Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Religion and Russia’s Future

Religion and Russia’s Future

Foreign policy was barely mentioned in the recent Presidential campaign and in the absence of major warfare abroad or immediately perceptible dangers, the American people seem not inclined to think much these days about the broader world. But periods of calm rarely last long in human affairs— particularly in times of rapid change— and indeed four sorts of real danger may loom on the horizon for our nation and type of society. Three of the four involve a Russia that Americans have perhaps too easily assumed that they no longer need worry about.

The first and most obvious danger is the continued presence and growing risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the refinement of delivery systems that could physically devastate and even totally destroy the United States. Although the Cold War is over and Russian conventional armed forces are no longer a major threat to their neighbors, Russia still has the long distance strategic capability to obliterate the population centers and infrastructure of North America, while present and future rogue states already have or may acquire some of that potential. This makes the continuance of Russia along its present reform path something the United States should be supporting even more strongly than it has in the past.

A second, less recognized danger is the risk that, having won the Cold War against the Soviet Union, Americans could nevertheless still lose the older, more basic struggle against authoritarian dominance in Eurasia. The United States fought five shooting wars in this century all basically to prevent a hostile authoritarian power from gaining control over the great Eurasian landmass. It fought twice in Europe-directly against Germany-and three times in Asia-first against a Japan allied with Germany and then against peripheral but aggressive surrogates of an expanding Soviet Union. America became involved in all its overseas wars in the twentieth century for essentially the same reason that Britain became involved in continental wars in earlier centuries: in order to prevent an authoritarian hegemony over the world’s dominant landmass and resource base. Such an imperium would have marginalized and could have ultimately reduced to vassalage the freer, more participative and entrepreneurial states that developed on the maritime periphery in northern Europe and North America.

This geopolitical risk provides a second reason for being concerned about the fate of the democratic experiment in Russia. If Russia succumbs to the crypto-fascist authoritarian nationalism which continues to threaten its fragile ruling coalition and/or if the radical Muslim states of the Near East or the still Leninist colossus of China begin expanding their power, either of the two likely end results would spell disaster for the democratic states: either Yugoslavs-type ethnic and religious violence would spread or some kind of authoritarian alliance against the less populous democratic world would form.

But even if the recent trend toward democracy should prevail in Russia, a third gathering geopolitical danger lies in the global population explosion. A new kind of North-South conflict may replace the East-West conflict as the overpopulated, less developed world spills uncontrollably into the less populated nations of the Northern Hemisphere in ways tending to undermine, rather than strengthen democratic institutions.

Immigration streams from the south that began as guest workers were invited to Europe already pose deep problems of assimilation: for instance, Algerians in France and Turks in Germany. Chinese are already streaming into vast and resource-rich Siberia, which has a total population only one-hundredth that of China’s. The population of the newly independent Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union is exploding while that of their Slavic neighbors to the north is shrinking. All of this feeds the growing nationalist paranoia in Russia.

Even in the relatively tranquil American Southwest, the population influx from the south is beginning to cause some to question two features of American democracy that have never before been seriously challenged as being essential to sustaining unity in a continental-sized and ethnically diverse nation: a common language and inviolable borders.

Finally, this growth of population in a world of limited resources intensifies a fourth— and perhaps most ominous— threat on the horizon: the widespread resurgence of ethnic hatreds and conflicts which the international system seems largely powerless either to accommodate or to curtail. It sometimes seems to be a reversion to tribalism in central Africa, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, and in many other regions where the suppression of information is so effective (for instance, Tibet and the Sudan) that the outside world is not even aware of the extent of conflict and oppression.

Americans must be concerned about these breakdowns of elementary order and decency not just for humanitarian reasons but also because they often find in the end that it is more difficult to avoid involvement than assumed at the beginning. In addition, American itself is not immune from this type of breakdown, and, whether one likes it or not, the world looks to America, whether with hope or hostility, as the nation that largely defines the future.

The new and unique opportunities for positive U.S. leadership in the twenty-first century will require a grasp not only of traditional geopolitical preoccupations — resources, weapons, and diplomacy — but also of what one might dub the three C’s: commerce, communication, and culture.

Commerce has been described as the continuation of war by other means. But the means of commerce are relatively peaceful and free of casualties, and the end can be beneficial to everyone if zones of free trade are expanded and the playing field is level.

Second and even more transforming is the onset of instantaneous worldwide communication through both the global reach of television and the recent exponential growth of the Internet. At the end of the twentieth century, the number of languages spoken on the planet by significant numbers of people will be only one-tenth of the number that existed at the beginning of this century. English is becoming the near-universal vehicle for basic communication— yet is itself being broken up into the even simpler language of zeros and ones that digitization is making into the world’s real currency for information. Not only words but also sounds and pictures are transformed into numbers, reducing all forms of human communication into an instantaneously and universally available electronic format.

