Sunday, May 8, 2011

Slavic Paganism

On January 21-25, 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Havana. His visit elicited such a wave of popular enthusiasm that it became obvious how little the Communist Party of Cuba managed to achieve in terms of combating the religious feelings of the Cuban people. Things were very different in the Soviet Union where the majority of the population let go of their religious allegiances with a notable ease. In the 20ies and the 30ies, people whose families seemed to have been deeply committed to the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries happily destroyed cathedrals and burned religious images. 

One of the reasons for this difference in the religious attitudes of the Soviet people and the Cubans lies in the history of how they came by their religious affiliations. In Cuba, Santeria integrated Catholicism, Yoruba religion and the traditions of the indigenous peoples. The resulting mix helped people experience catholicism as their own, since most of concepts that have currency in Catholicism could be easily explained in Santeria terms.

The Slavic people came by their Christianity in a very different way. In the late Xth century, Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kievan Rus, started casting about for a religion to which he could convert his people. He approached not only Christians but also Muslims and Jews with a request to be told more about their religions with a view to a possible forced conversion of the Slavic people to one of them. Islam didn't work for him because, even though it allowed one to have several wives (a huge bonus for Vladimir), it prohibited alcohol, and that was definitely not going to be acceptable. The Jews were rejected because Vladimir didn't feel like allying themselves with people whose loss of their land signaled, in his eyes, that they had been abandoned by God.

So Christianity was chosen and mass baptisms of Slavic people were conducted. Of course, nobody made any efforts to explain to the people what was going on, why their pagan rites had to be abandoned, the statues of their gods destroyed, and a religious tradition that was completely alien to them had to be accepted and practiced exclusively. Slavs were converted to Christianity through mass killings. Entire towns were burned alive for refusing to accept this alien religion. Christian churches were purposefully built on the sites of pagan cemeteries. This, of course, made any genuine popular acceptance of Christianity quite impossible.

For centuries to come, Christianity would be a huge divisive force in society where the rich and the powerful accepted it as their religion while everybody else still practiced pagan rites and only went through the motions of Christian traditions to avoid persecutions. Paganism was not only a system of beliefs for the Slavs. It was a way of finding a shared language with the nature that surrounded them and the climate that wasn't making their lives easy. Forced Christianity took all that away and gave very little in return. Until the Revolution of 1917, Russian Orthodox Church was a profoundly oppressive force in society that celebrated its extremely expensive rites with great pomp and allowed its officials to live in incomparable luxury. (As we all know, these folks picked up right where they left off after the fall of the Soviet Union.) 

People, in the meanwhile, still retained a worldview that was deeply pagan even though they might not have remembered this word any longer. Prevented from venerating their pagan deities, they developed an attitude where the political leaders of the country were treated as such substitute deities. Today, this attitude towards politicians in charge of the country still persists in those of the Slavic countries where Christianity was imposed in this uninspired and violent way.


el said...

In the late Xth century, Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kievan Rus, started casting about for a religion to which he could convert his people
What on the earth for? What purpose was worth killing so many people and why Paganism wouldn't do?

As we all know, these folks picked up right where they left off after the fall of the Soviet Union.
I am surprised at the popularity of religion now in the former Soviet Union. Surprised they didn't stay atheists like me. Weren't they brought up without religion too? What happened?

My second question is why the government supports religion so much. Why actively give it more power by enforcing studying it at schools, which can turn into religious propaganda?

Clarissa said...

Where do you see popularity of religion in the FSU? Less than 2% of people in Russia are actively religious. Judging by the statistics on abortion, adultery, etc., there are pretty much no religious people there right now. :-) The fact that a former KGB employee gets in front of the camera with some Church leader means nothing. It's all for show.

"What on the earth for? What purpose was worth killing so many people and why Paganism wouldn't do?"

-Monotheism contributes a vision of the world where everything is united and interlinked instead of separate deities being responsible for separate phenomena. A culture that didn't accept monotheism would not be part of Western civilization. As it is, the Russians still cannot decide if they are Europeans or Asians. Monotheism is a necessary condition to the rise of Western science and technology, to the idea of individual rights as we know them today. Just the very concept of an individual comes from monotheism.

There is just too much stuff that wouldn't happen without monotheism to list in one comment.

Anonymous said...


Could you also compare the extent of persecution of the religious by the soviet communists against the extent of persecution of the religious by the Cuban communists?

Like what was the punishment for being lay orthodox in communist russian vs being lay catholic in communist cuba? What about a leader or monk or nun or hermit? What would happen to you if you were discovered to be practicing in secret?

Then and also to what extent did the communists of either party force the destruction of religious buildings and artifacts?

