In 2009, Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, presented her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a “reset” button she thought symbolized a new era for Russian and American diplomacy.
Lavrov pointed out the word the Americans had chosen, “peregruzka,” meant “overcharged,” not “reset.” Though the two leaders laughed off the mistake, the mistranslated button was a symbol of persistent misunderstanding between the two nations.
Russia has long been characterized by many in the West as enigmatic; indeed, almost beyond understanding. It was Winston Churchill who in October of 1939, mere weeks after the invasion of Poland by Nazi armed forces, speculated on the role of Russia in the war, famously depicting Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
He added: “…but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.”
In other words, Churchill could not envision the dismemberment of the Soviet Union by the German war machine without Russia fighting for her “life interests.” History proved him right. Russia survived, though gravely wounded.
The claims of Russia to her unique, historic life interests again came to the forefront when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s and Russia the nation and empire appeared on the verge of total disintegration. Russia found itself in desperate need of a Weltanschauung that would replace the communist ideology that had held the nation in its grip for seventy years. If she did not, she might even face the prospect of radical shrinkage back to the proportions of Kievan Rus, her empire absorbed into Eastern Europe and the Far East. For some, if not most, of Russia’s political and intellectual leaders, the prospect of seeing the Russian empire virtually disappear was unthinkable.
Discerning that a U.S. Marshall Plan was not in order for Russia, several main figures came forward with ideas for a Russian reset button, one which they saw as including the “historic life interests” of Russia in the post-communist era. One, of course, is Vladimir Putin, whose embrace of Russian Orthodoxy has been a reason for the elevation of Christianity to a place of influence it occupied for over a millennium.
One of the spiritual and philosophical influences behind Putin has been Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Partly due to Putin’s influence, Solzhenitsyn’s master work The Gulag Archipelago is now required reading in Russian schools.
Solzhenitsyn openly rejected the secularist and leftist liberal political philosophy dominating the cultures of Europe and America. Russia, he said, had her own unique spiritual and historic heritage, a heritage that clashed with the dominant ideology of the West. Though he admired the spirituality of the American heartland, he saw the West in general as drowning in a vortex created by moral degradation, anti-religious sentiment, and extreme individualism.
Perhaps the most succinct and prescient analyses of the errors of the liberal democratic West and the failure of the West to understand Russia and Russian spirituality is found in his speech at Harvard University, given in 1978 some eleven years before the collapse of East Germany and the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn reminded the Harvard graduates that the West was not the one and only advanced culture. Russia also deserved high regard as an ancient and autonomous entity:
“Any ancient and deeply rooted, autonomous culture… constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking… For one thousand years Russia belonged to such a category, although Western thinking systematically committed the mistake of denying its autonomous character and therefore never understood it…”
In other words, if Russia was an enigma, it was due to Western blindness, a blindness that was largely due to spiritual cataracts. If Russia seemed inscrutable, it was because American and the rest of the West failed to understand the Russian soul and the Russian nation. No reset was possible unless the West returned to its own Christian spiritual roots. Until spiritual eyeglasses provided vision, the materialistic but powerful West would remain blinded by its sense of total superiority.
The West, he went on to say, thought of itself as possessing the most attractive system, and regarded other nations as culturally inferior entities that needed to come up to speed, rejecting their “wicked governments” and “their own barbarity” in order to take “the way of western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life.
Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which develops out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick.”
Russia had its own ancient and autonomous character and was in some ways more advanced than the secularist West, which he saw as declining in courage, and as inclined toward overemphasis on individual rights seldom ameliorated by a corresponding emphasis on individual obligations. Such was the emphasis on individual rights that “destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space.” The result was that evil had boundless freedom to expand in every part of society, expressing itself as individual “rights,” be those rights exhibiting themselves in pornography, violence, and even anarchy. A firm belief in the basic goodness of human nature coupled with an almost complete misapprehension of the evil inherent in human nature had led the West to embracing what amounted to spiritual and moral anarchy.
The spiritual condition of the West meant its system was not the ideal model for Russia, which Solzhenitsyn characterized as possessing spiritual strength the West had once possessed, but which it had rejected. The West was spiritually exhausted due to the repudiation of the Christian principles on which it was based. As Russia was, even in the midst of the communist regime, gaining her spiritual strength, a vitiated West had virtually nothing to say to her beyond advocacy of runaway materialism and out-of-control individualism.
Solzhenitsyn went on to point out the basic error that led to the decadence of the West; namely, the assumption of the Enlightenment that mankind has no higher force above him, but is autonomous -- mankind as the center of everything that exists. In effect, the West, including America, which at its inception believed quite differently, rejected the idea that all “individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature.” Freedom, he said, is conditional in that it has grave religious responsibilities, an idea that had roots thousands of years old.
He concluded any commonality between Russia and the West had to be spiritual:
“[If] the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.”
For Solzhenitsyn, Christianity, specifically the Russian Orthodox Church, had informed the Russian soul and Russia since the end of the first millennium, with roots going back to the Eastern Roman Empire. The path leading to restoration of true greatness lay in a return to God and a repudiation of the dark inheritance of a so-called Enlightenment that fostered atheism and sought to tear down Christianity.
Having experienced firsthand the brutality of a regime motivated by atheism, Solzhenitsyn saw a similar deleterious influence at the core of the crisis of the West. Once again, runaway atheism was revealing its inherently destructive nature. In his Templeton Prize Lecture of May 1983, “Godlessness: The First Step to the Gulag,” he said:
“And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God. The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.
“…the world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.
[In the West] …the concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short lived value. It has become embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system.”
The West, including America, was sliding toward an abyss of its own making. The young were deliberately being taught godlessness and hatred of their own society. The subsequent corrosion of the human heart and hatred was fast becoming the signature of the contemporary free world, which appeared anxious to export to the rest of the world its own philosophy of godlessness and immorality.
The solution, he concluded, was repentance and return to God:
“…[W]e can propose only a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned. Only in this way can our eyes be opened to the errors of this unfortunate twentieth century and our bands be directed to setting them right. There is nothing else to cling to in the landslide: the combined vision of all the thinkers of the Enlightenment amounts to nothing… If we perish and lose this world, the fault will be ours alone.”
Solzhenitsyn’s powerful insights hold much truth. If there is to be a reset between the West and Russia, it must be based on the mutual and ancient Christian roots of both entities. Here in the United States, there is a Christian commonality that still exists, but it desperately requires fostering and revival.
In the meantime, Christianity in the West and in Russia remains a key to the relationship between the two.
Therein lies a way to rapprochement.
Therein lies a possibility of a “reset button.”
The way will not be easy, as the present leaders of the West have largely bowed to the forces of a spiritually arid and atheistic secularism.
But there is hope that some will seek to hear and to heed the voice that says, “This is the way. Walk in it.”
Fay Voshell is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. She holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she received the seminary’s prize for excellence in systematic theology. Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines, including Russia Insider, National Review, CNS, RealClearReligion and Fox News. She has also presented her views on radio and television. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.