevitably approaches that of the slave who does not control his existence. Such a peasant-child needs a little father master.”
This is the world of the notorious Domostroy, of subservience to anyone in power and one whose only demands on the peasant are that he work, tolerate misfortunes, not drink to excess, not revolt and have a strong patriarchal family. He doesn’t need any independent qualities at all.
That suits the current Kremlin just fine because as in the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church today promotes the idea that “’there is no power that is not from God,’” and thus encourages not discussion and participation but simply a life of prayer and obedience, the cultural affairs specialist says.
“Of course,” he continues, no one in the hierarchy speaks about this directly. It simply acts that way; and even when it uses texts that could be employed to promote an alternative vision of Russia, it does its best to give them only a “peasant” reading lest they create problems for the powers that be.
And such “peasantism” extends into the monastic life of the Russian Orthodox Church where the most important tasks are prayer and physical labor not theological discussion and dispute and not an effort to find answers to the most pressing problems of the society around them.
Unfortunately, Ilyukovich says, there is little pressure for any change. While some church intellectuals have emerged, the Russian state continues to support this “peasant” interpretation because it helps keep the population obediently in line – and the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate is quite prepared to go alone.
One clear piece of evidence that this is so is the bestselling book by Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, Unsaintly Saints. Known to be close to Putin, the bishop promotes this peasant vision of the Church and hence of Russia, a vision that is both anti-intellectual and anti-democratic but one that could block the country from any real move forward.