Breaking Glass

Remembering the Old Russia

This Fall marks the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.  Although few commentators today are likely to glorify that event or its aftermath, most will assume that the revolution was a regrettable necessity, which swept away a repressive and stagnant ancient regime.  Such a view is false.  Culturally and spiritually, that lost pre-revolutionary Russia was a treasure house, and indeed a birthplace of the modern West.  The grim view we hold of Russia’s old Christian world is one of the last triumphs of Soviet propaganda.

That is nowhere more true than in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is so often portrayed as a haven of obscurantism and anti-Jewish hatred.  In fact, most of the episcopate strove to discredit and suppress antisemitic propaganda.  Meanwhile, the country was in the midst of a general spiritual revival, with rising levels of literacy among peasants and a publishing boom in devotional literature.  The church made serious inroads among industrial workers through a series of charismatically led reform movements preaching a kind of social-gospel activism.  The legendary St. John of Kronstadt was only the most celebrated of many locally famous holy men and women.

The church boasted a thriving cultural life, as most intellectuals and artists were suffused with its imagery and traditions, even if they rejected its political authority.  Many proclaimed...

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