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The Russian Path Not Taken

As the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1990, two roads metaphorically diverged in a Russian wood. And the road chosen has “made all the difference.”

A view of a 19th-century wooden church, damaged by a rocket attack during the Russian invasion of the Zhytomyr region of Ukraine April 28, 2022. (CNS photo/Viacheslav Ratynskyi, Reuters)

I’ve been thinking recently about Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and its relationship to a deceased Russian Orthodox priest.

As the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1990, two roads metaphorically diverged in a Russian wood. One was the path of national renewal facilitated by an evangelically vibrant, intellectually open and ecumenically engaged Russian Orthodoxy; the other was the more familiar road of Russian Orthodox subservience to state power. In this instance, the “road less traveled by” was not taken. And confirming the poet’s insight, that choice indeed “made all the difference.”

Which brings us to Father Alexander Men.

In the last decades of the USSR, Father Men became a prominent reformist voice in Russian Orthodoxy, a spiritual adviser to Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and a magnet for conversions to Christ among the Russian intelligentsia. Communism, Men preached, was a “colossal historical pathology” that had “virtually destroyed” Russian culture; the damage it had done “lives on in people’s souls.” To help repair that damage, a post-communist Russian Church had to repent of its degrading cooperation with Soviet power. Out of that repentance, he hoped, would come a Russian Orthodoxy whose Christocentric voice would help build a renewed Russian civil society.

Men’s vision of the Russian future was a threat to the state security services already plotting their takeover of post-Soviet Russia, and to Russian Orthodox leaders who had ceased to be churchmen in any real sense of the term. It seems probable that some combination of those two evil forces led to the axe-murder of Alexander Men in a wooded area near Moscow on September 9, 1990 — a crime that has never been prosecuted.

No one knows how Men’s thinking would have evolved had he lived, of course. But let’s imagine that Father Men, who had warned of a “new Russian fascism” days before his assassination, was still alive in early 1992 when the future Patriarch of Moscow, then Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, told 5,000 former Red Army officers, just weeks after the USSR disintegrated, that Russian Orthodoxy could fill the ideological and patriotic void left by the collapse of communism. Alexander Men knew something about spiritual voids, and he might have proposed filling that post-communist Russian emptiness with something beautiful and spiritually enriching, rather than with the ugly nationalism promoted by Kirill and other Russian Orthodox leaders.

Father Men would likely have challenged such xenophobia; and given his moral and spiritual authority, he might have made a difference. Unchallenged, Kirill’s instrumentalization of the Russian Church has prevented Russian Orthodoxy’s formal leadership from developing a prophetic capacity to speak truth to power. So now the Church’s leaders underwrite the murder of children and the destruction of vast swaths of Ukraine.

I like to think that Father Men and those he inspired might have ignited a rebirth of Russian culture capable of resisting Putinism’s allure. It was not to be.  What could have been a crucial voice was silenced by an assassin’s axe in those woods in 1990. And since then, Russian Orthodoxy’s leadership has failed to tend the wounds that 70 years of communism inflicted. Instead, Patriarch Kirill and his chief ecumenical officer, Metropolitan Hilarion, have promoted an aggressive concept of the Russkiy mir, the “Russian world,” that underwrites the new Russian imperialism. The culture of the lie that was a trademark of the Soviet past now corrupts the Putinesque Russian present. And its brutalizing effects have been on display over the past two months.

The politicized faux-theology of Kirill and Hilarion, now voiced by Putin and his minions, holds that Ukraine must be part of Russia or Ukraine must be annihilated. Why? Because Russia is the only legitimate heir of the baptism of the eastern Slavs. Anyone else who claims a portion of that spiritual patrimony is a “Nazi,” and those “Nazis” must be exterminated (as a state-sponsored Russian media service put it in April). Russia’s war in Ukraine is therefore a holy war.

