Sunday, November 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Does Russia Need a Protestant Reformation?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 3 – Faced with an ever more militant, nationalist and obscurantist Russian Orthodox Church, ever more Russians are asking whether their country would benefit from a protestant reformation of its own or whether such a reformation would destroy the very foundations of Russian national life that they hold most dear.

            Because of the approaching 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Sergey Ryakhovsky writes in, ever more Russians are talking about whether Russia needs “a revolution, a restoration or a reformation” (

            Reflecting their national culture, most Russians are focusing on revolution or restoration, actions that promise as politics always does a quick and immediate fix to their problems by installing the right kind of leader, but some are focusing on reformation because it raises the question “not about power but about the individual” and how the latter must change.

            The essence of the Protestant Reformation, the Moscow commentator argues, is that it says every individual must face God not just in some future heavenly court but “here and now, every day, in the course of the most ordinary activities,” a confrontation that “changes an individual forever.”

            “The European Reformation began as a movement for the renewal of the Church,” he says, noting that “one can often hear that ‘we don’t need this,’ that Holy Rus has preserved the faith in its original genuineness.”  But given “the epidemic of alcoholism and drug use, the large number of divorces, abortions and the shamefully large number of orphans … the unprecedented gap between rich and poor … and corruption as a norm of life,” such claims sound hollow.

            Radzikhovsky cites the words of Nikolay Leskov, who said that “Rus has been baptized but not yet enlightened,” a reference not to the lack of people with secondary or higher educations but to the lack of those who had been transformed by the force of the Gospels instead of simply taking part in the ritual of the church.

            “The Reformation,” he insists, was “not a break with tradition. [It] was an effort to return to foundations, to break through the splendor of ritual, the wealth of traditions and stagnation.” As such of course, the Reformation was hardly “an exclusively religious phenomenon” but rather something that affected the entire society.

            That is because the Reformation was a return to the individual, a restoration of genuine human dignity. And as a result, it changed the world.  The transformation of the world began with the transformation of the individual.”

“So does contemporary Russia need a Reformation?” Radzikhovsky concludes his article rhetorically.  Although he does not say so directly, it is quite clear that he does.

But an anonymous commentator on the aggregator site equally clearly does not. He argues that the Reformation and the Protestant churches it produced are at the core of “Western liberalism” and, as such, are a direct threat to Russia and its unique culture (

Because of that, he continues, Protestantism is opposed “not only by the Orthodox but by all the rest of normal representatives of the Russian people,” who understand that Protestant’s stress on individual salvation and pre-destination inevitably undercuts the strength of the social collectives on which Russia relies. 

“Religion is not simply part of culture,” he says, “it is to a great extent its distilled expression,” and consequently, efforts to change religion are efforts to change culture.  Protestantism seeks to change Russia and make it like the West, something Russians according to this commentator do not want.

Indeed, he continues, Russians are deeply offended and horrified by Protestantism’s blessing of the pursuit of wealth and individual success and its willingness to tolerate conflict within society rather than being interested in trying to ensure social unanimity and promote social justice.

Protestantism has triumphed in the United States, but its impact elsewhere has been limited not only by the presence of Catholic and Orthodox churches but, at least in the past, by the rise of the Soviet Union, whose social and economic policies forced the US to adopt a less Protestant and more humane program.

Just what an important role the USSR played can be seen in how the Protestant US has reacted now that it is no more. American leaders are actively destroying the system of social supports they had felt compelled to build during the Cold War because such support supposed are “ineffective” or inconsistent with market principles.

Watching this, the Moscow commentator says, should be enough to inoculate any Russian against the idea that a Protestant Reformation would be in the interests of his or her nation – or indeed in the interests of anyone else’s.

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