Written by Vladimir Moss



     Many contemporary Russians take great pride in the culture of Soviet Russia, and see it as proof of their superiority to the West. A recent example is a speech given by Patriarch Cyril of Moscow at the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Foreign Relations. As Alexei Nikolsky writes, “he noted that even the communist authorities of the Soviet Union did not dare ‘to blow up the moral basis of the life of society’, which, in his words, as a whole remained Christian. ‘This is what saved us: our literature and figurative art were penetrated by Christian ideas, and the morals of the people remained Christian.’” 

     Of course, there is no denying that there were great artists even in that most barbaric and uncultured period of Russian history. Nor can we deny that there were Christian themes in some of their works – we think of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Akhmatova’s Requiem. But to suppose that the Bolsheviks did not dare “to blow up the moral basis of society”, or that these very few works of quality (usually circulated only in samizdat in view of the authorities’ hostility) in any way justified Soviet society, or that because of them “the morals of the people remained Christian” is not simply mistaken - it is blasphemous.  


      Before analyzing the patriarch’s claim in more detail, let us first ask ourselves: what does Christianity have to say about culture? 

     Now the Lord says nothing directly about culture. Indirectly, however, He makes it clear that high culture does not constitute part of “the one thing necessary” for salvation. For He was incarnate in one of the least cultured regions of the Roman empire, and deliberately chose uneducated fishermen to be His apostles. Even the Jews looked down on uncultured Galilee: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1.46). And yet it was from the fishermen of Galilee that true enlightenment came to the world… 

     The most educated of the apostles was St. Paul, who came from the Greek city of Tarsus and was trained in the law by great rabbinic teachers such as Gamaliel. And yet, while freely acknowledging his debt to Greek philosophy, he, too, says nothing directly about culture. Evidently, he felt that it was not essential for salvation, noting that not many highly cultured, educated or powerful people were being saved. “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise,… that no flesh should glory in His presence” (I Corinthians 1.26-27, 29).  

     But of course, insofar as the roots of culture lie in religion, - the word “culture” comes from cultus, “religious worship”, - and insofar as the religion of the Greco-Roman world was pagan, and linked with such immoral activities as temple prostitution, the preachers of the Christian faith could not be simply indifferent to the culture around them. And as Fr. Georges Florovsky writes, we find a definitely negative attitude towards the music, painting and especially the rhetorical art of their time in such early Christian writers as Tertullian and Origen. For “the whole of the culture of that time was built, defined and penetrated by a false faith. One has to recognize that some historical forms of culture are incompatible with the Christian attitude to life, and must be avoided or cast out.”  In accordance with this attitude, Tertullian said: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, and the martyrs destroyed idols and pagan temples because they were not just what we would call cultural monuments but witnessed to false religion. The modern attitude of valuing them for their aesthetic beauty or “cultural value” was unknown to them.  

     Not that it is impossible, or always wrong, to dissociate a work of art’s original religious meaning from its aesthetic value. Indeed, this is part of what was involved in the fusion of Christianity and Hellenism that began in the fourth century: the forms of ancient Hellenistic culture – its philosophical concepts, artistic conventions and architectural shapes – were dissociated from their original content and context in the worship of false gods and turned and transformed into the service of the true God. Thus ancient Egyptian portraiture was transformed into the iconography that we see today in St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, while the architecture of the Pantheon in Old Rome was transfigured out of all recognition into the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in New Rome. The resulting synthesis was the glorious civilization of Byzantium, the core or cradle civilization and culture of the whole of Christendom, East and West, for the first millennium of Christian history, and of the Orthodox East until the eighteenth century. 

     This creation of a Christian culture to replace the pagan culture of the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, was not only not a matter of indifference or little importance to the Church, but a task of the greatest importance for her. For whether we understand “culture” in the narrow sense of “a position or orientation of individual people or human groups whereby we distinguish ‘civilized’ from ‘primitive’ society”, or in the broader sense of “a system of values” , all men living in society – and even monks living in the desert – live in a culture of some kind, and this culture inescapably influences their thoughts and feelings for better or for worse. Culture counts because it influences faith – as faith influences culture. So the formation of the culture of Christian Byzantium was not, as Fr. George Florovsky writes, “what historians of the 19th century usually called ‘the Hellenization of Christianity’, but rather the conversion of Hellenism. And why should Hellenism not be converted? After all, the acceptance of Hellenism by Christians was not simply a servile perception of an undigested pagan heritage. It was the conversion of the Hellenistic mind and heart.

