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The Catholicity of Russian Orthodoxy

Seeking refuge from the oppressive regime of the Bolsheviks, more than 100,000 Russians settled in France in the 1920’s. While divided into a multitude of intellectual circles, religious jurisdictions and political parties, this dynamic community generated a prodigious sum of work in the arts (Sergei Diaghilev, Natalia Goncharova, Sergei Prokofiev), literature and poetry (Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Maria Tsvetaeva), philosophy and theology (Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Vasili Zenkovsky) and politics (Pavel Miliukov). Their activities impacted the West irrevocably.

And though they had fled their motherland, these émigrés all felt a special responsibility for it, which continues for many of their descendants.

My maternal and paternal grandparents arrived in France in the 1920’s. During Russia’s civil war (which started after the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1918), my paternal grandfather, Mikhail Arjakovsky, served with the anti-Bolshevik White Army as an officer to General Peter Wrangel, whom he accompanied when the general evacuated his troops from Russia in 1921. In 1927, having become a house painter, he settled in France with his wife, Xenia Gogoliuk, and built a small house not far from Paris. They had two sons, including my father, born in 1938.

My maternal grandfather, Dmitri Klepinine, fled Odessa with his family for the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade in 1921. Four years later, he headed to Paris to pursue theological studies. In 1937, after his marriage to Tamara Baimakova, with whom he had two children, including my mother, he was ordained a Russian Orthodox priest.

Not unlike many Russian émigrés, my grandparents gathered around the Russian Orthodox Bishop of Paris, Metropolitan Evlogius, the Western European representative of Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow. In 1925, Metropolitan Evlogius founded a theological institute dedicated to St. Sergei Radonezh that quickly became the center of renewal for the Russian Orthodox Church. My grandparents took part in this renewal that flourished for decades, despite revolution, exile and world war.

This renewal of the Russian Orthodox Church featured many characteristics:

  • concern for church-state codependence in the Orthodox world
  • advocacy of freedom of conscience
  • condemnation of militant atheism in the Soviet Union
  • intolerance for extremism in the church
  • participation in the ecumenical movement
  • criticism of anti-Semitism
  • support of Jews during World War II
  • reassessment of the myth of Holy Russia and her salvific destiny.

This later point, which questioned Russia’s traditional sense of self at a time when traditional Russia itself was under assault by the Bolsheviks, deserves further elaboration since it has had some important consequences, namely the emancipation and transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church from a faith community bound to a culture and a national ideal to a universal, or catholic, community of faith.

On 22 April 1935, Nikolai Zernov, a friend of my maternal grandfather’s, published an article entitled “Moscow, the Third Rome” in La Voie, the primary interwar journal of the Russian émigré intelligentsia. In it he developed the following thesis: Holy Russia and her salvific destiny were inventions of the Slavophiles, 19th-century Romantics who, in opposition to the post-Enlightenment values of the West, believed that in tsarist Russia alone was preserved a unique relationship forged between God and nation. The contrasting reactions to Zernov’s thesis in émigré circles illustrated the polarization of the community.

This myth was first developed in the Russian popular imagination in the 15th century as the people of Rus’, led by the Grand Duchy of Moscow, cast off the burden of the Mongols, an Asiatic tribe who had first overrun their realm in the 13th century. In a letter to the Grand Prince of Moscow, Vasili III (1479-1533), an influential monk from the northern town of Pskov summed up the beliefs of the people, urging the prince to remain true to the true church of Christ: “Two Romes have fallen,” Philotheos wrote in 1511. “A third, Moscow, yet stands. A fourth there shall not be.”

Although the Russian Orthodox Church never officially endorsed this theory, it did not have to, for it had penetrated Russian thought, becoming part of the Russian identity.

For Zernov, influenced by the work of Georges Fedotov of the St. Sergei Institute, this myth had enabled the leaders of the Russian nation – church and state – to assert Russia as the preeminent Christian community in the Orthodox world. (Though some identify the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church with the baptism of the Rus’ in 989, the church did not achieve autocephaly, that is, the freedom to govern itself, until the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589.)

In his article Zernov remarked with regret that the Russian Orthodox Church emerged while religious wars divided Europe, thus generating ritualism, ignorance and messianism as a means of self-defense. According to Zernov, this messianism eventually proved destructive to Holy Russia: The rhetoric of the Slavophiles inspired the rhetoric of the Third Congress of the Communist International, which urged a global proletarian uprising based on the Russian model. Even though their objectives differed, he reasoned, the leaders of the Communist International drew their messianic energy from the ideology that inspired the myth of Holy Russia. Nikolai Berdyaev, a colleague of Zernov’s, even found similarities between Lenin and Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the reactionary procurator of the Holy Synod under Russia’s last tsar.

