01-10-2007 - Traces, n. 9


That Battle Against
the Truth

Ninety years have passed since the October Revolution, resurrected on this anniversary by discussions, historical reconstructions, and celebrations by a few nostalgics. What lay at the root of that event, capable of producing tragedies in history? A rejection of reality, and a very present danger

by Pigi Colognesi

it has been ninety years since the Soviet Revolution. We are now being invaded by historical reconstructions, political interpretations, learned debates over the rights and wrongs of the followers of Lenin who carried out this first experiment in a communist society, and its aftermath of death, dictatorships, and gulags. Some people are actually feeling nostalgic, stubbornly attached to the idea that at bottom the revolution was a grand ideal, regrettably betrayed by its own supporters. And there is no shortage of parallels between the USSR and today’s Russia under Putin, who is again raising his voice on the international scene.
But we won’t be going into all that here. We want to try to answer a different question. What does the October Revolution teach us today? It goes without saying that history never repeats itself exactly and the present conditions are so different from that far-off 1917 that any parallel will seem contrived. All the same, history is said to be magistra vitae, hence its relevance to the present. So it is important to try and understand if there are still some traces of the spiritual, cultural, and political factors that caused the Soviet Revolution. We’ll try to answer by drawing on the exhibition that the Christian Russia Foundation organized at the last Rimini Meeting.

The case of Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy was the most influential Russian intellectual in the second half of the nineteenth century, all the way to the eve of the Revolution (he died in 1910). Throughout his life, he pursued the ideals of justice and goodness, creating a sort of religion based on non-violence, goodness, and public spirit. Tolstoy did not evade the fundamental religious questions, which led him to the Mystery, and obviously he also had to reckon with Christianity. But he only accepted what fitted in with his schematic and rationalistic vision of the world. He accepted the moral teaching of the Gospel, but not the person of Christ (he said he would not even have cared to meet Him!), even less any kind of authority (that of the Church), which was alien to his conscience. The Orthodox Church declared him anathema, partly to protect the common people from being confused and mistaking Tolstoy’s teaching of goodness for true Christianity. For its part , the Orthodox Church was gravely subordinated to the secular power for two centuries. It was treated like just another branch of the State, to the point that the President of the Holy Synod, the highest ecclesiastical authority in Russia, was a secular official appointed by the czar. So Christianity was formally respected, but in some ways remote from the lives of the people. Above all, it was cut off from the heart of the cultural life of the country, which determined the future mentality. The rationalistic presumption of being able to create “the new man,” together with the existential and cultural weakness of the Church, surely contributed to the climate in which the revolutionary spirit was able to gain ground.
It is not difficult to find analogies with the situation today. On the one hand, Christianity is distant from the essential issues of contemporary life, secluded in an evanescent “spiritual” dimension or concerned about seeking a marginal visibility in the media. On the other, there’s a cultural and intellectual world that acknowledges the “values” of Christianity but rejects its essential method: membership in a company and obedience. This state of affairs inevitably creates a void of awareness and experience. And the revolutionary spirit (not necessarily social in nature but, for example, in the guise of scientific pretensions) finds a fertile terrain in this void.

The roots of terrorism
Terrorism had roots in Russia–Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. But in the years just before the revolution (and to the immense satisfaction of the revolutionaries, it reached frightening levels. From 1900 to 1917, there were over 23,000 terrorist attacks that caused more than 11,000 deaths. Human life no longer had any value in the revolutionary desire to topple the regime, to the point that assassination had become a “value” in itself, regardless of its political objectives. And if innocent bystanders were killed in the attacks, it was unimportant. In fact, it helped create the desired climate of fear. There were even suicide bombers. In 1907, a twenty-one-year-old woman entered the offices of St. Petersburg prison with five kilos of nitroglycerine concealed on her body. And, in a premonition of today’s car bombs, a coach was packed with explosives and launched against the prime minister’s residence.
Before the October Revolution, there was a kind of dress rehearsal in 1905. Reflecting on that first revolt, a group of thinkers (Bulgakov, Berdyaev, Struve, and others) published a collection of texts entitled, The Turning Point (Vekhi). They analyzed, above all, the faults of the intellectual class. But what is relevant here is that the authors of Vekhi had acutely revealed the revolutionaries’ absurd propensity to nihilism, destruction, and death. Rereading those pages today is a sobering experience. The authors seem to be describing the malaise that torments our society: nothing is certain; every established value is destroyed; the foundations of civil life have to be eradicated; all traditions must be rejected. They speak explicitly of the fatal “death wish,” the fascination with nullity, as a worm secretly gnawing at the roots of society.

“Fight against the chill”
All this can hardly help evoking today’s news headlines. The fear of terrorism lurks in our thoughts every day, as does anxiety at changes we seem unable to govern, from the scale of illegal immigration to uncontrolled climate change. But the most striking analogy is with the basic spiritual state described in Vekhi. Gratuitous violence, sometimes unleashed for trivial reasons (in the home, at school, on the roads), reflects a serious contempt for life, a radical devaluation of it. Truth seems to have become unattainable, a chimera. It has been expelled from the education system, where it is replaced with a few bland rules (little more than a balance of power). The absence of certainties is raised to a criterion of sanity and secularism, producing a basic insecurity that makes room for every kind of adventurism. “We love death,” said the kamikaze bombers in some of their messages, seeming to confirm that religion is the enemy of life. And the West, “sated and desperate,” loves life so little that even having children has become a problem. This was why Benedict XVI spoke of a grave moral disorder that has seized our civilization. It is manifested as a strange propensity for nothingness.
The Soviet revolution stemmed from a similar situation. We do not know what the future holds. Christians have a clear responsibility: to bear witness that nothingness can never win, because it has already been defeated. In the words of Sergei Fudel, a Russian believer who spent decades in the labor camps, our task is “to fight against the chill crushing the world, with the warmth of our breath.”