russia essay

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Module Assignments

  • Study the assigned curriculum — both Parts 1 and 2.
  • Submit your essay (or your contracted alternative), which must include thoughts on both parts of each module.
  • Your peer exchanges are due two days after your essay is due.

The essays are designed to be meaningful exercises of self-exploration (reflections) rather than busy work (summaries).

The practice of philosophy is a major goal of your essays and exchanges. This practice promotes and supports independent, creative and original thinking.

Essays Due by 11:00 PM on Mondays and Thursdays.

  • Your essays need to be a thoughtful “journal-like” reflections.
  • Essays must address both part 1 and part 2 of each module’s curriculum.
  • A good reflection is one that I could not have read before. This is because it is the essay that only you could have written — due to your unique set of life experiences.

Minimum Requirements

  • Essays are not summaries. That is busy work.
  • Summaries do not receive credit because they do not require serious thought — simply the ability to record information.
  • Your essays must be more than 700 words to receive credit and be eligible for a C, more than 800 words to be eligible for a B, and more than 900 words to be eligible for an A.
  • Your assignments are not eligible for A’s if they require proofreading.
  • Assignments that are partial (not meeting minimum requirements) do not receive partial credit.
  • Late assignments are not eligible for credit.

Essay Prompts

You are not required to use the following prompts, but they may help you think about what you are studying:

  • What did you learn? What surprised you and/or caused enough doubt that you were inspired to do a little research and fact checking?
  • Did you find any specific ideas confusing or difficult?
  • Did you have an emotional response, negative or positive? Do you know why?
  • Have you had any experiences you are willing to share with our class that help you relate to and understand any of the material in this module?
  • Did this assignment contain any “awakening” ideas, those that inspire you rather than depress you?
  • Did you find any of the ideas surprising? Why?

Final Assessment Prompts

You do not need to use these final assessment prompts either, but they may help you put what you are studying this semester into a larger perspective.

  • Can you give an example or two in your essay that demonstrates you were engaging with, and thinking about, our curriculum in a serious way?
  • Did you study everything required or did you rush and skim?
  • Did you find yourself thinking about class content when you did not have to, such as finding yourself discussing ideas with friends or family?
  • Did you seek clarification about class material that confused you? If not, why not?
  • Have your studies contributed to any increase in self-knowledge (how you understand the world and your place in it) or a deeper understanding of one’s current world view?

Part 1

Russia

The Russian Orthodox Church

Orthodox belief holds that the Orthodox Church is Christianity’s true, holy, and apostolic church, tracing its origin directly to the institution established by Jesus Christ. Orthodox beliefs are based on the Bible and on tradition, as defined by seven ecumenical councils held by church authorities between A.D. 325 and 787. Orthodox teachings include the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the inseparable but distinguishable union of the two natures of Jesus Christ–one divine, the other human.

Among saints, Mary has a special place as the Mother of God. Russian Orthodox services, noted for their pageantry, involve the congregation directly by using only the vernacular form of the liturgy. The liturgy itself includes multiple elaborate systems of symbols meant to convey the content of the faith to believers. Many liturgical forms remain from the earliest days of Orthodoxy. Icons and sacred images, often illuminated by candles, adorn the churches as well as the homes of most Orthodox faithful.

The church also places a heavy emphasis on monasticism. Many of the numerous monasteries that dotted the forests and remote regions of tsarist Russia are in the process of restoration. The Russian Orthodox Church, like the other churches that make up Eastern Orthodoxy, is autonomous, or self-governing. The highest church official is the Patriarch. Ecumenical councils, in which all member churches of Eastern Orthodoxy participate, decide matters relating to faith. Followers of the church regard the council’s decisions as infallible.

Church History

The Russian Orthodox Church traces its origins to the time of Kievan Rus, the forerunner of the modern Russian state. In A.D. 988, Prince Vladimir made the Byzantine variant of Christianity the state religion of Russia. The Russian Church was subordinate to the Patriarch of Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine Empire. The original seat of the Metropolitan, as the head of the church was known, was Kiev.

