Waiting for a Reckoning with the Soviet Past? Don’t Look to the Liberals, Look to the Orthodox Church

October 29, 2013

Written by Mark Adomanis, Russia Hand for Forbes. You can read his work at Forbes.com and follow him on Twitter @MarkAdomanis.

It’s not a secret that Russia has never really faced up to the pervasive human rights violations that accompanied the drive to build communism. Lenin, after more than 20 years, is still interned in his mausoleum on Red Square, a prominent physical reminder of the ancien regime located next to the very heart of Russian state power. And although many of the most egregious Soviet figures (Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and the like) have had their statues removed or destroyed,  traveling through Russia you cannot help but stumble upon an endless litany of monuments to the Soviet past. State propaganda, while rarely explicitly pro-Soviet, encourages Russians to be proud of their glorious history and of the Soviet Union’s achievements in science, sport, and war.

But the Soviet state contained much that was inhuman and wrong. Even in the most optimistic analyses of the country’s post-Soviet trajectory, the failure to reckon with the communist past is extremely problematic. In his book It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway, David Satter presents a particularly forceful account of this failure, and links it to the persistence of Russia’s autocratic form of government. Other observers critical of the Kremlin, like Ed Lucas of The Economist, also tie the government’s refusal to “own up” to the Soviet Union’s troubled legacy with the country’s present ills. Lucas and Satter, like many Westerners, dramatically underplay the extent to which anti-communist campaigns in Eastern Europe were motivated by right-wing anti-Russian nationalism, not by the intellectual dedication to historical memory they advocated. But they are right that Russia needs to do something to more forthrightly address the crimes of the Soviet-era. The Gulag was one of humanity’s great tragedies, and the Russian state ought to more formally acknowledge the past suffering of the country’s citizens.

All Western Russia watchers, and some non-specialists, are familiar with Memorial, a nongovernmental organization run by committed liberals that is dedicated to preserving the memory of the victims of totalitarianism. Memorial has, unfortunately, been the target of an aggressive campaign of state intimidation. Over the past decade the group has had its premises searches, its members interrogated, and, in one particularly spectacular case, its computers carted away by investigators from the prosecutor’s office. Memorial’s rough treatment at the hand of the authorities is clear confirmation that the Russian state has little interest in confronting the communist past and that it looks with a great deal of suspicion at any groups that attempt to do so.

There is one extremely powerful group in Russia, however, that has a direct interest in facing up to some of communism’s most awful crimes. I am speaking, of course, about the Russian Orthodox church, an institution that is currently in vogue as the Kremlin attempts to promote a more nationalist, conservative, and spiritually infused form of Russian identify. The Orthodox Church has been comfortable around power ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, but over the past several years its influence in the government has reached new heights, as Putin and his closest advisers seem increasingly at home with using religious language and symbolism in public.

While the fusing of state and religious institutions is disquieting, something I heard at the Valdai conference struck me as a reason for optimism. During a session on Russia’s identity, one of the speakers, a priest who was an influential member of the Moscow patriarchate, spoke in remarkably brusque terms about the crimes that had been committed in the name of communism. He spoke of “millions” of people being “sacrificed at the altar” of communism, and directly linked the appalling human costs of the communist experiment to Russia’s present-day demographic difficulties. He spoke about the need to defend the dignity of each and every human life, and to cherish the God-given dignity of the individual. While he was dressed in flowing priestly robes and wore a beard, for a few moments he sounded exactly like an urban intellectual.

On the one hand this was surprising: wasn’t the Orthodox Church close with the Russian state? Didn’t they get the message that harping on communism’s crimes and disasters was something that was only done by disloyal pro-Westerners? On the other hand, upon reflection it is clear that there is an enormous tension between promotion of Orthodoxy and promotion of the communist past. I would go so far as to argue that these trends are flatly contradictory: you can have a glorification of Russia’s “Christian roots” or you can have a glorification of the Soviet Union, but to have even a halfway coherent narrative you simply cannot have both. In other words, if Orthodox Christianity really is becoming more influential in Russian society there is inevitably going to be some sort of reckoning with the Soviet Union’s vicious persecution of Orthodox Christians.

Militant atheism was not a “quirk” of the Soviet system. The destruction of non-communist value systems, the suppression of potential centers of resistance, and the complete destruction of any notions of “bourgeois morality,” were all considered necessary for the success of the communist project. The communists took their anti-religiosity very seriously and maintained their anti-religious fervor well into the 1960’s: even during “the thaw” Khrushchev persecuted religious believers and destroyed hundreds of churches. Any half-serious inspection of the history of the church will show the thousands upon thousands of martyrs who died at the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Judging by numbers and political strength, any successful attempt to come to terms with the terrible crimes that bloodied Russia’s 20th century history will come not from the divided and unpopular liberals. These groups are too easily caricatured as effete Westerners, embarrassed by their own country. Instead, the attempt to reckon with communism’s costs will come from the growing ranks of Orthodox believers, and perhaps even from the Orthodox church itself.

This is not to diminish the very legitimate concerns that are raised by the church’s close relationship with the Kremlin. Attempts to politicize religion rarely end well. The ideas that Russia is returning to Orthodoxy and that Russia is returning to communism are often lumped together, creating a general sense of regression. However, as I hope the above has made clear, Orthodoxy and Communism are in deep tension with one another. Orthodox believers, if they take their religion seriously, will inevitably come to a very negative interpretation of the Soviet period. This dynamic deserves close observation, particularly if the Kremlin continues to increase its reliance on the spiritual influence of the church.

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