“Re-Christianizing” Russia

by John P. Burgess

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Orthodox Church has aspired to nothing less than “a second Christianization” of the Russian nation—a term that appears in its Missionary Concept of 2007. The Church has striven to revive Russia’s historic Orthodox identity by becoming, with state assistance, a comprehensive presence in society. Critics often note the price that the Church pays for close cooperation with the Putin government, but after a decade of tracking these developments on the ground, I see another, less well-known side to the story. “Re-Christianization,” whatever its political deficiencies, is also contributing much good to Russia.

“Re-Christianization” is itself a disputed term. Some scholars argue that Russia was never truly Christianized. Father Alexander Schmemann used to talk about a popular Russian Orthodoxy that was a troubling syncretism of Christianity and traditional nature religions. Others have argued that Russia was never “de-Christianized” during the Soviet era. Orthodoxy had embedded itself so deeply in Russian culture that people continued to pray before icons, have their children baptized, and make pilgrimage to holy sites, even if under the radar of the Bolshevik authorities. I believe that today’s talk about “re-Christianization” is really about the efforts of the Church to secure its institutional life and official teachings and practices. For many Church leaders, it is not enough anymore that people call themselves Orthodox because they are Russian. The Church wants them to be “in-churched” (votserkovlennye). They should actively participate in the Church and know and practice its faith.

The Church’s narrative typically runs like this: Russians have lived through a century of traumatization. After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks began eradicating Russia’s pervasive religious culture and specifically the Orthodox Church. By 1941, only 200-300 churches remained open, every monastery and seminary had been closed, and 85-90% of Church leaders had been arrested and/or executed. These attacks on the Church represented a broader assault on Russian society, further compounded by the millions of casualties of the Second World War. With the bankruptcy of the Soviet system in the 1980s, Russians suffered mass depression. They asked, Who are we as a nation, and is there anything left that we can we take pride in?

The Church has offered a compelling answer: What makes Russia great is its historical foundation in Orthodox Christianity; if Russians will recover the Church’s moral and aesthetic values, they will discover that they are heirs not of a failed social-political experiment called communism but rather a unique and glorious religious vision of ultimate peace, justice, and beauty. The Church has moreover sought to draw Russians into this new national ideal by promoting such major initiatives in: religious education through Sunday Schools, Orthodox universities and publishing houses, and instruction in “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” in the public schools; cutting-edge social ministries in drug rehabilitation, hospice care, and support for families with autistic children; historical commemoration of those who suffered and/or died for their faith (“the new martyrs”) in the 20th century, especially under Lenin and Stalin; and parish life, so that people do more than drop in and out of Church services but, instead, support each other in growing in Christian faith.

The Church’s efforts in each case are benefitting many in Russian society. Children and young people are learning more about their nation’s Christian heritage, people with emotional and physical needs are receiving attention that the state is unable to provide, the crimes of Stalin are being openly acknowledged, and parishes are becoming eucharistic fellowships of mutual care. Nevertheless, the results of two decades of intensive “in-churching” activity are also sobering. While the Church now has 18,000 parishes and several hundred men’s and women’s monasteries in Russia, only 5% of Russians regularly attend the divine liturgy, and familiarity with Church doctrines and observance of Church practices shows no upward tick. Only 15% of self-identified Orthodox believers in cities such as Moscow are able to identify Church teaching about the Trinity, while the percentage in the countryside is close to zero. Fewer than 10% of Orthodox Russians keep the Great Fast. As in the West, most Russians want to be believers without belonging.

Even if “in-churching” has fallen short, a broader “re-Christianization” is nevertheless taking place, although more elusively than sociologists’ statistics can ascertain. The resurgence of Orthodoxy has meant not only political accommodation and new Church social initiatives, but also public revival of Christian symbols of self-giving, repentance, and social solidarity. When Russians make pilgrimage to one of the Church’s great and magnificently restored monasteries and step into the divine liturgy, they again encounter that extraordinary reality that Christians call the kingdom of God. I for one wait with utter fascination to see what that might yet mean for the future of Church and politics in the new Russia.

John P. Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.