Christianity’s Impact in Russia
EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTS HAVE IMPACTED THE SOCIETY of the former USSR in the 20th century on a spiritual and moral level, and more recently, on a social and political level. This impact is acknowledged more and more as Russian Christians, both Orthodox and Protestant, realize that they must influence the society or otherwise be persecuted their faith – as was the case during the era of Stalinist communism.
In recent years, Protestants (mainly Baptists, Charismatics and Pentecostals) have been able to develop abilities within the church community that are very helpful to their every daily work, thus helping them rise economically. In general, their permanent presence is accepted. Evangelicals, like the Russian Orthodox, may soon obtain a legitimate status as a religion in terms of belief and lifestyle in the general society.
Russia itself is a land rich in Christian heritage. Here we find a historic emphasis on Christianization of culture, especially the influence on art, education, government, music, philosophy and science. Although Protestants disagree with much of the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church, we can admire its positive influence and great contributions to Russian life and culture. There are ample testimonies to the work of the Holy Spirit through this form of Christianity and its survival through most bitter persecution. Despite the communist mandate to sweep aside the principles of Christianity, the strength of the Orthodox Church survived.
Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Ogorodnikov, predicted “the second Christianization of Russia” shortly before the downfall of the Soviet Union. Said Ogorodnikov, “Our first priority is fighting communism, and Christianity is the only force that can do this.“1
A book published in English edited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, From Under The Rubble, “Iz pod glub“2 contains writings of Russian Orthodox dissident writers whose works were never published in the Russian language. Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, a narrative which describes his imprisonment under Stalin, later compiled this collection of essays written by some of the Soviet Union’s most brilliant dissidents, the majority of whom also happen to be Christians who survived the persecution.
From Under the Rubble
From Under the Rubble contains some remarkable insights. We get a picture of 20th century Russian Christians under great persecution throwing off their notorious temperament of melancholy in order to grasp their glorious future as a destiny ordained of Almighty God. Since the 19th century, Orthodox philosophers were persecuted by the Czarist regime.
This led some to adopt a pessimistic outlook. P.Y. Chaadayev (1793-1856), a pro-Catholic political thinker circulated his Philosophical Letters, in which he prophesied that Russia would become “nothing but a yawning void, an object lesson to other nations.“3 The Russian monk, Konstantin Leonatyev (1831-1891), pictured Russia as an accursed and corrupt people created by God only for the purpose of bringing forth the Antichrist.4
Yet in the darkest hour of the 20th century Stalinist purges, a new light of hope appeared. Here we find Christians speaking optimistically, even with postmillennial hope, of Russia’s future. They recalled the 11th century Kievan monk, Nestor the chronicler, who compared the Russian people to the eleventh hour laborers:
“If instead of standing around in the market place we answer the call of the Vineyard Owner, we shall not be too late at the end of the day to receive the same wage as the rest.“5
One dissident, Vadim Borisov (b. 1945 ) noted that the rationalist humanism which took hold in Russia in the early 19th century inevitably led to a destructive nihilism.
“We discover with astonishment that so-called rationalist humanism actually lacks an adequate rational basis for its defense of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human personality – for which it has often risked both life and limb. The American Founding Fathers who many years ago first propounded the ‘eternal rights of man and the citizen’ postulated that every human being bears the form and likeness of God; he therefore has an absolute value, and consequently also the right to be respected by his fellows. Rationalism, positivism and materialism successively destroyed the memory of this absolute source of human rights. The unconditional equality of persons before God was replaced by the conditional equality of individuals before the law….
