Situated adjacent to the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol, the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky is a magnificent structure. Gilded onion-domes, Greco-Roman columns and pediments – it looks every bit as classy as a well financed Orthodox cathedral should be. On entering, a question occurs to me, however – why are the icons not completely flat? The depictions of the various saints seem almost crypto-Catholic, more three-dimensional than you’d expect, not like Byzantine iconography. Novgorod it ain’t.
My friend Nikita explains that the local bishop is a western Ukrainian, so this style of iconography just seems more natural to him. Locals refer to it as “Disney-style.” I smile at this answer – is there a residual attempt toward “Ukrainianization” at work? Nikita doesn’t think so – any Orthodox bishop in present-day Crimea pushing an agenda of “Ukrainianization” on any level whatsoever would very quickly find himself without an office – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
The rebuilding of this cathedral has been a long time in coming. Started in 2000, the project ran into financial difficulties, but was almost complete by the time of Crimea’s re-unification with Russia in March 2014. At that point, there was a federal cash-injection to accelerate the final phase, and authorization was received to name President Vladimir Putin as the project’s political sponsor. Most renovations or reconstructions of buildings of cultural significance in Russia have named political sponsors. For example, the planned Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Ak-Mechet area of Simferopol is sponsored by the current governor of the Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov.
The claim that, under Putin, there has been a “re-Sovietization” of Russia is far too simplistic. The public ideology of Putin’s Russia is synthetic and amorphous.
Right outside the cathedral-fence, there’s a memorial-space dedicated to the Great Patriotic War. The centre-piece of the war-memorial is a T-34 tank mounted on a marble pedestal. Somebody, probably a member of the public, has hoisted a Soviet flag on the hatch of the tank, and there is a candle-holder placed beside it. Right next to the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky. This is striking when you consider that the original cathedral was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1930. It is also noteworthy in that this war-memorial was redesigned in 2003, when Crimea was still under Ukrainian administration – for those living under Ukrainian jurisdiction, Soviet patriotism had not been a taboo until quite recently. But then again, this is Crimea.
It is almost inconceivable that these two spaces, the cathedral and the war-memorial, were not conceptualized in tandem. There seems to be a quite conscious fusion of Orthodox Christian and Soviet symbols. Ideological synthesis par excellence. And, however much it has subsequently been deemed problematic in crisis-ridden Ukraine, you will find this symbolic fusion of Orthodox Christianity with Soviet patriotism throughout Putin’s Russia today. The claim that, under Putin, there has been a “re-Sovietization” of Russia is far too simplistic. The public ideology of Putin’s Russia is synthetic and amorphous. It manifests itself in architecture and on public holidays rather than through formal argumentation. One of the central modalities of that ideology is to continuously invoke symbols from the two worldviews which have most shaped Russian people’s collective historical experience – Orthodox Christianity and communism. Whatever tensions may or may not be seen to arise between the formal propositional contents of these views of the world, there are also deep commonalities, most notably the emphasis on ethical collectivism. And this taps into the zeitgeist quite well – at street-level, there are a lot of Ortho-communists in Russia today.
In Russian group-consciousness, in Russian thought about society and morality, there is a self-aware tension between two contradictory impulses. We could label these impulses “the transcendentalist impulse” and “the historicist impulse.”
The transcendentalist impulse is evident in a whole range of manifestations of Russian culture and Russian self-consciousness. We can see it in the work of Leo Tolstoy. We can see it in the heroic stoicism which Russians have displayed during their periods of most dire social crisis, and their resulting capacity for self-sacrifice. It’s there in front of you every time you step inside an Orthodox church. Of all of the variants of Christianity still to be found in the world today, the one with the most transcendental conception of God is Orthodox Christianity.
However, this transcendentalist impulse operates in continuous tension with the historicist impulse. Ultimately, Russians see collective historical experience as the acid-test of a worldview’s validity. That is to say, their epistemological criteria for evaluating views of the world are explicitly not transcendental. At the risk of a reductive transcription, this is something akin to what American philosophers refer to as “pragmatism” – the belief that the truth is that which works. For example, take the relationship which many Russians have simultaneously with Orthodox Christianity and Marxism as belief-systems. 57% of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians but, in many cases, their philosophical and political coordinates are still broadly Marxist. More generally, however, we could describe the prevailing synthetic ideological impulse as “Ortho-Sovietism” rather than “Ortho-communism” or “Ortho-Marxism” – the communist symbols are usually more an expression of Soviet patriotism than about theories of political economy.