Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 68

In its persistent efforts to craft a new national ideology that would underscore Russia’s “civilizational uniqueness” and distinguish it from the liberal West, the Kremlin leadership has turned to the Orthodox Church — the country’s most conservative and anti-Western institution. Predictably, the “unholy alliance” of state bureaucrats and church hierarchy proved to be not terribly inventive: it could come up only with a recycled credo of 19th century Russian conservatism — Pravoslaviye, Samoderzhaviye, Narodnost (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality).

On April 6, the Tenth World Council of Russian People adopted a “Declaration of Human Dignity and Rights,” a document that appears to challenge the 1948 “Declaration of Human Rights” passed by the United Nations General Assembly. The new Orthodox manifesto openly questions the system of liberal values and effectively calls on Russian society to revise the universally accepted concept of human rights. The decision to elaborate a specifically Orthodox stance on the rights issue was taken at last year’s Council: it was likely prompted by the Russian Church’s conclusion that the secular understanding of human rights that came to Russia from the West does not correspond to Orthodox believers’ moral and ethical views.

This idea was bluntly expressed at this year’s gathering by none other than Patriarch Alexei II. “To what extent does this [Western] vision of human rights allow an Orthodox people to live in accordance with the faith it professes?” the Russian Church’s spiritual leader asked. Alexei’s personal stance on this issue is crystal clear, as he asserted that the spread of the Western conception of human rights would likely lead to the “revival of neo-paganism.”

The World Council of Russian People has convened annually since 1993. It comprises secular civic organizations but acts under the “spiritual guidance” of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Council’s head is Patriarch Alexei, who is assisted by two deputies — Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kyril and the chairman of the Russian Writers’ Union, Valery Ganichev.

Some independent analysts were quick to note that the pompous event that held its sessions on April 4-6 in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was not so much a religious as a political undertaking. This was underscored not only by the explicitly political issue of human rights that the Council decided to focus on, but also by the significant number of high-ranking representatives of state power who attended the assembly. Quite remarkably, in their speeches, as one observer notes, “Some of these state officials, including the ministers of foreign affairs and of culture, appeared to be more conservative and value-oriented than even some of the church fathers.”

The Council’s participants forcefully denounced a “distorted vision of human rights” that they claim has become prevalent in the West. Two aspects of the Western liberal concept seem to be particularly alien to Orthodox beliefs. First, the Council blasted the idea of “moral autonomy.” The modern understanding of human rights postulates that an individual’s moral autonomy can be limited only by the autonomy of other individuals: there is no supreme authority that can help distinguish between good and evil. Such a vision is unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox Church, which holds that turning the sovereignty and rights of a separate individual into an absolute value without the counterbalance of moral responsibility will lead to the demise of modern civilization.

The second controversial aspect of the European liberal model, according to Russian Orthodoxy, is its assertion that an individual’s rights are superior to the interests of any collectivity. “There are values that are no less important than human rights,” defiantly declares the statement adopted by the Council. “These are faith, ethics, [national] sacraments, Fatherland.”

At a time when Moscow is being criticized by the United States and Europe for backtracking on democracy, the Russian Church, true to its long-standing tradition of subservience to the state, has eagerly helped the Kremlin by joining the “ideological struggle” with the West.

Both Russia’s secular potentates and the church hierarchs seem to share two main principles that lie at the heart of what can be called the profession de foi of Russian conservatism. First is the idea that “Russian civilization” is unique, based on a set of distinctive values and developing along a path different from that of the West. Second is that Russia is a great power that is capable of defending its own interests and those of its allies. Symptomatically, the “Orthodox declaration” denounced the Western “policy of double standards in the sphere of human rights as well as the attempts to use these rights for advancing political, ideological, military, and economic interests and for imposing a certain state or social system.”

Interestingly, this approach dovetails nicely with the Kremlin’s pet concept of “sovereign democracy.” This notion has recently been given an extravagant interpretation. In the opinion of political analyst Vitaly Tretyakov, “The foreign term ‘sovereignty’ should be replaced … by a Russian analogue — ‘autocracy’ (samoderzhaviye), i.e. the desire and ability to independently define one’s own destiny and rules of life in one’s society.” That is why the doctrine of sovereign democracy, Tretyakov argues, can be defined as “autocratic self-government” (samoderzhavnoye samoupravleniye).

It would seem that, ideologically, over the last 15 years Russia has come full circle. Having started with universal human values and a “common European home,” it has ended up with Count Sergei Uvarov’s famous triad designed to philosophically prop the conservative and anti-Western regime of Tsar Nicholas I.

(Itar-Tass, Moskovsky komsomolets, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kommersant, Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, April 6; Vremya novostei, Gazeta, April 5; Russia Profile, April 4; Profil, April 3)