Saturday, October 12, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Profitability’ – A New Russian Trinity But Not for Long, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 12 – “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Profitability” are the updated trinity of the age of President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, but with the passing of those who lived through perestroika and the 1990s, “Russian Orthodox fundamentalism will begin to lose its mass quality” and become an increasingly marginal force like Protestant fundamentalists in the US.

            That is the conclusion of Dmitry Travin, a professor at St. Petersburg’s European University, in an essay posted on yesterday devoted to a consideration of the applicability to Russian Orthodoxy of Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God” (2000), a Russian translation of which has just appeared (

            The Moscow Patriarchate, Travin says, “today pretends that it is regulating private live, teaching school pupils, correcting the actions of medicine, and defining the only correct ideology,” but despite these pretentions, “it does not interfere directly in politics, limiting itself only to general support of the authorities” and not even trying to form a political party.

            “The present actions of the Church,” he continues, “represent not so much an intensification of clericalism as a whole as the formation of Orthodox fundamentalism, that is, a movement to its basic principles and sources.”

            No one should be surprised by this, the St. Petersburg professor says. “However paradoxical it may seem, there is nothing unique in all of this” because “the appearance of fundamentalist trends is the clearest testimony that Russia is encountering typical problems of the era of modernization characteristic for most societies.”

            Fundamentalism, Traven argues, drawing on Armstrong’s book, is not something “wild” or about “spiritual recovery.”  Rather “it is a reaction of society to rapid changes.”  And the more rapid and radical these changes, the more radical become the fundamentalist impulses of the societies involved.

            As Armstrong notes, Travin says, fundamentalism has arisen in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian worlds in response to radical change, but while “the causes were identical,” their impact on believers has varied widely.  In the Islamic world, “fundamentalaism has become aggressive and ever stronger, gradually pushing aside nationalism.”

            In Israel, in contrast, fundamentalist at times also has been aggressive but not nearly as strong,” she writes. It does create some problems in dealing with the Arabs but “not more than that.” In the Christian world up to the time of her writing, “Christian fundamentalism had a broad development only in the United States (and especially in the southern states).”

            The reasons for this variety, Armstrong argued, arise from variations in the historical path of development of these regions.  In Europe, when modernization hit, the church was strong, and as a result, those swept up in modernization were profoundly seized by “secular religions” like socialism and nationalism.

            In North America, the situation was very different.  The church was much weaker at the time of the American revolution, and consequently, the attractions of socialism and nationalism were less, and the continuing influence of religious leaders was not challenged in the same way, opening the possibility of a subsequent increase in their influence.

            In Israel, according to Armstrong, both secular Zionism and traditional Judaism were strong at the time of the state’s founding, each serving as a check on the other. In the Islamic world, in contrast but as in Europe, modernization led first to nationalism and socialism but then to their being discarded.

            The problem in the Muslim world was that “nationalism became a symbol of dependence on the US and socialism on the USSR.”  And with the end of the Cold War,  Muslims were more ready to put their faith in fundamentalist ideas.

            Travin argues that “the fate of Russia despite the country being Christian resembles more than of the fate of the Islamic world” than of other Christian nations.  Because the model of socialism imposed on Russia earlier was so radical, it was discredited; and because of its demographic diversity, nationalism in the usual sense was not available.

            Consequently, faced with the shocks of perestroika and “the wild 1990s,” Russians were ready to turn to fundamentalism of some kind or another, and the one they turned to was “the fundamentalism of a consumer society, in which people, while turning to the deep values of religion, do not want to become shahids and attack ‘the unbelievers.’”

            Russia’s “fundamentalists” want to “live quietly on this earth, with a home, a car, football on television, a glass of beer, stable incomes, and so on.  In other words, the difficulties of the era of modernization have forced us to turn to fundamentalist religious values, but the possibilities which modernization has opened have stimulated the use of all material goods.”

            But this almost certainly is a generation-specific response.  When those who lived through perestroika and the 1990s pass from the scene, this kind of Russian Orthodox “fundamentalism” will begin to recede and will ever more recall marginal American Protestant fundamentalism” than anything else.

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