Russia Repents?

Vladimir Osherov

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 78 (December 1997): 43-47.

For anyone watching events in Russia, the confrontation between "reformers," led by Boris Yeltsin, and their opponents, Communists and nationalists, has become almost self-explanatory: forces of the past against forces of progress; the defeated seeking a comeback against the will of the majority. Still, results of some recent elections have posed a question: why do so many ordinary Russians vote for the Communists rather than patiently endure some predictable hardships of a transition period? Were not seventy years of Communist dictatorship enough?

Konstantin Leontiev, the nineteenth-century conservative thinker and nationalist, once claimed that "a Russian can be a saint but he cannot be honest." Philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev, commenting on this, wrote in 1918:

The Russian man was required, first and foremost, to be humble. As a reward for the virtue of humility he was given everything and granted permission to do anything. Humility, in fact, was the only form of personal discipline. It was better to sin in humility than to pridefully perfect yourself. The Russian man habitually thinks that dishonesty is no great evil, provided he himself remains inwardly humble, not proud, not arrogant. You may humbly repent even for the greatest crime; as to smaller sins—they are taken away by lighting a candle to an icon of a saint. . . . A Russian may be a reckless swindler or criminal but deep down he reveres sainthood and seeks salvation through the saints, through their intercession. Some predator and human monster may very sincerely, in true veneration, worship sainthood, place candles in front of saints’ icons, embark on pilgrimages to monasteries—remaining at the same time a predator and a monster.

On April 20, 1997, the Orthodox Palm Sunday in Moscow, in jam-packed churches, a certain group of worshipers, clad in expensive but rather tasteless garb, stood out. They had the typical appearance of a 1990s Russian "biznesmen." You would hardly see those people in church on any other day. They resolutely pushed their way through the shabbily dressed crowd (there are no pews in Russian churches) in every direction, huge packs of candles in their hands, setting them up and lighting them in front of literally every icon in the church: the Savior, the Mother of God, all available saints and martyrs. The very number of candles (and they are not cheap, by Russian standards) indicated not only wealth but also a degree of repentance. Their flushed, sweaty countenances radiated excitement, a sense of doing the right thing, and faith. This was both touching and bizarre (especially their "trendy" apparel, a status symbol, almost a uniform), and very Russian: to sin with abandon and then to repent, with the same abandon.

I remembered an essay by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, written in 1971 and rarely cited nowadays, where he called for repentance and self-restraint as the keys to Russia’s future revival. It made me wonder: the Palm Sunday repentance that I had just witnessed, sincere as it was—is this the repentance Solzhenitsyn had in mind? No, the writer actually spoke of national repentance, not of repentant individual sinners. In fact, in the early days of Gorbachev’s reforms, when many crimes of the old regime were, at last, officially admitted, it did look as if a national repentance was at hand. As for "self-restraint," Solzhenitsyn also meant national self-restraint, an end to imperial expansionism, reconciliation between the Russians and other ethnic groups of the USSR.

The advent of Yeltsin radically changed the mood. Instead of reconciliation, Yeltsin, to begin with, disbanded the Soviet Union, leaving twenty-five million ethnic Russians beyond Russia’s borders, residing as second-class aliens in the "newly independent states"; then he tried to ban the Communist Party (of which he himself and 90 percent of his political allies were recent members, along with another thirty million Soviet citizens). A subsequent and equally ill-fated bid to introduce capitalism in Russia made a few people very rich but left many millions of others stripped of all their savings. These developments have been even less conducive to national repentance or reconciliation, as were Yeltsin’s further dealings with political opposition in his bombardment of the Parliament and war in Chechnya. And, as time goes by, the number of bitter people in Russia seems only to increase.

As Peter Reddaway, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, wrote in 1993:

To try to launch simultaneously a political revolution, an economic revolution, and a social revolution, in a national culture that was not in fact ready for revolution at all, was to impose an intolerable burden on the Russian people. It is something much worse: a many-layered feeling of moral and spiritual injury, a loss of . . . one’s sense of self and society, bewilderment and frustration at the gaping divisions among one’s own people. . . . Emotional wounds as deep as these tend to breed anger, hatred, self-disgust, and aggressiveness.

