Full Book Review of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent

Gerrard and Gerrard (hereafter GG) attempt to locate the place of the Russian Orthodox Church in modern Russia in contrast to the Soviet Union’s officially atheistic policy.  Such a question is of supreme importance.  From an American standpoint, this issue needs to be faced, for the answers given to these questions will likely determine American foreign policy in the Slavic world.

Right-wing Cold Warriors see the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as a vehicle of state propaganda and perhaps an impediment to the creation of a global market force led by Westerners (e.g., the philosophy of neo-conservatism).  Left-wing Westerns are likely dismayed that the ROC took such a key role in downing state socialism in Russia.   Also, they oppose the ROC’s strict (sometimes violent) opposition to sodomy.

Both left- and right-wing forces in the West, then, are allied against Russia.  This is evident in that all media outlets on both sides of the aisle (e.g., Fox and CNN) are anti-Russian (or anti-Putin, more specifically). At the end of the preface, GG makes a very startling (from an academic Western) and wise pronouncement:  whatever Russia’s future may be, it will not be Western andcannot ever be (xiv).  This is probably the wisest and most intelligent remark made by an academician about Russia–it also cuts against the grain of both neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism).

Prologue

GG gives a brief but very well-written account of the nature and history of the ROC.  One is surprised at how accurate and almost sympathetic their reading of Orthodoxy is.  The authors give considerable detail to the nature of Orthodox liturgy and more particularly, the place of “liturgical time.”  This is important for the next Chapter.

They argue that Alexey II is rebuilding Russia along the lines of cleansing, history, and sobornost–all explicitly Orthodox categories but also subverting the Soviet trinity of ideology, party, and narodnost.

Throughout the book GG shows a remarkable ability to fairly capture the essence of a very different viewpoint.  Sadly, this does not last.

The Gerrards, writing either as nominal liberal Protestants and secularists, previously surprised me by defying all liberal and neo-conservative academic standards when dealing with Russia.  They rightly identified Russia as a medieval civilization that will never be Western, despite the aims of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Even more surprising was their painstakingly accurate (and fairly sympathetic) description of Russian Orthodoxy and liturgy.  This is enough to get one fired and blacklisted from the academy.  The Gerrards are to be commended.

Sadly, though, they put the breaks on that tendency.  Their thesis in this chapter is straightforward and noncontroversial:  Patriarch Alexey II had to steer the chaotic Russia of the 1990s from a swirling ebb of volatile currents:  Sovietism, neo-liberalism, and the bane of this chapter, monarchism and anti-semitism.  They answer this question–and I think they are correct simply at the level of the question–that Alexey II reigned in the excesses of monarchist thought by steering the cult of St Seraphim of Sarov to more constructive outlets.

A few words before I proceed.  What happened to the Jews in Germany in the 1940s was terrible, regardless of the numbers one posits.   Furthermore, some of the Tsarist pogroms, while wildly overblown in the Western universities, cannot be justified and no one is seeking to justify them.

In what I am about to say, I am not making value judgments against the Jewish race.  When I refer to the Talmud–seen as authoritative by most Jewish communities–I am simply stating historical facts.  I am not making Shlomo jokes.

The Gerrards seek to tar monarchism by connecting it to the allegedly forged “Protocols of Zion.”  I don’t know if they are forged or not.  I’ve seen decent arguments from both sides.  I think the truth is far more complex and few scholars are capable of giving a balanced and emotionally-neutral analysis of it.    Let’s pretend they are forged.   Where do you think the Tsarist policeman who forged them got his material?  The Gerrards suggest that he cut and pasted a French satiric play on Napoleon III and transformed it to a meeting of the Jews.  Okay, let’s go with that.  Suppose he did precisely that.  He still had to fill in the content.  Where did he get that content?  This is a question the Gerrards do not ask.

I submit that he got the content from Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources.  But let’s pretend that I am wrong and he did not.  If one compares the content of Protocols to what’s written in the Talmud, and then note that 1/3 of the Supreme Court (assuming Kagan is passed) is Jewish, and that the FED has Jewish connections (which no one will deny), and that Hollywood is largely Jewish (Joel Stein, a Jew, boasted of that fact), as well as most media outlets, well–the Protocols seem rather tame at this point.

I’m not really interested in whether the Protocols are forgeries.  I don’t care at the moment.   I am simply pointing out that Eastern European resentment against Jews didn’t just materialize out of thin air.  It had to have catalysts.  Of course, violence against Jews is not a good thing.

