October 9, 2007
Russia and the West have Different Ideas about What is Important
Comment by Vladislav Sveshnikov
Archpriest Vladislav Sveshnikov is a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy.
In media discussions of recent disagreements between Russia and the West - meaning primarily the United States and the European Union - the origin of the so-called "values gap" that is reportedly dividing us is rarely investigated. At best, media outlets limit themselves to citing some opinion polls on how many Russians view the United States and the EU as allies and how many of us consider them adversaries. The importance of these opinion polls should not be overestimated. Public opinion is often founded on superficial impressions and emotions rather than solid convictions and spiritual traditions.
Instead of concentrating on recent confrontations and the unreliable data on public sentiments, it makes more sense to deal with the fundamental questions in the relationship: What does Western civilization want from Russia? And if the West just wants Russia to accept its values, why is Russia so reluctant to do so?
On the surface, the answers seem quite simple. Russia is required to accept the rule of law and individual rights, embrace democracy and tolerance. Western political leaders say these values lie at the foundations of their society, and Russian society cannot achieve any kind of unity with the West unless it is built on these same foundations.
At first glance, it is impossible to argue against these values. How can you be against the rule of law or speak against the rights of an individual? Problems arise, however, because the Western interpretation of these ideas is far different than the interpretation that can be found in their Christian origins; the values of the modern Western world are not Christian values.
The leaders of the European Union have resisted all attempts to include in the European Constitution a clause stating that Christianity is the foundation of the values that they promote. They seem to have forgotten that the old European project was introducing the world to Christianity.
In the modern Western world the very notion of the individual has lost its sacred meaning. Each individual should live in constant liaison with others as well as with the spiritual world, constantly ready for compassion and mercy, sharing his or her individual gifts with others.
Today, however, the modern individual is self-centered about his individuality. This individual is constantly searching for something that fits him perfectly. This search sometimes leads to very sophisticated self-expression, but there is no spiritual value in this self-expression. There is little place for spirituality in the globalization project because unbridled spirituality may result in ethics, and a modern individual does not need ethics.
A self-centered individual can only be annoyed by pricks of conscience. They prevent him from leading his perfectly tailored lifestyle. The result is the trend towards emotional coldness, the standardization of thinking, tastes and actions.
I don't want to say that Russia or Orthodox Christianity has some sort of a monopoly on the Christian understanding of individuality. On the contrary, the Christian understanding of the individual was developed by the best minds in Western Christianity, in both Europe and the United States. But unfortunately, the modern Western mind tends to isolate itself in its hedonism and refutes not only the values of other cultures, but also the old values of its civilization.
The other problem is that those Westerners who aspire to "teach" Russians proceed from the idea that Russia knows nothing about the rule of law, human rights, democracy and tolerance. Certainly Russia does not have an easy history with these concepts, but to imply that our "education" needs to begin from scratch is unfair, to say the least.
Even during the Soviet period these values were not entirely abandoned in Russia. The Soviet concept of the "friendship of peoples" is more attractive to a Christian than the colder idea of "tolerance." Given their history, Russians more than anyone else understand that in the absence of the spiritual notion of individuality, the rule of law, democracy and individual rights are just hollow mechanisms unable to function in society without a guiding hand.
Of course, modern Russia is far from being overpopulated by spiritual personalities. We understand the negative spiritual consequences of the Soviet project. Perhaps this is precisely why we react so negatively to the modern project of globalization. Both share many common methods, including the enormous pressure of the mainstream media, which does not allow for truly free thought and the movement towards the creation of a new type of man whose main characteristic is standardized thought and behavior.
The authors of the Soviet project were deluded and the authors of the modern globalist project continue to delude themselves that it is possible to build a magnificent new world order from this kind of society. In this new world order, law will replace religion, etiquette will replace ethics and democracy will be reduced to a set of rules of "fair play." Maybe in the framework of these rules an individual will be able to live a materially prosperous and comfortable life, but individuals will never know the true full-blooded life of spirituality, which is otherwise known as the right to freedom.