Hinduism and Russian Orthodoxy India Indo-Russian relations Russia Russo-Indian relations

The Cultural Limits of Russo-Indian Partnership in ‘Great Eurasia’: Comparing Russkost’ and Hinduism

by Gordon M. Hahn

Russia’s foreign policy is increasingly focused on Asia, and one strategy adopted by President Vladimir Putin has been to work towards the unity of the states of Eurasia writ large or ‘Great Eurasia’ (from Beijing to Belarus, from Murmansk to Mumbai) in a series of interlocking multinational economic and security organizations: the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and others. Russia is also part of the clearly Sino-led One Road-One Belt project.

Putin has also borrowed several ideas from neo-Eurasianist theory and ideology in order to lend a logical, even ideological underpinning to this strategy, arguing for a unification of the non-Western states and civilizations on the supercontinent as an alternative power center in pluralizing the international system against Western domination. His positions on numerous political issues correspond to, but do not mirror or adhere precisely to neo-Eurasianist ideas such as: the ‘traditionalism’ of Russian, Chinese, Asian, Islamic, and Hindu civilizations in contrast to the anti-traditionalism of the West; the continuing religiosity of these civilizations as compared with the secular West; the heterogeneity of this set of civilizations and their national and ethnic cultures as opposed to the homogenization of Western-dominated globalization; and the non-Western cultures’ supposed closeness to nature than the stark cultural and physical landscape of the technologized and urbanized West.

Although Putin’s civilizational neo-Eurasianism serves his goal of economic integration and security cooperation in Eurasia, significantly designed to counter NATO expansion and Western democracy-promotion, more ideological hardline Eurasianists remain relevant and could seize the state agenda under certain circumstances. Therefore, it is worth trying to understand its intellectual and practical limitations both in terms of Russian domestic and foreign politics.

There are limits to the veracity of the Eurasianist worldview, both empirical, civilizational, and geo-spatial, in relation to the cohesiveness and compatibility of Greater Eurasia’s constituent parts: the Russian Orthodox, Asian Confucian, Hindu, and Buddhist civilizations. Much of Eurasianism exaggerates many of the differences between Western and non-Western civilizations. Some non-Western civilizations, including Slavic Orthodox Russia, intersect with the West in pivotal issue areas. On the other hand, Indian civilization, history and culture in particular contrast considerably with Russian civilization and culture and at certain points intersect nicely with Western assumptions, norms and values. Whereas Russia has formed a very tight strategic, political, and economic partnership with China, it has thus far failed to do so with India, despite BRICS and India’s observer status in the Sino-Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Might there be cultural explanations for this slow progress in forming a Russo-Indian partnership? Many civilizational comparativists argue that religion typically forms the foundation of the world’s respective major civilizations. One way to examine important differences between Russian and Indian (Hindu) civilization and culture is to compare and contrast Russian Orthodoxy and Hinduism in terms of their relative adherence to the principle of pluralism, which has been a foundation stone of Western democracy and republicanism – presupposing the benefits of ideological and political pluralism and competition – and market economics – presupposing pluralism and diffusion of private property and competition between economic actors.

I will argue below that religio-philosophically Russians differ from Hindus as a consequence of differing orientations regarding three main dyads of thought and belief: quietism versus a quest for transcendental experience or knowledge; truth versus alternative, multiple answers or ambiguity and unity versus pluralism. The differences between Indian and Russian culture or Russkost’ could place limits on how close the countries might draw together.

Hindu Quietism and Russian Transcendentalism

Hindu religion and culture reflect not an acceptance but a complacent calm about ontological pursuit. Hindus are at peace with the answers to the questions they have ‘found’ regarding God(s), Man, and Existence. The ideas of reincarnation, redeath, transmigration offers eternal opportunity to get it right, without the condemnation of God. Their polyglot system of gods provides for sufficient redress and flexibility in its pursuit, producing a certain inert tranquility. There is not much of an overriding need among Hindus to uncover some as yet unrevealed ultimate Truth about the nature and meaning of existence in Heaven and on Earth. They have one, it is thought. It is pluralistic and diverse and therefore relatively open and flexible.

