Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Misconception of Russian Authoritarianism:Part 8-The Return to Security, Orthodoxy,Leadership and Russian Identity

President Putin at a Russian Orthodox religious service

Prayer candles lit in a Russian Orthodox Church

Kevin Cyron

Editor's note: In this eighth part of his masters thesis, "The Misconception of Russian Authoritarianism", St. Petersburg University graduate Kevin Cyron examines the historically close ties between Russia's national leadership and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Click on the links to read previous installments in this series:

Click on the extended post to read part seven in the extended essay.

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, (I conjure you to believe me fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.

President George Washington Farewell Address, September 17, 1796

The complexity of a nation’s identity, no matter what nation, cannot be summed up in a sentence, motto or a word. It is composed of historical, societal and cultural parameters. To understand modern Russia and comprehend the rationale for the decisions that its leaders make domestically and in the realm of foreign policy, one has to examine the different aspects of the Russian Identity. Only when a nation that accepts its historical past and is comfortable with its present and is confident in the plans set forth for the future can itself achieve a fully functioning democratic system. A country which has public and transparent debates concerning the identity of the nation itself is only then to be considered to be fully within the confines of the democratic system.

The Character of a Leader

How Russians view its leader is an important aspect to understanding their identity. Many articles have been written wondering why it is that President Putin has such high approval ratings. These have consistently been around 60-70% for most of his two terms. Despite a low point during the Kursk submarine sinking incident early in his first term is has rebounded and remained constant ever since. Most writers credit this to an almost economic miracle that has consumed Russia over the past eight years. However to simply keep it in this perspective is to miss something deeper, personal and cultural.

From the time of creation of the unified Russian state, Russians have had a certain affinity, a special bond with their leader. Even some of the most turbulent and tyrannical among them, Ivan Grozny (which is commonly translated as Terrible, when a better translation would be Awesome or Dread) and Josef Stalin, the Russian people still hold these former leaders with a certain amount of respect. As Nina Khrushcheva (Great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev) writes in her article published in The Washington Post, "Why Russia Still Loves Stalin":

“We yearned for monumental – if oppressive – leaders, like Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. Yes, they killed and imprisoned, but how great were our victories and parades! So what if Stalin ruled by fear? That was simply a fear for one’s life. However terrifying, it wasn’t as existentially threatening as the fear of freedom of individual choice, with no one but oneself to blame if democracy turned into disarray and capitalism into corruption.”(163)

The Russian Tsar received his power directly from God as was the belief at the time, which was not to be questioned. In a highly religious Orthodox Christian state there was no questioning the orders from God to Tsar. This belief in an all powerful Tsar lasted from 1547 when Ivan IV (Awesome or Terrible) claimed this as his title, which originally came from the term, Caesar, until 1917 with the abdication of the throne from Nicolas II. It was Ivan who as Billington says, “culminated the Muscovite ideal of building a prophetic, religious civilization.” It was Nicholas’s belief in this that some cite as a cause of his forced dethronement. However it should be noted that even before this official title, the Grand Princes of Kievan Rus, Moscow and other local Slavic cities, still held a specific special place although not on the same level as a Tsar. The Tsars of Russia were the protectorate of the people and he or she always knew what was best and brought about triumph and greatness to this now profoundly proud people.

The Yearning for Normalcy

In 1991 with the transition from Communism to a Federation, the Russians as a people still have this respect, adoration and love for their protector in leader. As Nina Khrushcheva wrote,

“After the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a period when democracy came to represent confusion, crime, poverty, oligarchy, anger and disappointment, it turned out that Russians didn’t like their new, “free” selves. Having for centuries had no sense of self-esteem outside the state, we found ourselves wanting our old rulers back, the rulers who provided a sense of order, inspired patriotic fervor and the belief that we were a great nation.”(165)

Reviving National Traditions

This continues today. This way of thinking dates back centuries and no matter what the regime may be, whether it’s an empire, socialist republic or a federation, Russians respect their protectorate, mother, and father. They are one in the same family. It was this that President Putin united by bringing back many of the old names of the cities, holidays of the Tsarist period, the Soviet music and adopted new modern lyrics for the Russian National Anthem. Sometimes members of family do cruel and abysmal things, however they are still family and since you can’t change your family, you can only accept it and learn from it in order to take the next steps in progress. As Nina Khrushcheva states:

“'Putinism' an all-inclusive hybrid that embraces elements of Stalinism, communism, KGB-ism and market-ism, is our new national ideology. A man for all seasons and all fears, Russia’s president pretends that by selectively adopting and adapting some elements from his predecessors’ rule – the Russian Orthodox Church of the czars, the KGB of the Soviets, the market economy of Boris Yeltsin era – he is eliminating the extremes of the past, creating a viable system of power that will last.”(166)

The Weakness of Political Parties Compared to Individuals

Over the course of Russian history, Russians have viewed their leaders from trust in the lord to father knows best. This is also linked to the desire held by many for President Putin to run for a third term. The peaceful transfer of power, especially in a semi-democratic fashion is just in its genesis of development in today’s Russia. Old traditions and cultural changes take time especially given the scope and the length of time to which Russians value their beloved leaders. The question becomes how much patience does the western world have and is it willing let Russia learn the same way they did. It’s a long road to build a confident and reliable democratic government. As Nina Khrushcheva states:

“The fall of the communist system didn’t exactly seamlessly usher in democracy, despite people’s expectations. Russians were in such a hurry to get rid of the negative burdens of the Soviet regime that they got rid of everything positive, too. In a sweeping negation (much like Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin), they were told the merely century long Soviet period had been completely useless. The 1990’s refused to recognize the communist era – which had indeed brought Russia oppression, but also industrialization, educational growth, near-universal literacy, victory in World War II, science and space developments.”(167)

This is also relevant in building a multi party system. Russians historically are not party politic people. Russians trust leaders and they do not trust political parties. The last time they “trusted” a political party it ruled for 70 years and comprised all elements of society. Russians will follow the person who inspires and gives them comfort, stability, and is reliable. Political parties are also difficult to hold to account. When problems arise it is easier to place blame on the leader than the party."

The irony of all this is that the Russians have faith in their leader but they lack faith in the government. The leader is personal. He is the face of the state. When people think of the state, they often visualize the leader. This contrasts sharply with western views of government, where the government as a whole is trusted but the leaders are often not. Western Presidents are held to a significant amount of scorn and ridicule however when a government report is issued, most of the time it is accepted with out prejudices. As Nina Khrushcheva wrote, “This is why the country rallies behind President Vladimir Putin. Putin promotes as a new Russian 'democrat'. Indeed, Russians view him less like the godlike “father of all nations” that Stalin was, and more like a Russian everyman – a sign of a least partial democratization.”(168)

The Revival of Russian Orthodoxy

One of the key components of Russian identity is the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. As James Billington says in his book, The Icon and the Axe:

“The uniqueness of the new Great Russia culture that gradually emerged after the eclipse of Kiev is exemplified by the tent roof and the onion dome: two striking new shapes, which by the early sixteenth century dominated the skyline of the Russian north.”(169)

From the times of Kiev and Rus to today the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is the one thread of Russian society that has been consistent. Princes, Tsars, General Secretary and Presidents come and go with history through a series of political transitions however the church has always been there. Despite during the era of the Soviet Union where the church was heavily persecuted and suppressed, after the fall in 1991 it has regained much of it former status and is quickly becoming an influential player in Russia. As Metropolitan Timothy Kallistos Ware discusses in his book, The Orthodox Church:

“Orthodox history is marked outwardly by a series of sudden breaks: the capture of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem by the Arab Muslims; the burning of Kiev by the Mongols; the two sacks of Constantinople; the October Revolution in Russia. Yet these events, while they have transformed the external appearance of the Orthodox world, have never broken the inward continuity of the Orthodox Church.”(170)

The Orthodox Church united and saved Russian civilization. As Billington states, “The Orthodox Church brought Russia out of its dark ages, provided a sense of unity for its scattered people, higher purpose for its princes and inspiration for its creative rights.”(171) The Church also through monasticism brought about a change and provocation of culture through icon painting and literature. It should be noted that although the Patriarch of Moscow does have extensive powers, unlike the pope he is not considered infallible and does not have the direct authority over matters pertaining to faith. This authority is instead given to a council of bishops (pomestny sobor). Some of the most fundamental issues (such as the ones responsible for the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox split) cannot be decided even on this level and have to be dealt with by a council of representatives from all Eastern Orthodox churches. The last time such a council was held was in 787.

