The Problem of Russian Statehood: Derzhavnost and Symphonia


The opening premise of this article is that the Russian community, in its form of self-consciousness qua community, in inescapably a religious community. The point that 38% of Russians today identify as either atheist or “not religious” is entirely immaterial – whether they like it or not, their group-consciousness was still born out of Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodoxy remains central to its internal logic. Without Orthodoxy, Russia as a civilizational continuum just doesn’t make any sense.

Not that Russia lacks religious pluralism – her Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist narody feel at home for the most part, safe in the knowledge that their contributions to the country’s social, cultural and spiritual life are valued. Since the expansion of Muscovy during the 16th century to form the modern Russian state, Russia has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-confessional polis – since early-modern times, Russia has always been cosmopolitan by definition, but its cosmopolitanism has always been an overtly religious cosmopolitanism. Furthermore, we can say that cosmopolitanism as a civic value in Russia has traditionally been strengthened by the overt religiosity of its kaleidoscope of peoples – whether they were Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist – the mutual guarantee of religious freedom for all of Russia’s narody, and of cultural freedom within their own homelands, was the only basis on which the Tsar could collect his “dan” (“tribute”) and to prevent the realm from fragmenting.

If we were cynical, then we might make the historical observation that the Tsar’s pluralistic religious policy and his taxation-policy were interdependent, but this would not change the point that Russia gradually developed a tradition of civic cosmopolitanism, grounded not only in the mutual guarantee of religious and cultural freedom, but also in a shared commitment to spiritual and collectivist values which transcended religious divisions between her myriad narody. Out of this shared commitment to spiritual values and religious freedom, Russian “derzhavnost” (“державность”, “patriotic statism”) was gradually formed.

However, it is simply impossible to avoid this point – Orthodox Christianity remains the linchpin.

Despite the fact that I personally am not religious, the more I think about it, the more I can see the merit in arguments that all of the religious faiths traditional to Russia’s various narody – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – should be recognized by the Russian constitution as foundational to the country’s national and cultural life, and to her civic traditions. The purpose of such a constitutional clause would not be to discriminate against the irreligious, and there is no reason to believe that any such discrimination would result. Such a constitutional clause would simply recognize a historical point that few if any would doubt – that Russia’s defining civic values grew out of the symphony of her unique mix of religious traditions.
Yes, as strange as it may sound coming from an essentially faithless person such as myself, I can nonetheless absolutely see the sense in historically grounded arguments that Russia should be reconstituted as a “pluralistic theocracy.”
I know – that’s my German historicism coming out, my belief in the primary importance of the “Lebenswelt.”
In Russia, “die sittliche Substanz” (“the ethical substance”) is not grounded in abstract conceptions of social duty
– it is historically constituted through interpersonal yet anonymous connections grounded in shared religious feeling.
However, thankfully, these connections extend beyond one’s own co-religionists.

What implications does this have for contemporary Russian patriotism or “derzhavnost?”

In order to answer that question, we need to examine the Orthodox Christian doctrine of “symphonia,” which dates back to Byzantine times. In this doctrine, neither the church nor the state have primacy – each has its proper area of competence – neither dominates nor governs the other. The church and the state are seen to compliment each other. In Russia under Ivan the Terrible, this Byzantine doctrine was re-asserted within the “Stoglav” (literally “Book of One Hundred Chapters”) of the Russian Orthodox Church Council of 1551. Furthermore, the doctrine of “symphonia” was re-emphasized by the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kiril, upon assuming his office in 2009.
Within this conception, what is the role of the church?
The role of the Church is to direct and foster the spiritual life of the community.
And what precisely is the role of the state?
The state presides over temporal matters – it enforces the criminal and civil law.

