ROCOR Commentary on the February Revolution: Blame the West and Link Putin to the Tsars

by Lena Zezulin

february revolution

It is sad, if understandable, that the Russian state and society remained almost mute on the anniversary of the February/March 1917 Revolution. There is no consensus on those events.

It should therefore be welcome that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which has existed independently outside the Soviet state, professed anti-communism, glorified the New Martyrs, and defended the human rights of clergy and other dissidents, raised its voice to mark the event. It was welcome that the Church reminded us of the persecutions against the faithful, the glorification of the New Martyrs, and of the need to bury the carcass of Lenin.

Unfortunately, what ROCOR provided was little more than pro-Putin rhetoric.

Historians attribute the causes of the Russian Revolution to many factors: the stress of World War I, the assassination of Stolypin, the lack of economic development, famine, poor governance by the Tsar, and other factors. One could also mention Rasputin and hemophilia.

The March 10, 2017 Epistle of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia “on the 100th Anniversary of the Tragic Revolution in Russia and Beginning of the Godless Persecutions” attributes the Revolution to only two causes: the perfidy of the West and the apostasy of the educated classes. The epistle asserts without any substantiation that the Revolution was organized and supported by Western nations:

The fact that Russia was making enormous strides forward was recognized far beyond the borders of our Fatherland, even so far as the United States of America. In November, 1914, the magazine National Geographic published a noteworthy issue devoted to Russia. Social and economic analyses of the day showed that by the date targeted by Stolypin, all key economic indicators would show that Russia would have achieved unstoppable growth. The only thing that hindered it was a revolution organized and supported by the Western nations. Our Fatherland was not given even 20 days of peace. It is important to note that the constant denigration of Russia on the part of “Western civilization” we see today existed a hundred years ago and, in fact, much earlier. The world despised the Russian Empire, the heir to Holy Orthodox Rus. Neither adherence to the duty to Russia’s allies, nor the unceasing readiness for cooperation by the Russian Tsars could change that.

The epistle claims that the Revolution was caused by the denigration of Russia by “Western civilization” that began longer than a hundred years ago. While one can certainly see German interests in the transport of Lenin to Russia for the October Revolution, most historians view the February Revolution as homegrown and a result of incompetence.

The epistle also blames the “educated classes” as follows: “The educated classes in Russia, raised in so-called ‘Westernizing’ traditions, pushed Russia with almost suicidal relentlessness into the abyss, pushing the Russian people in every way possible to reject their faith, their Tsar and their Fatherland.” One cannot generalize from a few people to an entire class, and this statement ignores the military officers, scientists, engineers, civil servants, lawyers, zemstvo officials, doctors, nurses, public health workers, teachers, factory owners, decent land owners, and many others who sought improvement and modernization. One should include clergy in the rank of educated classes as well – but somehow they seem left out of the description of educated classes in the epistle. Ironically, the epistle engages in Marxist class warfare.

The epistle is unabashedly monarchist in political orientation and refers to the apostasy of those who rejected the “Divinely-ordained government,” echoing the Byzantine conception of the emperor and the empire as terrestrial expressions of the divine order. The epistle also states: “We must not under any circumstances justify the actions of those responsible for the deadly revolution.” This is a strong and dangerous statement.  Is the epistle’s message that all those who criticized the Tsar’s governance, including the New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the Tsar’s long-suffering mother, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, were all apostates? Is every member of the February 1917 Duma an apostate? Are historians who criticize the Tsar for poor governance also apostates?

The epistle also needlessly wades into the contemporary political strains between Russia and the Western nations, including the United States, by referring to the “the constant denigration of Russia on the part of ‘Western civilization’ that we see today” (emphasis added) and the essential return of Russia to its Orthodox roots as protection from the West. The epistle draws parallels to anti-Russian sentiment at the time of the Revolution and the political tensions now.

Are the authors saying that Putin is like a new tsar and the Western opposition to him is similar to the actions of the revolutionaries and those who supported them?

For example, is opposition to current Russian human rights violations that stare at us from the Internet a Western denigration of Russia? Is exposure of rampant corruption in Russia an anti-Russian activity? Are the Russian people within and outside Russia who oppose the invasion of Crimea anti-Russian and apostate?

Russians will always argue about why the Revolution occurred. I happen to think that the Tsar was an incompetent autocrat. I hold this opinion based on the personal witness of my grandfather and on volumes of historical evidence. I recently read Once a Grand Duke by Grand Duke, by Alexander Mikhailovich, which expresses that view very personally.

One wishes that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia would serve as a spiritual haven and home for all of the diversity of Russian Orthodox life abroad. In this monarchist and nationalist epistle, the Synod aligned itself with a narrow ethnophyletism and equated Orthodoxy with certain contemporary political positions. The Russian Orthodox Church in Russia does likewise, but has been captured by the state. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia has a choice.

Lena Zezulin is a US attorney and international development advisor on democracy and governance and economic reform. She lived and worked long term on legal reform in Russia, Armenia, and Tunisia.