Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor John Burgess’ Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia is a broad survey of the multifaceted role of Russian Orthodoxy in contemporary Russia. The book provides a clear, insightful read that any novice of Orthodoxy and Russian studies will find useful in understanding the faith’s unique role in modern Russian society.
In Holy Rus’, Burgess shows what happens when a Calvinist who knows little about Russian Orthodoxy lives (temporarily) in Russia. His anecdotes about traveling across the country and spending time with clergy, laypeople, and other Russians provide an intimate look into a Western theologian’s gradual understanding of Russian Orthodoxy while grappling with the faith’s ostensible contradictions.
At its best, Holy Rus’ clearly explains the interplay between cultural and theological elements in Russian Orthodoxy, such as the ROC’s attitude toward theosis and symphonia—respectively, the transformative process through which Christians come into union with God and the Byzantine concept that church and state should be complementary, not separated. At its worst, Holy Rus’ overlooks the larger religious and political ramifications stemming from the Kremlin’s close ties to ROC leadership.
Russian Orthodoxy’s Post-Communist “Rebirth”
The Holy Rus’ title references the ancient Rus’, the medieval East Slavic civilization from which the nations of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine trace their origins. Initially based out of Kyiv, the contemporary capital of Ukraine, the ancient Rus’ officially adopted Byzantine Rite Orthodoxy in the year 988 under the rule of Volodymr the Great. This period from the baptism of the Rus’ to the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century is regarded as the golden age of early East Slavic civilization.
Burgess argues that despite the Soviet Union’s rule in the dark twentieth century, the ROC is reviving the ancient Rus’ legacy in Russia and reconnecting religion to the Russian national identity. The ROC, Burgess contends, “has offered Russians—and even Vladimir Putin himself—a compelling narrative of national greatness and uniqueness,” and “Russians wanted to know more than ever what made Russia uniquely ‘Russia.’ Orthodoxy has offered an answer.”
Burgess discusses the ROC’s fruitful initiatives in religious education, social work, ministry, and parish life in great length. He argues that through these measures the ROC draws common Russians into the “vision of Holy Rus,” and that Russia became “a healthier, more vital society today because of these efforts.” Burgess argues that while the ROC is imperfect, its ministry, social presence, and edifying influence makes it a net positive for Russian society, as “persons in physical and emotional need or on the margins of society are receiving love and practical assistance; new generations are honoring the victims of Bolshevism; and parishes are helping people have genuine fellowship with God and each other.” Using personal interactions with ROC clergy, Burgess discusses how the ROC’s efforts to establish an “impressive infrastructure of schools, universities, seminaries, publishing houses, and mass media” are at work to “make Russians better Christians, and to help Russians know what makes their nation great.” Thanks to ROC, according to Burgess, ordinary Russians “at least have the opportunity to glimpse Orthodoxy’s vision of transcendent beauty and become aware of a different dimension of their existence.”
Russian Orthodoxy as National Social Identity
One recurring theme in Holy Rus’ is Russian Orthodoxy’s role as a civil religion. From Tsar Nicholas I’s Official Nationality doctrine that linked Russian Orthodoxy, autocracy, and Russian nationality into a single comprehensive ideology, to contemporary Russian Orthodoxy that “apparently gives [Russians] a sense of national or cultural identity but does not draw them into a religious way of life,” faith as an ethnic and cultural identity, versus a genuine religious belief and practice, has been paramount for understanding Russian culture.
Burgess describes the Russian Orthodoxy that characterizes civil religion as “popular Orthodoxy” and argues that, while popular Orthodoxy “provides powerful glimpses of the transfiguration of reality, it also easily distorts or truncates the Christian message of personal sacrifice and self-giving love.” While I personally find Burgess’ assessment of Russian Orthodoxy extremely gracious, he accurately recognizes the historical basis for how the faith has shaped Russian culture for centuries and became “an essential part of Russian national identity.”
This identity makes one wonder whether Russians are Orthodox because they are genuine believers or if self-identification with Orthodoxy is simply a Russian social convention. Regardless of one’s opinions, Holy Rus’ readers will appreciate Burgess’ examination of Orthodoxy’s evolving role in Russia and understand how the relationship between religion, social custom, and superstition in Russia is ambiguous. He discusses the average Russian believer’s shallow faith with studies finding few Russians who understand the scriptures, let alone read them. The following statistics show the need for Russian catechistic reform: of self-identified Orthodox believers, only three to five percent regularly read the Bible; fewer than one in six own a complete copy of the Bible; nine percent report being familiar with the doctrine of the Trinity; sixteen percent say they believe in astrology and magic. Burgess effectively illustrates these dynamics with personal anecdotes—one of the most compelling is Burgess’ conversation with a young secular couple who decided to baptize their children not out of religious conviction, but tradition.
Burgess’ anecdotes reveal that poor catechism in Russian Orthodoxy is largely institutional. Since Russian Orthodoxy is based largely in liturgy, customs, and traditions, rigorous catechism often takes a backseat to ceremony. So Russian Orthodox believers place more importance on experiencing ornate rituals than understanding those rituals’ undergirding theology. While weak catechism amongst most believers would trouble many Western Christians, it is largely tolerated in Russia. Burgess summarizes the ROC’s view on the matter: “Russian culture necessarily transmits Orthodox values, a person who becomes ‘cultured’ is also reshaped spiritually. Cultured people have an appreciation of beauty and transcendent values. Culture, therefore, opens them to the divine.” The suggestion that being “cultured” in the Russian tradition, without proper catechism, somehow results in Christian spiritual renewal is bewildering and demonstrates the fundamental disagreement between the ROC and Western Protestantism regarding the proper role of Christian doctrinal education.
