Dealing Honestly with Russia’s History

In the preface of his book Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, David Remnick noted that interest in Russia has eased since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the waning of the nuclear threat. Enrollment in Russian language and history courses has plunged nationwide and news bureaus have become indifferent. In Remnick’s judgment, “this is a serious mistake, for the process of creating a new country – a country that will undoubtedly reassert itself in every sense in the twenty-first century – is at least as interesting, as essential, as the process of erosion and collapse” (p. x). I heartily agree. My experiences in Russia since 1990 have provided a fascinating window into the tortuous process of rebuilding a nation after seventy years of barbaric rule and hundreds of years of authoritarian rule.

When you study Russia’s past, particularly its experiences in the twentieth century, having survived two world wars, a revolution and civil war, famine and brutal terrorism conducted by its own leaders, the fact that Russia has survived at all is, in Remnick’s words, “remarkable . . . . For all its trials, for all its mistakes, the story of Russia at the end of the century must be counted as a kind of revival, a resurrection” (p. xiii).

Living with the Past

Serge Schmemann’s new book, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village, provides marvelous insights into Russia’s past as he traces his own family’s roots through two hundred years of Russian history. His story is much more than a family history – it is a portrayal of the joys and sorrows, the happiness and pain, of a family trying to cope in a tumultuous environment, first of tsarist rule and then of Soviet leadership. Because the book is so beautifully written, I have decided to quote sections of it at length.

One of Schmemann’s most significant insights concerned the legacy of the Soviet experience and how this legacy impinges on the present:

By the time we came into the 1980s, what made the system appalling was no longer raw terror, which had abated after Stalin’s death, or even the silly pretensions of Communist propaganda, which nobody took seriously. It was that the Soviet state had turned every normal function of a society into its antithesis: It created a politics emptied of choice, a religion devoid of faith, a culture stripped of individuality and creativity, and an economy that barred initiative. Its constitution guaranteed every conceivable right and then subordinated them to the whims of the Party. It compelled people to shout “peace and friendship,” and laced its borders with barbed wire and mines. It spouted superlatives but glorified mediocrity, crushing anyone who dared to rise above the faceless mass (p. 19).
The Loss of a Guiding Faith

Schmemann’s sensitive description of Russia’s cultural and spiritual life in the 19th and 20th centuries also makes his book particularly fascinating. Unlike many Western writers who focus largely on political and economic issues in Russia and ignore its deep spiritual and cultural legacy, Schmemann offers valuable insights into the “Russian soul.”

Russia was never a secular society, and much of Russia’s turmoil today is not only political and economic disorientation but the loss of a guiding faith. Where it finds one – and whether it comes freely or through the knout of a new despot – will do much to determine where Russia goes from here.

In our secular world it is difficult to appreciate the importance of religion in societies such as Russia’s – all the more so because Western histories have usually treated the Russian Orthodox Church solely as the ideological and ceremonial arm of the throne. That it was, to be sure. Russian Orthodoxy was the official state religion, and the Church was the institution responsible for elementary education, censorship and the promulgation of the official ideology of Tsar, Motherland, and Orthodox Faith. . .

But the Church was not only an ornament and prop of the monarchy. The concept of “holy Russia” as the heir to Rome and Byzantium, the myth of the Russians as a people imbued with a special spirituality, was central to the culture, and religion permeated every aspect of daily life (pp. 119-120).

The Bolsheviks understood the power of religion and sought to destroy all forms of religion by mercilessly attacking its roots; they also sought to create a substitute faith, with Marxist symbols and icons and even “holy days.” Schmemann’s observation that “Russia cannot move forward until it has rebuilt what was destroyed” is accurate. The rebuilding process may not be pretty, but then “healing wounds never are” (p. 121).

Pinning hopes for Russia on decisions made inside the Kremlin walls is a mistake. The hope for Russia’s future is to be found in countless churches and community organizations where grassroots associations are sprouting up and where a powerful healing force is forming among people of faith.