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REFLECTIONS ON RUSSIA « return to "Insights on Russia" index

March 1995

The Cultural Legacy of Marxism-Leninism

A Generation of "Gullible Cynics"
Philip Walters, an astute scholar of religion in Russia, made the following insightful observation about รพ how Russians are dealing with the new "marketplace of faiths" which has developed in their country:

Totalitarianism produced a strange kind of human being: the gullible cynic. By the 1970s, the Soviet population was starting to understand that despite its claims, Marxism-Leninism answered none of the fundamental questions about the meaning of life; at the same time, there was no possibility of finding out about alternative belief systems. Post-Soviet man therefore combines corrosive cynicism about the official ideology with a readiness to lend credence to almost anything else.

Walters quotes a Christian from St. Petersburg who wrote: "There are no irreconcilable ideas for the average Soviet man. He has no religious hierarchy, no taboos, no religious discernment – only the hated Soviet ideology and the rest." Because of this, many contemporary Russians have no way of distinguishing true from false, good from evil. Meanwhile, Western organizations are flooding into Russia with their money, marketing skills and conflicting ideologies. While some are good and beneficial others are harmful. This is the maelstrom in which Russians find themselves today. (Walters, "Current Developments in Russia and the Response of the Russian Orthodox," Christianity After Communism, Westview Press, 1994, pp. 85-86.)

The Post-Gulag Theological Challenge
In this "marketplace of faiths" which exists in Russia for the first time in this century, churches now face the challenge of deciding whether or not they are capable of fulfilling people’s hopes that they will be sources of renewal in society. The problem is that the Russian Orthodox and evangelical churches have been systematically prevented for seventy years from coming to grips theologically with the challenges the twentieth century has presented to Christianity in other parts of the world.

Moscow scholar Sergei Lezov notes that just as it is impossible for Western Christianity to be the same now as it was before Auschwitz, so one might expect that it would be impossible for Russian Orthodox theology to be the same now as it was before the Gulag. His conclusion is not encouraging: "There is, however, no Orthodox ’thinking through’ of the Gulag... There is no post-Gulag Orthodox theology, for the simple reason that there is now no Christian theology in Russia at all." The same might be said about the lack of a post-Gulag Protestant theology. (Walters, Christianity After Communism, pp. 94-95.)

Atheism’s Lingering Legacy
For many Russian scholars and journalists who are not Christians but have an interest in understanding how religion has shaped Russian culture, there is also a problem resulting from the collapse of Communist ideology. Under Communist Party leadership an entire system of atheist education blossomed, staffed by an enormous number of teachers, professors, pedagogues, researchers, writers and journalists all feeding off of it. Suddenly the system fell apart.

A Moscow journalist noted that many former scientific atheists, remaining in their research posts, somehow became transformed into scholars of religion, while others, quite suddenly "found the faith" and are "now the loudest singers in the choir. The tragedy for Russia, he observed, is that students are getting their religious education either from people who are entirely incompetent in this field or from people pursuing their own religious agenda. (Mikhail Gorelik, "In the Wake of Atheism," The Moscow Times, February 19, 1995.)

Enigmatic Russians
But there is another factor which makes the cultural legacy of Marxism-Leninism even more difficult to understand! That is the puzzling, enigmatic character of the modern Russian, a character not found in the West. Listen to the judgments of Russians themselves.

Distinguished author Tatyana Tolstaya notes that Russians have "mocked the English with their machines, the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their logic, and finally the Americans with their love of money. As a result, in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, nor logic, nor money." Boris Grushin, a leading Russian public opinion specialist, identifies five clusters of public opinion in his country ranging from the most retrograde fascism to libertarian democracy. He goes on to note that because these clusters of opinion are in pitched battle with one another, Russia’s future remains very much in doubt. None of the five groupings can be readily identified with any particular social faction, Grushin concludes, "because each exists to a greater or lesser degree within each and every Russian" (Quoted by Jerry G. Pankurst, "Sociological Models of Religion in Post-Communist Societies," Christianity After Communism, pp. 82-83).

The challenges for Western Christians working in Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union are formidable. The legacy of Marxism-Leninism has been destructive beyond the reach of our imaginations; this destruction, together with the complexity of the Russian character shaped by a history full of tragedy, calls for a humble and discerning attitude on the part of all who seek to assist Russians in the moral renewal of their country and the construction of a civil society.


Dr. John A. Bernbaum
Russian-American Christian University/US Office, P. O. Box 2007, Wheaton, MD, 20915-2007