By contrast, Russians seem on a never-ending quest for great revelation of a transcendental and all-clarifying idea that explains God, Man and Existence. James H. Billington noted, many post-Soviet Russians are inclined to seek out something transcendental, a transcendent experience. [James Billington, Rossiya v poiskakh sebya (Moscow: Rosspen, 2005), p. 163, translated into Russian from the English-language publication James H. Billington, Russia in Search of Itself (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).] The passion for transcendental experience could be the driver of the three basic elements of Russian culture that both Billington and the Russian cultural historian Dmitrii S. Likhachev specified: (1) Russian Orthodoxy Christianity; (2) naturalism or a sense of closeness to nature; (3) and passionate borrowing from the West. (Billington, Rossiya v poiskakh sebya, p. 161; and James H. Billington, The Faces of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration, and Achievement in Russian Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2008), p. 126; and Dmitrii S. Likhachev, Russkaya kul’tura (Moscow: Isskustvo, 2000).) Russian aspiration to the transcendent may also explain the preference for the absolute in the cultural binary choices between truth and ambiguity, multiple answers; and unity versus pluralism; and intolerance versus tolerance. The transcendent could be mystical, messianistic, utopian, epically adventurous, or preference for absolutes: the attraction of ‘Orthodoxy’ (right praxis), naturalism, passionate borrowing from the West, the rejection of Patriarch Nikon’s Church reforms by the Old Believers, and the attraction to pietism, Free Masonry, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Russian universalism,’ and the intelligentsia’s turn to worldwide socialism and youth’s idealization of the peasantry in the 19th century. It is the last cultural tendency towards transcendence and absolutes has driven Russian civilization’s aspirations to ultimate Truth, unity, and, consequently, significant intolerance. In particular, the Russian propensity to seek the transcendent brings the pursuit and often the willful assertion of having found all-encompassing truth, requiring unity and eschewing tolerance of dissent and thus, if necessary, enforcement of these, thereby privileging authoritarianism over pluralism in Russia’s cultural development.*

Hindu Ambiguity and Russkaya Pravda

Hinduism’s mutually exclusive principles (e.g., non-violence and blood sacrifice) and precocious philosophical prevarications seem to ridicule the idea of ultimate truth. Indeed, Fernand Braudel refers to Hindu faith and religiosity as “foggy.” [Fernan Brodel’, Grammatika tsivilizatsii (Moscow: Ves mir, 2008), p. 230, translated from Fernand Braudel, Grammaire des civilisations (Paris: Flammarion, 1993).] The “emptiness in the center,” Doniger finds in defining Hinduism, underscores the absence of absolutes, let alone an absolute Truth. [Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 29.] Doniger doubts the veracity of several traditional definitions of Hinduism. The first is India’s president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in 1962-1967: “(T)he belief that truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express.” An addition to this she questions is that of the “militant nationalist” B. G. Talik (1856-1920): “(T)he means to salvation are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 27.) However, Doniger’s approach to drafting a definition is equally amorphous and, if you will, very Hinduistic. Enumerating a detailed list of clusters of essential characteristics, including gods, texts, and principles such as dharma (see below), she notes: “The configuration of the clusters of Hinduism’s defining characteristics changes through time, through space, and through each individual. It is constantly in motion, because it is made of people, also constantly in motion. Among the many advantages of the cluster approach is the fact that it does. To endorse any single authoritative or essentialist view of what is Hinduism is; it allows them all. Any single version of this polythetic polytheism (which is also monotheism, a monism, and a pantheism,” including this one, is no better than a strobe photograph of a chameleon…” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 29.) Any religion as multifarious as this can hardly propagate an Absolute Truth, and therefore the word ‘truth’ appears but a few times in Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, and almost always in reference to lying or the veracity of a claim and not in any discussion of Hinduism’s assertion of some higher-order Absolute Truth. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 27, 210, 311, 532 and 608.)

The Russian philosophers Semyon Frank and Nikolai Berdyaev and the German cultural historian Manuel Sarkisyants emphasized the concept of Pravda (Truth) as having “profoundly unique” Russian meaning. This Russkaya Pravda includes both the idea of truth (istina) and justice forming an indefatigable ethic principle based on fervent fulfillment of Christian norms. [S. L. Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie (Saint Petersburg: Nauka, 1996), pp. 182-5 and Manuel’ Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva (St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg State University, 2005), p. 16, translated from Manuel Sarkisyanz, Russland und der messianismus des Orient: Sendungsbewusstsein und politischer Chiliasmus des Ostens (Tlibingen: J. C. B. Mahr, 1955)]. Frank notes that the concept of truth in the Russian consciousness “meant simultaneously both istina and “moral and natural law” and that Russian philosophers and other moral thinkers were more interested in improving the world and making it more just than in understanding it, in contrast to their Western counterparts (Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 182.)

