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How Christianity Forged Russia's Greatness

Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) believed Russia's greatness was founded by its Christian Orthodox faith and the love that is at the center of it

  • Text from 1937 written after 20 years of Bolshevik repression of the Russian Orthodox Church
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The great twentieth-century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) explains how the Russian nation was not only forged through warfare, but through divine love and beauty – the Orthodox Christian faith.

Translated by Mark Hackard of Soul of the East. First published at The Vineyard of the Saker


National spiritual culture is created from generation to generation not by conscious thought and not through arbitrary chance, but through a long, integral, and inspired tension of the entire human being; and most of all by an unconscious instinct, the nocturnal forces of the soul. These mysterious forces of the soul are capable of spiritual creativity only when they are illuminated, ennobled, formed, and cultivated by religious faith. History doesn’t know a culturally creative and spiritually great people that dwelled in godlessness. Even the lattermost savages have their faith. Falling into unbelief, nations decayed and died. That the elevation of national culture depends on the perfection of religion is understandable.

From time immemorial Russia was a nation of Orthodox Christianity. Her principal creative national-linguistic nucleus always confessed the Orthodox faith. (See, for example, D. Mendeleev’s statistical data. On Knowledge of Russia. Pp. 36-41, 48-49. By the beginning of the 20th century Russia counted around 66% Orthodox population, around 17% non-Orthodox Christians, and around 17% non-Christian religions – some 5 million Jews and Turco-Tatar peoples.) Here is why the spirit of Orthodoxy always defined and still defines so much and so deeply the fabric of Russia’s national creativity.

By the gifts of Orthodoxy all Russian people have lived, have been educated, and have found salvation over the course of centuries. They were all citizens of the Russian Empire – both those who forgot these gifts and those who didn’t notice them, renouncing and even blaspheming them; citizens belonging to other Christian confessions; and other European peoples beyond Russia’s borders.

We would need an entire historical study for an exhaustive description of these gifts. I can point to them only by a brief enumeration.

  1. The whole basic composition of the Christian revelation was received by Russia from the Orthodox East in the form of Orthodoxy, in the Greek and Slavic languages. “The great spiritual and political revolution of our planet is Christianity. Within this sacred element the world disappeared and was renewed” (Pushkin). The Russian people experienced this sacred element of baptism and investiture into Christ the Son of God in Orthodoxy. It was for us what it was for the Western peoples before the division of the churches; it gave them that which they subsequently lost, and what we preserved; for this lost spirit they begin to turn to us now, shaken by the martyrdom of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

  2. Orthodoxy set at the foundation of the human being the life of the heart (feelings, love), and contemplation deriving from the heart (vision, imagination). Herein lies the deepest distinction from Catholicism, which brings faith from will to reason, and from Protestantism, bringing faith from reason to will. This distinction, defining the Russian soul, remains forever; no “Unia,” no “Eastern Rite,” and no Protestant missionary activity can remake the Orthodox soul. The entire Russian spirit and way were made Orthodox. Here is why when the Russian people create, they seek to see and express that which they love. This is the basic form of Russian national being and creativity. They were raised by Orthodoxy and girded by Slavdom and the nature of Russia.

  3. In the moral sphere, this gave the Russian people a living and profound sense of conscience; a dream of righteousness and holiness; an accurate perception of sin; the gift of a repentance that renews; the idea of ascetic catharsis; and an acute sense of “truth” and “lies,” good and evil.

  4. Hence the spirit of mercy and popular, caste-less, supra-national brotherhood so characteristic of the Russian people, sympathy for the poor, the weak, the sick, the oppressed, and even the criminal (See, for example, Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer for 1873, Article III “Environment,” and Article V “Vlas”). Hence our monasteries and Tsars who love the poor; hence our hospices, hospitals, and clinics created through private donations.

  5. Orthodoxy cultivated in the Russian people that spirit of sacrifice, service, patience, and loyalty, without which Russia would never have withstood its enemies and built an earthly home. In the course of all their history, Russians have learned to build Russia by “kissing the Cross” and to draw upon their moral strength in prayer. The gift of prayer is Orthodoxy’s best gift.

  6. Orthodoxy affirmed religious faith upon freedom and earnestness, connecting them as one; with this spirit it informed the Russian soul and Russian culture. Orthodox missions sought to bring people “to baptism” “through love,” and in no way through fear (From Metropolitan Makary’s instruction to Archbishop Gury in 1555. The exceptions only confirm the basic rule). Hence comes from Russian history precisely that spirit of religious and national tolerance that Russian citizens of other confessions and religions evaluated by its merit only after revolutionary persecutions of faith.

