This week in Moscow there was the usual lavish military parade, bristling with missiles and other weaponry, commemorating victory in World War II. Like the Soviets, Putin exploits WWII sacrifices to legitimize his own regime. Ostensibly, now as then, Russia is the guardian against global villainy.
“Our forces are capable of repelling any kind of attack, but to efficiently combat terrorism, Nazism, extremism, what we need is the consolidation of international community. We are strengthening that,” Putin asserted in his parade speech in Moscow’s Red Square. Despite his talk of “community,” apparently only one head of state, from tiny Moldova, attended the parade. Much of the world, especially Russia’s WWII Western allies, prefers not to lavish credibility on Putin after his seizure of Crimea and proxy war against Ukraine, not to mention the dubious presence in Syria.
Putin was rhetorically undeterred:
Russia will always be on the side in the world of those who fight against these scourges. Dear friends, as the Second World War recedes in history, we are obliged to make sure that stability throughout the world is observed.
Global “stability” is not topically associated with Putin’s Russia. But at least Russia of today is far less globally destabilizing than during the Soviet years. Yet Russia’s inability maturely to acknowledge its past, much less its present, remains nearly continuous with Soviet times and before. In discussing Russian film portrayals of Soviet WWII heroism, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky offered this revealing quote:
The facts themselves don’t mean too much. If you love your motherland, your people, history, what you will be writing will always be positive.
Russia never typically has been very openly transparent about its national flaws and sins. The Soviet Union murdered millions of its own people, perhaps more than any other government in history. But focus on such history today might invite further critique of Putin’s repressions, even if only a fraction of Bolshevik era crimes. So instead facts are disregarded. After all, “they don’t mean very much.” National mythology, manipulated by the state, prevails.
America, which like Russia often has messianic self-understanding, has its own mythology but that mythology almost never has been unself-critical. Instead it is often obsessively self-critical, self-reflective, and in search of atonement. Doubtless America’s Puritan and revivalistic heritage has shaped this aspect of national personality that constantly seeks absolution from the Almighty.
Nearly always American spirituality has identified with the Old Testament prophets and their jeremiads against sinful populations and rulers. There is plenty of brooding self-reflection in Russian spirituality too. But its historical archetypes, in relation to rulers and state, typically counsel submission or tight collaboration. There aren’t similar strong models of prophetic denunciation, much less political resistance, as found with Puritans overthrowing a king, stoking revolution, or fomenting civil war in quest of national righteousness.
For most of the history of Russian Christianity and the formation of national character, the czar is accorded deference, not challenged. His “facts” regarding the nation are simply accepted. The tragic result is often national self-delusion. Without a strong prophetic tradition of self-critique, nations often lack capacity for self-correction and maturation, with sometimes tragic consequence.