Truth was often associated with legal codes, moral and ethical principles, and religious faith. It was the title for both the 11th century legal codex of Grand Prince of Kiev and Novgorod Yaroslav Mudryi (the Wise) and the prospective Russian constitution drafted by the ill-fated Decembrist revolutionary Pavel Pestel’ in the early 19th century. Between Yaroslav’s codex and Pestel’s would-be constitution, Ivan III (1440-1505), the founder of Muscovite Rus’, was called ‘Tsar of Pravda,’ and Russian 16th century chronicles refer to Russia as the “kingdom of Truth on Earth” in addition to the well-known ‘Third Rome,’ with Moscow viewed as the last refuge of true Christianity after the fall of Rome, then Constantinople. (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 16.) The representatives of Ivan III’s son and successor, Vasilii III, were said to wield Pravda against ‘krivda’ or non-truth. Tsarist Pravda countered ‘krivda’ and would form the foundation of the belief of the ‘good Tsar’, who could sometimes be misdirected by the ‘krivda’ inside his court and among foreigners but who generally ensured the survival of Russkaya Pravda in an unclean world.

Much as the messianism tied to Russian Orthodoxy and the idea of the Moscow as the Third Rome transmogrified into the Russian intelligentsia as revolutionary messianism and Russian communists’ mission to spread revolution into Europe and globally, so too Russkaya Pravda was reincarnated into the belief among dissidents and revolutionaries, especially agrarian socialists and the narodniki or narodnichestvo (going to the people movement’) that Truth resided in the Russian Land (Zemlya), that is among the simple peasantry. “Pravdaiskatel’stvo” was embodied in the wanderers and pilgrims who “sought Truth.” Both Old Believers, who broke off from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) after Patriarch Nikon’s reforms, and the ROC Patriarch and hierarchy each believed they and they alone possessed Orthodox Russkaya Pravda. The schismatics thought the ROC to be seized by the Antichrist, while the ROC hunted down and torched the heretics, who had scorned Pravda.

‘Holy fools’ (yurodyvyie) were said to possess Pravda. Thus, holy fool Andrei Yurodivyi’s millennialism foresaw Christ’s coming bringing Truth to the Earth. Other holy fools were said to have foreseen events such as the deaths of Russian emperors and empresses. In a sense, Rasputin, who was said to have predicted the fate of Russia and the family of the last tsar, was in the holy fool tradition. Thought to be the font of truth on anything from religious to political to military to tsarevich Aleksei’s medical problems he accumulated numerous devote followers inside the late Imperial Court (though some, to be sure, were opportunists seeking appointments of other favors), most of all the Empress Aleksandra, though he was also despised by many inside the court as well.

Russian writers focused on Pravda, Gleb Uspenskii notes that after the disappointing conditions they found after their emancipation from the land, serfs were prepared to wander the earth in search of the ‘old Truth’ (staraya Pravda). Fyodor Dostoevskii, paraphrased by Sarkisyants, asked: “(H)ow can it be accomplished so that “the people’s spirit was quieted in Pravda and saw Pravda? Perhaps, Pravda exists even now but it is necessary that the people believe in it. How can ‘they’ be convinced that Pravda is in the Russian land and that its banner is raised?” (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 19.) In his famous 20 June (8 June, Old Style) 1880 speech commemorating Russia’s great poet Aleksandr Pushkin, Dostoevsky proclaimed that if only Pushkin had lived longer he might have been able to explain to Europeans, who now look down on Russia, “the whole truth of our aspirations” for “worldwide brotherhood.” [F. M. Dostoevskii, Dnevnik pisatelya (St. Petersburg: Lenizdat, 2001), p. 678.] Grigorii Petrov, publisher of the extremely popular early 20th century Russian newspaper ‘Pravda Bozh’ya’, like Tolstoy was a critic of the Imperial ‘Petersburg system’ and argued in 1906: “Pravda – the universal eternal truth (istina), and its empirical implementation into reality where social, political, and personal untruth (nepravda) reign – is the fundamental task of good will.” At about the same time, when Father Gapon led the 1905 Bloody Sunday march that sparked a brutal crackdown by Tsarist troops and thus the January 1905 revolutionary situation, he did so “to search for Pravda with the Tsar” and the “renewal of Russia on the basis of Pravda.” (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 22.)

Both Russian traditionalist autocratic statists, on the one hand, and Russian reformers and revolutionaries, on the other hand, believed they possessed Pravda. Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the arch-traditionalist Oberprokuror of the Holy Synod, which oversaw the Russian Orthodox Church and the moral state of society, rejected republican democracy on the grounds it was a violation of the “absolute and universal” Pravda that was Russian autocracy. (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 22.) It is indicative perhaps that Pobedonostsev recommended against reform and revolution, comparing them to the loss of dharma (piety and duty) during the period of Kali Age—the last most decadent of the four cyclical ages of historical time in Hindu belief. (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 22fn and Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 57-9, especially 58fn.) The pro-autocracy poet Fyodor Tyutchev saw the “one holy altar for the truth” in “our Orthodox tsar/Our good-souled, honest Russian tsar!” (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 19, citing F. I. Tyutchev, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii – Biblioteka poeta (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1987), p. 231.)