As power moved from Kiev to Moscow in the fourteenth century, the seat moved as well, establishing the tradition that the Metropolitan of Moscow is the head of the Church. In the Middle Ages, the Church placed strong emphasis on asceticism, which evolved into a widespread monastic tradition. Large numbers of monasteries were founded in obscure locations across all of the medieval state of Muscovy. Such small settlements expanded into larger population centers, making the monastic movement one of the bases of social and economic, as well as spiritual life.

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Russian Orthodox Church evolved into a semi-independent branch of Eastern Christianity. In 1589, the Metropolitan of Moscow received the title of Patriarch. Nevertheless, the Russian Church retained the Byzantine tradition of authorizing the head of state and the government bureaucracy to participate actively in the Church’s administrative affairs. Separation of church and state would be almost unknown in Russia.

As Western Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and the Reformation, Russia remained isolated from the West, and Russian Orthodoxy was virtually untouched by the changes in intellectual and spiritual life being felt elsewhere. In the seventeenth century, the introduction by Ukrainian clergy of Western doctrinal and liturgical reforms prompted a strong reaction among traditionalist Orthodox believers, resulting in a schism in the church.

In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great modernized, expanded, and consolidated Muscovy into what then became known as the Russian Empire. In the process of redefining his power as tsar, Peter curtailed the minimal secular influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was functioning principally as a pillar of the tsarist regime. In 1721, Peter the Great went so far as to abolish the patriarchate and establish a governmental organ called the Holy Synod, staffed by secular officials, to administer and control the Church. As a result, the Church’s moral authority declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the monastic tradition produced a number of church elders who gained the respect of all classes in Russia as wise counselors on both secular and spiritual matters. Similarly, by 1900, a strong revival movement was calling for the restoration of church autonomy and organizational reform. However, few practical reforms had been implemented when the October Revolution of 1917 brought to power the Bolsheviks, who set about eliminating the worldly and spiritual powers of the church.

Ironically, earlier in 1917 the moderate Provisional Government had provided the church a few months of restoration to its pre-Petrine stature by reestablishing the patriarchate and independent governance of the church. In the decades that followed, the communist leadership frequently used the restored Patriarch as a propaganda agent, allowing him to meet with foreign religious representatives in an effort to create the impression of freedom of religion in the Soviet Union.

Karl Marx, the political philosopher whose ideas were nominally followed by the Bolsheviks, called religion “the opiate of the people.” Although many of Russia’s revolutionary factions did not take Marx literally, the Bolshevik faction, led by Lenin, was deeply suspicious of the church as an institution and as a purveyor of spiritual values. Therefore, atheism became mandatory for members of the ruling Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). To eliminate as soon as possible what was deemed the perverse influence of religion in society, the communists launched a propaganda campaign against all forms of religion.

By 1918, the government had nationalized all church property, including buildings. In the first five years of the Soviet Union (1922-26), twenty-eight Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests were executed, and many others were persecuted. Most seminaries were closed, and publication of most religious material was prohibited. The next quarter-century saw surges and declines in arrests, enforcement of laws against religious assembly and activities, and harassment of clergy. Anti-religious campaigns were directed at all faiths; beginning in the 1920s, Buddhist and Shamanist places of worship were destroyed, and their lamas and priests were arrested (a practice that continued until the 1970s).

The League of the Militant Godless, established in 1925, directed a nationwide campaign against the Orthodox Church and all other organized religions. The extreme position of that organization eventually led even the Soviet government to disavow direct connection with its practices. In 1940, an estimated 30,000 religious communities of all denominations survived in all the Soviet Union, but only about 500 Russian Orthodox parishes were open at that time, compared with the estimated 54,000 that had existed before World War I.

In 1939, the government significantly relaxed some restrictions on religious practice, a change that the Orthodox Church met with an attitude of cooperation. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the government reluctantly solicited Church support, as it called upon every traditional patriotic value that might resonate with the Soviet people. According to witnesses, active Church support of the national war effort drew many otherwise alienated individuals to the Soviet cause. Beginning in 1942, to promote this alliance, the government ended its prohibition of official contact between clergy and foreign representatives. It also permitted the traditional celebration of Easter, and temporarily ended the stigmatization of religiosity as an impediment to social advancement.