     “In fact, this is what happened: Hellenism was cut through with the sword of the Christian Revelation and thereby completely polarized. We must call Origen and Augustine Hellenists. But it is completely obvious that this is another type of Hellenism than we find in Plotinus or Julian. Of all Julian’s directives the Christians hated most of all the one that forbade their preaching of the arts and sciences. This was in reality a belated attempt to exclude Christians from the building up of civilization, to separate ancient culture from Christian influence. In the eyes of the Cappadocian Fathers this was the main question. St. Gregory the Theologian lingered on it for a long time in his sermons against Julian. St. Basil the Great considered it necessary to write an address ‘to young people about how they could draw benefit from Hellenistic literature’. Two centuries later, Justinian excluded all non-Christians from scholarly and educational activity and closed the pagan schools. There was no hostility to ‘Hellenism’ in this measure. Nor was it an interruption of tradition. The traditions were preserved, and even with love, but they were being drawn into a process of Christian reinterpretation. This is the essence of Byzantine culture. It was the acceptance of the postulates of culture and their re-evaluation. The majestic church of the Holy Wisdom, the pre-eternal Word, the great church of the Constantinopolitan Sophia, remains forever a living symbol of this cultural achievement.” 

     There is no obvious correlation between culture and sanctity. Most of the early Christians and martyrs were uneducated slaves, and there was very little specifically Christian art before the fourth century. Nevertheless, it is clear that the great culture of Byzantium was necessary for the survival of Christianity down the ages. In this sense Christian culture was necessary in the same way that Christian statehood was: as a bulwark defending the Church from the outside. We see this most clearly in theology: the theological achievements of the Ecumenical Councils, and the refutation of the heresies that arose at that time, would have been unthinkable outside the sophisticated philosophical language and culture that the Greeks inherited from Plato and Aristotle. But nobody suggested that mastery of Byzantine art and philosophy was necessary to salvation. In a general way, we can see that a decline in piety is accompanied by a decline in culture. This is particularly clear in Western culture, which declines sharply from the Carolingian period in the late eighth century. However, this is by no means a universal rule: some of the greatest products of Byzantine culture were produced in what Sir Steven Runciman called The Last Byzantine Renaissance - the period from 1261 to 1453 that was in general (and in spite of the hesychast saints) a period of religious decline.


     Russia inherited the fullness of Byzantine culture, and until the eighteenth century essentially all Russian culture was religious and Orthodox Christian. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, a specifically secular culture arose, a Russian adaptation of contemporary western heterodox culture; Peter the Great consciously tried to reconstruct the whole of Russian culture on western – Catholic and Protestant – models. This transformation was symbolized especially by the building, at great cost in human lives, of a new capital at St. Petersburg. Situated at the extreme western end of the vast empire as Peter's “window to the West”, this extraordinary city was largely built by Italian architects on the model of Venice and Amsterdam, peopled by shaven and pomaded courtiers who spoke more French than Russian, and ruled by monarchs of mainly German origin. In building St. Petersburg, Peter was also trying to replace the traditional idea of Russia as the Third Rome by the western idea of the secular empire on the model of the First Rome, the Rome of the pagan Caesars and Augusti. 

     As Wil van den Bercken writes: “Rome remains an ideological point of reference in the notion of the Russian state. However, it is no longer the second Rome but the first Rome to which reference is made, or ancient Rome takes the place of Orthodox Constantinople. Peter takes over Latin symbols: he replaces the title tsar by the Latin imperator, designates his state imperia, calls his advisory council senate, and makes the Latin Rossija the official name of his land in place of the Slavic Rus’…

     “Although the primary orientation is on imperial Rome, there are also all kinds of references to the Christian Rome. The name of the city, St. Petersburg, was not just chosen because Peter was the patron saint of the tsar, but also to associate the apostle Peter with the new Russian capital. That was both a diminution of the religious significance of Moscow and a religious claim over papal Rome. The adoption of the religious significance of Rome is also evident from the cult of the second apostle of Rome, Paul, which is expressed in the name for the cathedral of the new capital, the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral. This name was a break with the pious Russian tradition, which does not regard the two Roman apostles but Andrew as the patron of Russian Christianity. Thus St. Petersburg is meant to be the new Rome, directly following on the old Rome, and passing over the second and third Romes…” 

     And yet the ideal of Russia as precisely the Third Rome was preserved; for “neither the people nor the Church renounced the very ideal of the Orthodox kingdom, and, as even V. Klyuchevsky noted, continued to consider as law that which corresponded to this ideal, and not Peter’s decrees.”  