This is repulsive (not to mention theologically bizarre). Yet scholars of the Russian Church have noted a striking congruence between the number of Russians who claim to support Putin’s war on Ukraine (80%) and the number of Russians who, irrespective of their religious practice or lack thereof, claim to be Orthodox (80%). Would such a sordid cohabitation of ecclesiastical ambition and unhinged state power have developed if true religious leaders like Father Men had shaped the Russian Orthodox future, rather than Kirill and Hilarion?

No one knows. What we do know is that the more familiar road taken by Russian Orthodoxy’s leadership has become a path to the betrayal of the Gospel.


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About George Weigel 393 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

17 Comments

  1. And what about the godless western mob who’ve taken over Ukraine? Are they exempt from this examination? They’re every bit as wicked as the Russian Orthodox Church and much more aggressive. Theirs is a wide path of wanton destruction targeted at the rest of us who read these articles and are thus busily occupied criticizing Russia and swallowing a camel.

    • the ‘godless western mob’ include our brothers the greek catholics of ukraine? because they are the first supporters of the pro-western course that the country has taken

    • This is a truly bizarre comment. Ukraine has caused a “swath of destruction”? Talk about blaming the victim! I would hate to hear how you describe a rape.

      • For 8 years from 2014, sectionalists based in Kiev, helped from abroad in the west, murdered Ukrainians in the Donbass. More than 13,000 individuals mostly from the east, died; either from suffering directly from the violence or from having to cope with the indirect effects. No, it can’t be termed “rape”. Seriously.

        And if you want to talk about “economic raiding”, you would then be forced to enter into a critical analysis of the Obama-Biden “foreign policy” projects; the role of Hunter Biden; and the connections with China.

        • the Donbass separatist insurrection was from the start instigated from Russia, which pumped in the region armed militants (Igor Girkin and his group started the war entering from Russia and occupying Sloviansk) and a lot of weapons, and then put in the region also some groups of russian army in incognito, and also bombed ukraine territory from russia territory
          the 14.000-16.000 deads are most soldiers and armed militants, and the civilians deaths are about 3.500-4.500

          • The mostly civilian people of the Donbass were classed as “separatists” and put in a corner and assigned for elimination because some militarist radicals from the west of Ukraine and outside Ukraine, decided during a period preceding the “Maidan revolution”, that Donbass votes in the country and its views, must never count.

            It is an old and tried tactic -“anima”- to let time pass and restate the issues incorrectly -“errante”; but your ploy is revealed.

          • And so the blame game continues causing more lives to be lost. Are Christians really pro-life? Should efforts not be made to live peacefully as the family of Jesus?

      • Many of them profess being Godless, quite explicitly. Many of the remainder will not properly listen to anything that threatens their profits.

        Brunton, what do you say justifies the free-wheeling killing and carnage in the Donbass for 8 years and then the brazen move to escalate it in 2022?

  2. If I understand Weigel correctly here, he is asserting that Russia wants to lock everyone into a particular dialectic of history -in the case under examination, of a religious-political turn.

    I do not agree that this is a consensus position in Russia and further do not agree the Russian Orthodox has a pan-Orthodox vision for itself.

    Patriarch Bartholomew is the one who has professed pan-Orthodox ambitions. Bartholomew’s musings on this are overboard, mindless and determined; and they are not la-de-da. They are contrary to Roman Catholicism. This is IN ADDITION to his embrace of the “Great Reset” totalitarianism. He has never demonstrated he has any understanding of the contradictions in his positions: indicating an imperviousness that is his not Kirill’s.

    I would also fault the basic structure of Weigel’s argumentation, in his essay here, this way.

    Weigel himself has a religious-political dialectic for the west and for Russia. But instead of placing it squarely front and center in his analysis, naming it with his authorship and showing its underlying fundamentals and its contrasts to other things, he deflects. He zones in on “the east” with projections that would supposedly coalesce rationally for them; and so that it would work out for them and they should want it to, the way he paints it up as he wants it to be seen. Very complicated.