“In breaking the link between the human personality and the absolute source of its rights, and yet affirming them as something to be taken for granted, rationalist humanism has from the outset been inherently inconsistent, as its more logical successors very quickly understood. Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (and many others) resolved the inconsistency each in his own way, leaving not one stone upon another in the edifice of blind faith in man’s dignity. These men represented the theoretical, logical culmination of mankind’s humanist rebellion against God. They declared “our innate moral consciousness” to be self-deception, noxious illusion, fiction – as demanded by a rationally ordered consciousness. This century’s totalitarianism, trampling the human personality and all its rights, rhinocerouslike, underfoot, is only the application of this theory to life, or humanism put into practice.“6
Yet Borisov concluded that the nation of Russia would prove indestructible and autonomous even through the ravages of militant communism. He reasoned that Revelation 21:24-26, “And the nations which are saved shall walk in the light of it [the City of God] and they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it,” guaranteed that Russia, being a Christian nation, would continue to exist as a personality after the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
“We have already said that personality in its original sense is a specifically Christian concept. It was unknown to the ancient world, whose consciousness was totally individualistic. The Greeks, for instance, despised all barbarians, and the citizens of Rome despised all non-Romans…. Christianity does not ask mankind to deny the variety of personalities composing it, nor to become an amorphous mass. It urges mankind to transform itself entirely, ‘unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13). Every people, every individual person must achieve his fulfillment in the Church. When this comes to pass, when all nations have achieved this goal, this will be the perfect fulfillment of the corporate personality of mankind – Christ’s Church, in which the nation’s spiritual experience, their ‘glory and honor,’ will be laid at Christ’s feet.“7
Thus Christianity does not teach individualism or nationalism as a source of personality, but it elevates the innate individuality of the person and the national awareness of a culture as divine facets to reflect the glory of God’s kingdom. Borisov goes on to describe the great responsibility of reconstruction which rests with Christians in Russia:
“The humiliated and deafened Russian people needs as never before to become aware of itself as a personality, freely choosing its historical path. Christians today are called upon to assist it to recall it spiritual roots in history, but before doing so they need to recall it to themselves.“8
Another dissident, writing anonymously, echoes this hope:
“Mysteriously and unsuspected by the busy multitudes, Christian consciousness, once almost defunct, is stealing back. It is as if a door had opened while nobody was looking. Why is this rebirth taking place in our country, where Christianity is attacked particularly systematically and with great brutality, while the rest of the world suffers a decline of faith and religious feeling?… [B]acksliding and denials notwithstanding, we live in a Christian culture in a Christian age, and it is Christianity that is the fermenting agent, the ‘yeast of the world,’ causing history to rise like dough in a trough, not only in the past but in the future as well. We are profoundly convinced that Christianity alone possesses enough motive force gradually to inspire and transform our world.“9
The religious and philosophic thought of Soviet era dissidents was, of course, very influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – a consistent proponent of Eastern Orthodoxy and an enemy of 19th century socialism. It is no wonder that Solzhenitsyn has consciously imitated Dostoyevsky in style and literary content. There are constant parallels, such as both writers’ early adherence to socialism followed by imprisonment, and a mystical, supernatural conversion experience while imprisoned in the gulag. Dostoyevsky constantly mentioned that he absolutely detested the idea of salvation as a judicial or forensic act – but stressed instead the mystical conversion experience.
Russian Orthodox philosophers of the past two centuries did not accept many of the Western Protestant concepts of salvation, sola gratia and sola fide. More than that, they did not accept any shade of covenantal (federal) theology – especially the applicability Old Covenant Law in Christianity. They make a very strong contrast between the Old and New Covenants in their writings.
The Russian Orthodox writers of the past several centuries stand in stark contrast to Augustine, Luther and Calvin who advocated predestination of the individual believer; justification by grace through faith alone as the means for obtaining salvation; and biblical law as the basis for governing society. Thus we have in Russia an anomalous form of Christianity separated from Western Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism in its teachings of a mystical experiential soteriology.
Yet many Orthodox theologians and dissidents have been optimistic in their eschatology and believed in the Christian’s duty to transform the society – in contrast to the modern pessimism of many western Evangelical Protestants. Like Reformed Protestants, Russian Orthodox thinkers rejected Old Covenant Law as the basis for justifying the individual. But unlike Protestants, they rejected the notion of a judicial salvation (by grace and faith alone) and stressed instead the spiritual or mystical experience of the believer.
Hopefully, the many new young Christian intellectuals in Russia and post-USSR countries will continue to develop their own system of Christian theology, not becoming wholly dependent on the mind set of the East nor the West, but recognizing that Russian thought has its own role in advancing of the kingdom of God.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said: “Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities. The very least of them wears its own special colors and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.“10
1. Jay Rogers, The Forerunner, “The Downfall of Communism,” March 1990, p.14.
2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, From Under The Rubble, (Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1975).
3. Ibid, A.B., “The Direction of Change,” p.150.
4. Ibid, Vadim Borisov, “Personality and National Awareness,” p.194.
5. Ibid, A.B., p.150. 6. Ibid, Vadim Borisov, p.200, 201.
7. Ibid, p.208, 212. 8. Ibid, p.228. 9. Ibid, A.B. p.146, 147.
10. Ibid, Max Hayward, “Introduction,” p.vii.