Among Westernizing autocrats and later opponents of autocracy, there was a longing for Pravda and a desire to claim it as their own. Aristocratic reading circles during the reign of Catherine the Great in the late 18th century were engaged in almost frantic “truth-searching” (pravdoiskatel’stvo) and what they championed as ‘love of truth’ (pravda-lyubov’), joining Masonic orders and reading circles and traveling in their search. The Masonic philanthropist and publisher Nikolai Novikov used this phrase as his pen name, and it was inscribed on many gravestones in this period.  (James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 257.) For such men, pravda meant, according to Billington, “knowledge of the nature of things and a higher order of justice.” As he quotes, the 19th century theorist of agrarian revolution, Nikolai Mikhailovskii, who waxed mystically over the word pravda: “Every time the word pravda comes into my head I cannot help but be enraptured by its wonderful inner beauty. Such a word does not, it seems, exist in any other European language. It seems that only in Russia verity (istina) and justice (spravedlivost’) are designated by one and the same word and are fused, as it were, into one great whole…. Truth in this wide meaning of the word has been the aim of my searching.” (Billington The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, p. 258 and 716, fn 117.) By century’s end, Lev Tolstoy, Pobedonostsev’s bete noire, condemned the “untruth” (nepravda) of Russia’s social order as a violation of “bozh’ya Pravda” (God’s Truth). Tolstoy’s affrontery and attempt to ‘appropriate’ the ROC’s domain, brought him excommunication (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 22.) His fate marks perhaps a significant point of Russian-Indian contrast. Tolstoy died a revered hermit of sorts, never having even a hope of leading the kind of pacifist movement of civil disobedience in Russia that a young Indian Hindu, Mahatma Ghandi – who corresponded with Tolstoy, inspired by his message – would draw and organize behind him a mass movement that overthrew British Imperial rule and bring Ghandi to power.

More revolutionary figures than Tolstoy, such as Mikhailovskii and Pyotr Lavrov, as well as their narodniki adherents, thought Pravda rested in the Russian peasantry. (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, pp. 20-1.) The Russian children’s fairy tale ‘Pravda i Krivda’, written by Narodnik Sergei Stepnyak Kravchinskii (1851-1895), suggests that while the life path of Pravda is more difficult than that of Krivda, it brings its own rewards. (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 20.) Stepnyak helped raise money in England and America for the revolutionary Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which had a terrorist Combat Organization. In the fairy tale ‘Yashka’, the Socialist Revolutionary Party and Bolshevik sympathizer, popular writer Maxim Gor’kii, the hero, 11-year old by Yashka is a pravdaiskatel’ (truth-seeker), who never finds Pravda on Earth or in Heaven. Gor’kii described himself as having an “unquenchable thirst for ‘truth-justice.’” The revolutionary peasant poet Nikolai Klyuev wrote for: “Truth: the great universal justice” (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 21.). The more proletarian Bolsheviks also had imbibed the Russian tradition of Pravda, if for purposes of framing its propaganda rather than deploying it as the latter’s content. A 1918 Red Army propaganda leaflet stated that the red star had once been the property of Krivda but had returned to Pravda after October 1917, and the temporary Bolshevik-created ROC called Lenin “a fighter for the great social Pravda.” (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 23.) Indeed, Lenin called the Bolshevik

Hindu Pluralism – Russian Monist Sobornost’

One clear point of contrast between Russian Orthodoxy and Hinduism is the attitude towards the question of unity versus pluralism. Although Hindu theology is monistic at the highest level of assuming an interpenetrating unity of existence, in the realm of praxis and some of the particulars of theology, Hinduism reflects a remarkable pluralism. It is fundamentally pluralist in terms of gods, forms of worship, and beliefs. Thus, the important Hindu text, the Vedas, regards even “the truth itself as plural.” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 129.)

Hindu polytheism as well as modes of worship reflect plurality, multiplicity, equality. Gods and the worship of them are “serial,” sequenced with worship of one god followed by worship of another, all existing simultaneously. Under its religious pluralism “(t)he worshiper acknowledges the existence, and goodness, of gods other than that he or she is addressing at the moment,” producing “a creative tension between monism and polytheism” that “extends throughout the history of Hinduism.” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 128.) Devotional praxis is also pluralistic – polydox – each worshiper in Hinduism knows and uses several poems in devotion to different gods.” Devotion is also often individualistic, with the worshipper often praying alone or in small groups (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 129). Even Hinduism’s creation myths (!) are pluralistic or at least dualistic and reincarnation and final death are options in the religion. For example, the gods Vishnu and Brahma each claim the other was the creator. The afterlife includes two tracks, one involving reincarnation; the other allowing for death, so the soul might be released from the constant rebirth as well as the strictures of Vedic Hindu belief. The flexibility of polytheism, polydoxy, and reincarnation/non-incarnation have been facilitating a tolerance that has helped Hinduism avoid schisms and preserve tolerance. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 101-2,171-6, and 168.)

