Divorcing Russian Orthodoxy From the Kremlin’s Agenda | Sojourners


The image shows a hand wearing a priest's robe holding St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

Illustrations by Nico Ortega 

Divorcing Russian Orthodoxy From the Kremlin’s Agenda

Theologian Katya Tolstaya on making sense of evil, including Putin’s ongoing war against Ukraine.

IN JULY 2014, the Russian state-owned television network Channel One aired a news story that sickened many Russians.

Speaking from a refugee camp near Rostov, a woman named Galina Pyshnyak claimed to have seen Ukrainian soldiers in the contested Donbas region torture a child while his mother watched. Pyshnyak said, “They took a 3-year-old child, a small boy in panties, in a T-shirt, and nailed him as Jesus to an advertisement board.”

The story, which independent journalists were unable to verify, was quickly called out by international watchdogs as Russian propaganda: a way for the Kremlin to rally support for its occupation of Crimea and — in time — plant the seeds for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine as a whole. The “crucified boy” story served as a call to arms, as cases were reported of Russians who volunteered to fight against those Ukrainians who crucify little children. Subsequent investigations showed that a version of the story had first appeared on the Facebook page of Alexander Dugin, one of the most successful propagandists of the Russkiy Mir (“Russian World”) ideology. Channel One retracted the story in December 2014.

To Netherlands-based theologian Katya Tolstaya, however, the explicit Christian imagery of Pyshnyak’s “eyewitness” account and the visceral responses it elicited throughout Russia represented something else: In Putin’s world, religion and politics were becoming narrowly intertwined.

Over the years, experts have produced various explanations for Russia’s return to totalitarianism and who should be held responsible. Some argue the development stems from the ambition and personality of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, while others point the finger at a broader Russian culture. Assorted studies focus on the political or the historic, the economic or the religious roots of totalitarianism. Tolstaya, for her part, sees religion as both a problem and a solution. Divorcing Russian Orthodoxy from the Kremlin’s imperialist agenda, she argues, can help Russians come to terms with a dark past that they have yet to process.

The literature of dissent

TOLSTAYA’S OWN PAST is no less complicated. She was born in the Soviet Union, in St. Petersburg (back when it was still called Leningrad). Her father, a doctor, was Jewish. Her mother, also a doctor, is related to Leo Tolstoy, Christian anarchist and pacifist, author of War and Peace and The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstaya’s was a family of dissidents, critical of the government even before Putin came to power, and she spent much of her youth reading Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote of his experiences in Joseph Stalin’s forced-labor prison system, called the gulag.

After giving birth to twins, Tolstaya emigrated to the Netherlands in 1990, and settled in the town of Kampen, to secure a better future for her children. While her children went to school, she decided to take classes herself, briefly considering medicine and Russian philology before settling on theology. Her decision paid off. Over the years, she has been a tenured professor, vice dean and dean of research at the Faculty of Religion and Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and founder of the Institute for the Academic Study of Eastern Christianity, and in 2022 she was named by the Dutch government as “Theologian of the Fatherland,” an ambassador of theology.

Although Tolstaya left Russia, Russia never left her. Her current research applies the framework of “theology after” a significant event (for example, post-Holocaust theology and theology after apartheid). Tolstaya’s “Theology after Gulag, Bucha, and Beyond” transplants post-Soviet scholarship into a theological framework by picking up a question raised in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 book, The Brothers Karamazov: How can a religious person make sense of the many evil things that happen in the world, from the Holocaust and Joseph Stalin’s labor camps to Putin’s ongoing war against Ukraine?

It is a difficult question to answer, not in the least because religious institutions are so often complicit in these horrors. This is no different in Russia today, where the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church — particularly Moscow Patriarch Kirill — is closely allied with Putin, imbuing his regime with the guise of divine providence. In her research, Tolstaya has noted that Patriarch Kirill’s sermons no longer make direct reference to Christ but substitute him with “the sacrality of the state, the army, and the church,” promising “forgiveness of sins to any Russian soldier who perishes in Ukraine.”

These sermons are at odds with the core tenets of Christianity. “In Orthodoxy there is a strong sense that God transcends human understanding,” Tolstaya explains. “True knowledge of God cannot be acquired in an intellectual way, nor by empirical observation or experience. Orthodox theology is very cautious in making positive statements about both the nature of God and [God’s] divine presence in the world. This is important, because it shows that even early Eastern church theology never meant to have God in a pocket. Therefore, any contemporary claim to the church fathers, which the Orthodox hierarchs like to make, is actually twisting their own theology.”

While Russian Orthodox theology can’t provide an excuse for war, it does offer an argument against it, Tolstaya says. “God, as the Orthodox liturgy puts it, is ‘everywhere present and fills all things.’ This awareness of [God’s] omnipresence, in my view, provides an antidote against the instrumentalization and misuse of religion, answering Dostoevsky’s formula, ‘Everyone is guilty for everyone, and I am the guiltiest of all.’”

This line always puzzles Tolstoya’s students who, raised in a deeply individualistic society, fail to see why anyone could be held responsible for actions not their own. Theology explains: If God is present in all things, then all things are part of a single being. And if all things are part of a single being, everyone becomes accountable for everyone and everything, including all evil in the world.

As Dostoevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary: “Once we see that we ourselves are sometimes even worse than the criminal, we also recognize that we are half guilty of his crime. If he has broken the law which the earth laid down to him, we ourselves are also guilty that he now stands before us. After all, if we all were better, he would also have been better and would not now have stood before us.”

Leo Tolstoy also tackled this idea in his writing. It’s at the heart of War and Peace, which ends with a passionate polemic against the conventional historian’s attempt to distill an unimaginably complex reality into digestible narratives of cause and effect, falsely interpreting much of the Napoleonic War as a direct result of the French dictator’s own birth, and of Resurrection, in which a prince takes responsibility for the crimes of a woman he drove to prostitution.

“If you believe that something or someone has inherent, divine value,” Tolstaya says, “you cannot at the same time use them for an external purpose without compromising this value.” In dealing with the memory of historical atrocities, she exchanges the concept of “collective guilt,” as defined by Hannah Arendt and others, with something called “metaphysical guilt,” which Tolstaya calls “an inherent responsibility every individual carries for all injustice and evil in the world, resonating deeply with the complexities of human interconnectedness.”

Read the Full Article

The image shows the cover of the June 2024 issue of Sojourners magazine, which shows a hand holding St. Basil the Blessed church in Russia
You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $3.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!
The photo is a black and white picture of a young white man looking at the camera, not smiling. He has dark hair.

Tim Brinkhof is a U.S.-based Dutch journalist who writes about religion, politics, and history. 

for more info