Nikolai Zernov was not naïve to think that the messianic myth of Russian Orthodoxy could be suppressed with a strike of a pen. He knew of the universal nature of Russian culture, language and spirituality and offered to transform the myth: “Russia has placed before the Christian conscience a task of sanctifying all life, the transfiguration of all creation through the practice of love and compassion. If the Russian Church could help all Christians to fight the temptation to use force sinfully, then Russia would accomplish its global mission. Then Moscow could play a deciding role in the history of development of the Christian conscience on earth, and she could truly qualify as the Third Rome in the sense that she would make the ancient Rome irrelevant.”

My parents benefited from this painful yet salutary reconciliation of myth and destiny. My mother, who became a Russian-language teacher in Paris, translated Berdyaev’s “The Russian Idea.” Written during the battle of Stalingrad, the philosopher developed a similar idea of the transfiguration of creation. As for my father, he was engaged in Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth created in 1958 near Paris. A founder of this movement was the theologian and priest John Meyendorff, a close friend of my father’s. The goals of this movement, which is now present in more than a hundred youth organizations and theological institutions all over the world, were to express the universal character of Orthodoxy and to work toward the sanctification of life.

My parents married at St. Sergei Institute in 1961. By then, elements of the Orthodox communion no longer wanted to be identified as Eastern exclusively. If the Russian Church was to lead, they reasoned it had to be universal; geography should not limit the reach of the church. Orthodox intellectuals discovered that beyond the Greek and Slavic traditions of Orthodoxy, equally authentic expressions of African, American and Asian Orthodoxy exist.

This renewed Orthodox openness to the world, which coincided with the opening of Vatican II, spawned a generation of Orthodox scholars who wrote in the early 1960’s a range of books dedicated to the subject. These include Meyendorff’s “The Orthodox Church: Yesterday and Today,” Alexander Schmemann’s “The Historical Path of Orthodoxy,” Kallistos Ware’s “The Church of Seven Councils” and Olivier Clément’s “The Orthodox Church.”

From their exile in Paris, my family persevered in their attempt to preserve the Russian spirit, waging a David-and-Goliath battle despite the powerful ideological machine of communism. They managed to do so from a base that was poor and increasingly divided from within, only because they passionately believed that the real Russia was profoundly spiritual, that in the works of Akhmatova, Chekhov, Dostoevski, Lermontov, Pushkin and Tolstoy, among others, one could find the great messages of love and compassion.

My parents enlisted their children in this passion play, passing on their faith in universal Orthodoxy inherited from the Russian tradition. But our feelings for Holy Russia differ from that of our parents and grandparents. Yes, I have inherited the messianic and universalistic vision of the Russian identity transfigured in exile. And yes, I understand the drama shown by Bolshevik messianism and I know its religious roots. But I also believe we have to move from a stage of negativism to one that speaks more creatively.

Faced with the Soviet machine, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn urged Russians to “never lie!” It was accepted that to pass through life in the Soviet Union one had to lie. Orthodox thinkers in emigration, particularly in the 1960’s, proclaimed, “Never speak of God in a positivist manner!” For God, they believed, should never be objectified and rationalized.

These attitudes, however, do not suffice today. Even though it experienced a remarkable renewal in the early 1990’s, the Russian Orthodox Church – the largest of the Orthodox churches – is increasingly challenged to answer the difficult questions asked by the modern world. And were it to look for answers in the West, the Russian Orthodox Church in emigration alone could not provide them.The renewal of Orthodoxy espoused by the great theologians and philosophers of the Russian emigration had its limitations. While they spoke of Orthodoxy, they limited their discussions to the national Orthodox churches of the Byzantine tradition, discounting the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox traditions. Nor did they open their discussion to questions of ecclesial governance.

As modern society becomes increasingly heterogeneous, ecclesial organization must evolve as well. There are Russian Orthodox faithful living in Western Europe just as there are Catholics living in traditionally Orthodox Russia. These communities of faith develop and mature through strengthening the links between the shepherd, wherever he is, with the flock, wherever they may be. We should not be held in traumatic fear of proselytism.

If by example the Orthodox world is to lead efforts toward the sanctification of life – to work toward a fuller understanding of the Gospel message – we will have to emphasize Orthodoxy and its catholicity, not culture and nationalism. This emphasis will give new meaning, more ecumenical in tone, to the realization of the Gospel that has engaged generations of Russians in emigration. This emphasis could also facilitate the formation of a peaceful Russian national identity, not hostile to the West, that would even emancipate Belarussian, Georgian and Ukrainian national identities, which are historically bound to Russia.

Antoine Arjakovsky directs the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv.

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