Clarissa said...

Russian Orthodox Church fully collaborated with the Soviet regime since Stalin's times until today. All priests worked for the KGB and betrayed the secrets of the confessional. As a result, nobody could really practice "in secret" in the Soviet Union.

As for the destruction of churches, from what I've been able to gather, people participated in those actions joyfully. The Orthodox Church had been an agent of repression for so many years that it is not in the least surprising.

Communists were smart. Instead of punishing the religious people, they ridiculed them and presented them as outdated, backwards and ridiculous. This process was pretty similar in Cuba and the USSR.

Tim said...

It is quite interesting how often a religion that preaches peace and coexistence was/is being brought to the people with weapon and fire.

I wonder, was there a nation or ethnicity that openly embraced christianity as their religion to happily live after ?

Anonymous said...

Anon at 2:57 again,

I've met orthodox russians that were baptized in secret as children (about 3 or 4 years old), so I know that there was a religious underground.

I can't speak for the motivations of " the people" in Russia in tearing down the religious things.
But it seems to me that communist Russia was much more intolerant of religion and therefore it would be much more important to be antireligious to be sucessful or even just survive. I see this as a far more direct and likely motive than "centuries of oppression" by the church.

Also, I'm not entirely sure if it was "the people" that tore them down or the government. OR if it was " the people" that killed/tortured monks nuns and hermits or the government. I haven't met anyone that was on the destroying side of the religion, just the people who were practicing in secret, so I don't know.

Clarissa said...

Everybody was baptized "in secret". There was no religious feeling behind it, just prejudice of doing things "just in case.". This isn't evidence of any religious underground. There were believers, of course, but their numbers were tiny.

Anonymous said...

The "believers, of course, whose numbers are tiny" constitute a religious underground.

Pagan Topologist said...

It is interesting to me in light of this post that when I was in Poland in the 1970's, Catholic churches were crowded. I attended four or five church services there, and it was hard to find a seat. There were mass celebrations one after another another for several hours on Sundays.

It is possible that this was just a way of protesitng Soviet domination of the country, but I am not sure that that explains the celebration when a Pole became the first non-Italian Pope in centuries. (My last visit to Poland was in January 1979, just a few months after Karol Wojtyla was named Pope.)

An Orange {L}ighter said...

So I was going to leave this comment, but it won't let me. This is what I have left of it, although it's not nearly all I had to say.

I believe there was a deep, fervent passion amongst the Russians for their faith. Clearly, as with any religion at any given time, the truly faithful usually were the poorer and more ignorant, while the more wealthy kind of chuckled and ignored and observed as they wished--but that definitely wasn't unique to Russian society. Moreover, look at some of Russia's most prominent writers. Gogol's life was devoted to finding true good Christians in Russia, and he was plagued by it until he starved himself to death. Until he went--to outside eyes--mad and did a complete philosophical reversal, Tolstoy was deeply religious, as well. They may not represent the whole, but religion wasn't quite the joke in Russia you presented it to be. I don't think this is really a very good analysis of the rejection of religion in general in Russia.

My assertion would be that, less ready to give up the tyranny of the church (seeing as they readily embraced the tyranny of totalitarianism), they were more ready to accept communism, as well as a new world order. Russians were frustrated with the incompetence of the tsar, the stagnation of promised reforms, and wars they didn't want to involve themselves in. Moreover, the average Russian lived communally already; mirs were widespread, despite the attempt to wipe them out and become a privately-owned country. Russians were used to dividing up the land and taking care of their own equal share (split by the number of sons in the family). Communism wasn't so far a cry from what they were used to, and Lenin's rhetoric was positively mouth-watering. Who was Nicholas to stand up against such brilliant personality? Russians have a tendency, also, to fully embrace whatever they're presented with. The attitude was less, "Ideologically, the church is kind of silly and tyrannical," and more, "So Marxism/Leninism decries the church? Well, if that's where we're headed, I decry the church as well."

"Russian Orthodox Church fully collaborated with the Soviet regime since Stalin's times until today. All priests worked for the KGB and betrayed the secrets of the confessional. As a result, nobody could really practice 'in secret' in the Soviet Union."

To my knowledge, it was less of a voluntary movement, and more of a compulsory demand by the government.

Overall, I find I disagree with most (although not all) of your analysis of Russia. Since Cuba's not exactly my area of interest, I can't say about your analysis on that side.

Otherwise, I find most of your blog super interesting. I'm a new reader; I came across it, looking for more literature in Spanish. I've been learning (future mother-in-law only speaks Spanish and there's no chance in hell of her learning English...ever).

Nice to meet you...or rather, your blog. :)