However, this explanation of the state’s role doesn’t seem to go quite far enough, does it?
A person could easily ask, but for what purpose precisely does the state administer temporal matters, or enforce either the criminal or civil law?
If the state’s role is to use the law to maintain social order and defend “civil society,” then the question arises, what exactly are the purpose of social order and “civil society?”
Most Russians would find it highly unsatisfactory if we suggested that these things should be maintained simply for their own sake – most Russians would interpret that as nihilistic – they would insist that social order and civil society had to serve some higher purpose.
As the doctrine of “symphonia” is an overtly religious doctrine, we can extrapolate its unspoken premise
– the purpose of the state’s own existence is to safeguard the social conditions under which the spiritual consciousness of the community can develop and be lived out.
Therefore, even though the doctrine of “symphonia” states that neither the church nor the state should govern or dominate each other, the purpose of the state’s existence is still primarily to safeguard the social space within which the church can fulfill its mission. Whether we non-believers like it or not, the Russian state’s historical raison d’être is to serve as an incubator for religious consciousness.

This poses serious difficulties for any attempt to re-construct Russian patriotism along post-religious lines.
I recently put this point to one of my clients in Simferopol. I said “If I ask a Russian why Russia should exist, and if he is personally religious, then he can answer my question. He can say that Russia exists because certain political structures are required in order to safeguard the social space within which the nation’s spiritual consciousness can operate. But can a Russian answer that question if he is not personally a believer?”

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It just so happens that this particular client of mine is not personally a believer.
“Yes, a non-believer can also answer that question,” he said.
“Go on.”
He continued “A non-believer can answer that the Russian state exists to foster a collective historical consciousness. Also the Russian language itself, but more so the historical consciousness – Kutusov, Bagration, etc….”
“Okay,” I asked him, “So what were Kutusov and Bagration fighting for?”
He didn’t answer.
I find it difficult to circumvent this conclusion – in the absence of religion, Russian patriotism collapses into an infinite regress.

With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that the Russian state today continues to indirectly support the country’s ongoing process of “dukhovnye skrepy” (“духовные скрепы”, “spiritual strengthening”). The question arises as to what, in the absence of religiosity, might motivate Russians to be good citizens.
Communism is one alternative source of civic and ethical motivation – for the Russians who espouse it, it is equally as principled and edifying a faith as the country’s mainstream religious traditions.
So, that’s what’s on the menu – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or communism.
Don’t worry – they’re not mutually exclusive.

All the same, doesn’t an internal contradiction emerge from this beautiful economy of symbols?
The implication is that, as committed as Russians are to their patriotic statism, it is nonetheless a half-hearted statism. If the ultimate purpose of the state’s existence is to serve as an incubator for religious consciousness, then this implies that the state is not, in itself, spiritual. It implies that “the state” is merely a political instrument of the spiritual.
Therefore, the state’s laws are seen to be of secondary importance to the divine law.

For the sake of comparison, consider one of the central bases of Hegel’s insistence that the state, in itself, was spiritual:
The state’s essential activity is to make laws.
For a people to form a state, and thereby give themselves laws, is to identify what ultimately matters to them, to postulate something as universal, and thereby to reach for universality. This reaching for universality is in itself spiritual, insofar as it implies the self-universalization of a national consciousness – the laws are not merely instruments which protect spiritual life. The laws are, in themselves, manifestations of spiritual life. The political is inherently spiritual.
It hardly requires explanation that this model is far too culturally and intellectually post-Protestant to be applied to Russia.

This tension between “derzhavnost” and “symphonia” may help to explain why, aside from periods of dire national emergency, Russia has historically tended to suffer from a deficit in social discipline. Lawlessness and corruption are tolerated because Russians do not see their state as spiritual in itself, but rather merely as a social and political incubator of the spiritual. Seen from the perspective of statism, the doctrine of “symphonia” ultimately implodes, insofar as the mutually respectful partnership of church and state is seen to be illusory
– implicitly, both church and state serve essentially religious purposes.

At the same time, it must be admitted that this tendency toward social indiscipline is most noticeable in Russians who personally believe in nothing – not in the red flag or the red star, not in Orthodoxy, or in any of Russia’s other formative religious traditions. It is not the religious who primarily undermine Russian civil society, but the faithless. At the same time, this point still illustrates my main contention – the kernel of the problem lies within the doctrine of “symphonia” itself.
Without a system of belief which refers to something other than the state (religious, or communist, or both), Russian patriotism simply has no way to normatively ground itself, and to thereby provide a rational basis for good citizenship.

So I identify this as an internal contradiction within Russian “derzhavnost.”
And if Hegel and Marx taught us one thing, they taught us that internal contradictions don’t end well.

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