Individualism became a defining feature of Hindu belief and praxis, especially from the Upanishad texts and ‘renunciation’ movement, beginning in the 7th century. The rise of free commerce in the eastern Ganges, sea trade, and metallurgy around Kashi at this time under the Kshatriya clans facilitated “non-monarchical state systems,” “greater personal freedom and mobility, nurturing individuals as well as social groups – the trader, the shopkeeper, the artisan, and the government official,” and the rise of new religions such as Jainism. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 165-6.) The Upanishad texts emerged from thus milieu and emphasized “personal religious experience. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 172.) The texts were said not be from revelation but from the authors’ memory and so were vulnerable to criticism and reinterpretation. Their authors wandered over the Indian land in search of religious enlightenment, discussion and debate; “intellectual diversity thrived.” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 166-7.) Perhaps sociologically, the ‘renunciants’ who produced the texts resembled the Old Believer schismatics and some other sectarian movements in Russian Orthodoxy, but theologically the former were far removed from the latter, who were even more doctrinaire than the Church. The renunciant movements were rejected mass urban living and took for the wilderness and forests in pursuit of “individual purification from the corruption of collective urban life” created by the new level of commerce. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 171-2.) The renunciants and Upanishads were “individualistic.” Indeed, “(t)he whole tradition was becoming individualistic, not just renunciant; we begin to see a transition from group to individual, a perceived need for personal rituals of transformation, forming a certain sort of person, not just a member of the tribe.” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 172.)

This contrasts with the Russian Orthodoxy’s high theology, which posits a clear distinction between God the Creator and his creation. Ironically, this has produced a persistent Russian monism in the sense of a potent aspiration to unity and communality. Russian Slavophiles developed the idea of communal or collective spirituality or sobornost’; an idea which grew directly out of the Russian Orthodox tradition that Slavophiles followed and championed for universal salvation. As Russia Christian lawyer Pavel Novgorodtsev argued after the revolution, the “profound” idea another Slavophile, the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevskii, of a unique Russian concept of “common solidarity and common responsibility” expressed the collective nature of salvation in the Russian Orthodox tradition. In this tradition, as Novgorodtsev explicated, salvation comes not through submission to doctrine as set down by the institution and mediation (intercession) of the Church or through an individual’s relationship with God but collectively through the Christian community’s responsibility for each of its members and each of its member’s responsibility for other members and the community. [P. I. Novgorodtsev, “Sushchestvo russkogo pravoslavnogo soznaniya,” Pravoslavie i kul’tura (Berlin: Russkaya kniga, 1923), pp. 6-23, at pp. 9-10, http://www.odinblago.ru/pravosl_soznanie.]

Thus, in Russian philosophy, Frank notes, we find “we-philosophy” not “I-philosophy” as in the West (Frank, Russkoe mirovozzrenie, p. 179) The aspiration to integrality philosophically and unity religiously, socially, and politically is just that–a frequently encountered aspiration that is sometimes claimed by some Russians to already be an accomplished fact. We encounter it whether it be in Orthodox Christianity as embodied in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the rejection by the ‘Old Believers’ of the ROC in 1666 when the Church attempted to reform ‘absolutes’ in its praxis, Slavophile communalism, Autocratic Absolutism, Marxist-Leninist collectivism, and universal social justice. The original source perhaps is Russian religion. In Russian Orthodoxy, there is only one true God, and even the Christian Trinity in the Russian tradition emphasizes the ‘Father’ over the Son and Holy Spirit rather than in Catholicism and Protestantism where the three components of God are more equal. Russian Orthodox Sunday services usually feature the same prayers and hymns, and any changes are determined by the priest. Worship is a collective rather than individual practice, often in large groups.