The government concessions for the sake of national defense reinvigorated the Russian Orthodox Church. Thousands of churches reopened during the war. Then the Khrushchev regime (1953-64) reversed the policy that had made such a revival possible, pursuing a violent six-year campaign against all forms of religious practice. Although the church retained its official sanction throughout that period, Khrushchev’s campaign was continued less stringently by his successor, Brezhnev (in office 1964-82).

By 1975, the number of operating Russian Orthodox churches had been reduced to about 7,000. Some of the most prominent members of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and religious activists were jailed or forced to leave the church. Their place was taken by a docile clergy, whose ranks were sometimes infiltrated by agents of the Committee for State Security. Under these circumstances, the Church espoused and propagated Soviet foreign policy and furthered the Russification of non-Russian believers, such as Orthodox Ukrainians.

Despite official repression in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, religious activity persisted. Although regular church attendance was common mainly among women and the elderly, special occasions, such as baptisms and Easter, brought many more Russians into the churches. An increase in church weddings in the 1950s and 1960s stimulated the establishment of secular “marriage palaces,” offering the ceremonial trappings of marriage devoid of religious rites. When applications for seminary study increased significantly in the 1950s, the Communist Youth League forced aspiring seminarians to endure interrogations that discouraged many and that succeeded, by 1960, in sharply reducing the number of candidates.

The general cultural liberalization that followed Stalin’s death in 1953 brought a natural curiosity about the Russian past that especially caught the interest of younger generations. The ceremonies and art forms of the Russian Orthodox Church, an inseparable part of that past, attracted particular attention, to the dismay of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes. Historian James Billington has pointed out that in that period, religious belief was a form of generational rebellion by children against doctrinaire communist parents.

Although the Russian Orthodox Church did not play the activist role in undermining communism that the Roman Catholic Church played in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it gained appreciably from the gradual discrediting of Marxist-Leninist ideology in the late Soviet period. In the mid-1980s, only about 3,000 Orthodox churches and two monasteries were active. As the grip of communism weakened in that decade, however, a religious awakening occurred throughout the Soviet Union.

Symbolic gestures by President Gorbachev and his government, under the rubric of glasnost, indicated unmistakably that Soviet policy was changing. In 1988, Gorbachev met with Orthodox leaders and explicitly discussed the role of religion in the lives of their followers. Shortly thereafter, official commemoration of the millennium of Russian Orthodoxy sent a signal throughout Russia that religious expression again was accepted.

Beginning in 1989, new laws specified the Church’s right to hold private property and to distribute publications. In 1990, the Soviet legislature passed a new law on religious freedom, proposed by Gorbachev. At the same time, some of the constituent republics began enacting their own laws on the same subject. In the fall of 1990, a new deputy to the parliament of the Russian Republic, the Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin, guided the passage of an extraordinarily liberal law on religious freedom. That law remained in force when Russia became a separate nation the following year. (Yakunin was defrocked in 1994, however, for criticizing the church hierarchy.)

According to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksiy II, between 1990 and 1995 more than 8,000 Russian Orthodox churches were opened, doubling the number of active parishes and adding thirty-two dioceses. In the first half of the 1990s, the Russian government returned numerous religious facilities that had been confiscated by its communist predecessors, providing some assistance in the repair and reconstruction of damaged structures.

The most visible project was the building of the completely new Christ the Savior Cathedral, erected in Moscow at an expense of about US $300 million to replace the showplace cathedral demolished in 1931 as part of the Stalinist campaign against religion. Financed mainly by private donations, the new church is considered to be a visible acknowledgment of the mistakes of the Soviet past.

In the first half of the 1990s, the church’s social services also expanded considerably, with the creation of departments of charity and social services, and of catechism and religious education within the patriarchy. Because there was a shortage of priests, Sunday schools were introduced in thousands of parishes. An agreement between the patriarchy and the national ministries of defense and internal affairs provides for pastoral care of military service personnel of the Orthodox faith. The Patriarch also has stressed that personnel of other faiths must have access to appropriate spiritual guidance.