     Throughout the nineteenth century a kind of “cultural war” took place as the two founding elements of post-Petrine Russian culture – Orthodoxy, on the one hand, and westernism, on the other – struggled for predominance. In some writers – Gogol, Tiutchev, Dostoyevsky – we see a Christian content shining through the western forms. In most others (the late Tolstoy especially), we see brilliant form allied to sometimes openly anti-Christian content (his novel Resurrection). We see the same in music, in the contrast between the Christian operas of Glinka (A Life for the Tsar) and Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina), on the one hand, and the lushly western operas (even if they were based on texts by Pushkin) of Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades), on the other. In one and the same composer, moreover, we see different spirits in different works – in, for example, Rachimaninov’s Vespers, on the one hand, and Isle of the Dead, on the other.

     The last years before the Great War were a period of revolutionary change throughout Europe, not only in political ideas, but also in art, science and philosophy. In Russia, this revolutionary spirit took particular cultural forms, often religious and esoteric. On Mount Athos, Russian monks tried to identify the Divinity with the created name of Jesus – this was the so-called name-worshipping heresy. This heresy had a kind of cultural reflection inside Russia, as the decadent artists of the Symbolist movement tried to capture the Divinity in artistic symbols. For them, symbolism took the place of religion; it was a new kind of religion, the religion of symbol-worshipping. “In the Symbolist aesthetic,” as J.W. Burrow writes, “the intense focusing on the thing taken as a symbol, the perception of its numinous aura, gave access to another, as it were, parallel, invisible world of light and ecstasy.”  

     This “parallel, invisible world of light and ecstasy” was demonic. Thus the Symbolist painter Michael Vrubel achieved fame with a large mosaic-like canvas called “Seated Demon” (1890), and went mad while working on the dynamic and sinister “Demon Downcast” (1902)…  Symbolist ideas are most vividly expressed in the music and thought of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who in his First Symphony praised art as a kind of religion. Le Divin Poem (1902-1904) sought to express the evolution of the human spirit from pantheism to unity with the universe. Poème de l'extase (1908) was accompanied by the elaborately selected colour projections on a screen. In Scriabin's synthetic performances music, poetry, dancing, colours, and scents were used so as to bring about supreme, final ecstasy. In 1909, after a spell in Paris with Diaghilev, Scriabin returned to Russia permanently, where he continued to compose, working on increasingly grandiose projects. For some time before his death he had planned a multi-media work to be performed in the Himalayas, that would bring about Armageddon, "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world."  

     Similar ideas to Scriabin’s on the stage fusion of all arts were elaborated by the poet Andrej Bely and the painter Vassily Kandinsky.  

     Another of Diaghilev’s composer-protégés, Sergei Prokofiev, was also influenced by Symbolism - and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. Among the propositions of his theory of creative action were the pagan assertions: “1. I am the expression of Life, i.e. of divine activity. 2. I am the expression of spirit, which gives me power to resist what is unlike spirit… 9. I am the expression of perfection, and this leads me to the perfect use of my time…” 

     These strivings for mangodhood – in defiance of the only God-Man - among Russia’s creative intelligentsia were associated by them with a revolutionary future that rejected the past more or less totally. Hence the brief fashion for the European movement of Futurism with its radical rejection of the past and all past and present ideas of what is beautiful and tasteful  - and its glorification of war. “War,” said the Italian Futurist and future fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “is the sole hygiene of the world.”  

     The futurist obsession with the imagery of restless, continual movement was akin to Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution - early Soviet culture was similarly obsessed with machine imagery. As Nicholas Berdiaev wrote: “Just as pious mystics once strove to make themselves into an image of God, and finally to become absorbed in Him, so now the modern ecstatics of rationalism labour to become like the machine and finally to be absorbed into bliss in a structure of driving belts, pistons, valves and fly-wheels…”  

     Fr. George Florovsky described this aesthetic-revolutionary experience as utopian and a kind of “cosmic possession”: “The feelings of unqualified dependence, of complete determination from without and full immersion and inclusion into the universal order define utopianism’s estimate of itself and the world. Man feels himself to be an ‘organic pin’, a link in some all-embracing chain – he feels unambiguously, irretrievably forged into one whole with the cosmos… From an actor and creator, consciously willing and choosing, and for that reason bearing the risk of responsibility for his self-definition, man is turned into a thing, into a needle, by which someone sews something. In the organic all-unity there is no place for action – here only movement is possible.”  

