Staunton, Feb. 14 – In his column for Neprikosnovenny zapas on ethnic and religious issues in the Russian Federation, Vladislav Inozemtsev argues that Putin’s efforts to correct what the Kremlin leader views as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” may trigger “the greatest ethno-social crisis of the 21st.”
To make his case, the Moscow social scientist and commentator has to go back more than half a millennium in Russian history and even more than that in the history of Christianity in general and Orthodoxy more specifically (magazines.gorky.media/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/nz145_3-8-inozemtsev.pdf).
Five hundred years ago, when countries in Europe were beginning to emerge as nation states, Inozemtsev says, “Muscovy arose as a state-church,” not so much as a religious one but as a political entity at the basis of which lay “not attachment to a community of faith but rather the inclusion of the organized structures of the church” within the state itself.
Orthodoxy was already such a strong element of state identity in Muscovy that the leaders of Novgorod and Vladimir, for example, were more ready to fight the West because it would have spread Catholicism than they were to oppose the Mongols who would instead have respected Orthodoxy in the Russian lands.
Moreover, Inozemtsev says, this arrangement also entailed the clear and complete subordination of spiritual powers to the political, something that has been true more or less right up to the present. “In essence, Russia became one of the few European countries of the 18th and 19th centuries where religious affiliation was important as the basis of citizenship.”
But “what is even more important,” he continues, is that the Russian state not only focused its attention on the religious life of its own citizens but took that into account in its relations with neighboring countries.” Consequently, Russia began religious wars at a time when they were coming to an end in Europe both within its borders and beyond.
The Soviet period brought terrible tests to the Orthodox clergy and laity “but judging from everything it did not change the traditional Orthodox tendency to grovel before the secular authorities.” 1991 should have represented a kind of liberation, but “as we see now, it has proved no less problematic for the Russian church.”
As Inozemtsev points out, “the Russian Orthodox Church turned out to be the only one claiming jurisdiction over four sovereign states: the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova,” a claim at odds with the political realities on the ground and that challenged its own understanding and that of the Kremlin over its proper role.
That situation recalls what happened with the Roman church 1500 years ago. “Then, it, having suffered from the emperors no less than the Russian church did from the communists and having become in 380 the state confession of the empire,” found itself in a situation in which that state was no more.
Having lost its state “boss,” Inozemtsev says, “Western Christianity was reborn as a supernational faith” common for all the leaders and peoples of the European countries but not subordinate to the state any longer. But when the Russian church found itself in a potentially similar situation after 1991, it and the Russian state took a different tact.
After 1917, the Bolsheviks were “sufficiently clever to organize their empire without mentioning the dominating nation” and thus not giving the Russian church a special role, the post-Soviet Russian rulers adopted another and mistaken path, one fraught with dangers for all concerned.
The Russian state and especially Putin wanted to make Russianness the core of the new state’s ideological and practical foundation because it did not have an alternative, because the Orthodox church was the most conservative element in society, and because it could unite not only Russians and emigres but Russia and its neighbors.
That has created problems at home, exacerbating the relations between the non-Russians and the Russian state, and abroad by allowing Putin to think that he can violate the course of history and use his vision of a state-relation as the basis for reabsorbing at least the four countries where Orthodoxy remains the majority, a vision the church not surprisingly shares.
“In contrast to Catholicism where wars between individual Catholic countries were conducted dozens of time without destroying church unity,” Inozemtsev points out, “Orthodoxy always split into parts as soon as attempts were made to establish an empire out of relatively separate people or those attempting to form independent states.”
For evidence of that, he says, one need only look at the Byzantine-Bulgarian wars of the tenth and eleventh centuries. But the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church have not learned from those cases, and they are now engaged in actions that will lead not only to the demise of a Russian church extending beyond the borders of a Russian state but likely to something even more profound – the undermining of the basis of state loyalty within Russia.
And to the extent that happens, he concludes, “it is quite likely that, in striving to correct the consequences of ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, the Russian authorities inevitably and quickly are bringing about the greatest ethno-social crisis of the 21st,” one that will call into question not only the Russian church but Russia itself.
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