Some of Russia’s most important historical events are tied directly to the church. For example, the battle of Kulikovo in the late 14th century for the people was more about Christianity than politics. Walter Moss states in his book, The History of Russia, “Yet most Russians saw the conflict in the same general way: as a Moscow led Christian Russian holy war against Moslem Tartar operation (Islam had become the official religion of the Golden Horde early in the 14th Century)”.(172)

Another example is the conclusion of the Times of Troubles and the election of a new Tsar. Moss states, “Amidst the chaos of the time and under the threat of a Polish Catholic monarch, one institution ultimately proved capable of leading a Russian revival – the Russian Orthodox Church.”(173)

Soviet Communism - The god That Failed

After the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the Soviet Communist Party heavily persecuted religion. Their attempt at creating an atheistic state does not go without a sense of irony because in a sense the communist party became the religion of state. Communism had its awe inspiring, feared but often respected leader. Communism had its scripture, the communist manifesto and subsequent communist party infamous five year plans. At the 22nd Congress of the CPSU in 1961 the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, a virtual 10 Commandments, was passed.

Communism also had its claim of belief in an eventual global societal utopia which was taught in schools. The Soviet Communist Party ruled mostly in fear and limited on paranoia and a significant amount of guilt, which drove people to hold the values of the Party and State above one’s own family. It should be noted as well that during the times of most dire circumstances in the Great Patriotic War, Comrade Stalin ordered the re-opening of Churches and Cathedrals to help unify and inspire the people.

The Third Rome

The church is the one institution that has the ability flow into all levels of society. No matter what your status is, whether you are the Tsar, a noble, an aristocrat or a serf; if you are Orthodox you share the same identity. A serf is connected to the Tsar because he is Orthodox. It is this connection that has been felt through the centuries.

It is this identity with the church that is a strength in Russian character. As it is written in The Russian Context:

“The idea of Moscow’s role as political heir to Byzantium and its vital place in the world as the last free Orthodox Christian kingdom was formulated at the beginning of the 16th century by the monk Philotheus Филоф_й in an Epistle to Grand Prince Vasily «Посл_ние вел_кому кн_зю Вас_лию». According to him, Moscow was the Third Rome Москв_—тр_тий Рим, the natural successor both to the first Rome which lapsed into heresy and the second Rome (that is, Constantinople) which fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Thus, as leader of the only remaining Orthodox state, the Muscovite tsar had a duty to protect the Orthodox Church throughout the whole world and maintain the purity of the Christian faith since there will be no Fourth Rome. Philotheus’ succinct formulation is: “Two Romes have fallen, the third now stands, and a fourth one is not to be” Два Р_ма п_ли, тр_тий сто_т, а четвёртому не быв_ть.”(174)

Competitive Drives - Russian Sports

Most articles written today about Russia are dominated by Russia’s apparent political swing back towards authoritarianism which is fused with a booming economy which in turn is fueled by petrol-dollars. These articles and discussions focus on and cite examples of restrictions on personal freedom and a resurgence of Russian nationalism. This rise in Russian nationalism is due to a more enhanced foreign presence and economic muscle. The pride of Russia is far more complicated than simply these two factors. Russia’s current rise in patriotism is also fueled by it’s recent success in sports. The following are a few examples:

In 2007, the Russian basketball team dominated European teams and won the Euro basketball Tournament. In football (or soccer) the Russian National team has qualified for the European Championship to take place in Austria this summer. The St. Petersburg team, Zenit, continues to surprise and surpass expectations.

First they become champions of the Russia Premier League in 2007 and now are on their way to Manchester for the Championship game of the Union of European Football Association Cup (UEFA). This alone is significant because the Moscow team had dominated since the league was created in 1992. [Editors - this essay was written before Russia advanced to the semifinals of the European soccer tournament this summer]

In Tennis, Russia has had a series of successful athletes, most recently knocking out the American Williams sisters and now head to the Fed Cup to be had in September. Hockey too is gaining more prominence. Team Russia just recently won the World International Hockey Championship, for the first time in over a decade.

