Thus said shortly before his death Peter the Great, the ruler of the Russian Empire from 1682 till 1725. There were good reasons why he said that. The man who controlled the destinies of millions of people couldn’t control his own epileptic fits, nor could he control his love for drinking and feasts which made his health problems worse. He changed Russia completely. So thorough was that change that a traveler to it in 1682 wouldn’t recognize it in 1725, when Peter died. And yet he couldn’t control himself even when he knew that his conduct and his personal life needed change.
It is not surprising he couldn’t conquer himself. He did not have an ideology of “self” to start with. All his ideology, all his thinking and perception of reality had been groomed from an early age to think only of an empire as a true entity. The individual was missing from that picture of the Russian mentality and culture. The individual existed only as a cog in a bigger machine, as one of the crowd. The thought that the individual was a separate entity with specific rules and principles for his conduct was foreign to Peter, as it was foreign to the majority of Russians at the time; and in fact, was foreign to the very mentality of the Russians at the time. Not that Peter didn’t change his mentality to a certain extent – his visits to Christian Reformed countries like the Netherlands and Britain did create in him some vague, instinctive respect to the value of human life, whether it was the life of a noble or of a serf. (The sickness that brought his death was caused by his wading in ice-cold water to save drowning soldiers.) But he didn’t see in depth the very spirit of the Western civilization; he only saw in the West the technologies, the military superiority that made mighty empires. That instinct to value human life was not enough to make him understand the individual as a moral entity. He didn’t have the ideology – or rather, the theology – to understand the human being as a being.
All that mattered was the Empire. He himself, and everyone else, served the ideal of the great state which conquers people. He tortured and killed his own son for opposing his policies. He changed completely – by government decree – the theology and the liturgy of the Russian church to fit the new agenda for the Empire he had. Everyone in Russia had to become a Westerner – by centralized government decree, not by personal choice. There was no individual personal choice to start with anyway. No one believed in such a thing, and Peter didn’t care to create a new belief in a personal choice. He just took the shortcut to make Russia a civilized nation by government choice. Individuals meant nothing so why bother changing their thinking, souls, morality? Why teaching them to conquer their old habits, addictions, lusts, when that could be achieved by a centralized decree, under the threat of punishment?
And therefore, why change himself?
This has been the problem with Russia from the beginning. Or, rather, not from the very beginning but after the decentralized confederation of tribes and cities called Kievan Rus collapsed in fratricidal wars and was subjugated by the Mongol Horde in 1240. The new Russia which arose in its place and defeated its enemies had nothing to do with the old free order. It had completely changed into a collectivist society with a pyramidal structure where everyone – even the merchants and the entrepreneurs – existed for the purposes of the centralized state in Moscow. The consequent military victories of the Grand Princes in Moscow against the Mongols in the east and the Polish-Lithuanian and the German knights in the west established the political power even more strongly.
By the time of Ivan Grozny (16th century) Russia was a complete totalitarian state, from top to bottom, with the population enslaved to the centralized power. A person did not exist for himself and for his own pursuit of happiness; everyone existed for the state. And the Eastern Orthodox Church did not help much in the process. Lacking the theology of the individual as a political and social entity, the Orthodox Church only reinforced the statist ideology of the Russian Czars. A Reformed movement in the 15th century did capture for a while the minds and the hearts of large masses of people among both the nobility and the commoners. Unfortunately, focused on religious observances, it failed to produce a social and political alternative to the growing power of the centralized state. In 1504, the Russian state struck back. By 1533 the Russian Reformation was dead. The Czar was established as the highest power in the land, with the church firmly under imperial control. There were to be no more widespread experiments with individualism in Russia. All existed for the state. The new religion – the Russian state – was established firmly, and nothing could exist outside of the state.