Among the religious organizations that have appeared in the 1990s are more than 100 Russian Orthodox brotherhoods. Reviving a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, these priest-led lay organizations do social and charity work. In 1990, they formed the Alliance of Orthodox Brotherhoods, which organizes educational, social, and cultural programs and institutions, such as child care facilities, hostels, hospitals, and agricultural communities. Although its nominal task is to foster religious and moral education, the alliance has taken actively nationalist positions on religious tolerance and political issues.

Public opinion surveys have revealed that the church emerged relatively unscathed from its association with the Communist regime. According to polls, in the first half of the 1990s, the church inspired greater trust among the Russian population than most other social and political institutions. The political leadership regularly seeks the approval of the church as moral authority for virtually all types of government policy. Boris Yeltsin’s appearance at a Moscow Easter service in 1991 was considered a major factor in his success in the presidential election held two months later.

Although the status of Russian Orthodoxy has risen considerably, experts do not predict that it will become Russia’s official state religion, since approximately 25 percent of Russia’s believers profess other faiths, and experts stated that in the mid-1990s, the church lacked the clerics, the organizational dynamism, and the infrastructure to assume such a position.

A Theology of Light

One of the interesting differences between the Russian Orthodox Church and Christian theology in the West is that they placed different emphases on what salvation meant and what grace looked like. In Russia, there was a great emphasis on Jesus as the Light of the World. Orthodox theologians paid much attention to the Gospel story about the transfiguration of Jesus, in which he becomes brilliant with so much light that James, John, and Peter could no longer gaze upon him. It is believed that in this scene, Jesus reveals to these three disciples his true glory hidden in his human frame. This story plays such a large role that transfiguration becomes a goal and sign of personal holiness.

In the West, the emphasis is placed on the crucifixion. There is a greater emphasis on original sin, our unworthiness, and the complete gratuity of God’s willingness to reach out and save us. This is seen most clearly in two different types of miracles that are specific to East and West. Saint Francis in the West is known for his stigmata, among many other things. The stigmata are the wounds of the crucified Christ appearing on a Christian. Since Francis, many other Christians in the West have had this experience. But this experience of having the wounds of Jesus is unknown in the East. In the Russian Church, there are stories of great saints becoming so filled with light that they cannot be gazed upon for periods of time. This is the same as the transfiguration of Jesus. This experience is almost unknown in the West! These miracles are dramatic demonstrations of the different ways the story of Jesus is emphasized in the East and the West.

Part of this theology may have to do with the different cultures. The Roman popes would step into secular leadership, and in doing so, the Church took on many of the judicial qualities of Roman law. There was more of an emphasis on judgment and penalties. Also, significantly, the West went through a period now known as the Dark Ages. Could this have anything to do with the different emphases in theology? The Byzantine Empire was having some golden periods at the very time the West was falling apart, due to things such as a lack of order and the invasions of barbarians. The Western world was having a very different cultural experience, and this too may have influenced which parts of the life of Christ were emphasized.

Jesus taught his followers to take up their crosses and follow him, but he also taught that he came to bring us abundant joy. Both sides can be found in the teaching of Jesus, and both sides can be found in the Eastern and Western churches, but it seems the East emphasized the light and the West emphasized the dark.

Cosmic Perspectives

Individualism is so important in the West and such an accepted standard, that we tend to take it for granted. Saint Augustine’s famous autobiography, Confessions, is a case in point. We tend to forget that writing about oneself in this way was a completely new thing. His writings are only the first among many. We have the writings of many saints, such as Saint Teresa of Avila, who give us many details about her interior life and spiritual journey. In the Russian Church this is almost unknown.

One reason is that in the East there is a greater emphasis on the unity of human nature, and what an individual does matters more in its cosmic significance, not its personal significance. In other words, there is less emphasis on personal salvation. Monks in the East, for example, tend to understand their efforts as helping all people in some mysterious fashion.