The Gerrards have barely-concealed contempt for the Royal family and smear the family with a crudely rehashed anti-Russian reading of history.  I have some questions for them:

  • You criticize the National Orthodox Movement for blaming the Royal family’s murders on the Jews.  What are the last names and religious convictions of the murderers?  (The Gerrards anticipate this question and say that Sverdlov and others “weren’t practicing Jews.”  In other words, they acknowledge the point behind the charge without admitting it).  However, to say that the Jews who killed the tsar aren’t “practicing Jews” is irrelevant.  You can be secularist and Jewish at the same time as long as you keep the rituals.
  • What’s the significance of the symbols Sverdlov and others wrote on the wall with the Tsar’s blood?
  • What religio-ethnic affiliation did many of the early Soviet commisars claim?
  • Why were Jews so heavily represented in all the terror cells in the late 19th century?

The point is for all of the problems of the early monarchists in the 1990s, they had legitimate questions.

Then the Gerrards utterly ruin the chapter with an irrelevant section on how evil the Serbs are.  Now I know CNN is funding this book (actually, Princeton is but my point is the same).  They claim the Serbs did bad things, but so did the Muslims and Croats.  But who’s to blame?  The Serbs.

Actually, that section on the Serbs is not irrelevant.  It plays into the Regime’s mindset nicely.  The Gerrards’ early chapters on the beauty of Orthodoxy should not mislead you. The Regime (Beltway Alliance, London, Tel Aviv, etc) is not anti-religion.  It is pro-religious expression as long as that religious expression does not challenge the Regime.  The Serbs (and Russian nationalists) know that religious questions cannot be “isolated” from other questions, and for that they are hated.  This is because GG are jaded postmodernists.  Religion is good, especially if ran as a critique of modernity, but it should never be exalted as a metanarrative.  This is the ideology of the Gerrards, whether they admit it or not.

Are they Hungtindonians?

In this chapter the Gerrards give a detailed, yet succinct enough summary of Russian Church history, particularly in its opposition to “The West.”  Other scholarly reviewers criticized the Gerrards for adopting a “Huntingdonian” view of East-West differences.  Perhaps Huntingdon’s thesis is overdrawn, but I don’t see how anyone who reads any random issue of The Wall Street Journal or watches Fox News can avoid the conclusion that the West is opposed to Russia.  The Gerrards are simply stating the obvious.

That’s not to say the Gerrards do a good job on summarizing Russian ecclesial and political history in this chapter.  They do not.   In fact, many of their summaries and conclusions are painful.  Like the rest of the book when it errs, they get the general idea correct, but botch the details.  A few examples:

  • They say that Orthodoxy opposes papal infallibility because Orthodoxy traces their lineage through St Andrew “the first called apostle,” and not through Peter.   Now, any decent church history textbook can explain the difference between papal primacy and papal infallibility.  Orthodox affirm the former (at least until 1054) as a way of honoring the Roman bishop because of his good leadership and the number of martyrs at Rome.   Affirming the former, however, is not the same thing as justifying the latter (a basic logical distinction that Roman Catholics fail to see).   As to the argument of “Andrew the First-Called,” I suppose some out of the way Russian clerics hold that view, but I’ve never seen a serious Orthodox scholar advance such a view.
  • The Gerrards downplay the role of the Filioque in order to bolster their own (unique) thesis that it was the issue of Apostolic Succession, and not the Filioque, that determines the difference between Orthodoxy and Rome.  The Gerrards are to be commended, however, for noting the connections between papal supremacy and the desire to convert Russia by the sword.

Interestingly, Alexey II, the star of the book so far, is not prominent in this chapter.  They do mention the fact Aleksy used his political skill to thwart many of John Paul II’s aims against Russia.   Surprisingly for academics, the Gerrards do not criticize the Russian Church for thwarting the goals of Protestants to proselytize Russia.  This is a hard point for Westerners to understand.  Even the most backwoods conservative right-wing American, who loves Jesus and hates secularism, is a pure secularist when it comes to proselytizing Russia.  And by pure secularist, I mean someone who has thoroughly absorbed the values of the Enlightenment.     Americans simply cannot understand why Russia opposes “Christian” missionaries to her country.

Russians, and Orthodox, affirm that their view is “the truth.”  While maybe a mean statement, most conservative religious communities do the same thing as well.   If you say you are the truth, you are likewise making a value-judgment against those who are not the truth.   This is not bigotry.  This is logic.  Everyone does it. This is a rejection of the Enlightenment view that says to some religious communities, “No, you are not welcome here.”

