Russia and the Debate over the “Vision Thing”

During his presidential campaign in June 1996, President Boris Yeltsin initiated a public debate in which he challenged Russian citizens to come up with a new “national idea” to serve as an ideological guide for his reformist administration. He turned his request into a public contest and challenged his audience to develop a new ideology in the next twelve months.

The ensuing struggle for a post-Soviet identity has been a frustrating exercise. Russians can’t even agree on a flag, a national anthem or a national symbol. Russia’s new national anthem, for example, has no words because the Russian parliament (Duma) refuses to approve of them. The parliament has also rejected the tri-color (white, blue and red) flag and the two-headed eagle, which some deputies oppose because of its ties to Russia’s pre-revolutionary past. When Moscow celebrated its 850th anniversary in September 1997, the police had to rehang many of the Russian flags that bedecked the city. Some city workers apparently didn’t know that the white stripe was supposed to be on the top and had inadvertently hung the flag upside down.

Debates over public symbols or monuments are also evidence of the confusion that currently exists in Russia. Whether or not to remove Lenin’s body from Red Square is one example of an argument that quickly stirs contradictory passions among Russians, especially older people. Most Russians did agree, however, that the proposal by a grandson of one of the Kremlin’s former Communist leaders to take Lenin’s corpse on a world tour in order to make some “quick money” was a bad idea!

The Moral Vacuum

One major reason this public debate is so painful and confusing is the moral vacuum that was caused by the collapse of Communism. Marxism-Leninism was a substitute religion that dictated a set of beliefs about morality and social justice. When the political and economic system that propagated this false religion imploded, its whole belief system — including notions about right and wrong and the nature of community and social welfare – was discredited as well. As one keen observer noted, the result of these radical changes is a Russia “sick with self-doubt.”

Russia’s experience with democracy and Western-style consumerism, when divorced from the Protestant ethic that exists in the West, does not constitute a value system that can unify and inspire its people. The problem is not that Soviet values have been discredited, but that there is nothing yet to replace them.

The challenge Russians face is to fill the moral vacuum. According to Valery V. Tsepkalo, “Having lost faith in its guiding principles, Russia may descend into chaos and destroy itself, along with the region, unless it discovers new values that can sustain it. Nations, like people, do not live by bread alone, nor by sophisticated weaponry. They need, above all, the spiritual foundation that a great ideal and its related set of values provide” (“The Remaking of Eurasia,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 1998).

Secularism Is Not the Answer

Many of the current leaders in Russia, having been trained in the Soviet period, are materialists with a strong negative reaction toward religion. While they are willing to accommodate the Russian Orthodox Church in order to secure the political support of its leaders, they are committed secularists who are searching for a new basis upon which to rebuild Russia. For them, a philosophy built on self-interest offers some hope.

For the vast majority of Russians, however, a secular ideology offers little promise. In Serge Schmemann’s brilliant new book, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village, he notes that “Russia was never a secular society, and much of Russia’s turmoil today is not only political and economic disorientation but a loss of a guiding faith” (pp. 118-9). Because of our own secular context, Schmemann points out that it is difficult to appreciate the importance of religion in societies such as Russia’s. This “blind spot” exists both in the Kremlin and in the West. But Russian history is replete with a sense of a special spirituality among the Russian people that lies at the heart of their identity. Religion permeated every aspect of daily life in Russia, and to ignore its role today leaves an empty void and creates moral confusion.

Soviet rulers understood the power of religion. When they came to power, their goal was not only to neutralize the churches, but to rip religion out by its roots and replace it with their own ideology. I agree with Serge Schmemann: “Russia cannot move forward until it has rebuilt what was destroyed.” The current leaders in Russia must understand that “there is a powerful force in the remarkable rebirth of countless parishes across the land” (p. 121) and the countless sacrificial efforts of Russian Christians — Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox – give evidence that religious beliefs form the essential foundation for a new social and political order. Encouraging freedom of religion and conscience is in Russia’s best long-term interest.