God and Man in Moscow

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow leads a service consecrating the new Resurrection of Christ Cathedral, the main Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Russian Armed Forces, outside Moscow, Russia, June 14, 2020. (Sergei Vlasov/Patriarchal Press Service/Handout/Reuters)
China and Russia see themselves as civilization-states. But America has a civilizational reserves of its own as well.

Earlier this month, the new Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was consecrated in a ceremony outside of Moscow. Judging from the photos and the footage, it might be the greatest architectural wonder of the modern world. Wrought together from iron and bronze at breathtaking scale with glittering mosaics and ornate glasswork, the cathedral combines the modern obsession with novelty, innovation, and the technological sublime with the rich religious and aesthetic inheritance of Orthodox Christianity. This combination indicates an entirely alternate history of modernity from the one we’ve experienced over the past 250 years — a history in which the ambitious scientific futurism that animated the Enlightenment was never uprooted from the soil of ancient civilization. Instead, it grew to its dizzying technological heights without the concomitant spiritual and aesthetic impoverishment of the modern West.

The magnitude of this architectural achievement is what makes it so sinister in political terms. The public Russian-state documents that refer to the cathedral call it by two names: the “Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces” and the “Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.” Invariably, the second, more religious name appears in brackets, after the first. This parenthetical subordination of the central religious claim of Orthodox Christianity to the celebration of Russian militarism tells you absolutely everything you need to know about the nature and purpose of the building. The cathedral is “dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, as well as the military feats of the Russian people in all wars” and was built in Patriot Park, Moscow, as the center of an exhibition celebrating the Russian state and its armed forces.

Inside the building, mosaics of the Red Army and other imperial iterations of the Russian military are interlaced with holy icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and a heavenly host of martial saints, all of whom are presented as celestial intercessors for the Russian foot-soldier and his cause. The diameter of the main dome is 19.45 meters in honor of the year the Second World War was won, the height of the belfry is 75 meters, marking the years since that victory, and the height of the small dome is 14.18 meters, symbolizing the 1,418 days and nights of warfare during the conflict. Lest any visitor fail to grasp the essence of the church’s gospel, which is, as far as I can tell, “WE BEAT HITLER,” the steps up to the cathedral are made from the melted-down metal of Nazi tanks.

This architectural marriage of Church and State, with the former very much in submission to the latter, is an example of how geopolitics and great-power competition will operate during the rest of the 21st century. One of Martin Jacques’s great insights about China is that the concept of the Western Westphalian nation-state is an insufficient way of thinking about it as a polity. He observes:

When the Chinese use the term “China,” they are not usually referring to the country or nation so much as Chinese civilization — its history, the dynasties, Confucius, the ways of thinking, the role of government, the relationships and customs, the guanxi (the network of personal connections), the family, filial piety, ancestral worship, the values, and distinctive philosophy, all of which long predate China’s history as a nation-state.

The nation-state, properly defined, is a territory in which a single sovereign government wields the geographic monopoly on violence. Western nations have taken this idea to be fundamental and projected it psychologically, geopolitically, and militarily on parts of the world where it is a purely contingent and incidental way of manifesting and safeguarding modes of political unity that far antedate it. None of the English-speaking peoples have known any sense of political unity and solidarity apart from the development of a national consciousness. This might be because England herself developed this self-consciousness exceptionally early, during the reign of Alfred the Great in the ninth century.

Yet the nation-state is not the fundamental unit of political identity in either China or Russia. It is the topsoil over much deeper foundations. Both the history and the ambitions of these two countries put them in a category of polities that Jacques calls “civilization-states.” Whereas Westerners think of their countries as nations, men such as Putin and Xi think of their own as civilizations. The idea of the civilization-state allows a polity to extend the story of its own history back to a time before its current constitutional settlement. It allows for the possibility that different national arrangements may have prevailed at different points in the country’s history, yet without diminishing the continuity of identity that holds true through all the different constitutional permutations over the centuries. Consequently, for the Chinese, “China” as a recognizable entity of which they feel themselves to be a part is 5,000 years old. The historian Wang Gungwu asks, “Of what other country in the world can it be said that writings on its foreign relations of two thousand, or even one thousand, years ago seem so compellingly alive today?”

The role of the government in a civilization-state is therefore different from its role in a nation-state. In the former, the purpose of government is to maintain the unity of the civilization across time and space and prevent its dilution, rather than secure the individual rights of its citizens. This purpose is informed and undergirded by the people’s sense of intimacy with their own history and traditions and by the emotional power of an identity shared across millennia. The general acquiescence of the Han Chinese and the Russian peoples to their illiberal regimes makes sense when these countries are assessed according to the principles of a civilization-state.

Nothing is more important to the coherence of identity in a civilization-state than religion. It is invariably the oldest thread in the tapestry, and virtually the only factor other than geography that links the earliest identified members of the polity with those of the present day. This is true even in Communist China. Jacques has written extensively about the overwhelming importance of Confucianism as a basis of Chinese identity. Even in its official repudiation of Confucianism, Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book reappropriated for Marxist revolution many Confucian ideas concerning the state, the family, and education. This has allowed the current regime to include both the Mandate of Heaven and the Cultural Revolution under a broader umbrella of “Chineseness” that embraces both Confucianism and Communism while simultaneously superseding them both.

