Russians in the Wilderness, Part IV: Creating New Gods

Russia is struggling. Its people are battling through a series of crises unparalleled in modern history. Russian commentators, both secular and religious, have frequently compared their country’s experience to that of the Israelites’escape from Egyptian slavery and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they reached the “Promised Land.” This series of “Reflections” explores that theme, searching for a deeper understanding of the enormous challenges that face the Russian people.

Out with the Old…

Vivid images of the destruction of the Berlin Wall by masses of Germans, young and old, will remain with many of us as a symbol of the Soviet Empire’s collapse. The removal of Felix Dershinsky’s statue from the front of the KGB building in Moscow is another unforgettable image. As it was dislodged from its base and swung precariously from the crane, it reminded all who watched of the fragility of power and the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism. The removal of this monument, a memorial to the first leader of the Communist Party’s security forces, prompted many commentators to ponder what new statue would take its place. Or, they questioned, would the pedestal remain empty, a commemoration to some “unknown God,” as in ancient Athens?

The current debate over whether to remove Lenin’s body and mausoleum from Red Square is another facet of this ongoing struggle. The Communist regime recognized the need to create new symbols and rituals to replace the important role that religion played in Russian society. Their vicious campaign against religion was not undertaken by eliminating existing religion, but rather by simultaneously creating new symbols and rituals that, in essence, formed a substitute religion. The cult of Lenin was created to be an essential part of the new faith of the Russian people. Now that this substitute faith has proven a complete failure, the key question is this: what will replace it?

.…And in with the New

As the Israelites’ journeyed through the hot desert of the Sinai Peninsula after their miraculous flight from Pharaoh’s bondage, it is striking how quickly they felt the need to build new monuments, new objects to worship. Like Russia, they were in a “time of troubles.” They had fled a place of great pain and suffering and now faced an unknown future, an unknown place. They were searching for something to console them in their distress and in their new unfamiliar surroundings.

According to the Book of Exodus, while Moses was absent, the people demanded that a monument be built representing the gods that had delivered them from Egypt. They voluntarily gave gold to Moses’ deputy, Aaron, and he constructed a molded calf. This new object of worship was a familiar deity in the ancient world, and was probably fashioned after Apis, the Egyptian fertility bull-god. It is truly shocking to consider: After centuries of slavery in Egypt, after suffering and anguish beyond compare, the liberated Israelites create an object of worship taken from the society of their former oppressors!

Now that the substitute faith of Marxism-Leninism has proven to be false, Russians will also be searching for a new belief system, a new way to make sense out of their world. Destroying the symbols of old, false gods is the easy part. The tough challenge is identifying what should replace them. In a “time of troubles,” what is there to hold on to?

Some Russians have decided to resurrect the old monuments from the past. These monuments are familiar, at least, despite the fact that they are symbols of their past oppression. Other Russians flirted briefly with Christianity and other religions, taking advantage of the religious freedom that was first legalized under Gorbachev’s leadership in the Soviet Union and then subsequently in the Russian Federation. But this religious revival of the late 1980s and early 1990s seems to have waned.

An Uncertain Future

One major challenge facing Russian society concerns the role of the state and whether or not the state will create religious freedom, which allows freedom of conscience for all of its citizens, or whether it will create a state-controlled religion that will serve the needs of those in power. State-controlled religions usually create monuments for worship that enhance the status quo and protect the interests of the ruling elites. Sometimes these monuments are modeled after the gods of former oppressors.

Russians, like the ancient Israelites, must face this temptation. Humans were created as spiritual beings; they will worship something or someone. This is the case in every culture, ancient or modern. The critical issue, therefore, is whether freedom of conscience will be recognized and secured in law, thereby forming one of the bases for a democratic society, or whether the Russian state will once again attempt to control this aspect of society.

Rebuilding a nation is an extraordinarily difficult task; it is made even more arduous when a nation has just come through decades of repressive rule by Communist regimes. Forming political structures, creating political parties, developing free markets, codifying laws — these are all necessary challenges that face the leaders of post-Communist governments. But equally essential is granting freedom of conscience, and resisting the temptation to create false monuments to serve the interests of those in power.