Do they also tend to make dishonesty more acceptable? Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs, former economic adviser to the Russian government, had to concede the failure of his economic program, citing as the main reason the sheer scale of corruption and crime. The former Russian finance minister complained on Moscow radio that although hundreds of thousands of foreign cars have been imported and are registered and used in Russia, no one knows how exactly they were brought into the country and why the treasury has not received a penny of import duties. This means that both the customs service and taxation authorities at all levels have their share in illegal profits. Most other taxes are simply not being collected. It is virtually impossible to run a legitimate and honest business enterprise in Russia. Burdened by deliberately inflated tax rates, Russian businessmen are forced to become tax-cheats and thus easy targets for extortion. Crime cartels specializing in "protection" get their tip-offs directly from taxation officers. American entrepreneur Paul Tatum, before being murdered in Moscow in 1995, told journalists that any foreign businessman who denies paying protection money is telling "an outright lie."

At the House International Relations Committee hearings on organized crime in Russia, April 30, 1996, CIA Director John Deutch stated, "A link between the governing elite and the criminal elements impedes the ability of the Russian government to meet the population’s expectations of social justice, the quality of opportunity and improved living standards." Russian bureaucracy has grown larger and more corrupt than it was when the Soviet Union was intact. (Russia’s population now is around 150 million against the USSR’s 290 million.) Predictably, this has not done the Russian people any good. In fact, all sections of society, except the bureaucracy and the "new Russians," are as powerless as they were under the Communists—the new "democratic" Constitution notwithstanding. The last election was won by Yeltsin only through lavish (and still undisclosed) financial backing from the "Big Seven," a group of top Russian bankers, who also happen to own all TV networks and most newspapers in the country. Since then, Yeltsin has been trying hard to return the favor. Appointment of billionaire Boris Berezovsky as deputy chief of the Security Council is just one example.

Media censorship is back in force. New owners of the Russian media prevent publication of any reports detrimental to their interests. Izvestia, the most influential and staunch supporter of Yeltsin’s reforms, has balked recently at attempts by its present owner, the oil conglomerate LUKOIL, to control editorial content. Other papers, though, comply just as in the good old days of communism. At the 1996 congressional hearings, Dr. Louise Shelley testified:

There is . . . intimidation of the press and journalists domestically and internationally. Journalists on a regional level and nationally . . . are subjected to what we would consider the traditional tactics of organized crime when they try to disclose problems of localized corruption and organized crime. . . . And significant financial resources of Russian organized crime are limiting press freedoms abroad by using intimidating law suits to stifle revelations in European and American newspapers.

Unauthorized, random telephone tapping in Russia is being conducted on a much larger scale than it was under the KGB. In reality, the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech is benefiting mostly producers and sellers of pornography.

Consequently, Western support for Yeltsin on the grounds that he is promoting democracy looks more and more dubious. NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe seems to indicate that, despite protestations to the contrary, Russia is still deemed a potential threat and, as recent spying scandals in the U.S. confirm, Russia will hardly ever be a true ally. So why the support? Is Yeltsin seen as a guarantor of Russia’s weakness? Whatever the reasons, the costs of supporting Yeltsin are being paid primarily by the Russian people, and the rise of popular anti-Americanism is far more ominous than any spying conducted by government agencies. Assisting in the destruction of Russia may prove not only morally questionable, it could also be short-sighted. Isn’t this the way Germany was treated after her defeat in World War I?

Russia, or Moscow at least, bears more and more resemblance to the popular image of the pre-Hitler Weimar Republic’s panoply of social decay: hoodlums, prostitutes, pimps, beggars, drunks, criminals, feverish excitement, and looming violence. There are other, more significant similarities: economic chaos, unemployment, the rise of political extremism. But there is also a moral analogy. It was, to a large extent, the de-moralization of Germany that brought Hitler to power. When Germans were asked to choose between Communists and Nazis, they chose the latter. Nazis, at least, were patriots, not Comintern agents. But the very fact that Hitler’s racist, extremist agenda won so many votes clearly points to a moral blindness. The rot began not with Hitler. It started much earlier, with the advent of a liberal—and quite decadent—democracy, prematurely adopted after the Kaiser’s abdication.

Back in 1987, when I arrived in Moscow after an absence of six years, I was struck by the extraordinary freedom with which people were openly discussing things that, a few years earlier, would be shared only with the closest friends. Fear of the KGB and its informants was gone completely. But instead of being grateful to Gorbachev for introducing "glasnost," Russian artists, filmmakers, and academics were engaged in an all-out assault on any remaining limitations and taboos. Ironically, very few of those people were ever dissidents or outspoken champions of freedom of speech. Most of them had been typical conformists. But now, sensing the regime’s weakness, they were simply provoking Gorbachev, competing, in front of each other, for the dubious status of a rebel—now, when it was completely safe to do so. There was absolutely no sense in this, no purpose— only a manifestation of a deep-seated nihilism. These people, ultimately, provided critical moral support for Yeltsin in his power struggle with Gorbachev.

