From Nikon to Gorbachev: Church reform and perestroika as types of national catastrophe

MOSCOW, 30 Nov 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

Now, when the 13th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR is approaching as a result of the reforms called “Gorbachev’s perestroika”, a certain historical analogy with the period of Nikon’s reforms in the 1650s becomes visible.

There were so many commonalities and similarities both in the structure of those events and in their causes and consequences that the question arises: isn’t there some kind of pattern in what reforms are taking place in Russia, how they’re taking place and with what consequences? Isn’t there some kind of recurring plot in the scenario of historical fate that happens to us periodically, the repetition of which it’s possible to foresee and even try to avoid?
 

The USSR as a version of the formula “Moscow is the Third Rome”

The USSR and Russia of the epoch of the Moscow Principality possessed a messianic attitude and understanding of themselves as the bearer of a global mission. The USSR was a communist kingdom of world-historical significance, the successor of the ideas of the Comintern of all its versions, transformed into the format of the world’s first state of a new type under the rule of workers and peasants, which destroyed the exploitation of man by man, class discord and fulfilled the precepts of the founders of the teachings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The West could not embody their prophecies, but Russia was able to do it.

Thus, the USSR not only solved the problem of modernisation, but also entered the ideological space of the West and with its interpretation of the history of social dynamics and the confrontation of Labor and Capital.

The formula of Abbott Philotheus “Moscow is the Third Rome, and there will be no Fourth” arose a century before the Nikon reforms, but became the basis of a sense of global geopolitical mission, expressed in the fact that the Russian political elite was Grecophile, Orthodox Christian, oriented towards Rome and Byzantium, and the Moscow princes aspiring to the royal title declared themselves the successors of the Byzantine emperors.

Russian Orthodoxy, which entered into a conflict with Western Catholicism, claimed a worldwide mission – the protection of the Byzantine heritage of Universal Orthodoxy trampled by Rome, subsequently betrayed by Byzantium itself, and the salvation of mankind on the basis of this heritage.

In both cases, we see Messianism in the paradigm of association with the West (at the time of the baptism of Russia, Christianity was unified), the protection of the West from itself, degenerated and betrayed its original foundations. Both in the case of Gorbachev and in the case of Nikon, the reforms were an attempt to get out of the crisis of this messianic idea and the search for a new paradigm of this association, cleared of layers and cured of distortions.

Just as Gorbachev’s reform envisaged a desire to join the West in order to join globalisation based on the adoption of liberal doctrine, so Nikon’s reform pursued the goal of globalisation based on Orthodoxy, the Russian version of which needed to be brought into line with the Greek, by that time significantly distorted by Catholic theology. As Gorbachev borrowed liberalism from the West, so Nikon carried out reform with the involvement of theologians of Greece and Kiev.

Both Gorbachev’s liberals and Nikon’s Kievan-Greek theologians met with strong resistance from Russian native speakers who saw the danger of uncritically introducing Western scholarship into Russian traditions. Gorbachev was a Westerner, and Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich was a Grecophile.

The global mission of protecting world Orthodoxy by the Russian tsar flattered Aleksey and Nikon. Gorbachev seriously expected to join the West, having nuclear weapons and exporting hydrocarbons. Resistance to the so-called “Russian party” was a personal challenge for both leaders and was subject to eradication.

Publicity and the school question

Both Gorbachev’s perestroika and Nikon’s “book correction” began with the informational preparation of society. Perestroika used the so-called “glasnost”, on the basis of which the line in the media was changed and the training courses of school programs were changed. The “book correction” raised the so-called “school question”, which began in the reign of Mikhail Fedorovich, the father of Aleksey Mikhailovich. So perestroika had its origin in the era of Khrushchev’s “thaw”.

Just as in the era of glasnost, a flood of samizdat poured into the USSR and the publication of dissident literature published in the West began, so in 1640 Pyotr Mogila, a famous figure of the Kiev Orthodox enlightenment, initiated the establishment of a monastery in Moscow for learned monks from the brotherhood of the Kiev-Epiphany Monastery, at which there was an Academy that used Western theological texts in teaching.