For a millennium Orthodoxy has shaped Russian culture in a myriad of ways, forming a foundational tradition that has resisted and sit uncomfortably with intermittent waves of Westernization, rationalization, and secularization. The tension has made unity an aspiration as much as a reality. The Moscow-born German social philosopher Karl Noetzel (1870-1945) asserted in 1919 that all Russian social movements have the unconscious purpose of rejecting abstract thinking in pursuit of a return to a past, lost, initial integrity or integrality in life experience and sensibility. Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 7. Integrality was expressed in the idea of the ultimate unity of Earth and Heaven. The presence of the godly in the material, the possibility of making godly material and life itself. Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 63. Whether “Kitezh,” the “New Jerusalem,” the “City,” or “Kingdom” of Heaven on Earth, the idea was the same. Unity of Heaven and Earth, God and Man, the spiritual and material. Moreover, Unity was to bring Utopia. Thus, the idea of the New Jerusalem, embodied in the 16th century monastery near Moscow of the same name, in which all life would become a holy liturgy of worship and exaltation. This idea was writ even larger, being the “essence” in Old Believer faith, practice and teleology. A. Kartashev, “Smysl staroobryadstva,” in Sbornik statei, posvyashchennykh P. B. Struve (Prague, 1925), p. 378 and Georgii Florovskii, Puti russkogo bogosloviya (Paris, 1937), pp. 67-8, cited Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, pp. 63-4. By contrast, in Hinduism the separation of Heaven and Earth are a given and carries no negative denotation or connotation. In some Hindu Vedic poems a god is praised for separating Heaven from the Earth. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 311.)

Frequent reference in ancient Russian texts to the idea of communality denoted in the words sobor (community or group) and sobornost’ (communality, even collectiveness) suggests, as James H. Billington notes, some early importance for the concept, despite the Slavophiles’ later ‘romanticism’ regarding the idea. (Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Intrepretive History of Russian Culture, 535, fn 8.) Slavophile thinkers, such as A. Khomiakov, championed the idea as a Russian-Slavic tradition he aspired to deepen. (Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Intrepretive History of Russian Culture, 535, fn 8.) Thus, Slavophile Ivan Kireevskii regretted Europe’s “bifurcated spirit, bifurcated thought, bifurcated science” indeed the bifurcation of everything, contrasting it with Russia’s “overwhelming aspiration to integrality of being, internal and external, social and personal, theoretical and the everyday, the artistic and moral.” Kireevskii concluded that Russian culture’s integrality, its flourishing and decay depended on Russians’ spiritual aspirations to moral greatness and believers’ striving for sublime “original integrality.” [I. V. Kireevskii, “O kharaktere prosveshchenie Yevropy”, in I. V. Kireevskii, Estetika i Kritika (Moscow, 1979), pp. 290 and 275, cited in Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, pp. 7-9.] In his Pushkin speech mentioned above, Dostoevskii declared the goal of Russian’s innate “universalism” was to help Europe and the world overcome division and unit in Christ: “I believe in this, that….the Russian people coming in the future will all without exception understand that to be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe, to find resolution of European yearning in our pan-human and all-uniting Russian soul, to include within our soul by brotherly love all our brethren. At last it may be that Russia pronounces the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!” [F. M. Dostoevskii, Dnevnik pisatelya (St. Petersburg: Lenizdat, 2001), p. 678.] In reality, future Russians would come much closer to fulfilling an aspiration to unite the world in communism.

The more dissident ‘Going to the People’ movement or narodnichestvo included an element of a return to the integrity of peasant life in contrast to the division and alienation of a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing Russia in the mid 19th century. (Sarkisyants, Rossiya i messianism: k ‘russkoi idee’ N. A. Berdyaeva, p. 7.) The communality and collectivity of the peasant mir (the word meaning both communal village and the world) survived into the late 19th century, even after the Tsar Liberator’s 1861 emancipation of the serfs. The Slavophiles and even moreso the 19th century agrarian socialists after them saw the peasant mir or obshchina (village commune) as Russia’s true path—the road to a ‘third way’ between Western liberalism and Russian autocracy.

The late 19th-early 20th century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev argued that sobornost’ was an underlying force in Russian culture promoting familial, patrimonial, and particularist values and behaviors as opposed to formal legality. (Billington, Ican and Axe, 635, fn8.) This drive for unity helped to facilitate Russians’ acceptance of socialist ideas such as the collective’s rights superceding those of the individual. In the end, this value led to totalitarian rule during high Stalinism (1934-1953), characterized by state-society integrality (the state’s complete penetration of and full control of society, economy, culture, and media through the KPSS and NKVD/GPU apparati, the KPSS’s full penetration of the state apparatus, Moscow’s centralized control of power in the regions and localities); what T. H. Rigby called the “mono-organizational society.”

Of course, in reality divisions are impossible to prevent, unanimity impossible to achieve, and thus Pravda has been seen to reside in different places in the view of different Russian observers: Orthodoxy, the ROC, Old Belief, the Tsar, the peasantry, the revolutionary intelligentsia, and even the Bolshevik Red Army. Those in power, whether it has been Russian Tsars and Emperors possessing Russkaya Pravda or Soviet rulers carrying forth history’s will to communism, have therefore tended to enforce Pravda on the Russian people; hence, the frequent occasion to establish official ideologies.