I recall also what Maxim Gorky wrote in the early 1920s, on human demeanor at times of revolution and social upheaval: "A bitter man, when given the chance to settle scores, is frightening. It is this man whom social reformers should, in the first place, be thinking of." This is the "root of bitterness" to which St. Paul refers in Hebrews 12:15. Such bitterness is precisely what drives Russian intellectuals to become willing accomplices of swindlers and thugs—anything is better (they contend) than the hated Communists. And signs of bitterness start at the very top: Yeltsin’s vendetta against Gorbachev, his drinking habits, his disloyalty and irresponsibility.

The goal of any nation is justice, prosperity, and social order, not democracy or capitalism per se. These are only means. To be successful, free enterprise and democracy require some important preconditions, first of all, firm moral foundations. In the West, this was provided by Christianity; in Southeast Asia, by patriarchal, hierarchical social structures, family traditions, and a strong work ethic. None of these exist in Russia, not after decades of enforced atheism and everyone’s dependency on the State, where private enterprise had been demonized and criminalized. In the mind of the average Russian there is something inherently dishonest in making money: "All great fortunes were made in a criminal way." That’s why the criminal element in modern Russian entrepreneurship is viewed as something almost natural.

The suspicion of enterprise is a traditional Russian Orthodox attitude, reinforced by decades of Communist indoctrination. "Making money means taking advantage of other people." The history of capitalism certainly has many instances of greed, dishonesty, and fraud. But "criminal capitalism" has been proved long ago to be a lie, invented and successfully circulated by socialists in the nineteenth century. As Friedrich von Hayek wrote, we still have "this legend of the deterioration of the position of the working classes in consequence of the rise of capitalism. . . . Who has not heard of the ‘horrors of early capitalism’ and gained the impression that the advent of this system brought untold new suffering to large classes who before were tolerably content and comfortable?
. . . A more careful examination of the facts has, however, led to a thorough refutation of this belief. Yet [long] after the controversy has been decided, popular opinion still continues as though the older belief [was] true."

The canard about the "horrors of early capitalism" is now being cited in Russia as an all-purpose justification, proof that widespread crime, on the one hand, and widespread suffering, on the other, are inevitable corollaries of capitalism. It is commonly claimed that after big-time gangsters satisfy their greed they’ll evolve into conscientious businessmen and the rule of law will be automatically restored—"as it has happened in America." Yegor Stroyev, Speaker of the Federal Assembly (Russia’s Senate), put it this way:

Just look at the succession of leaders during the last few years. They all left office rich people, having lined their pockets very nicely at the expense of the nation. And none of them has been put in jail. Naturally, a question arises: why? We have ideologists who claim that we are undergoing a stage when property-owners are being born, and that the initial accumulation of capital was never achieved by honest means. There was always criminality, always a Klondike. So now we are living through the times of a Russian Klondike.

In other words, we just have to wait. So, rather than fighting crime, a socialist fabrication is used to boost cutthroat capitalism.

In explanation of why so many in Russia vote for Communists and nationalists, most observers go immediately into a litany of bad traits in the Russian psyche: delusions of grandeur, imperial ambitions ("Moscow—the Third Rome"), Russian nostalgia for an "iron hand," traditional Russian collectivism, etc. All this may well be true, which makes it unlikely to be cured by a forceful introduction of freedom and democracy. Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote in her famous essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards": "No idea holds greater sway in the minds of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries."

There were other features of the Stalin era, besides the "iron hand," that make people somewhat nostalgic. I remember the early 1950s and my old public school in downtown Moscow. There were no private schools in the Soviet Union, and we had a virtual cross section of Moscow’s population: children of the ruling class, driven to school in chauffeured limousines, and kids from neighborhood slums with communal apartments and basements where a dozen families shared one bathroom and one kitchen. We had sons of alcoholics, army invalids, factory workers, street cleaners, and widows. There were also boys from "middle-class" families, who lived nearby.