In time, even the Cossacks, the free people of the steppe, would bow their heads to the Empire in Moscow. They resisted for several centuries. Some even led rebellions against the centralized power in Moscow; Stenka Razin (in the 17th century) and Emelian Pugachev (in the 18th century) were the most successful of all. But even Razin and Pugachev did not have an ideology of liberty to offer; both men propagandized their rebellions as restorations of the “lawful authority of the Czar” rather than as a quest for liberty and justice for all. Europe had its Magna Carta, the free cities, the Reformation and its products – Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and Scotland, and eventually America. Russia had nothing of the sort. All social and political life – and even the resistance movements and the Church – were to be in the context of the centralized totalitarian state. There were no individuals to be worth mentioning. And therefore Peter the Great never thought of individuals as worth mentioning; or as worth discipling in moral self-government and self-discipline. Not even himself.
A hundred years after Peter’s death, in December of 1825, a group of young army officers staged a revolt in Saint Petersburg. The young men had participated in the Napoleonic Wars, and spending their time as occupation forces in France and Germany opened their eyes to the difference between the social structure and ideology of Europe and Russia. Their revolt – named the “Decembrist Revolt” – was very short-lived. They never understood that there was a deeper cause for the problems in Russia; and that deeper cause was ideological and theological. Even though they desired the same self-government and dignity for the individual for all Russians, they were not joined by enthusiastic masses desiring liberty and justice for all. By 1825 the established religion was the state. The problem was religious. Liberty was impossible in a land where the great idol in the society was the state. And a religious problem was not to be solved with political revolt. The religious foundations of liberty which the Reformation developed in Western Europe were not present.
And then, 92 years after the Decembrist Revolt, when Russia had its first liberal (in the European sense of the word) government in the summer of 1917, with Alexander Kerensky as Prime Minister, it lacked popular support. Not many in Russia understood the concept of being free of government control. In terms of religious commitment, the Russian population still expected to have a centralized government which controls all the decisions. The idea of individual self-control was not a popular one. A few months later, Kerensky’s government fell to the Bolsheviks. The ensuing Civil War (1918-1923) was a struggle between one group of statists – the czarist Whites – and another group of statists – the Communist Reds. The individual and his liberty were never discussed nor even proposed as political agenda.
The state was god walking on earth. Russia had Hegel’s ideal applied in practice long before Hegel, and in a much more consistent form than Hegel’s Prussia ever achieved.
And when Hitler invaded Russia, what Stalin did was to dig out of the dust the old religious hymns for the military and use them in almost unchanged form to inspire the troops. The same religious fervor in fighting for the czarist regime was used to fight for the Communist regime. Nothing had changed.
In reality, while on the surface it looked like Russia went through two great transformations – one under Peter the Great and another under the Communists – from a spiritual perspective nothing changed. The same central idol, the idol of the state, remained in power throughout all centuries after the 1400s. Even after the fall of the Soviet Empire in the 1990s, the timidly liberal administration of Boris Yeltsin eventually gave way to a return to statism under the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. The official religion in Russia remained the centralized state.
Where was the church?
The Russian Orthodox Church gradually surrendered. It became an arm of the centralized power in Moscow, something like a Ministry of Religion to serve the powerful of the day. It first served the Czarist regime. After the Communist Revolution it suffered in the hands of the Communists for a while, until Stalin – always a calculating mind – decided to use its propagandist power to rally the Russian population to fight against the invading Germans in 1941. The church was expected to serve the state; and it had no power to resist. Nor the ideology to resist. So thorough has its surrender to the idol of the state become that when a few years ago Kirill, a priest with open ties with the KGB, was appointed Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, no one seemed surprised. That same Kirill was the first to congratulate the Stalinist dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, for his election victory in 2010. And that same Kirill just a couple of weeks ago declared the Putin era a “Divine miracle” and sharply criticized the democratic protesters who demanded reforms and rule of law.
There is a “strong man” in Russia; and I mean not the current political leader in the Kremlin. Russia, for all these centuries, have been ruled by a religion of collectivism and statism. A religion which has never been very different from the religion of pagan Rome: the cult of Caesar. Just like pagan Rome, that religion has accommodated different other religions to serve it. The statist religion of the Russian state has accommodated even Christianity to serve its purposes. The “strong man” is that religion of statism, the religion that denies the existence of the individual and his life, liberty, and property, unless they serve the collective entity of the state.
