Book review: Holy Rus’

The Russian Orthodox Church is generally portrayed in the West as corrupt, deeply reactionary, and totally subordinate to the state. Yet while there is an anti-clerical element in Russia which shares this point of view, in general Russians regard their Church very favourably. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years the number of Russians self-identifying as Orthodox has increased from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population. How can we explain why Russians have turned in such large numbers towards an institution which is supposedly so rotten?

The obvious explanation is that the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. This, in essence, is the argument of John Burgess’s new book Holy Rus’. Burgess, an American Calvinist theologian, has spent several years examining the Orthodox Church close up and seeing what it is that is actually doing. From this, he concludes that:

When we examine the Russian Orthodox Church only in terms of its compromises with and subservience to the state, we miss the extraordinary religious renaissance that is taking place on the ground far away from official meetings between the president and the patriarch. Major initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life are helping the Church reach deeply into Russian society. Whatever the Church’s faults and failures – and they are real – I have seen how Russia is the better for the Church’s efforts to bring its values into society.

holy-rus

To make this point, Burgess begins by outlining the Church’s extraordinary revival following the collapse of the USSR, with the number of Orthodox parishes increasing from 7,000 to 33,000 in the past 25 years. He then details the ‘initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life’ mentioned above. As described by Burgess, the Church’s social outreach is particularly striking. He writes:

The Church has developed an impressive number of and range of social ministries. Orthodox hospitals, hospices, orphanages, feeding and housing programs, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers – in these and other initiatives, the Church has taken a leading role in caring for Russia’s poor and needy.

Burgess also describes innovations in Orthodox parish life, as local priests attempt to turn churches from places where people attend services and nothing more into genuine communities. Much of what Burgess describes (such as Sunday schools, or the congregation meeting for tea after services) would be considered completely normal in Western Catholic or Protestant parishes, but for Russian Orthodoxy it is fairly revolutionary.

While making a case for the positive role played by the Church in Russian life, Burgess is careful not to exaggerate the Church’s real power. This is not nearly as great as most people think, he says. The state remains thoroughly secular and the Church actually has little influence on government policy. Its social initiatives also account for only a small percentage of the overall national welfare system.

More significantly, Burgess notes that while most Russians now call themselves Orthodox, very few actually attend services, and most are ignorant of Christian doctrine. The Church’s strategy is one of ‘in-churching’. By surrounding Russians with symbols of Orthodox belief, building churches, and propagating rituals such as the increasingly popular Epiphany swims in icy rivers, it hopes to gradually bring Russians into the bosom of the Church. Burgess is sceptical as to whether this policy is working. Still, he believes that it has positive benefits in the sense of giving Russians a sense of the transcendental which they would otherwise lack. He writes:

Whether Russia has become a more moral nation – or, to put it more sharply, whether, because of the Church and its many new parishes, Russia is becoming more like Holy Rus’ – is impossible to determine. Moreover, the Church will never be able to answer that question with sociological evidence. But the Church does not have to. It is enough that its priests and parishes cultivate, however faintly and imperfectly, a glimpse of what Orthodox believers call a new heaven and earth. Russians cannot fail to notice. Something has changed against the horizon of the city. The Church again beckons; the bells again resound.

 

 

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12 thoughts on “Book review: Holy Rus’”

  1. How do you keep getting to these books before I do?!
    Like your previous review Should We Fear Russia, this book was also on my blog’s review list. Looks like I’ll have to do more reshuffling…

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      1. I should add that there are some books on your list I don’t imagine ever reading – e.g. Gorbachev’s latest.

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  2. “past 25 years the number of Russians self-identifying as Orthodox has increased from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population.”

    These are empty numbers. Formal atheists became formal Christians. In Russia there are very few people who do live according to religious norms . Most of those who call themselves Orthodox, are utterly indifferent to religion

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  3. More significantly, Burgess notes that while most Russians now call themselves Orthodox, very few actually attend services, and most are ignorant of Christian doctrine.

    This. I read a book recently, titled The Roots of Stalin’s Bolshevism. I didn’t like the book, but the main idea was interesting. The idea is that a lot of Russians are deeply religious but often dislike and even hate the priests and the official church. According to the author, that was a consequence of the 17th c. schism, raskol, that resulted in a large number of secret priest-less (bezpopovtsi) ‘old-believers’.

    I don’t know if the narrative is true (I doubt it), but the sentiment seems familiar enough, from literature, and from some people I know. Communities are religious, but everyone knows that the priest is just a rich hypocrite in cahoots with the authorities. It really feels like a sort of informal protestantism.

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  4. @PaulR
    “I should add that there are some books on your list I don’t imagine ever reading – e.g. Gorbachev’s latest.”

    Anything in particular making you reluctant to read The New Russia? I’m just curious. It’s not at the top of my reading list but I’m reviewing it to honor a friend’s recommendation.

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  5. “The Russian Orthodox Church is generally portrayed in the West as corrupt, deeply reactionary, and totally subordinate to the state.”

    …Due to such portrayal propagated by academicians, ideologists, pundits and “thinkers” from countries, with vastly different mentalitet compared to the Russian one? By the people coming from the countries, which at one time were homes to populations mainly subscribing to the teachings of Sola Scripturists, which follow some funny new ideas invented in just last centuries and with not connection to the original Church and the Apostles, or to the Churches that actually has the apostolic succession to the Early Church and which have their doctrine unchanged since that time… yeah, I wonder – why!?

    As for the most population becomeing only “holiday Christians” – that’s true. Sad, but true. Still, the increase of воцерквлённых (which were lamely translated as “in-church people”) is also on the rise.

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  6. Burgess wrote an article on the same topic in 2014. Here’s a link
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/05/in-churching-russia

    I agree that the fact that over 70% of Russians now identify as Orthodox Christians is not the most relevant statistic (although it’s not completely irrelevant either, as it shows a broad sympathy with the Church, even if not a deep commitment). What’s more relevant is that fact that the number of both churches and monasteries is growing by leaps and bounds (In the case of monasteries, there are now more than 40 times the number of them that there were at the end of the Soviet period). This shows that a significant and growing minority of Russians is starting not only to call themselves Christian again, but to actually attend church, and even to take up monastic life in some cases. It’s unlikely that the majority of Russians will ever be (or, for that matter, have ever been in the past) serious Orthodox Christians, but compared to the churches in the great majority of European countries, the Russian Orthodox Church is healthy and getting healthier.

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    1. Hey, Ryan! Nice to hear from you again! How’s the wedding?

      “…but compared to the churches in the great majority of European countries, the Russian Orthodox Church is healthy and getting healthier.”

      Indeed. See:

      WaPo: Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving.

      “A Canadian study found that conservative churches are still growing, while less orthodox congregations dwindle away.”

      Could it be that this book by a follower of the Reformed Creed is indeed a cry of wistfulness and and envy in disguise?

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      1. Thanks! Everything went really well. It was a good time.

        I think with a lot of the more “liberal” churches, there’s a sort of “two-generation” phenomenon. The first generation grew up when church teaching and practice were more traditional, and has a sentimental/emotional attachment to the church as a community and institution. But, on the other hand, they want to be more acceptable to the surrounding secular culture. So, they keep the old forms and a lot of the traditions, while changing the practices and beliefs that are likely to be unpopular. The trouble for these churches is that the second generation doesn’t have this sentimental attachment. They grow up in this new “modernized” environment, and when they grow up, they ask themselves, if the church says and does so little that’s much different from the surrounding culture, what’s the point in waking up early on Sunday morning? That’s why, in addition to shrinking, these kinds of churches are also greying very quickly.

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