Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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Orthodoxy greatly influenced the national image of the Russian state. Both of its famous doctrines – “Moscow is the third Rome” and Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality– associate the state with Orthodoxy as its official religion.

It is known that the first doctrine dates back to the 15th century and was formulated by hegumen Filofei. The concept pointed out to the supremacy of Moscow being the successor of Orthodox Church after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This concept, however, was voiced in such a manner that it alluded not so much to the Byzantine Church (which signed the Florentine Union) but to Ancient Rome and Orthodox Emperor Augustus. In the 19th century this doctrine receives both messianic and emperor significances. The Tsar is presented as the “the Lord’s Anointed”, the heir of the Roman Emperor Augustus, “Holy Rus’” as a God-chosen country becomes a stereotype, a self-image imposed on society; the word “power” is filled with the meanings of keeping the world from apocalyptic collapse.[1]

The Russian imperial idea, connected with this doctrine, had its peculiarities. In particular, it was not directly related to the ideal of the Roman Empire. Russia borrowed “virtually all the most important elements of the Empire’s central principle” from Byzantium and it is this religious “backing” of imperial idea that the centuries-long “primacy of religious motifs over national and pragmatic ones in Russian politics (primarily in its policy towards the South <…>)” is connected to.[2]

That is why the mission of Russian people and the Russian Empire was not connected with such notions as “civilization”, “enlightenment”, “progress”, “enculturation” like, for instance, the mission of British people, but consisted in protection and expansion of the Orthodox world. The Empire was believed to be a tool to “fence Orthodox and potentially Orthodox areas”.[3]

The second doctrine was offered by S.S. Uvarov in the later 19th century. Like the first one, it was not just about political ideology. It was based on slavophiles’ philosophical understanding of the part Orthodoxy playd in the formation of the Russian nation and the Russian state.

The strong ties between the concept “state” and Orthodox ideals and Russian model of worldview can be felt even today – for instance, in the new hymn of Russian Federation. Where Russia is “the sacred state” “protected by God”, “Fatherland” that keeps “ancestor-given wisdom of the people” not only for the Russians but also for the whole “union of brotherly peoples” and that demands in return “loyalty” and love.

In the 20th century the USSR having become a new atheistic state naturally rejected to be associated with a “state of Christianity”. Moreover, the basis of the Soviet statehood was the idea of supranationality which ignored the existence of the problem of the “national” on the whole. Everyone had to team up with everyone (“enemies” excluded, of course) based on the universal values of the “communist” world. This was a world of faceless equality and universal labor for the future common benefit; a world of socialized capital goods, of abolition of private owners and entrepreneur classes, of a centralized system of power and administration.[4] Ideally, it was the world without inner (and largely without outer) freedom, without identity and without sensitivity to the “alien” which could not be regulated by the state. In all three points this was a world contradictory to the main values of Russian national culture.

Therefore, we should look for the reasons of the dissolution of the USSR not only in economics and politics, but also among values, ideas, and ideology. We should look in the area which people like to call “the mysterious Russian soul” and which we have tried to describe using such terms as values, social archetypes, and key moments in history.

[1] Storchak V.M. Fenomen rossiiskogo messianizma v obshchestvenno-politicheskoi i filosofskoi mysli Rossii (vtoraya polovina XIX – pervaya tret’ XX vv.) [Phenomenon of Russian messianism in Russia’s socio-political and philosophical thought (second half of the 19th – first third of the 20th centuries)]. Moscow, Izdatel’stvo RAGS Publ., 2005. 249 p.

[2] Lur’e S.V. From Ancient Rome to the Russia of the 20th century: continuity of the imperial tradition. Obshchestvennye  nauki  i  sovremennost’ [Social Sciences and Modern Times], 1997, no. 4, pp. 123 – 133, p. 129, p. 131. (in Russian)

[3] Lur’e S.V. Ot drevnego Rima do Rossii XX veka [From Ancient Rome to the Russia of the 20th century] <…>. P. 130.

[4] Zinov’ev A.A. Soviet Ideology. Zinov’ev A.A. Ideologiya partii budushchego [Ideology of the Party of the Future]. Moscow, Algoritm Publ., 2003. (in Russian) Available at:

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