  7. Orthodoxy brought to the Russian people all the gifts of the Christian sense of justice – a will to peace, brotherhood, justice, loyalty, and solidarity; a sense of dignity and rank; a capability for self-control and mutual respect; in a word, all that which can draw the state nearer to Christ’s commandments.

  8. Orthodoxy nourished in Russia the sense of a citizen’s responsibility, that of an official before the Tsar and God, and most of all it consolidated the idea of a monarch, called and anointed, who would serve God. Thanks to that tyrannical rulers in Russian history were a complete exception. All humane reforms in Russian history were inspired or suggested by Orthodoxy.

  9. Russian Orthodoxy faithfully and wisely resolved a most difficult task with which Western Europe almost never coped – to find a correct correlation between the Church and secular power, a mutual support under mutual loyalty and non-encroachment.

  10. Orthodox monastery culture gave Russia not only a host of righteous men. It gave her her chronicles, i.e. it set a foundation for Russian historiography and Russian national consciousness. Pushkin expressed it thus: “We are obliged to the monks for our history, and consequently our enlightenment” (Pushkin’s “Historical Notes,” 1822). We mustn’t forget that the Orthodox faith was long considered the true criterion of “Russianness” in Russia.

  11. The Orthodox doctrine on the immortality of a person’s soul (lost in contemporary Protestantism, interpreting “eternal life” not in the sense of immortality of the soul, which is seen as mortal); on obedience to higher authorities for the sake of one’s conscience; on Christian forbearance and laying down one’s life “for one’s friends” gave the Russian Army all the sources of its knightly, individually fearless, selflessly obedient and all-conquering spirit, which developed in its historical wars and especially in the teaching and practice of Aleksandr Suvorov – and was often recognized by great captains of the enemy (Frederick the Great, Napoleon, etc.).

  12. All Russian art has derived from the Orthodox faith, from the beginning nourishing within itself its spirit of heartfelt contemplation, prayerful soaring, free forthrightness, and spiritual responsibility (See Gogol’s “What, Ultimately, is the Essence of Russian Poetry?” and “On the Lyricism of Our Poets.” See my book Foundations of Artistry. On the Perfect in Art.) Russian painting came from the icon; Russian music was fanned by Church singing; Russian architecture came from the mason-work of cathedrals and monasteries; the Russian theatre was borne from the dramatic “acts” on religious themes; Russian literature came from the Church and monastics.

Has everything been numbered here, everything mentioned? No. We still have not spoken of Orthodox elders; Orthodox pilgrimages; of the significance of the Old Church Slavonic language; Orthodox schooling; and Orthodox philosophy. But all that is still impossible to exhaust.

All of this gave Pushkin the basis to establish the following as an unshakable truth: “The Greek confession, separate from all others, gives us a special national character” (Pushkin’s Historical Notes, 1822). Such is the significance of Orthodox Christianity in Russian history. This is how those savage, unheard-of persecutions of Orthodoxy, which it now endures from the Communists. The Bolsheviks understood that the roots of Russian Christianity; the Russian national spirit; of Russian honor and conscience; Russian state unity; the Russian family; and Russian sense of justice – are set namely in the Orthodox faith, and therefore they attempt to uproot it.

In the struggle with such attempts, the Russian people and Orthodox Church have brought forward entire hosts of confessors, martyrs, and holy martyrs; and at the same time they have restored the religious life of the age of the catacombs everywhere – in the forests, in the ravines, in the villages and cities. For twenty years the Russian people have learned to concentrate in silence, to cleanse and forge their souls before the face of death, praying in whispers and organizing Church life in persecutions, strengthening it in secret and silence. And at present, after twenty years of persecution, the Communists had to admit (winter of 1937) that one-third of city residents and two-thirds of the population in the villages continue to openly believe in God. And how many from the remainder believe and pray in secret?

Persecutions are awakening within the Russian people a new faith, one full of new strength and new spirit. Suffering hearts are restoring their ancient, age-old religious contemplation. And Russia will not only not leave Orthodoxy, as her enemies in the West hope, but will be strengthened in the sacred foundations of her historical being.

The consequences of the Revolution will overcome its causes.

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