Putin is attempting something similar in Russia. The original plans for the new Military Cathedral included mosaics of both himself and Stalin inside the church, along with another mosaic of the Soviet hammer and sickle, allegedly to honor the Red Army. For the Russian civilization-state that Putin is in the middle of constructing, Orthodox Christianity plays the role of Confucianism. It is the oldest possible source of continuity that Putin can project back onto the Slavic tribes — the tribes converted by Byzantine Christians after the fall of Constantinople — in order to claim them as Russians. The subsequent mythmaking of Moscow as the “Third Rome” and the Slavic imperialism of the Romanovs fall neatly into line after that.

All that remains is the retroactive baptism of the relentlessly atheistic Marxist-Leninists into the religion of Russian nationalism. And the plans for the Stalin and hammer-and-sickle mosaics in the church indicate that this process is already underway. Indeed, performing this difficult induction in the context of military victory is very savvy. It’s what Stalin himself did when Hitler invaded, when he pivoted on a dime from the language of international Communism to invocations of “Mother Russia” and “The Great Patriotic War.” Once Kremlin propagandists reduce the Soviet part of the Russian story to peace and victory in the two World Wars, the assimilation of the Soviet century into the long history of Russian civilization will be fairly simple.

For both China and Russia, then, the government has taken hold of the prevailing ancestral religion with its monopoly on violence and used it to both identify and solidify the civilization-state. There is, however, one massive difference between the two countries in this regard: the respective religions themselves. Confucianism lends itself quite well to the kind of governing regime currently regnant in Peking. Its holy texts place a premium on order and on the analogous authority of the state and the family. As a faith, it helps legitimize the use of organized violence quite well. The same cannot be said of Christianity.

The passion of Jesus Christ as presented in the four gospel accounts is the ultimate overthrow not only of the power of the Roman Empire or of Second-Temple Judaism, but of power itself. It destroys the idea at the heart of all the world’s great empires: that salvation for the human race is found at the tip of the sword, in the coercive exercise of one will over and against another. Christianity makes the willing and submissive execution of a criminal at the hands of the state the center of the universe. And it sees in His resurrection the founding of another country from which all coercion is excluded, of which all people are citizens, and upon whose claims on human conscience, action, and belief no earthly magistrate can infringe. The idea that the City of God is a vassal to the City of Man, pressed into its political service by a Russian apparatchik or commissar, is not only heretical; it is blasphemous. During the third century, the pagan philosopher Celsus attacked the unwillingness of Christians to sacrifice to the civic gods, accept public office, and take up arms when asked by the state. In his reply, the Christian theologian Origen of Alexandra argued for an entirely different model of human relations with the state. As Larry Siedentop writes:

He argued for a society that recognized moral limits to the claims of public power, invoking a sphere of individual responsibility that transcended the traditional duties of citizenship: “We know of the existence in each city of another sort of country, created by the Word of God.”

These early moral intuitions about the differing jurisdictions of Christ and Caesar, unknown to antiquity before the advent of Christianity, have percolated down through the centuries and found their greatest political expression in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In the eyes of the Founders, the separation of Church and State was not (pace Bill Maher) about protecting the latter from the former, but vice versa. Thomas Jefferson, by no means the most evangelical of the Founding generation, spelled this out explicitly in his letter to the Danbury baptists:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

In the coming clash of civilizations, the United States would appear to be at a severe disadvantage against the likes of Russia and China, given the country’s youth and its lack of the kind of well-developed supra-constitutional identity necessary to be considered a civilization-state. However, sentiments such as those expressed by Jefferson above belie that notion. It is a defining feature of American civilization that the City of God, as defined by Origen and Augustine, enjoys a level of sovereignty and deference from the City of Man that is entirely unequaled in the whole course of human events. The beliefs about human nature and religious freedom that underpinned American Revolutionary thought have a rich and hard-won history that reaches back to the earliest days of Christianity. Given that America’s geopolitical foes are gearing up for a contest fought on the battleground of civilization, it is perhaps time for Americans to take their lead from Alexis de Tocqueville and look beyond 1776 for their Founding to these deeper and sturdier cultural roots. These were the premodern roots from which men and women blossomed who braved the Atlantic in search of a New World where their faith would no longer be the political plaything of kings and magistrates.

The ratification of the Constitution in 1787 was, among other things, the endpoint of a centuries-long struggle by Christians against the recrucifixion of Christ on the cross of political interest. This American liberation of religious belief from fealty to the state is an achievement worthy of any civilization, and the Kremlin’s use of Orthodox Christianity to sacralize its own ambitions is a timely reminder of this fact. The very different relationship between conscience and coercion envisaged by America’s enemies demonstrates what is at stake in the coming great-power struggle. If there is to be a second Cold War with either China or Russia, the groundwaters of the conflict will run deeper than those of the battle between capitalism and Communism. Americans should adjust their approach to the enemy accordingly.


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