The Search for Meaning in Post-Communist Russia

There is a deep mood of dissatisfaction in Russia, a mood which has led to a questioning of the most fundamental traditions and beliefs of Russian society. Desperately serious problems, smothered for decades by totalitarian deception, are now out in the open. All of this turmoil is complicated by Russia’s underlying transition from a traditional society, based on local, tightly-knit communities, to a modern one, where individuals stand much more on their own in the political, economic and religious marketplace.

Major changes are taking place in Russia and in many different sectors of society, and they are coming all at once, superimposing themselves on one another. British scholar Geoffrey Hosking has characterized the resulting social mood as “anomie”—a “vacuum of values,” the term originally used by Emile Durkheim to describe the sense of rootlessness which afflicts members of a society undergoing rapid change. One result, according to Hosking, is a “sharp increase in crime, violence and suicide, as well as a proliferation of bizarre beliefs and aberrant behavior. Another … has been the ethnicisation of all political issues, as people redirect their dislocated loyalties from the local community to the nation” (The Awakening of the Soviet Union, pp. 211-2).

Recent reports from Moscow affirm the “proliferation of bizarre beliefs and aberrant behavior.” One news report, entitled “Russian Astrologers’ Horrorscopes,” described how “astrology has caught on big-time in the new Russia.” The fact that most predictions by astrologers are pessimistic provides a “sad mirror of the disruptions of modern life” in Russia, according to the correspondent, Fred Hiatt (Washington Post, December 3, 1994).

The same loss of orientation and distrust of traditional beliefs has also led to turmoil in education circles in Russia. Many educators describe their post-communist world as one of “spiritual anarchy” or as a system experiencing a “spiritual crisis of orientation.” Communist ideology, which provided a guiding philosophy for education, has lost its validity, and no alternative value system or Western-style pluralism has filled the vacuum (Oskar Anweiler, “Educational Problems in Post-communist Societies,” East/West Education, Spring 1993).

But the news is not all bad. In the midst of this spiritual anarchy, there are signs that the truth of faith in Jesus Christ is being clearly proclaimed and that people are responding to the Good News, even in academic circles. Hosking has noted that “Soviet intellectuals are … peculiarly prone to the religious urge … Communism has never been a religion in the full sense of the word, but it has adopted many of the outward appurtenances of one. When its conviction fades … it is natural that many of its adherents should seek a genuine religion to put in its place” (Awakening, p. 123).

The Testimony of Irina

One extraordinary example of this search for spiritual meaning comes from Irina Ratushinskaya, a Ukrainian poet, who on her 29th birthday in March 1983 received a seven-year prison sentence for expressing “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in her verses; those seven years of hard labor were to be followed by five years of internal exile.

After her release from prison in 1986, due partly to pressure from the West, she was asked how she came to faith in an atheist society. Here’s her amazing response:

“I started to believe in God when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I was simply puzzled by what my school teachers told me. They repeated to us many times that God did not exist. And I wondered who it was that did not exist with such power that people couldn’t stop talking about him. It was useless to ask my teachers about it because I already knew what their answer would be. And it was useless to ask my parents because they always avoided the topic. So I thought this was some dangerous secret and I decided to find out for myself who this God is … It wasn’t God’s power that interested me. I was just a small girl and everyone around me was more powerful than me and could punish me … I learnt that God was kind and that he loves me. This is something I desperately needed.”

Irina’s intellectual journey and her prison camp experiences are powerfully portrayed in her books In the Beginning and Grey Is the Color of Hope. Her life story offers hope that truth will triumph over lies and that love is more powerful than force.

The Testimony of Andrew

A second illustration comes from Andrew Kuznetsov, a friend we met at Nizhni Novgorod State University during our sabbatical in 1992. Here is his abbreviated testimony:

“[My conversion story] started in the spring of 1972 when my Old Believer grandparents insisted I [had] to be baptized. According to the rite as old as Christianity, an underground Old Believer priest immersed me three times invoking the name of the Holy Trinity, and before that my non-believing godparents denounced Satan on my account, spitting thrice over their left shoulders …

To be pro-Communist in our circles was “shameful but profitable.” The communism of our governing bodies had nothing to do with Marx and Lenin, [but] mostly with political ambition and self-interest … so the “atheistic” (in fact, agnostic) propaganda filling radio, TV and meetings was not even responded to by my parents—it was simply ignored, the way the Americans learn to ignore the TV commercials …

Somewhere around 1987 I read the Bible! The New Testament was published in a literary magazine, In the World of Books, as “the most popular book in the world.” Well, they started with the Gospel of Matthew … The list of Jewish names begetting each other was funny and weird, but the rest was stunning.

Yes, here were two things which screamed to me, liberating, breaking the chained conscience: freedom from family, state, social relations; the second, directly following was a challenge: follow me … I had literally heard the voice of great and real authority making a claim on me. And he [Jesus] also said that nothing else really matters … He wasn’t a mystical personage. He was the Liberator!”

Andrew’s story, like that of Irina, is encouraging in a society experiencing “anomie”—a “vacuum of values.” There is hope that Russians, especially students, faculty and the intellectual leaders of Russia who have been described as religiously “prone,” will fill this vacuum with the Truth which sets all people free.