The fact that so much of the world’s information and knowledge are generated and stored in America represents a great potential economic strength in an age where so much productivity and export growth lie in information-based enterprises. For instance, the enormous storehouse of technical material in all languages residing in the 111 million items at the Library of Congress provides an almost incalculable amount of potential economic benefit for America. The Library already receives 1.5 million electronic transactions per day, and is striving successfully to digitize and transmit free in electronic form to the nation 5 million of the most interesting and important items and images of American history and culture by the year 2000.

New international communication networks should facilitate interactive, transnational solutions to common and continuing international problems such as conserving the environment and dealing with disease and disasters. However, the creeping uniformity and impersonalization of an antiseptic numerical language paradoxically may increase the human desire almost everywhere to preserve and even to reassert distinct and separate cultural identities.

So, if communication, like commerce is a force tending to bind the world closer together, culture-the last of the three C’s-may be a force tearing it apart. If the new electronic communication creates non-spatially-based communities of interest pointing towards global unity, resurgent cultural identities, on the other hand, create new divisions and ethnic conflicts that point towards global anarchy. The task of deeper cultural understanding, therefore, may be the most important imperative of all for avoiding international conflict in the twenty-first century-and may give the unique historical experiences of the United States a new global relevance that Americans have not yet adequately appreciated.

For America itself has become in recent years a world civilization-not just through its intertwining of domestic and foreign economies, but also by adding a growing body of Asian and Latin American immigrants to its original European, African, and Native American base— thus making America the only nation that includes substantial populations from most parts of all the world’s major continents.

America has historically been a country that has added without subtracting. It renews and broadens itself by bringing new immigrants and new ideas into a country that, at the same time, has an amazingly durable set of basic institutions and core values. What is more, American society functions under the oldest, continuously functioning written constitution in the world.

Unfortunately, Americans seem in many respects to have lost their national compass somewhere on the road into the next millennium. They have great indigenous ethnic and sophisticated educational resources for a desperately needed deeper cultural understanding of the three great rising regions on the Eurasian landmass-Confucian East Asia, Hindu South Asia, and the world of Islam (each of which already comprises more than a billion people)-but at the same time grow ever more lazy. Americans rarely study foreign languages and their universities often lack a minimal foreign language requirement for entry. They seem inclined to consider all foreign cultures more or less the same simply because their airports, hotels, and television programs increasingly all resemble one another. To the extent Americans differentiate among them it is mostly by economic statistics and stages of development.

At the same time that Americans behave as rigid monoculturalists abroad, they seem to have become hopelessly flabby multiculturalists at home. The great U.S. institutions of higher learning seem to have become indifferent to-at times even contemptuous of-their historic function of transmitting a basic understanding of their own culture from one generation to the next. In place of the expanding inclusive America, which adds without subtracting, the ideological multiculturalist would create a Balkanized America and a continuous process of subtraction from any sense of common tradition or shared values. This kind of multiculturalism is the denial rather than the fulfillment of true pluralism, which in the great American tradition assumes a variety of authentic, deep convictions rather than a monistic uniformity of relativistic indifference.

In any country that endures, there must be unum as well as pluribus; and precisely because they are (and should be) tolerant of great diversity, Americans have a special need to maintain a common language and to transmit a clearer understanding than the educational system has often done in recent years both of America’s durable constitutional system and distinctively Judeos-Christian roots. Bridges to other cultures will not be solid unless they begin with casements that are sunk deep in one’s own native ground. And all branches of learning die if cut off from the roots that lie within that ground.

George Washington sounded the warning in his two great and unjustly neglected farewell addresses — first to the continental army that he commanded at the end of our War of Independence and then to the new nation he led at the end of his, the first, presidency. He pointed out that a free, self-governing system requires a basically moral people and that morality cannot be sustained without religion. Faith is the lighthouse that points the way as individuals navigate through life’s storms and keeps the nation as a whole off those shoals that threaten shipwreck: freedom without responsibility, self-indulgence without charity, and rights without obligations.

The Old Testament is a chronicle of God’s repeated and often painful reminders to His people that when responsibility is not engendered from within it will sooner or later be imposed from without. It is a story of those who were chosen by God to realize justice in time in a world where other people were merely extending power in space. The New Testament teaches that goodness can reach beyond time and even death if souls can ever learn to love others as God loved humanity in Jesus Christ.

