Russia’s “Wilderness Experience” – Creating New Gods (Part IV)

Russia is struggling. Its people are battling through a series of crises unparalleled in modern history. Russian commentators, both secular and religious, have frequently compared their country’s experience to that of the Israelites in their escape from Egyptian slavery, and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they reached the “Promised Land.” This series of “Reflections” will develop that theme in a search for a deepened understanding of the enormous challenges that the Russian people face.

Tearing Down the Monuments

The vivid pictures of the destruction of the Berlin Wall by masses of Germans, both young and old, will remain with many of us as a symbol of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The removal of Felix Dershinsky’s statue from the pedestal in the front of the KGB building in Moscow is another one of those unforgettable images. As it was dislodged from its base and hung precariously from the crane, it reminded all who watched of the fragility of power and the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism. As a number of commentators noted, following the removal of the monument dedicated to the first leader of the Communist Party’s security forces, what new statue, what new monument, will fill this pedestal? Or will this pedestal remain empty as if it commemorates some “unknown God,” like in ancient Athens?

The current debate over whether or not to remove Lenin’s body and mausoleum from Red Square is another part of this ongoing struggle. The Communist regime clearly recognized the need to create new symbols and rituals for the Russian people to replace the important role which religion placed in Russian society. Their vicious campaign against religion was not conducted in the belief that all forms of religion needed to be eliminated, but rather by simultaneously creating new symbols and rituals which in essence formed a new sustitute religion. The cult of Lenin was created to be an essential part of the new faith of the Russian people. Now that this substitute faith has proven to be a complete failure, one important question for the future is this: what will replace it?

Building New Monuments

When the Israelites fled the bondage of Egypt and were struggling in the hot desert of the Sinai Peninsula, it is striking how quickly they felt the need to build new monuments, new objects to worship, to console them in their distress and in their new unfamiliar surroundings. Like Russia, they were in a “time of troubles.” They had fled a place where they had experienced great pain and suffering and were now on a path to some unknown future, to some unknown place.

According to the Book of Exodus, while Moses was absent, the people demanded that a monument be built representing the gods that had brought them out of Egypt. They voluntarily gave gold to Moses’ deputy, Aaron, and he constructed a molded calf. This new object of worship was a familiar deity in the ancient world, and was probably fashioned after Apis, the Egyptian fertility bull-god. Despite the pain and suffering of centuries of slavery in Egypt, the liberated Israelites quickly created an object of worship taken from the society of their former oppressors.

Now that the substitute faith of Marxism-Leninism has proven to be false, Russians will also be searching for a new belief system, a new way of making sense out of their world. Destroying the symbols of old, false gods is the easy part. The tough challenge is what will replace them. In a “time of troubles,” what do you have to hold on to?

Some Russians have decided to resurrect the old monuments from the past. They are at least familiar. Never mind that they are the symbols of their past oppression. For others, there was a brief flirtation with Christianity and other religions, now that religious freedom was legalized first in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s leadership and then in the Russian Federation. This religious revival of the late 1980s and early 1990s seems to have waned

An Uncertain Future

One major challenge facing Russian society concerns the role of the state and whether or not the state will create religious freedom, which allows freedom of conscience for all of its citizens, or whether it will create a state-controlled religion which will serve the needs of those in power. State-controlled religions usually create monuments for worship which enhance the status quo and protect the interests of the ruling elites. Sometimes these monuments are even modeled after the gods of former oppressors.

Russians, like the ancient Israelites, have to face this temptation. Humans were created as spiritual beings, they will worship something or someone. This is the case in every culture, ancient or modern. Therefore the critical issue is this: will freedom of conscience be recognized and secured in law, thereby forming as one of the bases for a democratic society, or will the Russian state once again attempt to control this aspect of society by forming a state-controlled church which, in turn, creates its own monuments of worship that serve the interests of the state.

Rebuilding a nation is an extraordinarily difficult task and it is made even more arduous when a nation has just come through decades of repressive rule by Communist regimes. Forming political structures, creating political parties, developing free markets, codifying laws – these are all necessary tasks that face the leaders of post-Communist governments. But so is the essential job of giving people freedom of conscience and resisting the temptation to create false monuments designed to serve the interests of those in power.