     However, the pagan essence of this Russian “silver age” is most evident in perhaps the most shocking of all the works of Russian art in the period: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring.   As Oliver Figes writes, “the idea of the ballet was originally conceived by the painter Nikolai Roerich… a painter of the prehistoric Slavs and an accomplished archaeologist in his own right. He was absorbed in the rituals of neolithic Russia, which he idealized as a pantheistic realm of spiritual beauty where life and art were one, and man and nature lived in harmony. Stravinsky approach Roerich for a theme and he came to visit him at the artists’ colony of Talashkino, where the two men worked together on the scenario of ‘The Great Sacrifice’, as The Rite of Spring was originally called. The ballet was conceived as a re-creation of the ancient pagan rite of human sacrifice. It was meant to be that rite – not to tell the story of the ritual but (short of actual murder) to re-create that ritual on the stage and thus communicate in the most immediate way the ecstasy and terror of the human sacrifice…

     “Artistically, the ballet strived for ethnographic authenticity. Roerich’s costumes were drawn from peasant clothes in Tenisheva’s collection at Talashkino. His primitivist sets were based on archaeology. Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography – the real scandal of the ballet’s infamous Paris première at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 29 May 1913. For the music was barely heard at all in the commotion, the shouting and the fighting, which broke out in the auditorium when the curtain first went up. Nijinsky had choreographed movements which were ugly and angular. Everything about the dancers’ movements emphasized their weight instead of their lightness, as demanded by the principles of classical ballet. Rejecting all the basic positions, the ritual dancers had their feet turned inwards, elbows clutched to the sides of their body and their palms held flat, like the wooden dolls that were so prominent in Roerich’s mythic paintings of Scythian Russia. They were orchestrated, not by steps and notes, as in conventional ballets, but rather moved as one collective mass to the violent off-beat rhythms of the orchestra. The dancers pounded their feet on the stage, building up a static energy which finally exploded, with electrifying force, in the sacrifical dance. This rhythmic violence was the vital innovation of Stravinsky’s score. Like most of the ballet’s themes, it was taken from the music of the peasantry. There was nothing like these rhythms in Western art music (Stravinsky said that he did not really known how to notate or bar them) – a convulsive pounding of irregular downbeats, requiring constant changes in the metric signature with almost every bar so that the conductor of the orchestra must throw himself about and wave his arms in jerky motions, as if performing a shamanic dance. In these explosive rhythms it is possible to hear the terrifying beat of the Great War and the Revolution of 1917…” 


     When the revolution eventually came, it incarnated all the violent, demonic essence of Russian culture in its last pre-war years. Bolshevik Russia was an explicitly atheist society – the first in history - that killed and tortured believers – tens of millions of them, - and destroyed churches, books and cultural monuments of all kinds in a “cultural revolution” that exceeded in its ferocity even its imitations in Nazi Germany and Maoist China. Writers, philosophers and artists that showed the slightest resistance to, or criticism of, the prevailing barbarism were either imprisoned or exiled – to the great benefit of the West that received them, but to the great impoverishment of people that remained in the “Homeland”. New generations were educated to despise everything Christian and to adhere to a new “revolutionary morality” which was probably the most vicious and anti-Christian in the history of mankind. All Christians and “cultural workers” that remained in freedom were allowed to do so only at the price of paying lip-service to the new barbarism – and shamefully denouncing the very few true artists – or simply, decent people - in public life. In such a society only heroes who were prepared to give up everything for the truth could survive spiritually – but almost certainly not physically. If you did not join in the violence and lawlessness, you became desensitized and indifferent to it – which is already a kind of moral death. 

     For for the Bolsheviks, anyone who was not with them was against them.     As the philosopher Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin wrote: “It was necessary to help, serve, be useful, carry out all demands, even the most disgusting, dishonourable, humiliating and treacherous. One had either to go to one’s death as a hero-confessor, or become a evil-doer ready for anything: denounce one’s father and mother, destroy whole nests of innocent people, betray friends, openly demand the death penalty for honourable and courageous patriots (as did, for example, the artist Kachalov on the radio), carry out provocative acts, simulate views that one did not have and which one despised, propagandize atheism, teach the most idiotic theories from the lecture-stand, believe in intentional, shameless lies, and flatter unceasingly, shamelessly flatter small ‘dictators’ and big tyrants… 

     “In a word, the choice was and has remained to the present day simple and unambiguous: heroism and a martyric death, or enslavement and complicity.” 