Hence, Americans need better and deeper interfaith understanding, particularly among and within the line of prophetic monotheisms-which also, of course, includes Islam. That does not mean that faith ought to be diluted in a squishy swamp of new age platitudes; nor should it be frozen on some inaccessible mountain peak of intolerant self-righteousness. It does mean, however, that Americans must not either collectively banish the dimension of faith from public culture (as the nation presently seems inclined to do) or individually avoid recognizing what St. Augustine called that self which is deeper within us than we ourselves and which leads us to confront the kind of God that acts not just in clouds of mystery but in individual lives and in all human history. Faith in a living God can open new dimensions not just for living one’s life but for understanding the lives of others because it opens a window into the deepest, sometimes, alas, the darkest, but almost always the most powerful, source of human aspiration and motivation.

What this nation needs, in sum, is a deeper understanding of what the many newly awakening peoples of our planet really believe, to be gleaned by more serious study of the art, folklore, and above all, religion of other human cultures. If, for instance, Western leaders and publics had taken more seriously from the start the religious factor in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, they might have understood before so many lives were lost that there was a serious internal resistance to the Milosevic regime in which the primate of the Serbian Orthodox Church had the potential to play a central role.

One may or may not share the view that the near total divorce of American higher education from its Judeo-Christian roots during the last half century has been profoundly corrosive for the long-term health of American democracy. But at the very least one ought to grant the more modest point to the effect that the failure of the American educational and journalistic elite to take religion seriously has left them totally ill-equipped to understand-let alone anticipate or even think possible-any one of what have arguably been the three most importantly innovative and transformative political developments of the last twenty years: the rise of the Christian right in America, the explosion of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union.

Let us zoom in, by way of conclusion, on the last event: the fall of communism in Russia. I happened to be present in Moscow for the fateful forty-eight hours in August 1991 when no more than 150 armed professionals successfully faced down the world’s largest armed forces in the capital of the world’s largest empire. During those tense two days, one sensed everywhere the power of the new means of communication. The human wall that defended the Russian White House and the leader who mounted a tank were not responding to anyone’s plan but spontaneously echoing earlier televised images from Lithuania and Beijing respectively. The heart of the resistance was the Xerox machine; its nerve center, a system of multiple electronic communication links with the outside world; its eyes and ears, the young television technicians whose instant documentaries legitimizing the resistance were presented in the manner of medieval miracle chronicles; and its key voices of persuasion, such implausible types as young priests, Afghan veterans, and provincial Siberians.

But there was another group that played a key role that has never yet been adequately recognized-seemingly the most implausible group of all: the babushkas, those old women with bandanas whom sophisticated Western tourists always noted but never spoke to. I happened to be meeting with a large group of them-apolitical librarians-early on the second and decisive night of the crisis (August 20, 1991) when martial law and a death-sentence curfew were suddenly proclaimed over the putsch-controlled television. Spontaneously and without discussion, they all left the meetings-not to go home as they had been ordered, but to join the young men on the barricades and other elderly women who had been rebuking the soldiers in the tanks that surrounded the White House. Lacking clear orders from their military superiors, these young men were now getting moral commands from a rival authority— their mothers.

What could otherwise have escalated into a macho contest of violence between the crew cuts in the tanks and their pony-tailed cousins on the barricades was headed off by precisely, those “old women in church” that Western observers no less than Soviet propagandists had so long patronizingly dismissed as symbolizing the impending death of religion in the USSR. Now here they were-shaming potential attackers, feeding the resisters, manning medical stations for the attack they expected, and refusing to leave when the faintly male chauvinist Afghan veterans insisted they go because fighting was near. At about midnight, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church broadcast a prayer to the Mother of God in honor of the approaching Feast of the Assumption in which he anathematized fratricidal bloodshed. Many of the old women began to pray and perhaps those prayers did matter by those silent surrogates of that Other Lady in whose heavenly rest lay both the ultimate assurance of protection and the imminent possibility of miracles.

The attack never came, and by dawn of the third day we realized that the tide had turned— and yes, the sun had finally come out after forty-eight hours of nearly continuous rain. Orthodox Christians are inclined to believe that we live in liturgical time. Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago saw the communist revolution as a kind of late winter reenactment of the passion of Holy Week. The summer overthrow of communism occurred quite literally in the nine days between the feasts of the Transfiguration and of the Assumption.

The subsequent funeral procession for the three young defenders of the White House who were semi-accidentally killed celebrated both unity and pluralism. Sounds of the Orthodox “Eternal Memory” mixed with those of the Kaddish in honor of one of the victims who was Jewish. Orators repeatedly echoed the Judeo-Christian theme of the redemptive value of innocent suffering. The three boys were unconsciously likened to the first Russian Saints, Boris and Gleb, the young sons of Russia’s first Christian leader who voluntarily accepted death at an early age in order to overcome the divisions of their people.

