Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Legacy of Orthodoxy

I here quote sections Chapter Nine of Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary. There is a strong theme throughout the book that abstract ideas – democracy, Islam, communism, Christianity, capitalism – only touch earth by embedding in specific cultures, always with unexpected results. Those who continue to see only the abstraction, always furiously expecting the real-world expression to conform to the ideal, become tyrants. He makes a darn good case for this in his travels through the Near and Middle East.

(Toncho) Zhechev’s most famous novel is Bulgarian Easter, which demonstrates how the spiritual battles within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were never spiritual at all, but political. “There has never really been spiritual opposition to tyranny here,” Zhechev told me, “because we bever had deep Christian values in the first place, only pagan ones. The Bulgarian church continued the Byzantine tradition in which the church and the state were synonymous. In the West, the church could be a corrective to the state, but Orthodox churches are historically ill-equipped to supply moral values when the state has none…

“I so much like your Melville,” Zhechev remarked suddenly, out of context, as though rebuking his own culture. “Moby Dick is such an expression of America’s strong energy and effort to defeat nature, yet the story has such lovely ambiguity. In the Orthodox world, only Russia has had great religious thinkers opposed to the church establishment – Berdyaev, for example,” he said, referring to the early twentieth-century Russian intellectual who, in the Origins of Russian Communism, explained how Lenin’s and Stalin’s totalitarian state owed as much to the Orthodox Church as Karl Marx…

(Nicolas) Berdyaev writes that Lenin’s regime was “the third appearance of Russian autocratic imperialism,” following Peter the Great’s early-eighteenth-century empire and the earlier, medieval czarist state, which had as its principle tenet “the doctrine of Moscow the Third Rome” (after Rome itself and Constantinople). Lenin’s theocratic imperium was, despite its professed atheism, culturally immersed in this czarist Byzantine theocracy, from which he and Stalin had emerged. (Stalin had studied to be an Orthodox priest, and his speeches reflected the hypnotic, repetitive quality of Orthodox hymns.) It was not only the Russian masses – the serfs - who lived within the mental confines of Orthodoxy, but the intellectual and political class, too…

Russian nihilism derived from Orthodoxy and reflected Orthodox aesthetic withdrawal from society – the notion that “the whole world lieth in wickedness.” Bolshevism was an Orthodox form of Marxism, according to Berdyaev. It underscored “totality.” “The wholeness of the Christian East is set against the rationalist fragmentariness of the West,” he wrote, and reached an apotheosis with Stalin’s totalitarianism. Because Orthodoxy was a total system, doctrinal disagreements could not be tolerated and led, therefore, to schisms, mirrored in the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

The Orthodox Church, moreover, as many Romanians had told me, was inherently collectivist and anti-Western, emphasizing the primacy of the nation over individuals, as in the writings of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. This was contrary to Western humanism. The Bulgarian church, like its Romanian counterpart, opposed both the Vatican and Protestant sectarianism, as well as capitalist reforms. The crisis of the Orthodox churches in Romania and Bulgaria may have been a delayed reaction to the fall of communism, a system in which the church was deeply implicated.

According to Berdyaev, Russians “did not believe in the stability of civilization, in the stability of those principles upon which the [bourgeois] world rests.” Toncho Zherchev and other Bulgarians shared that belief in upheaval, perhaps because the Bulgarian bourgeoisie had never been large or permanent.


Anna said...

that is a very interesting essay - I appreciate the attention to eastern orthodox theology in politics, it is not a topic that comes up often.

My armenian side of the fam actually used to be orthodox but became protestants in the 1910s. The story goes that they converted due to a dream that the patriarch had. I dunno how much I believe but it makes for an interesting story anyway.

Anonymous said...


As an American Orthodox convert, I have been struggling with the on-the-ground apparent link between the Orthodox culture and tyranny/the servile mind. I have found it to be a dangerously taboo question ("too Western") to raise in an Orthodox context, though Fr. Alexander Schmemann approaches its margins in his journals.

The argument is of course that the individual mind easily deludes itself. On the other hand, IMO, there is no way back through collectivism, even the high-pristine-dogma kind.