The Russians are a mighty people, and a proud people, and an intelligent people with an unparalleled intellectual and cultural history. I spend my half hour lunch break reading The Brothers Karamazov these days and I recognize Dostoevsky as a giant in a country that has produced uncountable literary giants including Leo Tolstoy, another of my personal favorites. I love the Russians, the few I've met and the few whose works I have read, and if I sound like I'm sucking up to the Russians to soften a stinging critique of the incomprehensible, peculiarly anachronistic behavior of this country's officially sanctioned institutions, well then you guessed right. Russia is a strangely bi-polar place, alternating back and forth between revolutionary ideas so shocking they scare the hell out of the rest of the world and then sinking back into ideas so medieval and reactionary that they scare the hell out of the rest of the world. With Russia there does not seem to be any happy, tranquil, untroubled place in the middle.
What prompted me to write about Russia was a story I heard on National Public Radio regarding the staging of Wagner's opera Tannhauser at the Novosibirsk Theater in that country, a production which was reinterpreted by the director to depict Jesus Christ enduring temptations of a probable sexual nature, since the poster advertising the opera depicts Christ in crucifixion pose between a nude woman's spread legs. There was a widespread outrage over this show fanned by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the director of the opera was fired by the Russian government's cultural minister because of the "unprecedented public reaction," which was probably completely orchestrated.
You can say what you want about the poor taste and lack of respect for Christianity demonstrated by depicting Christ in provocative poses, and I must confess that my sensibilities probably would have been offended by this as well. But when I am offended, as I was by the 1987 "artistic" photograph "Piss Christ," depicting a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine, I turn the page or turn off the TV or close that particular offending window in my browser. I don't take part in rounding up the pitchfork wielding peasants and marching off on a witch hunt just because certain artists have a different interpretation of religion than I do.
I think my particular attitude seems to be the legalized norm in the majority of industrialized countries, except Russia. Yes we do have book burners and other would be moral watchdogs here in the United States, but these folks have no legal standing and every time they get a little bit out of control the courts shut them down under the Constitutional protections of freedom of speech, which are interpreted very liberally. At the present time we are embroiled in one such freedom of expression controversy in the state of Indiana, where opponents of a new religious freedom law claim it threatens the right to same sex marriages, while its supporters claim it protects their right not to have same sex marriages conducted by their religious institutions. The point in this case is that everybody thinks their freedoms are being trampled upon, and the real proposition on trial is whether or not the government has a right to legislate anybody's personal liberties at all.
In Russia, however, the government appears to have absolutely no compunction about deciding which religion is best for everyone, or deciding whether or not there should be any religion, period. It wasn't that long ago that the Soviet Union predating modern Russia made the elimination of religion its stated objective. Orthodox churches were vandalized and destroyed under Soviet rule. Josef Stalin marched nearly all of the country's clergymen off to labor camps.
But now in the post Soviet era the wildly bi-polar Russian pendulum has swung completely the other direction, and the country finds itself in a situation where the Russian Orthodox Church is allied with the government and basically serves as a ready, willing, and able propaganda machine to shore up President Vladimir Putin's rule. Critics of the regime, such as the punk band Pussy Riot, are jailed under "religious hooliganism" laws, and Pontius Putin washes his hands of "dictator" charges by letting the bishops lead the charge against his enemies. Later, however, Vlad shows who his true friends are by handing out state medals to the religious leaders of these witch hunt campaigns.
Even more astounding to me is the situation in the Russian occupied areas of the Ukraine, where rebels have declared the Russian Orthodox Church to be the official religion, resulting in other Christian groups being forced to either flee to Ukraine controlled territory or to go underground.
These sorts of persecutions were also pretty common in the West at once time, but for the most part we have generally succeeded over the last two centuries of purging our society of religious intolerance. People of all denominations and religions can preach on street corners; Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons proselytize their way down my block at least once a week, and my Facebook friend suggestion list is filled with wannabe friends who proudly display their "curlicue A orbited by atoms" banner on their profile pages. None of the adherents of these various religions are being persecuted, and none of them have been incarcerated under "religious hooliganism" laws, as far as I know.
So my question for today is, when will the Russian Orthodox Bear cease alternating between these angry ravenous rages where it wants to consume everything, followed by the catatonic fits where it rolls up into a ball and lies comatose in the corner for several decades. It would be nice to have a reasonably sedate partner in Eastern Europe that wasn't as moody as my wife at the low ebb of her estrogen cycle, but the incomprehensibly bi-polar character of Russia, symbolized to me by Tolstoy's piercing stare shooting out from behind that uncompromising beard, tells me that a great deal more political upheaval must be endured by everybody before any kind of real reconciliation between West and East can occur.
Photo attributed to: "83AS5017" by Alexandergusev - alexandergusev.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:83AS5017.jpg#/media/File:83AS5017.jpg
Leo comes from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky.jpg