     Party members especially were not allowed to have a private life separate from their political life in which culture or religion could flourish. Thus Igor Shafarevich writes: “The German publicist V. Schlamm tells the story of how in 1919, at the age of 15, he was a fellow-traveller of the communists, but did not penetrate into the narrow circle of their functionaries. The reason was explained to him twenty years later by one of them, who by that time had broken with communism. It turns out that Schlamm, when invited to join the party, had said: ‘I am ready to give to the party everything except two evenings a week, when I listen to Mozart.’ That reply turned out to be fatal: a man having interests that he did not want to submit to the party was not suitable for it…” 

     So much for culture… Admittedly, permission for a minimal private life and the enjoyment of Mozart did creep back in later decades. Nor was culture as such ever banned: on the contrary, the authorities were very concerned to project an image of culturedness as if to compensate for their obvious barbarism. 

     Moreover, they had a great example in the Great Leader of the Peoples himself. Stalin wrote poetry, went very frequently to the theatre and concerts, and in general took a strong interest in culture. According to Richard Overy, “in the 1930s his library counted 40,000 volumes. He wrote extensively both before 1917 and in the 1920s, works and speeches that ran to thirteen volumes when they were published.” 

     At the same time, this champion of culture was determined to destroy all real culture. “The instrument of his will,” writes Martin Gilbert, “was A.A. Zhdanov, his lieutenant on the ideological front, who called a special conference of writers, artists and composers – including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian – to warn them of the folly of independent thought, in music as much as in writing and art. The Soviet Writers’ Union met with Stalin’s particular anger for what he saw as repeated attempts at independent expression of opinion. The poet Anna Akhmatova was among those expelled from the Union in 1946. Such expulsion meant an end to the right to publish – a writer’s means of livelihood.” 

     In 1948, “on February 10 the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a decree on music, accusing Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian of ‘losing touch with the masses’ and of falling victims to ‘decadent bourgeois influences’. The three made an immediate confession of their ‘errors’ and promised to mend their ways – and amend their music – in future. Newspapers also fell under the displeasure of the most rigorous ideological scrutiny. The satirical magazine Krokodil was censured by the Central Committee for its ‘lack of militancy’ in portraying the evil ways of capitalism. The Academy of Social Sciences, which had been established after the war, was reorganized to provide a more rigorous ideological training for Party and State officials.

     “With Stalin’s personal sanction, a ferocious newspaper campaign was launched against two declared enemies of Soviet Communism, ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and the ‘survival of religious prejudice’. Some indication of how deeply religious feeling must have survived after thirty-one years of Communist rule was seen in the calls in Pravda for a more vigorous anti-religious propaganda…” 

     “Several Soviet writers,” writes Gilbert, “were singled out during 1957 for failing to fill their works with an understanding of ‘Socialist realism’. Negative features of Soviet life could be criticized, but only from the point of view of partiynost – Party-mindedness. This involved making clear that all the defects described by the author were being ‘successfully overcome’ by the Party. Particular criticism was leveled at V. Dudintsev, whose novel Not by Bread Alone [a direct quotation from the Gospel] gave what the Party managers called the ‘false impression’ that the individual Soviet citizen was virtually powerless against the obstruction of Soviet bureaucracy. Dudintsev’s error was considered especially grave as his novel had been translated into English…” 

     Nevertheless, after Khruschev’s secret speech against Stalinism in 1956, some green shoots began to emerge “from under the rubble” (Solzhenitsyn’s phrase) in the Soviet wasteland. Dudintsev’s novel was an example of that; another was Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and soon after that – Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. However, these could hardly be called “Soviet” culture; the prevailing, truly Soviet culture remained overwhelmingly unchristian and anti-Christian; and the “Socialist Realism” of the great mass of books, films and art works was truly awful 

     The only real culture most people were allowed to enjoy were massive print-runs of “safe” nineteenth-century authors such as Pushkin and Tolstoy. But truly Christian writers such as Dostoyevsky remained banned until late into the Soviet period… And if, in the 1960s, there were good Soviet film adaptations of Russian or foreign classics such as Kozintsev’s Hamlet, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (the only Soviet film ever to win an Oscar) and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (a daring and rare working of a specifically Christian theme), these were made in spite of and in reaction to the prevailing Soviet anti-culture rather than being typical examples of it. 

     For you cannot deprive an educated people of real culture forever. And so the authorities began cautiously to allow a very limited access to the cultural treasures of the West. Thus in 1957 the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould came to the Soviet Union and entranced concert-goers with his extraordinary performances of Bach – a composer who, though not banned, had still been frowned on somewhat because of his association with Christian choral music.

     A subtle change in Soviet cultural policy began to take place. Communist ideological purity became less important: the need to feel culturally superior to the Great Satan of the West became more important. But that meant a minimal contact with the West so that the best of Soviet culture could be displayed and comparisons made. So Shostakovich was no longer required to humbly ask forgiveness for supposedly bad work, and outstanding performers such as Oistrakh, Gilels, Richter and Rostropovich were allowed to travel to the West – under strict supervision, of course. 


