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Is Russia a Counter-Balance to Western Triumphalism?

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Above: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn writing.

Any extended critique of Russia using a Catholic framework is bound to consider a range of issues: authority and communion with Rome; the theological and political legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire; Communist infiltration, destruction, suppression, and subversion of Christianity; blatant, murderous anti-Semitism…and the list goes on. Looking at Russia with Catholic—or at least Western—vision can too easily lead to “if only” thinking. “If only” the Russians would depose Putin; “if only” a good pope would properly consecrate Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart; “if only” the Orthodox would crawl on their knees to Rome and renounce their errors. 

There is a great deal of truth in those suppositions, but the entire line of thinking is prone to triumphalism or, even worse, a new Manichaeism. By that I mean living in the fantasy that West/Catholicism = good and Russia = bad. What if the critics and would-be prophets are blinded by hubris to the crucial and possibly God-given mission of Russia to stand as a salutary reproach to Catholic and/or Western folly?

Solzhenitsyn, and an Anecdote

What I just touched on is a position held by some Russian thinkers during the past two centuries. The Slavophiles asserted that they had a special destiny to teach the West, and the most recent Russian philosopher of note, Alexander Dugin, also has some thoughts in that direction.

One of the most well-known instances of Russia’s prophetic message to the West is Solzhenitsyn’s June 8, 1978, address at Harvard University: “A World Split Apart.” The great thinker-writer challenges his Western audience about several negative developments: the widespread lack of courage, the love of materialism, the misapplication of legal principles, the corruption of the press (media), and the fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of freedom. He shocked his complacent listeners with statements such as this:

Through deep suffering, people in our country [Russia] have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.

To Western minds sure of their civilization’s innate superiority over a Communist system, Solzhenitsyn’s word must surely have stung.

But he kept going.

To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.

How true those stinging words ring in 2024 when Harvard’s students defend Islamic terrorists over a Jewish state that values the rule of law, and Catholic leaders make multiple concessions to the Chinese Communist party. Solzhenitsyn ends by scorning humanism and its ill effects on the world but especially the West. Looking back after forty-five years, it would be possible to poke holes in Solzhenitsyn’s suppositions; however, it is also possible to marvel over his perspicacity and foresight.

Endorsing this address by the author of The Gulag Archipelago comes pretty easy to one steeped in the classical thinking of Christendom. But I’ll share a personal anecdote of another instance of Russia’s ability to penetrate Western triumphalism. In years past (before I became Catholic) I was a tonsured Reader at an OCA (Orthodox Church in America) parish near Tacoma, WA. The OCA is the descendant of the Russian Church in North America. In recent years it has taken on much more of an American identity and typically parishes use English (not Church Slavonic) for the Divine Liturgy and other services. ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) traces its roots back to bishops and faithful who fled Russia shortly after the beginning of the 1917 revolution. It has retained its Russian ethnic character and in 2007 was canonically brought back into communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. Meanwhile, the OCA has languished and struggled to have its autocephaly fully recognized by worldwide Orthodoxy.

We in the OCA had contact—albeit limited—with the nearest ROCOR parish, St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle. At the time one of the priests serving the cathedral was the American-born son of immigrant (refugee) parents but thoroughly Russian in outlook. That priest said in an article—I cannot recollect exactly where—words to the effect that “there is no such thing as an American.” At first I found that statement risible, but laughter turned to anger. My ancestors had come here from elsewhere, but my people had lived here for decades, even centuries. What was I supposed to do? Return to France or the British Isles? Years have tempered that anger, and now I can see his point, even if I don’t fully agree. Mainstream Americans (typically white but not exclusively so) have been deracinated and homogenized. What do we have that is authentic and authentically and happily ours? I could turn around and say that this priest has fallen prey to the “Holy Russia” nostalgia of Orthodox fanboys, but that would not change the accuracy of his assessment regarding Americans.

Russia Facing Problems the West Thinks It Doesn’t Have

Returning to the list above, it is not hard to find that “Russian” problems are also becoming Western/Catholic problems. Regarding the legacy of the Eastern empire and developments with the schism-separated Eastern churches, the issue of divorce stands above many other problems.

Divorce as an allowable practice in the East comes in large part from caesaropapism and the subjugation of the Church by the empire. An emperor’s wish to re-marry was usually granted by the Patriarch of Constantinople, though eventually even the patriarch refused to “allow” more than three marriages (serial monogamy, as it were, but no more than three). That policy was never successfully implemented in the West, though England’s Henry VIII gave it more than one try.

The more corrosive development came as the divorce policy trickled down from the court to the commons. Allowing divorce and re-marriage became standard practice in the East, even if theoretically frowned-upon. For centuries after this shift in the East, the West held the line. But the last sixty years have seen changes. Post-Vatican II annulment policy is now called “Catholic divorce” by some. That is all the more so since Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia and its disputed interpretations on communion for the “re-married.”

The second cautionary example of false security and “it’ll never happen here” is the open secret that substantial numbers of the younger generations in the West embrace Socialism or even Communism. During the heyday of the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union “we” could look down our noses at “them” and their embrace of Marxist-Leninist falsehoods. The Soviet Union fell, and since then Russia and the other component parts of the USSR have struggled to find their way in a different world. Francis Fukuyama (in)famously stated that it was now “the end of history,” and many Cold Warriors went on their merry way promoting materialism and ersatz freedom. Meanwhile, Communism was alive and embraced in three places significant to the West: Cuba, China, and university (especially American) campuses. In 2024 Communism is our problem, and we are not doing a good job dealing with it. (That includes the Church, not just Western governments and societies.)

These examples are not meant to claim that Russia has done or is doing a good job. My rejoinder to those traditional Catholics who think Putin’s Russia is a virtuous promised land is: sure. Where are you going to go to Mass there? What are you going to do for work? If life isn’t so rosy there, will you speak out against the former KGB agent fond of having critics defenestrated or poisoned?

The memo for Russia, the West, and Catholics is simple: don’t be smug. Don’t assume that “our side” has all the answers. Learn from our mistakes and theirs. And always—always—keep your eyes on Our Lord and not on the waves.

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