From the perspective of Russia’s 1,000 year history and memory, precisely what do they owe the Protestants, especially the more chaotic baptist elements who themselves are splinters from splinter groups?  Also, and this usually isn’t mentioned in low-church circles, many of these proselytizers are “NGOs” whose tracts may contain bible verses on one side, but democratic propaganda on the other side.

A Faith-Based Army

Christ told his followers to be gentle as doves but wise as serpents.   Alexey II’s wisdom–indeed cunning–is evident in this chapter.   After the Soviet Union’s debacle in Afghanistan, coupled with the fall of the USSR and the ignomious outing of the Red Army from Eastern Europe (forcing to leave behind value military hardware), the Red Army suffered a severe morale crisis.   At times, 60% of conscripts failed to report for duty, and many that did suffered severe hazing rituals.

Alexey’s dream was to have chapels on military bases, but this was a hard sale in the 1990s.   However, many mothers of soldiers were complaining that their sons were suffering from the hazing rituals (many in fact died as a result of hazing).  The military command said if the soldier had a problem, he should go to his superior officer.  The mothers countered that this was pointless if the superior officer was the one beating the soldier!  The mothers also staged a street protest in front of Western media, calling the situation to a crisis-point.

The generals were faced with a dilemma:  if they kept up the hazing, they would become an international spectacle of brutality.  If they gave in to the mothers’ demands, they would be a laughingstock.  In steps Alexey II.  He (publicly) told both sides he would mediate.  He asked the generals if Orthodox clerics could have chapels on bases; this would allow soldiers to come to their priests if they have problems.  The priests then appeal to the commanding officers.  This way the issue stays within the military.  In short, he offered the military a way out.  He told the mothers that their sons would have a support network and different lines of appeal.  The mothers agreed.

Other moves Alexey made:  while turning Russia largely back to Orthodoxy, Alexey very wisely refrained from wanting a state religion.   He also acknowledged the cultural presence of Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism in Russia.   Alexey also worked very hard at calming a lot of Islamic tensions in southern Russia.

This was a very good chapter showing how brilliantly Alexey played the chaos of the 1990s, steering Russia back to order.

Sadly, the authors deliberately ruin the chapter.  They bring up how stupid and evil they think the Tsars were.  They ridicule Nicholas II’s attempt at command in WWI, accusing him of losing millions of soldiers against the Japanese and Central Powers. A few words:

  • First, this is irrelevant to the chapter and quite likely a scholarly faux pas.
  • For all of his faults, Nicholas II–and his army–completely destroyed the Austrian empire (wasting Austria’s entire army several times), forcing German generals to pull key divisions from France back to the Eastern Front. (Unfortunately, this probably saved France and England from the ass-whooping they so richly deserved.)
  • At the end of 1905, while it appeared that Japan had thoroughly defeated Russia, what is not mentioned in history books is that Japan was begging America to intervene and call for peace.  Why?  Japan–and Russia–knew that legions of Tsarist troops were en route from Europe across Siberia.  It simply took a long time by train.   Japan’s resources were exhausted.  Had the war been continued with the rest of the Tsarist troops, Russia would have likely owned all of northern China and northern Japan.

These unscholarly rants no longer bother me.  I realize the authors are jaded postmodernists and this is part of their worldview.

Conclusion:

Despite all the horrible side-problems with the book, it is a good and welcome study.  It summarizes (and sometimes makes known previously secret material) a lot of difficult and often conflicting information.  Given that the authors are Lutheran and secularist, they are able to approach the “Sergist” controversy with some objectivity.

Unfortunately, the authors’ jaded postmodernism ruins much of the book.  Good scholarship, especially on the university level, is supposed to avoid value-judgments and emotionally-explosive language as much as possible.  Scholars are to be those individuals who are serene and can transcend the current debate (of course, anyone in academia knows this is a laughing joke).  The Gerrards, unfortunately, seem to want to violate those canons.

It’s not worth the $29 at amazon.  However, if found cheaper one should get it.  Their strength is in post-soviet history.  One needs to supplement this study with other studies, though, since the authors are woefully inadequate on pre-Revolutionary Russia.

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2 comments on “Full Book Review of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent

  1. […] the Russian church is implicitly flawed?  Perhaps, but there is something else going on.   As the Gerrards’ biography of Alexey makes clear, Alexey was considered one of the brightest KGB agents out there.   Again, […]

  2. […] propizoids.   It is participating in the body of Christ, the recapitulation of the cosmos and the entering of sacred time.   If it were simply who has the best and purest reading–then who could know?  For each […]

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