Hindu Tolerance – Russian Intolerance

The contrast between India’s more pluralistic culture and Russia’s more integralistic produced different levels of tolerance between Hinduism and Russian Orthodoxy. Hinduism has been traditionally highly tolerant in comparison to other religions. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 43-6) Hindu holy texts – for example, the Vedas – condemn those who are intolerant of others’ worship or accuse others of worshipping ‘false gods.’ (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 129). The treatment of some gods as formless engendered tolerance by leaving devotees without a particular form or image to seek to impose on others. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 197). Indian Muslim cultures and rulers countenanced confessional pluralism from the Upanishad texts as early as the 6th century. The great Muslim Moghul emperor Akbar the Tolerant (1542-1605) hosted debates between Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists and came close to converting to Christianity. (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 531-2). But it was Hinduism’s “enduring pluralism” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 197) encompassed mutually contradictory traditions: human sacrifice and non-violence; reincarnation and a second track of final death; and women as eternally dangerous seductresses and sexual climax as the closest thing to ‘dreamless sleep.’ (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 177-96) Therefore, the charge of heresy was rarely directed at fellow Hindus, and where other religions burned reformers and dissidents at the stake or excommunicated them, “Vedic Hinduism moved over to make a place of honor for them.” (Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pp. 46 and 197-8.)

Orthodoxy’s God is often jealous, the sacred books condemning to hells’ eternal conflagration adherents of other religions or even co-religionists who worship incorrectly for an absence of faith and sacrilege. Plagues and famines were interpreted as punishment for sacrilege, sin, and deviation from Russkaya Pravda. The ROC and state hunted down and burnt at the state or otherwise slaughtered Old Believers for a half-century, and Old Believers saw the ROC after Nikon’s reforms as an instrument of the Antichrist.

Contemporary analysts of today’s Russia observe a similar drive to unity, preference for a single truth, and intolerance of political opposition in Russia. In a recent article, Novosibirst State University Professor Sergei Dzyuba discusses the reasons behind the drive to “indeational-political unity of the nation.” He finds the key reason to be the country’s geographical expanse and a resulting cultural bias among Russians in favor of maintaining “indeational-political unity.” the citizens against political opposition per se. The opposition consists merely of “dissidents”—those who dissent from the unified consensus or Russkaya Pravda. Criticizing the authorities is an “alien…even antagonistic” behavior. In particular, he notes:

“The obvious peculiarity of our country is its vast territory and the scattered population. In order for a nation to stand in such conditions, a special desire of people for unity is necessary. There is a lot of evidence of the existence of such a subconscious craving among the people. It is evident in the traditions of hospitality, the features of Orthodox rites, and the tendency towards joint feasts and group singing, etc. Key evidence is the uniformity of the Russian language across the country’s different territories. Compared to other countries, our regional differences are very small. The unification of the language means the lack of isolation of regional populations on a geographical basis. Further, the historical traditions of communal land ownership also contributed to the unity of people. And the centuries-old political system of autocracy inherently implied the uniformity of political views.

“The uniformity of political views imposed from above, on the one hand, and the natural desire for unity of the people themselves, on the other, received a powerful reinforcing momentum in the Soviet era. Totalitarian ideology implied collectivism in all areas of public life. …”

“(Today), opposition is not opposed by specific politicians, parties or their programs, as in other countries, and even the arbitrariness of power in the elections is not so crucial. Of decisive importance is that opposition is opposed by the conviction of citizens that it, the opposition, should not exist at all. Its existence encroaches upon the sacred — on the ideological and political unity of the people, on the state-political consolidation of society. Therefore, Putin is the keeper and savior, and Navalny, Khodorkovsky, Makarevich and others are enemies and national traitors.

“It is important to emphasize; the belief that the opposition is unacceptable is not based solely on propaganda. It has deep psychological, cultural and historical roots. Recall that in the 90s the propaganda of unanimity disappeared, but the people were not ready for democratic changes. And then autocracy that followed was received with relief.” (Sergei Dzyuba, “Pochemu oppozitsiya nam ne nuzhna,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, 9 September 2015, www.ng.ru/ideas/2015-09-09/5_opposition.html.)

Of course, the dichotomy between ‘Hindu tolerance’ and ‘Russian intolerance’ should not be essentialized. India is seeing no surfeit of Hindu violence against non-Hindus, and Russia is perhaps more tolerant of dissent and minorities that at any time in its history. The issue is a comparison of overall tendencies within the culture.