The high point of the procession through Moscow came when Boris Yeltsin emerged from the White House, went directly to the parents of the three young men, and said: “Forgive me, your president, that I was unable to defend and save your sons.” “Forgive me” is, of course, what one Russian says to whoever is next to him before taking communion. It was also what that other Boris, Tsar Boris Godunov, said to the Russian people in the last words of the greatest of all Russian operas. Power was being relegitimized morally. Someone not to blame was assuming responsibility in a society where no one in power had ever accepted responsibility for anything.

Of course, the Old Testament repeatedly teaches that God’s miraculous deliverance from evil does not assure man’ s subsequent adherence to good. Since those exhilarating August days, Russians have in many ways been spiraling down into economic insecurity, crime and corruption, seemingly stuck with the worst of both worlds: the authoritarian habits of their former totalitarian system and the disorder and indulgences of their new freedoms.

But it would be false to conclude that nothing has really changed or that there is simply something genetically totalitarian about the Russians. They have, in fact, experienced a revolution not in the violent, utopian, secular sense the word has implied since the French Revolution, but in the older sense that the word was used in the American Revolution: a revolution or revolving back from a temporary tyranny to a pre-existing normalcy.

Russia’s continuing difficult search for a post-communist legitimacy is not just a struggle between inward-looking and Westward-looking ideas, but a deeper battle within the Russian religious tradition between the recovery of its more inwardly spiritual, locally based, and communally participatory dimension on the one hand and the reassertion of a more familiar, imperial, autocratic dimension on the other-the tendency sometimes referred to as Orthodoxy without Christianity. America has an immense stake in the outcome because of the geopolitical dangers mentioned at the outset, and will be the object of future opprobrium if the Russian experiment in freedom fails. For Americans have more ability to affect the outcome than they realize, let alone exercise, since they remain Russia’s current focus of fascination and model for emulation. America cannot control the outcome, but should at least recognize that perhaps the decisive element in the process will be the way the Russian people come to grips with both the greatest Christian martyrology of the twentieth century (during the first five decades of Soviet rule) and the century’s largest mass conversion to Christianity during this last decade. It is amazing and tragic that Americans in general and Christians in particular seem not to be even aware of-let alone spiritually involved in-this spiritual struggle for the soul of a nation whose fate has for so long been intertwined with their own.

But let us return to the general point. If Americans cannot penetrate into the interior spiritual dialogue of other peoples, they will never be able to understand, let alone anticipate or affect, the discontinuous major changes which are the driving forces in history and which will probably continue to spring unexpected traps in the years ahead. To put it another way, if we cannot learn to listen to others as they whisper their prayers, we may well confront them later on when they howl their war cries.

Even if cultural gaps cannot be bridged, one becomes a better person and more appreciative of one’s own culture by the very attempt to understand someone else’s. I recently returned from China about whose past I am largely ignorant and about whose future I am not so optimistic as are many Americans. I was particularly moved in ancient Xian by one lonely stone slab which is all that remains of the Nestorian Christianity that penetrated China at the end of the first Christian millennium before disappearing without a trace. Halfway through the second millennium, the Christians came again in the most nearly successful attempt to bridge the gap between the West and China: the great Jesuit mission to China. When the Jesuits ultimately left China in failure at the beginning of the eighteenth century (as America’s own missionaries were forced to do when the Communists took over in the twentieth), they left behind a moving epitaph.

Go now, voyager,
Congratulate the dead.
Console the living
Pray for everyone.
Wonder and be silent

It is in prayer, wonder, and silence that one sometimes best finds understanding of others. I felt some of that as I wandered silently and alone through the streets of Moscow after experiencing the forty-eight exhilarating hours that shook the world in August 1991, listening to people constantly repeat the word chudo or miracle and marvel in whispers that Russia had been transformed on the Feast of the Transfiguration-the miraculous first appearance of Christ in a transformed state before His disciples on Mt. Tabor.

It was the persecuted literature and religion of Russia, not the vaunted megacomputers of the West, that saw it all coming. Even during the depths of the Cold War Pasternak had written at the end of Dr. Zhivago that “Although victory had not brought the relief and freedom that were expected at the end of the war, nevertheless portents of freedom filled the air throughout the postwar period, and they alone defined its historical significance.”

In the final poetic lines of the second epilogue of Zhivago, his last will and testament to the Russian people, Pasternak mixed images from the Volga basin and the deep, interior Christianity of Russia to suggest the ultimate victory of story over theory— of an old, still uncompleted Biblical story over the new atheistic theory that had been put into practice in Russia with such terrifying results.

You see, the passing of years is like a parable
Which can, at any time, catch fire along the way.
In the name of its terrible majesty
I go down, a voluntary victim, to my grave.
I go into my grave, and on the third day rise
And like little boats spread out across a river
Towards me and judgement,
like a caravan of barges,
The centuries flow forward out of darkness.

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