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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Orthodoxies Old And New

Washington, 23 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - A debate in Moscow this week called attention to a problem facing all post-communist countries: how to fill the ideological void left by the collapse of communism without establishing a new orthodoxy every bit as dogmatic as the old one.

On Tuesday -- the 73rd anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state -- Russian Orthodox priests and Russian interior ministry officials argued about what the specific content of Russia's "new national ideology" should be now that the old Soviet ideology had collapsed.

Many of the priests suggested that only Orthodox Christianity could fill the void in the lives of many ordinary Russians. They advanced the nineteenth century tsarist slogan, "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality."

Many of the interior officials agreed with the priests but stressed the instrumental rather than transcendent value of Orthodoxy. They argued that a return to religion could reduce both alcoholism and crime in Russian society.

But with the exception of Nikita Mikhalkov, the film director who organized the meeting, few in either camp appear to have been sensitive to the very real dangers of substituting one orthodoxy for another. And there are three very large ones.

First, the adoption of Russian Orthodoxy as a new official ideology would threaten the religion itself.

"Making the sign of the cross could become as obligatory today, as going to communist party meetings was in the past," said Mikhalkov.

To the extent that happened, this new orthodoxy would rapidly become just as devoid of meaning, spiritually and practically, as was the old one.

And consequently the church would end up playing a role very different from the one its advocates hope and possibly just as stultifying as was communist orthodoxy in the past.

Second, the adoption of any new orthodoxy -- be it Christian or otherwise -- would tend to preclude rather than facilitate the careful examination of the Soviet past needed to overcome it.

Indeed, there is a very real danger that any new orthodoxy adopted now might play the same role with respect to the communist period than the communist ideology played with respect to the tsarist one.

Seventy years ago, the Bolsheviks' blanket condemnation of tsarist Russia simultaneously deprived the Russian people of their roots and allowed certain features of the tsarist past to enter into Soviet practice.

The current efforts of many Russians from President Boris Yeltsin on down to find a new national ideology could unfortunately have the same effect, depriving people of part of their inheritance while allowing certain features of Soviet times to enter into post-Soviet Russian practice.

But it is the third danger that is far and away the most serious, especially since it went unnoticed by the participants in the Moscow meeting. It lies in the near universal belief that Russia must have a single national ideology.

While the Russian search for a new self-definition in the post-Soviet world is generally a healthy one, the effort to codify a new defining ideology is anything but.

On the one hand, the current Russian effort to find a single orthodoxy suggests how little has changed in Russia rather how much. To judge from this meeting, all too many Russians are interested in filling the ideological void with a new ideology rather than escaping from a single ideological framework altogether.

And on the other, such an effort to find and then impose a new ideology on Russia compromises any chance for that country to move toward an open, pluralistic society. Even more, in the current situation, it could easily generate a reaction that might threaten the integrity of the Russian political system.

These dangers appear to have been far from the minds of most of the participants in the Moscow debate, but they are likely to move to the center of attention of those who hope to build a better and more open Russian society.