One way to understand this is to think of sports records. One person sets a record, and then for a long time no one is able to meet it. It becomes a limit that no one can surpass. Then one day, someone runs a 3-minute mile, and in breaking down the barrier, they seem to open it up to others who then also run a 3-minute mile. The same goes for conquering a mountain such as Everest. At first, it seems impossible, then finally someone does it, and before you know it, many people have climbed Mount Everest.

Eastern monks seem to think along similar lines about their spiritual “work.” If they can achieve union with God, somehow this makes God more present in the world, and it is more possible for others to achieve the same thing. In other words, their spiritual work takes on cosmic significance. In this sense, they would be confused by the concept of personal salvation. If we are all one on some level, how can I be saved and not you? Surely we are all saved together. This is the idea of the Communion of Saints, found in the West as well. But the East never shared the same weight on the importance of individualism that is such an important contribution of the West. This is evidenced by the lack of autobiographical writings.

Judaism in Russia: Introduction

Judaism is so many things that it is difficult to know where to start. It is, of course a religion. But it is also a culture and a people, but it is not a race. There are Jews who do not believe in God or consider themselves religious. Could this be true of Christianity or Islam? No. Both of those religions are about having faith in God, but they are not a people the way Jews are. It would be difficult to say “I am a Christian but I do not believe in God.” But it is not difficult to say “I am a Jew and an Atheist.” And yet Jews are not a race the way Chinese and Japanese people are considered a race! Confused? It is understandable! There are White and Black Jews, European and American Jews, African and Chinese Jews, religious and secular Jews. There are Jews who are also Israelis and Jews who do not identify with Israel, let alone approve of all that Israel does.

So how do you know if you are even Jewish? Traditionally, you are considered Jewish if your mother is a Jew. It is also possible to become a Jew through conversion. Jews do not try to convert other people the way some religions send out missionaries, but they do accept people into Judaism who wish to convert.

It is not easy to convert. One must study and learn a great deal before one is allowed to join, but this prevents those who wish to become Jewish from doing so only on an emotional impulse. Instead, you must make a thoughtful and rational choice over a period of time while you study all about what you are getting yourself into. It will often take a couple of years of preparation.

There are a lot of myths out there about Jews. You have probably heard some of them, such as “All Jews are rich,” “They are trying to take over the world,” or that they control the media. Such stories might be somewhat harmless for other groups of people, but Jews have found themselves persecuted in brutal ways all over the world for two thousand years and more. As a result, they are very sensitive to some of these ideas about who they are. So right at the beginning of this lecture it is important to recognize that there are many stereotypes of Jews out there and it will be our task to sort out all of this the best we can and study Judaism with a fresh and open mind. Most important is to keep in mind that Judaism does not represent any single race, belief, or viewpoint, let alone values and politics.

The Traditional Story of Judaism

As many of you know, the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) told the story of the origin of not only the Jews, but of the world as well. The Jews believe that God created the world, and trace themselves back to Abraham. The Bible says that Abraham came from Ur in the Valley of Two Rivers in Mesopotamia. The Jews believe that God called Abraham out of Ur to found a people who would worship the one true God. Abraham had a son named Isaac, who had a son named Jacob (later changed to Israel). Israel had 12 sons, and from them we get the 12 tribes of Israel. Due to a famine causing starvation, the sons of Israel (Jacob) move to Egypt where there was food. They settle there for about four hundred years.

The story continues with the famous Moses and Exodus story. God calls Moses to set his people free. After some rather amazing miracles, the Jews leave Egypt. As they passed through the desert, God revealed his Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to Moses on Mount Sinai. Torah means “teaching” or “instruction” or “law,” and is commonly known as the Law of Moses.

After wandering in the desert for 40 years and experiencing many tests and failures, they eventually arrive on the border of Canaan. Around the year 1000 B.C.E., they develop a monarchy, and the great King David unites the twelve tribes and builds his capital (and makes plans to build the Temple) in Jerusalem. After many ups and downs, only two tribes of Jews are left. At one point, even they are sent into exile in Babylon (modern Iraq), but are later allowed and even encouraged to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, which had been destroyed.