And unless Christianity challenges that “strong man,” Russia will never be evangelized.
In an earlier article, “Missionaries of the Ax,” I argued that a missionary has never done his job well unless he has challenged the main idol in the society. While evangelizing the German tribes, Saint Boniface discovered that his converts, when they were not equipped with a vision that challenged the central religion of their society – including in its social and political implications – tended to return back to their pagan ways. Boniface had to challenge that central idol, the god Thor, who alone through his power and cunning controlled the world of gods, and therefore the world of men. Boniface took his ax to Thor’s oak. The German tribes converted almost overnight.
It is hard to say whether similar overnight conversion will happen in Russia. But one thing is sure: So far there have been no missionary, no preacher, no church, no Christian teacher or group, who have issued a challenge against the totalitarian state and its religion of statism in Russia. Evangelical and Reformed missionaries, even though they have flocked to Russia in large numbers after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, have only touched the periphery of what the Russian society is, and is based upon. Missionaries have preached individual salvation. But they haven’t preached the individual, and his worth in God’s eyes, and his worth as a political and social entity. The idol of the Russian state has never met a religion which challenged its supremacy. There is no voice in Russia which says, “There is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:7).
A long-term successful evangelism in Russia must start with a very important message which the Gospel brings to those who are touched by it: libertarianism. The value of the individual in God’s eyes, the value of the individual human life and the liberty of the individual to pursue his calling under God. As long as the liberty – political and social – of the Gospel is missing from the mission endeavors and preaching in Russia, Protestant Christianity will be just another trophy in the Russian state’s Pantheon of faiths and gods, admitted as long as they do not stir the water and do not challenge the absolute power of the rulers. The Russian people – and I am speaking generically here, of course – have been conditioned for centuries to think of themselves as servants of an Empire, of its quests for statist dominion. Patriotism has been offered as the unifying element of the society – patriotism, of course, defined as the glory of the state. In a culture that glorifies the state, God can not be glorified. Therefore, the first job of a missionary should be to preach against the glorification of the state; and show the Biblical value of the individual, and his place before God, and in his society.
Following from that goal, a missionary must realize that the idolatry of the totalitarian state has created a dependence of the population on the care, the decrees, and the decision-making process of the state. When I visited Russia in 2003, and talked about homeschooling, the most frequently asked question by my hosts was, “Is it legal?” They were professing, committed Christians. Some of them had been criminals in their previous lives; they had served their terms, and had returned to their families, and had started churches, teaching and preaching in an ungodly society. But when it came to specific practical actions like teaching their children instead of leaving them to the pagans, the reaction wasn’t “Is it Biblical?” but “Is it legal?” In their perceptions, and in their thinking, the issue of government “legality” was still more important than the issue of whether it was a Biblical imperative or not.
A missionary to Russia must have a theology that can break that psychological, economic, and social dependence on the state in his converts. He must be able to present a vision of a community which can survive without having to rely on the state for guidance, education, welfare, economic survival, or family integrity and faithfulness. That vision of such a community must start with teaching the individuals the basic skills for a free man, a free individual who can make decisions independently from earthly human institutions, based solely on his obedience and loyalty to God and His Law. Without such vision for the individual as an independent agent of dominion under God, the spell of the idol of statism can not be broken. No matter how many converts a missionary can have, they will be like the first converts of Boniface: serving God on Sundays, and Thor Mondays through Saturdays.
This is a difficult message to bring to Russia. Unlike the evangelism of the missionaries so far, it will raise a challenge against powers who are committed to preserve their power over the minds and the hearts of their subjects, no matter what the cost. It may prove too hard a task for many American missionaries. The Russian state has always regarded any talk about libertarianism and individual liberty with suspicion; when it comes supported by the Gospel of Christ, it may alarm those powers. But it must be preached and taught nevertheless – whether through internet publications in Russian or through Russians themselves who have come to salvific knowledge of Jesus Christ and understand the comprehensive nature of His Gospel.
Difficult or not, it must be preached, and the “strong man” must be opposed and defeated. There’s a world to be conquered for the Gospel; and we as Christians better get to work.