The identification of moral conservatives in the twenty-first century with historical periods that predate the experience of twentieth century totalitarianism reveals a fundamental blind-spot in contemporary conservatism. Conjuring up political constellations of the 1920s to 40s as analogies for contemporary struggles between conservatives and progressives willfully ignores the ‘lesson’ of totalitarianism. Nothing exemplifies this forgetfulness better than the recent closure of Memorial, the NGO dedicated to the critical memory of Stalinism, by Russian authorities.
On the pages of Public Orthodoxy, Aram G. Sarkisian recently pointed out the odd affinity which some American Orthodox cultivate vis-à-vis the time of the American Civil War and how ultraconservative Orthodox groups appropriate an eighteenth-century story to fit a twisted and ahistorical agenda of the twenty-first. The identification with past epochs it nothing unique to American Orthodox. In my own studies of moral conservatism in Russia and the US, I have also encountered this identification with the past, in particular with the period of the 1920s to 40s.
Scholarly study of the interaction of law and religion is well established in Europe and America, but it is not evenly distributed across the religious and ecclesiastical spectrum. There is a vast literature on some aspects of the subject, such as religion in the American constitutional order and law in the history of Roman Catholicism. Issues of law and religion in the Orthodox world, however, have not received much attention. Law and the Christian Tradition in Modern Russia (Routledge, 2022), a volume sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and edited by Paul Valliere and Randall A. Poole, seeks to promote awareness and further investigation of this subject. Since law is an essential ingredient of the public sphere in every developed society, the topic is of obvious relevance to scholars and activists exploring public Orthodoxy.
Our book focuses on the most creative age in the history of Russian law—the century stretching from the Napoleonic wars to the revolutions of 1917. A team of North American, European, and Russian scholars presents twelve concise portraits of outstanding Russian jurists and philosophers of law of the period. A few of these figures, such as Mikhail Speransky and Vladimir Soloviev, will be familiar to Orthodox readers, but most are not well known beyond the circle of specialists in Russian law and legal thought. Also included in our volume are chapters describing the historical and ecclesiastical background of law and religion in Russia.
Russia’s constitutional amendments of 2020 augur an ever-enlarging foreign policy role for the Russian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (ROC). Constitutional entrenchment of the Kremlin’s selective understanding of state sovereignty and non-interference; a state-sanctioned vision of historical truth; the muscular protection of compatriot rights abroad; and the propagation of traditional values each tap into areas where the church has steadfastly advocated Russian civilization as a global counterweight to the West’s “ultra-liberalism.” Faced with this emerging reality, policymakers should reassess the nature and substance of their interactions with church officials and take measures to scrutinize ROC activities more closely in their respective jurisdictions.
At the end of January, what were perhaps the largest protest rallies in the last ten years took place across Russia. The protests were sparked by the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had returned to his homeland after medical treatment in Germany. Back in August 2020, Russian special services had tried to poison him, and Navalny spent several weeks in a coma. Two days after returning to Russia, an investigative filmabout Vladimir Putin’s alleged private residence (“Putin’s palace”) was published on Navalny’s YouTube channel, where it has received more than 100 million views to date. These events became the starting point of the protests. During the rallies, the police carried out a record number of arrests, which caused a new wave of anger.
During times like this, the painful realization that Orthodox Christians, especially post-Soviet Orthodox Christians, do not have a theological language to speak about political events becomes especially acute. This is true both for those who are outraged by the authorities’ actions and for those who support them. Orthodox political speech today is discrete and is a repetition of the same old commonplaces: “There is no authority except from God”; “Not peace, but a sword”; “To Caesar what is Caesar’s”; “The church is outside politics.” But around these commonplaces, no narrative, no meanings or interpretations, no concrete rule or guidance is formed. They are thrown into the public space and immediately recoil back.