This Russian attitude appears in a conversation Burgess had with a Russian friend who believes that “a simple believer may live more faithfully than an educated theologian.” Burgess’ interlocutor argues, “If a person wants to learn more about the Church’s beliefs, that’s fine. But we should not expect that of everyone. Those who live according to Orthodoxy are filled with love and reverence, and that’s what really matters.” Burgess, however, retorts, “And I, the North American theologian and professor with a Ph.D., reply that religious education is nevertheless not just for intellectuals. Learning Church belief and practice can help every believer see more clearly the contours of true life in God. A person does not love God with the mind alone, but love of God includes the mind.”
The Relationship Between Church and State in Russia
My main critique of Holy Rus’ is that Burgess insufficiently discusses the problematic aspects of Russian Orthodoxy, particularly the history of Russian authoritarians using the ROC to expand state power. Regrettably, Holy Rus’ includes no discussion of how Moscow illegally annexed the Kyiv Metropolitan in 1686 as part of its consolidation of imperial power or how Peter the Great effectively subjugated the ROC to the tsarist state through the creation of the Holy Synod in 1721 as a government institution that oversaw church activities. Perhaps more egregiously, there is only brief discussion about Stalin’s transformation of the ROC into a front for the NKVD, the KGB predecessor, in 1943. Some scholars, citing declassified NKVD files and the Mitrokhin Archive, argue that the Moscow Patriarchate can only truly trace its history back to 1943, when Stalin granted the ROC amnesty and allowed church institutions to exist in the USSR.
This is significant because in Holy Rus’ opening pages Burgess writes:
I have often heard Orthodox priests lament that the Russian nation has never fully lived up to its religious legacy—Russians have regularly failed to be true to the Orthodoxy that they confess. But if Patriarch Kirill is right, even seventy-four years of Communism could not drive Orthodox symbols, narratives, and rituals totally out of people’s consciousness.
Burgess’ myth about the survival of Christianity in Russia despite 74 years of antireligious oppression is inaccurate, if not deliberately misleading. In the 1970s, Patriarch Kirill, a former KGB asset, was sent by Moscow to the World Council of Churches to promote Marxist liberation theology. It is not surprising to see that the ROC “survived” communism when the Kremlin corrupted and coopted its leadership in the 1940s. The failure of Holy Rus’ to adequately unpack how the Kremlin’s policy towards the ROC changed under Stalin undermines Burgess’ premise that faith in Russia somehow miraculously survived despite 70 years of communism. From 1917 to 1943, anti-religious persecution in the USSR was undoubtedly extremely strong. But by 1950, Stalin legitimized the highest echelons of the ROC, who were relatively safe from persecution so long as they served Kremlin strategic interests. That said, there is a strong need to distinguish between average parish priests who minister to the needy and ROC leaders whom the Russian state historically coopted. For me, this nuance is lacking, which detracts from Burgess’ argument.
To Burgess’ credit, he never directly apologizes for the ROC’s many sins. On the contrary, he writes, “As much as I love and respect Russian Orthodoxy, I am still an American and a Protestant theologian. The social vision and program of the Russian Orthodox Church contrast dramatically with my assumptions about the separation of Church and state, the limited place of the Church in pluralistic societies, and the rightful ‘secularization’ of the physical and cultural landscapes.” Throughout Holy Rus’ Burgess makes occasional allusions to various problematic aspects of the ROC, but they are insufficient. For example, Burgess does briefly critique how ROC seminaries often create strawmen of Western Protestantism, using oversimplification that “tends towards caricature,” especially regarding John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. He also calls out the ROC’s “anti-Western secularism” rhetoric that “fails to offer a nuanced analysis of the strengths of liberal democracies.” By mentioning but not addressing these and similar issues at critical length, Burgess effectively defends himself from the accusation that he gives the ROC too much credit, or worse, being a Kremlin or ROC apologist, without airing out the ROC’s dirty laundry.
I understand that Burgess may not have wanted to offend his Russian friends with a scathing critique of ROC leadership; no reasonable person would wantonly subject his hosts to church or state scrutiny. That said, it would have been appropriate to include a thematic chapter examining the ROC’s troubling history, including its lack of post-communist lustration and support of Kremlin foreign policy vis-à-vis nuclear strategy and Ukraine. This book feels incomplete without this analysis.
Holy Rus’ is an important read for Westerners with little knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy but are eager for a palatable introduction to the topic. To Burgess’ credit, he manages to successfully cover several sophisticated aspects of Russian Orthodoxy in a mere 224 pages. His analysis points readers toward a larger understanding of Russian culture, Russian Orthodox believers, and how faith in Russia diverges from faith in Western democracies.
While Burgess’ central claim contends that “Russia is slowly being ‘reenchanted’ with the help of Orthodox symbols, narratives, and rituals,” I would advise readers, especially novices to studies of Russian Orthodoxy, to exercise caution before arriving at similar conclusions. I am not as gracious to the ROC as Burgess. Readers who read Holy Rus’ should be careful before concluding that the ROC’s ostensible positives outweigh its sins. Ephesians 5:11 teaches us to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
My critiques notwithstanding, Burgess presents a well-researched survey of the ROC and its positive influences on local communities and the Russian nation through social ministry. In particular, the book’s extended dialogues grappling with the cultural aspects of the ROC and popular Orthodoxy as a civil religion are superbly insightful.