     However, this policy had its dangers for the Soviet masters of culture. What if the comparison that could now be made between Soviet and western culture did not turn out in favour of Soviet culture? What if the stars of Soviet culture, in western eyes, turned out to be very un-Soviet or even anti-Soviet, such as Solzhenitsyn? What, even worse, if the stars of Soviet culture chose to defect to the West in order to develop their talent in the more favourable conditions pertaining there – as did the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev? What if some of the stars of western culture actually began to contaminate Soviet culture with their novelty – as did the music of the Beatles?

     Since flexibility had never been a virtue of Soviet bureaucrats, the only possible response to such threats was repression. But this had its own dangers. Thus when Pasternak was not allowed to receive his Nobel Prize for literature, it only increased the fame of his novel. Again, when Rostropovich wrote to the Culture Minister Furtseva on behalf of his persecuted friend Solzhenitsyn, and was banished to his own kind of Gulag – obscurity in the provinces and work with second-rate orchestras, it became obvious that for such a highly sensitive artist this could result only in one of three possible outcomes: complete waste of his talent, suicide or exile. Fortunately for Rostropovich and the western musical world, he was exiled to the West… 

     As Soviet power weakened in the 70s and 80s, and censorship was relaxed, Soviet culture became more “normal”, less boorish, more genuinely artistic, while Christian themes appeared more often – without irony now. But these could hardly be called achievements of specifically Soviet culture, but rather the gradual and partial return of Russianness to Soviet life. The same, a fortiori, must be said about the revival, from approximately the commemoration of the Baptism of Rus’ in 1988, of the specifically ecclesiastical arts – church architecture, iconography and music.

     A constant feature of the Soviet cultural scene were performances of “Swan Lake”. Stalin had seen the ballet thirty times – the last time on the eve of his death. It was the work that the Bolshoj Ballet chose to bring to London as the proudest achievement of Soviet culture. But, of course, it was an achievement of nineteenth-century Russian bourgeois culture… As the Soviet Union was falling towards the end of 1991, the Soviet media played “Swan Lake” continuously – as if to plead before the world that the black hole that had been the Soviet Union had not been so black after all… Unfortunately, many believed them, including the present “patriarch of Moscow and all Russia”…


     So let us now return to the thesis of the patriarch: that even the communist authorities of the Soviet Union did not dare ‘to blow up the moral basis of the life of society’, which, in his words, as a whole remained Christian… 

     Oliver Figes writes: “The Bolsheviks envisaged the building of their Communist utopia as a constant battle against custom and habit. With the end of the Civil War they prepared for a new and longer struggle on the ‘internal front’, a revolutionary war for the liberation of the communistic personality through the eradication of individualistic (‘bourgeois’) behaviour and deviant habits (prostitution, alcoholism, hooliganism and religion) inherited from the old society. There was little dispute among the Bolsheviks that this battle to transform human nature would take decades. There was only disagreement about when the battle should begin. Marx had taught that the alteration of consciousness was dependent on changes to the material base, and Lenin, when he introduced the NEP, affirmed that until the material conditions of a Communist society had been created – a process that would take an entire historical epoch – there was no point trying to engineer a Communist system of morality in private life. But most Bolsheviks did not accept that the NEP required a retreat from the private sphere. On the contrary, as they were increasingly inclined to think, active engagement was essential at every moment and in every battlefield of everyday life – in the family, the home and the inner world of the individual, where the persistence of old mentalities was a major threat to the Party’s basic ideological goals. And as they watched the individualistic instincts of the ‘petty-bourgeois’ masses become stronger in the culture of the NEP, they redoubled their efforts. As Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote in 1927: ‘The so-called sphere of private life cannot slip away from us, because it is precisely here that the final goal of the Revolution is to be reached.’

     “The family was the first arena in which the Bolsheviks engaged the struggle. In the 1920s, they took it as an article of faith that the ‘bourgeois family’ was socially harmful: it was inward-looking and conservative, a stronghold of religion, superstition, ignorance and prejudice; it fostered egotism and material acquisitiveness, and oppressed women and children. The Bolsheviks expected that the family would disappear as Soviet Russia developed into a fully socialist system, in which the state took responsibility for all the basic household functions, providing nurseries, laundries and canteens in public centres and apartment blocks. Liberated from labour in the home, women would be free to enter the workforce on an equal footing with men. The patriarchal marriage, with its attendant sexual morals, would die out – to be replaced, the radicals believed, by ‘free unions of love’.