This was around 500 years after king David. The Jews continue to live in Israel (Palestine) for the next 500 years, sometimes free and independent, but usually ruled over by some foreign power. Persia, Greece, and eventually Rome all had their chance to rule the Middle East, including Israel. In the year 70 C.E., the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule was crushed and the second Temple was destroyed, along with Jerusalem. After a final rebellion around 135 C.E., which was also crushed, the Jews were driven out of Israel and dispersed among the nations. The Jews lived and moved around all over the world for the next two thousand years, until they returned to Palestine to re-form the Israeli nation in 1948.

Jewish Beliefs

“Judaism is often presented as a religion in which the importance of formal, theological doctrine is minimized. In a real sense this is true. No dogma is as significant to most Jews as adherence to the Jewish community, a relationship many feel is better expressed through practice – participation in the Sabbath worship, festivals, customs, and observances traditional to the community – and through a living sense of being part of the Jews’ long history, than in creedal affirmations” (MPMF, p. 276.) But nevertheless, they do have some core beliefs.

“A conventional touchstone for their beliefs has been 13 principles of faith put down by the great medieval thinker Moses Maimonides:

  1. God is Creator and Guide.
  2. God is One in a unique way.
  3. God does not have a physical form.
  4. God is eternal.
  5. God and God alone is to be worshiped.
  6. God has revealed his will through the prophets.
  7. Moses is the greatest of the prophets.
  8. The Torah was revealed to Moses.
  9. The Torah is eternal and unchanging.
  10. God is all knowing.
  11. God gives rewards and punishments.
  12. The Messiah will come.
  13. The dead will be resurrected.

“Whether interpreted strictly or liberally, these principles appear to have four main emphases. First, they affirm the existence of a God who is creator and sustainer of the world and who is absolutely one without a second. This expresses the uncompromising monotheism that is Judaism’s central religious theme and most distinctive gift to humanity” (MPMF, p. 276.)

“Second, the principles affirm that this God is an active God, in some way continually involved in human history. He has revealed his will through prophets and scripture in the context of history and is preparing a messianic climax to history” (MPMF, p. 276.) This is also a belief in a personal God, not just a cosmic divine force. This is a God who cares and is involved with individuals and the community. There is a relationship here that means that one is required to be faithful, not to just some ideal principles, but to the relationship.

“Third, they affirm the complete religious adequacy of Judaism, its greatest prophet – Moses, and its Torah” (MPMF, p. 276.) This is again why Jews believe that they do not need to convert to another religion. They do not believe they need a mediator like Jesus because God has revealed his will for them and God’s will has not changed. All they need to stay in that covenant relationship with God is to be faithful to what they have already been given.

“Fourth, they powerfully elucidate depth, meaning, and righteous judgment in individual human life, as they affirm that God knows each thoroughly, bestowing rewards and punishments to each in a manner not fully specified. By speaking of personal resurrection Maimonides avows the eternal significance of each individual life (MPMF, p. 276-277.)

Early Judaism does not speak much about eternal life. If you read the Torah carefully, you will not find much emphasis or teaching about what happens after death. Slowly, Judaism does develop some of these ideas. Eventually they have a full-blown theology of eternal life. But even with this, the emphasis is different from many other religions. Judaism does not go into many details about what eternal life is like. It continues to place the emphasis on this life. The next life, Judaism seems to say, will take care of itself if we take care of this life now. Most Jews do not believe in an eternal Hell. If there is a place of judgment and punishment, it is limited in time until justice has been satisfied. The emphasis is on mercy.

Jewish Russian History

Judaism began to have an influence on Russian culture and social attitudes in the sixteenth century, shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492. In the centuries that followed, large numbers of Jews migrated to Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. Anti-Semitism followed the Jews from Western Europe, and already in the sixteenth century, the culture of Moscow contained a strong element of that attitude.

When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, large numbers of Jews came into the Russian Empire, giving Russia the largest Jewish population (ab

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