My discussion above may help answer Dzyuba’s quandary as to why what he sees as India’s “paternalism” does not preclude tolerance of political opposition, if in recent years less tolerance for non-Hindu believers in the subcontinent. Hinduism’s characteristics may (or may not) be the key explanation for India’s easier path to pluralism and thus democracy and markets than the more tortured one Russia has experienced. But certainly, the attributes of ‘doctrinelessness’, pantheism, polydoxy, and tolerance in Hinduism likely helped India to more easily absorb the pluralism and competition of democracy, federalism, and market economics after the British withdrawal despite the coercive installation of some Western practices by the British colonialists. And to be sure, there are grave challenges to the survival of Indian democracy ranging from rising corruption, Hindu nationalism, and inter-communal (interconfessional and interethnic) conflict.

By contrast, the Russian aspiration for unity, universalism, and absolutes may be a cultural-philosophical factor underpinning Russia’s inclination towards authoritarian forms of rule. None of this is to say that Russian tradition is an insurmountable barrier to pluralism, democracy, markets, or a strategic partnership with India. It is to say that it forms a barrier that must be at least partially breached or made penetrable.

The plurality and competition between parts inherent in democracy and capitalism have enjoyed only brief appearances and secondary roles on the stage of Russian history. Since the temporary role offered to democratization and marketization in the less than critically acclaimed perestroika and post-perestroika Russia during the late 1980s and 1990s, there has been a steady if slow rolling back of pluralism, though this process is far from complete under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarian regime. How far it might go is a million-dollar question. Although Putin has re-established a soft version of authoritarianism, he has refrained from establishing, no less imposing an ideology on Russians. However, hints of the Unity value are evident Putin’s frequent condemnation of the opposition, his occasional references to them as a ‘fifth column’, and his repeated calls for political unity. He has even attempted to somehow incorporate all of the contradictory phases in Russian history into a single history Russians should be proud of. It is perhaps no coincidence that his party is called ‘United Russia’ (Yedinaya Rossiya) and his ‘public movement’ is the ‘All-Russia People’s Front (Vserossiiskii narodnyi front).

Cultural differences are not the only explanatory factor in India’s adoption of democracy and markets versus Russia’s inability to do so. After all, the outside world also played a role. The British, for all the brutality and oppression of its colonial rule, brought with them ideas such as parliamentarianism. Whereas Europeans seeded democracy in India, they implanted over centuries imperial geopolitics, forms of autocratic rule, and revolutionary socialism in Russia. Thus, Russian culture is to ‘blame’ for Russia’s resistance to Westernization. The West has helped push Russia away as much as Russian culture has pulled her away.

Dzyuba’s discussion does not take into account the fact that the Russian drive for unity is not so much a result of geography in terms of size but in terms of location. Russia’s location adjacent to Europe and its aspiration to be part of the West has produced a Russian dilemma in which the object of its aspirations is also the greatest source of threat to its stability and survival. Since Russia’s Time of Troubles Europe has been the origin of destabilizing cultural influences, religious and political interference, and military interventions and invasions. This confluence of threats emerging from one source and challenging both Russia’s security both from external and internal threats created by the West have prejudiced Russians against internal divisions, dissent, and opposition, as I discuss in a new book I hope will be published this year or next. As Dzyuba notes, using different terminology, the 1990s was a period when the demand for unity became recessive rather than remaining dominant in Russian political culture. The security norm of vigilance in relation to external and internal threats perceived to emanate from the West was reactivated as a consequence of Western actions: NATO and EU expansion and the policy of democracy-promotion and color revolution along Russia’s borders and among its allies.

Nevertheless, India culture’s sources of greater pluralism and tolerance make any strong alliance with quasi-totalitarian China and soft authoritarian Russia less of a sure bet than if Hinduism did not impart these characteristics into the equation. There will likely be limits to India’s integration into Chinese and Eurasianist projects that go beyond economics and building security against Islamism and jihadism.**


*This is an ideal type and not one that has been dominant across Russian history.

**Another interesting contrast between Hinduism and Russian Orthodoxy can be found in the aims of life the respective religions recommend. Orthodoxy recommends abstinence from pleasure and suffering modeled on the salvational sacrifice of Christ. The suffering Russian ‘narod’ (people) is a “central myth” of Russian culture; Kantor notes the tendency towards “tearfulness” (sleznost’). [Vladimir Kantor, Lyubov’ k dvoiniku: Mif i realnost’ russkoi kul’tury (Moscow: Nauchno-politicheskaya kniga, 2013), pp. 277 and 206.] Hinduism holds to three aims in a good life in the triad – a ubiquitous feature in Hinduism – ‘dharma‘ (restraint or duty and piety), ‘artha‘ (wealth and success) and ‘kama‘ (pleasure of all kinds).


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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