     “As the Bolsheviks saw it, the family was the biggest obstacle to the socialization of children. ‘By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe,’ wrote the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina. Bolshevik theorists agreed on the need to replace this ‘egotistic love’ with the ‘rational love’ of a broader ‘social family’. The ABC of Communism (1919) envisaged a future society in which parents would no longer use the word ‘my’ to refer to their children, but would care for all the children in their community. Among the Bolsheviks there were different views about how long this change would take. Radicals argued that the Party should take direct action to undermine the family immediately, but most accepted the arguments of Bukharin and NEP theorists that in a peasant country such as Soviet Russia the family would remain for some time the primary unity of production and consumption and that it would weaken gradually as the country made the transition to an urban socialist society.

     “Meanwhile the Bolsheviks adopted various strategies – such as the transformation of domestic space – intended to accelerate the disintegration of the family. To tackle the housing shortages in the overcrowded cities the Bolsheviks compelled wealthy families to share their apartments with the urban poor – a policy known as ‘condensation’ (uplotnenie). During the 1920s the most common type of communal apartment (kommunalka) was one in which the original owners occupied the main rooms on the ‘parade side’ while the back rooms were filled by other families. At that time it was still possible for the former owners to select their co-inhabitants, provided they fulfilled the ‘sanitary norm’ (a per capita allowance of living space which fell from 13.5 square metres in 1926 to just 9 square metres in 1931). Many families brought in servants or acquaintances to prevent strangers being moved in to fill up the surplus living space. The policy had a strong ideological appeal, not just as a war on privilege, which is how it was presented in the propaganda of the new regime (‘War against the Palaces!’), but also as part of a crusade to engineer a more collective way of life. By forcing people to share communal apartments, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour. Private space and property would disappear, the individual (‘bourgeois’) family would be replaced by communistic fraternity and organization, and the life of the individual would become immersed in the community. From the middle of the 1920s, new types of housing were designed with this transformation in mind. The most radical Soviet architects, like the Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary Architects, proposed the complete obliteration of the private sphere by building ‘commune houses’ (doma kommuny) where all the property, including even clothes and underwear, would be shared by the inhabitants, where domestic tasks like cooking and childcare would be assigned to teams on a rotating basis, and where everybody would sleep in one big dormitory, divided by gender, with private rooms for sexual liaisons. Few houses of this sort were ever built, although they loomed large in the utopian imagination and futuristic novels such as Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (1920). Most of the projects which did materialize, like the Narkomfin (Ministry of Finance) house in Moscow (1930) designed by the Constructivist Moisei Ginzburg, tended to stop short of the full communal form and included both private living spaces and communalized blocks for laundries, baths, dining rooms and kitchens, nurseries and schools. Yet the goal remained to marshal architecture in a way that would induce the individual to move away from private (‘bourgeois’) forms of domesticity to a more collective way of life. 

     “The Bolsheviks also intervened more directly in domestic life. The new Code on Marriage and the Family (1918) established a legislative framework that clearly aimed to facilitate the breakdown of the traditional family. It removed the influence of the Church from marriage and divorce, making both a process of simple registration with the state. It granted the same legal rights to de facto marriages (couples living together) as it gave to legal marriages. The Code turned divorce from a luxury for the rich to something that was easy and affordable for all. The result was a huge increase in casual marriages and the highest rate of divorce in the world – three times higher than in France or Germany and twenty-six times higher than in England by 1926 – as the collapse of the Christian-patriarchal order and the chaos of the revolutionary years loosened sexual morals along with family and communal ties.” 

     In 1920 the Bolsheviks abortions were made freely available at the mother’s request. For “in Soviet Russia,” writes Richard Pipes, “as in the rest of Europe, World War I led to a loosening of sexual mores, which here was justified on moral grounds. The apostle of free love in Soviet Russia was Alexandra Kollontai, the most prominent woman Bolshevik. Whether she practiced what she preached or preached what she practiced, is not for the historian to determine; but the evidence suggests that she had an uncontrollable sex drive coupled with an inability to form enduring relationships. Born the daughter of a wealthy general, terribly spoiled in childhood, she reacted to the love lavished on her with rebellion. In 1906 she joined the Mensheviks, then, in 1915, switched to Lenin, whose antiwar stand she admired. Subsequently, she performed for him valuable services as agent and courier.