At the monastery being created in Moscow, it was proposed to organise a school for teaching the Greek language and Slavic literacy to the children of the boyars. Moldova, where in this way they diligently fought against Latinism, was placed as an example.

The initiative of Mogila was not implemented, but 5 years later a Greek printing house was opened in Moscow – for polemics with Catholics and Lutherans. Since 1646, Greek teachers have been coming to Moscow. Texts were translated from Latin. School business developed rapidly.

Both the period of glasnost and the period of school business were characterised by an extraordinary ideological revival. Gorbachev decided that the USSR should get out of the borders of the “Iron Curtain”. Tsar Aleksey decided that Moscow would not be able to exalt itself by shutting itself off from the world, and Kiev scholarship is something to be armed with, since it combines Western methodology with Orthodox, not Latin, but Eastern and Greek theology.

The transfer of Kievan scholarship to Moscow begun, and Metropolitan Filaret’s fears of Latinised Kievan Orthodoxy have been rejected. Gorbachev’s conflict with Ligachyov, who believed that socialism could not be improved by capitalism, followed the same line. In this struggle, Ligachyov was defeated, as was Filaret.

The split of elites and society. The influence of the West and the defensive position of Moscow.

Both in Rus and in Russia of all versions of its statehood, the strength of grassroots public opinion was great. Emperors and general secretaries could ignore it, but despotic rule was impossible in the Moscow Tsardom and in the USSR during the glasnost period. The idea of a single universal Orthodox tsar of all Christians forced the Moscow tsars to get closer to the world of Orthodoxy and, above all, to the Greeks, who had changed greatly under the influence of Papism and its dogmatics.

The indigenous Russian environment, both in Moscow and in the provinces, was indifferent to the “world horizons”. Here they did not want to let their kings into the world field. The differences between the way the fathers professed faith and the way the Greeks and Kievans began to teach exposed the influence of Latinism in Western Orthodox schools.

Global geopolitics was rejected by the Russians at the cost of renouncing their identity. It was from here that the Old Believer schism came out. It is from here that the state-patriotic trend of anti-liberalism and anti-Westernism has grown today, which has received an official packaging in the form of moderate conservatism.

The statesmen of modern Russia are the prototype of the Old Believers. A constant theme through Russia is the conflict between the versions of globalism and autarky, the call for a global mission and opposition to it from the standpoint of soil protection, which can be blurred and destroyed if anything is mixed with the global world – Orthodoxy, democracy, freedom, equality and fraternity, or class, or other solidarity. Any globality is thought of as a risk of losing a unique identity, which requires opposition to universalist concepts.

Both Gorbachev’s reforms and Nikon’s reforms were conceived as constructive programs of social change, which the enlightened elite missionarily carries into the archaic root strata of the masses. Any reforms should be like this: constructive, making those changes that do not destroy society, but strengthen it, helping to adapt to the changed conditions.

However, both Gorbachev’s reform and Nikon’s reform caused a split in society with disastrous consequences. Gorbachev and Nikon did not solve the problems of their time, but they created new ones in abundance, added to the old ones and created a supercritical mass of destructive tendencies. The statehood, spiritual environment, cultural and civilisational identity of the people have been damaged, and this damage has not yet been healed, affecting our lives and continuing to generate chains of crises and conflicts.

The analogy of the plots of the Nikon and Gorbachev reforms (for all their uniqueness and specificity), which manifests itself when comparing the main events of both eras, is in fact a reflection of the East-West conflict characteristic of Russia in different eras.

The choice of historical path, landmarks, authorities is an eternal topic for Russian disputes. This dispute is happening in Russia even now, having flared up especially strongly in connection with the collapse of the liberal Westernist model and the demand to abandon it in favour of an adequate model for Russia, the contours of which are not clear in detail.

The historical memory of Russians regarding reforms and their social cost is the reason for the caution that many take for passivity and lack of passionarity. It is for this reason that moderate conservatism is now the line most supported by public opinion.

The Russian cultural code is very specific, and only those reforms that are able to rely on it, and not to resist it and not try to remake it by force, will be successful. This is the main lesson that all reformers in Russia should learn, no matter how well-intentioned their reforms may be. On the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR, this conclusion should look especially reasonable.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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