The Soviet Genealogy of “Orthodox Morality”

by Regula Zwahlen

The term “Orthodox morality”—in combination with “traditional values”—is unquestionably a neologism. A passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” gets right to the point of Aristotle Papanikolaou’s recent essay on Public Orthodoxy: “We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values is […] to be called into question—and for this purpose a knowledge is necessary of the conditions and circumstances out of which these values grew, and under which they experienced their evolution and their distortion.” One does not have to agree with Nietzsche’s conclusions in order to agree on the validity of his endeavor, especially if one aims, like Papanikolaou, to answer contemporary questions without threatening the internal coherency of the tradition. On that note, I would like to draw the attention to the fact that in Russia, the term “Orthodox morality” has not only a modern, but also a Soviet ring to it.

As for its “modern ring,” one of the commonplaces about Russian thought in general is its “concentration on ethical problems.” According to the Slavophile Alexei Khomiakov, “Russia should be either the most moral, that is the most Christian of all human societies, or nothing,” and the concept of ethics as the cornerstone of Russian mentality was shared by the “Westerners” and most Russian philosophers of the Silver Age. Russian literature is famous for treating moral questions, and Dostoevsky has been praised for having anticipated Nietzsche: “If God does not exist everything is permitted” (see Mihajlo Mihajlov, “The Great Catalyzer: Nietzsche and Russian Neo-Idealism,” in Nietzsche in Russia, ed. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal). On these grounds, claims about Russian (Orthodox) moral superiority over “Western civilization” can be traced back to 19th century discourse that is rooted in modern European debates around (French) Enlightenment and (German) Romanticism. As “strategic alliances” between Russian Orthodox and American Evangelicals reveal, we are not dealing here with geographical divides, but with a general principle of cultural development that Ernst Cassirer simply called the everlasting competition and antagonism of two forces: conservation and renewal (Cassirer, “The Tragedy of Culture” in The Logics of Cultural Sciences, trans. S.G. Lofts). These forces are part of any tradition, which, by the way, simply never are “pure.”

As for the “Soviet ring” to “Orthodox morality,” Russian commentators were quick to compare the list of “Basic Values of [Russian] Allnational Identity” promoted by the World Russian People’s Council in 2011 with the “Moral Code of the Builder of Communism” from 1961 (see Richard T. De George, “Soviet Ethics and Morality”). Victoria Smolkin convincingly demonstrates that religion remained a problem for the Soviet project until the end, namely on the battlefield of “religion and atheism on moral issues.” Already at the time of early de-Stalinization suggestions about the positive role religious morality could play in order to “build the ideal Communist society” popped up. Indeed, the relationship of religious thinkers and socialism in Russian thought is intimate and complex. Still in the 1980s, Nikolai Krasnikov from the Institute of Scientific Atheism wrote lengthy treatises and books about the socio-ethical development of Russian Orthodoxy because he was worried about its efficiency: He described how “Orthodox moralists” were trying to adapt traditional religious-moral principles to progressive socialist life and that they even emphasized the social benefits of ascetism in order to show that a socialist state is in need of the Church. In his view, they did this in order to “slow down the secularization of the Soviet citizens’ needs of religious ideology and morals,” and therefore the “Church ideologists” based their arguments on the “religious Renaissance by Russian theologizing philosophers“ like Vladimir Soloviev, Nikolai Berdiaev and Sergei Bulgakov. However, according to Krasnikov, they only engendered a new version of the opium of the people: to seek salvation in eternity still hindered Communist morality with its focus on this-worldly spiritual progress of the person and society. It is ironic to observe that the rejection of Soviet communism by the former socialists Bulgakov and Berdiaev was based on moral grounds in the name of the freedom of the person, while contemporary ideologists try to bridge the gaps in Russian identity by focusing on common “traditional values” shared by Soviet and Orthodox “moralities.” However, one has to bear in mind that their common ground is highly selective and largely based on the rejection of “the imagined ‘western liberal ethos.’” The common hostility to “Western liberalism” (or the lack of a concept of “moral autonomy”) is the only way to explain how “Orthodox morality” seems to be compatible with both Soviet progressivism and new Russian traditionalism.

In short, in Russia, the term “Orthodox morality” was increasingly used during the Soviet “battle of religion and atheism on moral issues.” This battle surely has been won by religion. Under the repressive circumstances of Soviet ideology, the Church’s strategy not to question Soviet power and not to fight science, but to focus on spiritual and moral questions may have been wise and quite successful. But after the breakdown of the atheist regime, many Church representatives continue to play the moral card in order to legitimize their status instead of cherishing the new freedom of theological reflection. And for state leaders the Church’s strong position in questions of morality became a useful tool to forge new “spiritual braces” for a disoriented post-Soviet society that “has seen a cacaphony of moral debate.” In this way, the former battle of religion and atheism became a battle of “traditionalism” and “liberalism” on moral issues. The only problem is, that the old-new idea of Russia’s global mission to protect tradition strikingly contrasts with provocative diagnoses like the philosopher Sergey Horujys’ about “the annihilation of ethics” in today’s Russia because of “the absence of individual ethic positions and the willingness to adopt any position prescribed by the state.” On a more positive note, the findings of the sociologist Ella Paneiach indicate that people in Russia actually share more or less the same “European values,” which enables real debate, but they live under conditions that don’t really allow them to base their decisions on them.

However, the term “Orthodox morality” stands on shaky ground. If it once may have been a powerful spiritual weapon in the battle against state atheism, it has become a mundane weapon on the battlefield of geopolitical culture wars with no roots in Christian moral theology whatsoever. I am afraid that people engaging in cultural wars are neither really interested in morality nor in real debate on grounds of common presuppositions. But of course, for those who are interested in theological argument about morals, Orthodox tradition has a lot to offer. For example, Sergii Bulgakov wrote (in order to criticize “protestant rationalizing theology,” by the way): “In reducing the essence of religion to morality […] religion’s own proper nature is ignored. […] Morality […] cannot have an unconditional religious meaning; it is the Old Testament, a period of subjection to law that is overcome (although not abrogated) by the New Testament, by the kingdom of grace” (Unfading Light, trans. Thomas Allan Smith, p. 47-48). One of his students, Paul Evdokimov, wrote an “Orthodox Vision of Moral Theology” (only published in French in 2009):

“Man is not only a being that searches for its salvation, but he is also a creator. We have to overcome any normative ethics of rules of conduct, ethics of obligations, laws and bans, we have to overcome moralism. There is nothing more boring, more discouraging than the three categories of the classic systems of moral theology: the duties vis-à-vis God, to one-self, to the next and to society. How is it possible to apply the category of duty or obligation to the life in God? […] Man is not a museum of virtues, but a temple of the living presence of God. In this sense ethics contain not only axiology, acceptance and distinction, but also ontology, transfiguration of man by the gifts of the Holy Spirit who turns him into a source of creative energies and conveys him a prophetic element. […] We should exclude any static attitude that restricts itself to a simple initiation or imitation of the past, in order to open up for a neo-patristic perspective that is true to the creative spiritual dynamism of the Fathers.” (Une vision orthodoxe de la théologie morale, p. 16, 19).*

While fake debates on “Orthodox morality” quickly lead to a dead end, genuine thought and good theological argument offer fresh perspectives within the Christian tradition of moral theology.

*I owe the reference to this book to Jeremy Pilch.

Regula Zwahlen is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. She is co­editor of the German edition of the Russian theologian Sergii Bulgakov’s work and of the monthly specialist journal Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (Zurich,

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.