So, on the one hand, there was arrant social inequality, on the other—we were all equal, treated equally by our teachers, taught together, punished together, although, naturally, there were some teachers’ pets. All wore the same drab uniform, so you couldn’t distinguish yourself by sporting fancy clothes. Close friendships developed between "upper" and "lower" kids, some of them lasting to this day. We didn’t feel intimidated by signs of wealth or power, nor were we envious. Poverty was much in evidence and no one pretended otherwise. Fundraising events were organized regularly to buy shoes and clothing for the poorer kids. People gave as much as they could.

In hindsight, I marvel how people would find quiet ways to do good in defiance of the official "party line"—considering that officially in Stalin’s Russia everyone was supposed to be happy and prosperous, and charity was practically banned. How was this possible? Because we all were victims of a monstrous utopian ideology, involved in a common tragedy that equalized and united? Perhaps, but to me this is just another illustration of how real life can be far more complex than any theories, paradigms, or dreams of social engineering—democratic or totalitarian—can grasp. And looking at the new "free-market" inequality, now so rampant in Russia, looking at the "new Russians" and their offspring, I strongly doubt they will sacrifice anything for anybody else’s good. I hope I am wrong.

One of the best-known living Russian writers, a brilliant man whose novels have been translated and published around the world, complained recently that he had to remove his son from a prestigious Moscow private school and enroll him in an ordinary public school because the boy, surrounded by boastful and arrogant kids of the new elite, felt deeply depressed: his dad was only a well-known author, not a millionaire "biznesmen," not a Mercedes owner. In my school days, any little brat who would dare flaunt his parents’ wealth in this manner would end up with a bloodied nose and be virtually ostracized. Not any more.

I would never vote for the Communists, but I understand why some people do. In 1992, a group of Russian Orthodox priests, deputies of the Moscow City Council, introduced a bill to restrict sales of pornographic material on the streets of Moscow. The only other deputies who supported the motion were Communists; all the "democrats" voted against it, and it never passed.

Doctors in the Soviet Union, together with school teachers and engineers, were always paid meager wages. A factory worker or truck driver would earn much more. And still, I remember very clearly, in the 1950s and 1960s it was considered a disgrace for doctors to take cash-in-hand from their patients for some special type of treatment. It was not because of fear of punishment. This was part of the doctors’ ethics, a tradition going back to the times of the idealistic provincial "zemsky" doctors. This tradition survived Stalin’s rule but started falling apart at the first signs of liberalization under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. The concept of self-sacrifice has always been more familiar to the Russian mind than the enlightened self-interest and individualism of the West. Today, when widespread corruption is easily explained away by low wages, Russia, indeed, needs self-restraint. But who could teach the Russian people self-restraint now? Who will provide role models?

In the meantime, the economic situation, even according to official statistics, shows no signs of improvement. It may be predicted that the first actions of any future leaders of Russia (regardless of how they come to power) will involve distancing themselves from the present regime and taking steps to "correct mistakes." No doubt a more active economic role for the government will be adopted. The face of Russian laissez-faire has turned out to be too ugly.

Berdyayev wrote at the time of World War I: "An orgy of predatory instincts, of disgraceful greed and speculation at the time of the great world war and of enormous trials for Russia, remains our greatest shame, a dark stain on our national life, an ulcer on Russia’s body. The drive for enrichment has captivated too many sections of Russian society." These words sound as if they were written today, but prior to 1914, the Russian economy was the fastest growing in the world, and Russian life, generally, was much more satisfying than under the Communists or today. What was different? It may have been the fact that many more churches were open, where sinners could confess, repent, and in time become better human beings. Now, for the first time in eighty years, Russia enjoys religious freedom, and thousands of newly built or restored churches have opened their doors to repentant sinners. And fear of God may prove, after all, the best teacher of honesty. But re-learning honesty will take a long, long time.

Throughout modern history, dangers inherent in human nature, and the consequent need for moral education based on religion, have been repeatedly, and to deadly effect, ignored, whether by champions of laissez-faire or of the welfare state or of communism. This is where extremities meet: in the rejection of God. In today’s Russia neither freedom, nor democracy, nor free enterprise have proved capable of generating moral values.

To govern a nation like Russia, with many saints and many more crooks—repentant and unrepentant—future leaders will have to, first of all, ensure that order is restored: crime is punished, working people are paid their wages, honest businessmen are able to conduct honest business, and, most importantly, churches are open and children taught personal responsibility and self-restraint. Perhaps then will come a genuine national repentance, and Russia will start healing old wounds. Until then, no democracy in Russia will be possible.

Vladimir Osherov is a Russian translator and author currently residing in Westmont, Illinois.