Russia’s DNA: “Deep-Seated Spirituality”

Note: This is the fifth in a series of essays on ‘Russia’s DNA.’ The first essay ‘Russia’s DNA: Fear of Invasion’ explains the background for this series.

Russia’s Unique History

Millenium Celebration of the Russian Orthodox Church, 1988

In 1988, Russians celebrated 1000 years of Christianity in their country, a celebration that was a problem for the ruling Communist Party, with its atheist ideology. But the reality of a millennia of Orthodox history could not be ignored in a country with such deep-seated spirituality. The events of 1988 focused on Prince Vladimir and his decision to adopt Christianity as the religion of his realm, and during this period of celebration Mikhail Gorbachev came to the realization that he needed to sever the link between Communist ideology and atheism – a radical decision that went largely unnoticed in the West. The Communist regime was established by Vladimir Lenin as an explicitly atheist system, utilizing Karl Marx’s famous slogan that religion is “the opium of the people.” Gorbachev concluded 70 years later that this was not true, and he passed a law on freedom of conscience and religion that was one of the most progressive laws in the world.

Even before the collapse of Communism, Party leaders realized that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be denied. At times, this realization was grounded in a cynical pragmatism, for example when Joseph Stalin asked Russian Orthodox Church leaders for their help during the dark days of World War Two, after decades of persecuting Orthodox priests and their congregations. Gorbachev’s dramatic change did not appear to be motivated by a desire to manipulate church leaders, like Stalin, but rather by a realization that Russians were deeply spiritual people and that religious people were some of the most loyal, most hard-working citizens in the USSR.

As a Westerner visiting Moscow for the first time in 1990, I was immediately struck by the irony of the Soviet government declaring itself an atheist regime while headquartered in the Kremlin with the magnificent gold-covered, onion-shaped domes of its cathedrals – the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, and the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. Historians tell us that before Moscow was burned down by Russians as Napoleon approached the city in 1812, there were hundreds of churches in the nation’s capitol. Even today, one is struck by the number of active churches in Moscow and scattered across the countryside.

Russia’s Literary Legacy

The greatest of Russian literature, highlighted in the 19th and 20th centuries by the names of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostosevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few of my favorites, is characterized by deep philosophical and religious themes. Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita is an amazing, complex novel written during Stalin’s Great Terror in which Bulgakov uses Satan to prove the existence of God and makes fun of anyone who is silly enough to believe that there is no God.

The Religion of the Communist Party

Despite the original intention of Bolshevik leaders to create “a new Soviet man and Soviet woman,” who were thoroughly secular, Stalin – a former seminarian – realized that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be ignored so he deliberately attempted to build a “cult of Lenin” as the “Marxist Messiah.” The funeral and subsequent construction of Lenin’s tomb on Red Square were clearly designed to have religious symbolism; the tomb itself was built like an altar. National holidays were created to mirror religious holidays, and celebrations generated by the Communist Party were often made to tap into the religious “DNA” of the Russian people.

Contemporary Attitudes toward Religion

Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square

Despite seventy years of the worst persecution of Christianity since the days of the Roman Empire, the deep-seated spirituality of the Russian people has survived. Unlike secularized Western Europe, where there is often open hostility toward any religious beliefs, in today’s Russia there is a great freedom to talk about spiritual issues. In many ways there is a greater freedom in Russia to discuss spiritual issues than there is in the United States, where the “separation of church and state” argument is often used to stifle substantive discussions of religious issues. In the States, religion is acceptable if you keep it private; this kind of privatized religion is less evident in Russia.

According to a poll in late 2006, only fifteen years after the collapse of the atheistic Soviet Union, 84% of Russia’s citizens believe in God. 63% described themselves as Russian Orthodox, 6% Muslim, and 1-2% Protestant. Atheists — at 16% — are a clear minority in Russia.

The challenging issues that have yet to be determined in Russian society are as follows:

  • Will different religions and theological traditions be given equal freedom to exist or will the Russian Orthodox Church insist on its primary status as a “national religion,” thereby making all other faiths second-class?
  • Will Islam be allowed to develop without severe restraints from the Russian government?
  • Will Russian spirituality survive the onslaught of Western materialism?

Russia’s “DNA” includes a deep-seated spirituality, but cultures do change. As one of Russia’s most famous pollsters noted a few years back, Russian young people are some of the richest in their society. “They know how to make money.” In addition to their materialism and lack of interest in politics, he also noted that among Russian young people “there is a total absence of any larger ideas or values. . . . They have no concept about any long-lasting values in life.” It is an open question whether or not the spirituality of previous generations will be passed down.