Russia's Authentic Week
As war looms over Latin Easter and Orthodox Holy Week, the philosophers of the "rebirth of the Russian idea", like Florensky, Berdyaev and Bulgakov, come to mind; they contrasted the authenticity of the Church, which announces Christian redemption, to the false ideological truth of the intelligentsia.
A week after Catholics celebrate Holy Easter, the Orthodox Church starts Holy Week and the experience of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus, following a different calendar, which sometimes, like next year, will overlap.
The week has different names, following more or less ancient liturgical and popular traditions: Great and Holy, Beautiful (Krasnaya), Blood Red (Cervonaya), or True, Authentic (Istinnaya) in the Ambrosian Latin rite, the most influenced by Eastern traditions.
Different calendars mean that the Orthodox celebrated the Annunciation yesterday, 7 April, a feast that in the Byzantine rite must be remembered when it coincides with Easter, stressing the need for revelation of the divine mystery.
After more than a year of a terrible war and worldwide suffering, Russia is faced with Istina, the authenticity of its spiritual and national life, proclaimed with cannons and rockets, to challenge the “lies from the West". In Soviet times, Pravda, the "ideological” truth was exalted more than the metaphysical and religious truth.[*]
At the time of the Bolshevik revolution, philosophers of the "revival of the Russian idea" such as Florensky, Berdyaev and Bulgakov contrasted the false pravda of the intelligentsia, who supported the revolution, with the true istina of the Church, which announces Christian redemption.
The patriarch of Moscow has tried to reaffirm the authenticity of the Russian Orthodox faith, questioned in the rest of the world by his Church’s explicit and unbearable support for the war, which has raised many doubts about his fealty to the true Christian tradition.
Born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, the 77-year-old Kirill, secular name Vladimir Gundyaev, is a man who crossed the long mists of state atheism. Son and grandson of persecuted priests, he became a faithful collaborator of every regime. Since communist days, he has tried by every means to draw on the original sources of Sacred Scriptures and theology, representing for many years the most cultured and “understanding” voice of the Russian Church.
In the run-up to Holy Week, a book penned by the patriarch was released. Titled Easter: Christ has given us eternal life, it talks about the Feast of Feasts, Holy Easter, "in the context of global historical events" with which humanity has had to contend in recent years.
In it, the patriarch asks questions that certainly touch on the authenticity of the contemporary Christian experience, such as: How can Christians today build their own life path correctly? How can we prepare for the encounter with the Risen Saviour? How can we respond to the challenges of our times?
Kirill tries to answer, noting that “even in the difficult circumstances of the present troubled times, the prospect of eternity bestowed upon us loses its sinister severity.”
What is most perplexing, with respect to someone like the Russian patriarch, is precisely the attempt to hold together the " sinister severity" and the "prospect of eternity", the Soviet-atheist ideology and the legacy of religious traditions, the imperialist madness of the "Russian world" with the religious revival in a secularised world.
This ambiguity, which is the exact opposite of the istina, is found in many Russian Church leaders, metropolitans and bishops, with a background in monasticism, much more than simple parish clergy, often married men less conditioned by theories, and closer to the sufferings and contradictions of ordinary people.
It is precisely Orthodox prelates who serve as a model for Russian politicians, from strongman Putin and the sinister gloomy Lavrov to the befuddled Medvedev and the menacing Prigozhin, all committed to presenting a reality different from the one we see and feel on our skin.
In a recent homily, the patriarch gave a commentary on the Gospel on power and wealth, in which Jesus tries to convince the disciples that “whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
Kirill notes that “man tends towards wealth, often intertwined with his life’s projects and goals [. . .] but the Lord does not reject wealth, nor even power, and the two are often synonymous.”
Except that the Gospel message “speaks of something completely different", does not incite greatness according to human measures, but "must help men who want to be in power and do not disdain wealth” to understand that these things do not automatically lead to the fall into hell. What matters is the way in which the levers of power and money are used.
And so this “higher divine wisdom", says Russia’s spiritual guide, must "be considered in a special way today by our people, society, state", because today "Russia has truly become a powerful state, capable of meeting the challenges and threats directed against it ... The people get stronger, and many people get richer.”
We must make sure that this "does not make our heads spin, making us think we are greater than we are"; instead, we should learn to "use wealth for the good of people, because wealth is a gift of God, it is not a property of the individual".
Thus, the "many good works" done by the wealthy merchants of ancient Russia must be remembered, men who often "forgot their own interest, and their goodness created the economic power of Russia.”
Kyiv itself, the mother city of Rus', emerged along the Varangian trade route that linked northern Europe to Byzantium, which provided the historical basis for the birth of the new state at the end of the first millennium. The patriarch ends saying that "the well-being of the people ensures their security, independence and freedom."
The essence of the patriarch’s address is that rich oligarchs must now make everything available to the state, in an economy that has taken advantage of the contradictions of war, with enormous gains from the fluctuation of energy prices, and more broadly from the contradictions of globalisation of the last thirty years, against which Russia has rebelled with the special operation in Ukraine.
The authenticity of faith leads to testing the authenticity of an isolationist and autarchic ideology, now that Russia has the most global sanctions, threatening the certainties of its own power.
Faith and wealth, religious mission and the building of a new civilisation are and will be the boundaries of life for Russians during and after this and other "liberation" wars.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin announced the beginning of the fifth competition for the country's leaders, called “The Leaders of Russia”, which is part of a project so dear to Putin of "Russia – Land of Opportunities”, an eschatological response to the America’s own ideal of the Land of Opportunity, the construction of Paradise on earth.
Back in 2010, then-President Medvedev spoke at Stanford University, saying that Russia intended “to become a country of new opportunities.”
With its appeal to the oligarchs to devote themselves to "good works”, the patriarch’s homily is an explicit show of support for this goal and related projects, which constitute the real motivation for Russia's confrontation with the West and its power to “enslave” the world.
Envy and resentment against one billion Westerners and the other seven billion are pushing Russians to view themselves as bearers of a message of goodwill even more than communist China, seen as the embodiment of an eastern model of slavery. Russia wants to teach to get rich in freedom.
This underpins many projects, like the “Student Spring” and the "Truth in the new media", one of the most noticeable components of the new conception of power, along with the "Leaders of Russia” competition. The latter will be held at the regional and local levels, as well as institutions of higher learning and society.
Of course, the search for the new Istina collides with the usual Pravda, which conceals economic and social failures behind ideological claims, like at the time of collectivisation and Soviet planning.
It also hides the failure of a tragic war in Ukraine, where the conquest of Bakhmut has been repeatedly announced over two months, when it is clear that no victory can smile on Kremlin and Church leaders, even s they try to heroically resist in the caves under Kyiv Monastery.
Ukraine, Europe, the United States, and the whole world must meet Russia’s challenge about the truth, always keeping in mind the Gospel teaching: “[W]hoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
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[*] Pravda generally refers to the morally correct truth whereas Istina refers to the factual, objective truth.