There is also the rise of Golf. The first Russia Open championship was held in Moscow in 2003. A number of Russian Golf Tournaments are supported by major Western companies that areoperating in the country. The Russian Golf Association has ambitious plans to build about 500 golf sites in Russia by 2018.

The promotion of sport is tied to the promotion of health. Recently a cabinet position on Sport Tourism and youth was created.

The Return to Security

The Russian identity is comprised or constructed from a variety of different sources. Historical, which has been discussed, and also historical perception. In other words how Russia views itself. Modern Russia views itself as a great power. Not necessarily a “super” power but certainly a great power, influential, and a nation to be reckoned with and paid attention to. As William Jackson writes in his work, Imagining Russia in Western International Relations Theory:

“A state’s behavior is viewed as an intention to reproduce its identity as a state actor conditioned by shared, intersubjective constructive norms, e.g., if a state identifies itself as a “Great Power,” it will act to reproduce that identity in terms of prevailing norms regarding Great Power behavior. In reproducing a “Great Power” identity that state affirms existing constitutive norms regarding behavior appropriate to major powers.”(175)

This identity that Russia projects into its foreign and security policies has its roots in historical cultural and social spheres. As William Jackson states:

"It is constructed and reproduced in interaction with other identities, and in accordance with international intersubjective norms which define or signify, for example, what constitutes a “nation” what constitutes a “Great Power” or a “European” or “Western” state, as well as native and historically contingent intersubjective understanding of Russia which are themselves formed in reaction to a larger world. The Russian identity is understood as an historical contingent social and political construction which is subject to reconstructution and change.”(176)

The Wheel of Democracy

Let us revisit the Wheel of Democracy and put Russia today in its context. In order to understand Russia’s democratic development one has to consider all levels of building a stable democratic state, Security, Economic, Rule of Law, and Identity. In this context, democracy is everywhere and nowhere. Only when all levels are working simultaneously together can you eventually develop a modern, transparent democratic system. Each level must at the very least achieve a controllable level. Russia and the Russians have already made the choice to Democracy; they are now tying to understand how and why. The answers to these questions lie in the final achievement of a controllable level of rule of law and identity.

The western argument that Russia’s current developments are forcing the country back into authoritarianism is completely naïve. Sliding backwards to the past injustices would isolate Russia from the world again. This in turn would remove Russia from the global economy. This in itself would cause such a backlash from the populace that it is not politically possible or honestly conceivable.

International agreements strengthen Russia’s internal and external security and economic security. As illustrated throughout this thesis, Russia has made so much progress over the last eight years that to attempt to become authoritarian again would be similar to a spaceship going 3/5ths of the distance to Mars and then stopping, turn around and go back. Course adjustments are necessary in any journey. Nations may have to slow down political reforms for fear of trying to achieve to much too soon, however Russia will continue down the democratic path it started in 1991.


(161) AmCham News #75 p. 12
(163) Khrushcheva, Nina L. “Why Russia Still Loves Stalin” Washington Post February 12, 2006(164) Billington, p.46
(165) Khrushcheva, Nina L.
(166) Khrushcheva, Nina L.
(167) Khrushcheva, Nina L.
(168) Khrushcheva, Nina L.
(169) Billington, James, “The Icon and the Axe” 1966 Vintage Books New York p.47
(170) Ware, Timothy, “The Orthodox Church”1963 Penguin Books New York p.195
(171) Billington, p. 49
(172) Moss, Walter, “A History of Russia” 1976 New York p.87
(173) Moss, p. 160
(174) Boyle, Eloise M. and Gerhart Genevra. “The Russian Context” Slaviva. Bloomington, Indiana 2002
(175) Jackson, William. Maimi University - Jackson, William

Kevin Cyron is a native of Burke, Virginia, USA and a graduate of Marymount University in Maryland. Mr. Cyron has worked on the staff of Congressmen Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Washington D.C., and for an MP in the European Parliament in Brussels. In 2005, Mr. Cyron moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to begin his Masters degree in European Studies the following year. While completing his Masters, Mr. Cyron worked for the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. Mr. Cyron graduated from St. Petersburg State University with an M.A. in Sociology in June 2008.

Posted by Kevin Cyron on August 30, 2008 10:00 AM

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