     “In her writings, Kollontai argued that the modern family had lost its traditional economic function, which meant that women should be set free to choose their partners. In 1919 she published The New Morality and the Working Class, a work based on the writings of the German feminist Grete Meisel-Hess. In it she maintained that women had to be emancipated not only economically but also psychologically. The ideal of ‘grand amour’ was very difficult to realize, especially for men, because it clashed with their worldly ambitions. To be capable of it, individuals had to undergo an apprenticeship in the form of ‘love games’ or ‘erotic friendships’, which taught them to engage in sexual relations free of both emotional attachment and personal domination. Casual sex alone conditioned women to safeguard their individuality in a society dominated by men. Every form of sexual relationship was acceptable: Kollontai advocated what she called ‘successive polygamy’. In the capacity of Commissar of Guardianship (Prizrenia) she promoted communal kitchens as a way of ‘separating the kitchen from marriage’. She, too, wanted the care of children to be assumed by the community. She predicted that in time the family would disappear, and women should learn to treat all children as their own. She popularized her theories in a novel, Free Love: The Love of Worker Bees (Svobodnaia liubov’: liubov’ pchel trudovykh) (1924), one part of which was called, ‘The Love of Three Generations’. Its heroine preached divorcing sex from morality as well as from politics. Generous with her body, she said she loved everybody, from Lenin down, and gave herself to any man who happened to attract her.

     “Although often regarded as the authoritarian theoretician of Communist sex morals, Kollontai was very much the exception who scandalized her colleagues. Lenin regarded ‘free love’ as a ‘bourgeois’ idea – by which he meant not so much extramarital affairs (with which he himself had had experience) as casual sex…

     “Studies of the sexual mores of Soviet youth conducted in the 1920s revealed considerable discrepancy between what young people said they believed and what they actually practiced: unusually, in this instance behaviour was less promiscuous than theory. Russia’s young people stated they considered love and marriage ‘bourgeois’ relics and thought Communists should enjoy a sexual life unhampered by any inhibitions: the less affection and commitment entered into male-female relations, the more ‘communist’ they were. According to opinion surveys, students looked on marriage as confining and, for women, degrading: the largest number of respondents – 50.8 percent of the women and 67.3 of the women – expressed a preference for long-term relationships based on mutual affection but without the formality of marriage.

     “Deeper probing of their attitudes, however, revealed that behind the façade of defiance of tradition, old attitudes survived intact. Relations based on love were the ideal of 82.6 percent of the men and 90.5 percent of the women: ‘This is what they secretly long for and dream about,’ according to the author of the survey. Few approved of the kind of casual sex advocated by Kollontai and widely associated with early Communism: a mere 13.3 percent of the men and 10.6 of the women. Strong emotional and moral factors continued to inhibit casual sex: one Soviet survey revealed that over half of the female student respondents were virgins…” 

     In this continuing conservatism of Soviet youth in the early period we see the continuing influence of the Orthodox Church, into which most Russians had been baptized. The Church resisted all the Soviet innovations, including civil marriage, abortion and divorce on demand. And soon the State, too, reversed its teaching in some respects, outlawing abortion in 1936 and condemning free love. But this was not the result of some kind of revival of religion and morality. It was necessitated by the simple fact, emphasized by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow in the nineteenth century, that the State is founded on the family, and the destruction of the family finally leads to the destruction of the State…

     In any case, this slight tightening of sexual morality did not last. After the war, and especially after Stalin’s death, abortion numbers rocketed – and have not significantly declined in the present neo-Soviet period.  So the patriarch’s blithe assertion that in the Soviet period “the morals of the people remained Christian” is plainly the opposite of the truth. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” said the Lord…


     To conclude, there is no evidence that that the general level of public morality in the Soviet period was anything but very low; an atheist culture produced, as was only to be expected, an atheist and “revolutionary morality”. The first two decades of Soviet power were a glorious period of Christian martyrdom fully comparable with the earliest centuries of Christianity – but in the context of a brutal, anti-Christian culture, still more hostile to all true culture than the pagan culture of the times of Nero, Decius and Diocletian. The post-war period continued to manifest heroes of the faith in the camps and in the Catacomb (True Orthodox) Church; but in the general population drunkenness, sexual immorality, abortion, lying, conformism and denunciation of one’s neighbour were commonplace. Everything that was best in the Soviet period was produced in conscious resistance to and defiance of the prevailing faith, culture and morality; in this, and this alone, did the salvation of a tiny minority of the Russian people take place. The specifically Soviet – as opposed to the remnants of pre-revolutionary Russian - culture was penetrated, not by Christian ideas, but by satanic passions that waged war on everything Christian – passions that have now been unleashed again in the neo-Soviet regime of Vladimir Putin and Cyril Gundiaev…


May 25 / June 7, 2016.

Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist.


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