Friday, September 21, 2012

The Church, The State & The Jews: Post-Soviet Russia

The Jews & Christianity

There are very good historical reasons, both political and religious, to explain the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church in a post-Soviet Russia. Much of it is centered on a need for meaning in a society that has changed too quickly for too many persons. The return to familiar roots has brought comfort to many Russians; perhaps more surprising, it has attracted some Jews from the intelligentsia. There is the famous case of Father Alexander Men, a Jew by birth, who was murdered at age 55 in suspicious circumstances in 1990; the case remains unsolved.

Russia's history is no stranger to turmoil; and such national tumults that turn and twist and distort the natural order of things have the consequence of leading some individuals to seek comforting if not comfortable answers to existential questions; secular ideologies are one path; religion is a far older and tested path. Why does the former prove appealing? In Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism (1997), Masha Gessen, a Jew from Russia, poses the same question upon meeting with another Jew, who later on in his life turned to the Russian Orthodox Church, for answers:
The question I had so wanted Father Vladimir to answer, then, lay in a reality he had left behind. The reasons  he chose to devote himself to religion were of the same paradoxical set that any educated middle-aged man or woman anywhere in the world might cite abandoning the familiar framework of rational godlessness. The desperate need for meaning and commonality did not simply overpower the intelligentsia's concepts of honor and moral action—it rendered them irrelevant. (69)
Perhaps so. Yet, for Jews it's always more complicated. There are also the practical reasons, such as the fact that before he became Father Vladimir—he came from a family of dissidents— he had married a Russian woman, a poet, in the 1970s; she was interested in mysticism and Christianity, their two children were baptized and the couple traveled uneasily between the world of intellectual writers and the Orthodox church. That is, until he reached middle-aged and had his proverbial crisis of meaning; he couldn't turn to Judaism for a number of reasons, least of which was that his wife was not Jewish, nor were his children.

It's now easy to apply psychological terms to such decisions, particularly as it applies to such men as Father Vladimir ("Volodia"), a Jew by birth if not by choice, coming from a family of dissidents, now joining an institution that were the oppressors of his family. 
Moreover, with known KGB agents at the helm of the Church, Volodia was now employed by some of the same people who had persecuted his mother, a writer who was guilty before the state in two ways; she was Jewish and she had published a book abroad. Volodia had been raised in an environemnt where one would not shake the hand of someone known to cooperate with the KGB, much less go to work for a collaborator.  (62)
To join a church, an institution, with very close ties to a repressive state, speaks unkindly, yet understandably, about the lengths that Jews will go to free themselves from persecution; some will call this a form of self-denial, others a form of self-abnegation; and yet others the need for self-preservation. If the Soviet Union was good at anything, it was masterful in its application of Marxist-Stalinist ideology to eliminate all traces of  foreign religion and foreign culture, including Jewish religion, culture and identity in its aim to fashion or, better still, to create "The New Soviet Man," which like all mass social engineering programs has had unintended consequences. [There is also an excellent 2007 article by Slava Gerovitch of MIT on how the cosmonaut was positioned as the epitome of the New Soviet Man.]

To be sure, the effects of such policies are still resonating in a post-Soviet Russia, and perhaps more so today than twenty years ago as deep-set cynicism and nihilism has set in. So, in order for men like Father Vladimir to find community, to gain acceptance, he doesn't have to work hard to subvert a Jewish identity; it was never really born; it was never really allowed to take shape and mature, and at best it was always a negative identity, associated in the minds of the majority of Russians as having distinct negative qualities.

By joining the Russian Orthodox Church, all such matters as Jewish identity, ethnicity, rational arguments and individual rights and freedoms are secondary to serving the "higher" needs of the state. The burdens of identity and politics are no longer present, considered unimportant; dismissing such thoughts might even be considered freedom. Yet, for others, myself included, the cost of such "freedom" would be too great.

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