  3. The excuse for the war, mentioned in the article – bizarre indeed, paralleling the lust for earthly power that led to the rejection of The Way shown by The Lord , of deep conversion of hearts to love God with His own Love in The Spirit, thus to see the beauty and goodness around as well as in every human life, in every heart beat and breath as manifestations of that Love , given as gifts in His Divine Will..poured in through a Mother of all – who she tears of joy and sorrow from the Immaculate Conception on ..the very precious heritage we too can ask for , to be thus set free from the carnal holds and the related lies of ownership brought in by enemy spirits ..

    http://www.preghiereagesuemaria.it/DV-inglese/THE%20BLESSED%20VIRGIN%20MARY%20IN%20THE%20KINGDOM%20OF%20THE%20DIVINE%20WILL%20%20FINAL%20EDITION%202014.pdf

    The Consecration done by the Holy Father hopefully to help to blind Satan soon enough to thus let in the Light as to who we belong to ..

    ‘ Blessed Lady , take us and place us the in the Divine Fire where we belong and share with us the Immaculate Conception …’

    https://saintanastasia.net/documents/2021/9/St%20Anastasia%20FOL%20Cenacle%20Prayer%20%20%20Book%20version%208-22-21.pdf

    The sufferings of the Holy Father ,esp. the interior sufferings and sorrows about this war as well as all other wars , hidden and explicit, also making reparations to pull back the feet of those who are being pulled by the enemy – that their feet instead journey with that of The Lord…that their eyes instead look up and up ..to trust that any real or perceived depravities, whether of lands or power allowed in the Divine Will can bring great blessings- to make room for The Spirit – just as was for the Apostles , after the Ascension ..

    Pope Emer. Benedict – in honoring St.Hannibale – ‘Apostle of the Divine Will’, having his statue placed in the Vatican in 2010 ..Pope Francis has invoked ‘Our Lady of The Fiat ‘ at the Consecration prayers .. thank God that there good and holy fathers who discern , act and call on The Church and the world to be attentive to the Divine Will..
    May its echoes reach the many hardened hearts and ears that are listening to the lies and claims of the enemy …

  4. A very good analysis of an issue that may never be completely understood. Lessons concerning the Russian Orthodox Church were very clear from the mouths of many of those who escaped the Soviet Union when the wall fall. They were clear that the Russian Orthodox Church was an arm of the KGB. Yet it seems that no one at the Vatican appreciated this, then or now.

    • Martin,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Would that the Vatican had person’s of Father Men’s caliber and courage.

  5. Interesting. Also, Clinton the EU and Nato screwed over Russia. Then the evil Soros collapsed the economy in 98 and then we got Putin.

  6. Russia intervened in what was in effect a civil war between those Ukrainians who maintained aspects of Russian culture and language; and the Kievan state, representing those Ukrainians who did not. The latter was overtly attempting to extirpate the former. Given the indiscriminate shelling from the Kievan forces, which greatly increased in February, coupled with alarming signs that the Kievan military was preparing to roll into the Donbass, Russia could no longer stand by and watch the Ukrainian government kill its own people.
    Thankfully the Patriarch and the Metropolitan have been faithful to the Gospel. It is chilling to think what sort of Russia one would have seen, if men like Putin, Kirill, and Hilarion had not put an end to the oligarchs reign. Justice for the Donbass.

    • Donbass is not the oligarch’s reign, but a North Korea regime full of political oppression, religious persecution (if you are not russian orthodox or neopagan your freedom is limited or zero)
      greek catholics or latin priest were persecuted by the donbass goverments

      • That was never an originating issue. The origin of the matter is otherwise; and if what you say was ever indeed a problem, it is not solved this way. Bringing it up out of context and late is “errante” and not identifying who is credibly interested in this area is “anima”. Following on all the killing that went and that continues and also on the escalation that was always intended by the militarists from Kiev, now in motion, your timing and topic give off as being self-serving; and could be malicious as well.

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