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  • Orthodoxy and Eschatology in Post-Bolshevik Culture
  • Robert C. Williams (bio)

Resurrection means victory over time, it means change not only of the future but also of the past.

Nikolai Berdiaev, Slavery and Freedom (1944)

The Last Judgement is now taking place on earth. This is a time for angels with swords from the Apocalypse and winged beasts.

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1956)

Orthodox Christian beliefs are deeply embedded in Russian history and culture. Russian state and church became officially Orthodox after a long struggle with heresies – Judaizers, non-possessors, sectarians, Old Believers – and were unified by Peter the Great in the Holy Synod, a government agency that headed the church. For most Russians, especially in the countryside, life in this world meant suffering, an endless struggle between good and evil, Christ and Antichrist, to possess the souls of men and women. Salvation and eternal life were an ultimate promise in a fallen world. Only salvation and resurrection in Christ could justify the suffering, evil, and sin that pervaded everyday life. People believed deeply that the world would come to a violent and then glorious end, an Apocalypse. Plague, war, and famine would rule the earth. The Orthodox would be saved, the heretics doomed. Then all would be made new as Christ returned to earth and resurrected all the dead. Endtime thinking and the Orthodox fear of heresy were commonplaces in Russian culture and did not vanish with the Bolshevik Revolution.1

Orthodox Russians believed in an omnipresent and omniscient Christ who provided grace and forgiveness for the elect of true believers. So did the Old Believers, or schismatics, who rejected Orthodoxy and believed the Russian government represented the Antichrist. Christ was engaged in constant warfare with his archenemy – the Devil, Satan, or the Antichrist. At the end of time there would come a great battle of Armageddon between the forces of Christ and Antichrist. After 1917, Christianity remained an underlying theme of Soviet culture, even in anti-Christian and anti-religious works of Russian art and literature. [End Page 81] Thus atheist posters imitated religious icons. The poet Alexander Blok, in his poem The Twelve (1918), transformed Red Army soldiers into the 12 apostles and portrayed Christ as a revolutionary. Revolutionary rhetoric – as in Maksim Gor'kii's novel Mother (1906) – was often Christian, featuring sacrifice, rising, resurrection, rebirth, blood, crucifixion, and Golgotha.

Many Old Bolsheviks were drawn to Christianity for tactical reasons. What better way to reach the poor peasants and recently rural proletarians than by using their own religious discourse for Marxist and socialist political ends? Long before 1917, Vladimir Dmitrievich Bonch-Bruevich, a Bolshevik and a lifelong student of the Old Believers, was especially convinced that religious imagery could serve propaganda and political purposes. In the Geneva émigré Bolshevik journal Rassvet in 1904, Bonch-Bruevich recommended using Christian metaphors, images, and language – including the Book of Revelation – to bring socialist ideas to Old Believers and peasants, to "identify the word 'Christ,' as a concept of eternal good, happiness, and freedom, with socialism."2 Individuals and social classes could appear as gods or demons, Christ or Antichrist, to explain Marxist concepts to Christians. Like the populist revolutionaries of the 1870s, the Bolsheviks believed the anti-state rhetoric and actions of the Old Believers could be a powerful weapon in the struggle against the naive monarchism that helped support the tsar and his government. Christ repackaged and reformatted was a revolutionary hero.3

In his imaginative essay, Avram Brown explores the Bolshevik rejection of the popular "revolutionary Christ" image by examining Dem'ian Bednyi's 1925 satirical poem The Flawless New Testament of the Evangelist Dem'ian. He calls it a "defining Bolshevik statement on how the New Testament should be interpreted," a proletarian parody of the Gospel. Bednyi's poem appears to reject both traditional Christianity and Christian socialist versions of Christ. Christ is not the revolutionary hero of self-sacrifice and higher law who justifies armed struggle and terror on behalf of the people, nor the proletarian hero of the god-builders (Anatolii Vasil'evich Lunacharskii, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Bogdanov, and Maksim Gor'kii, Bolsheviks all). Instead, Bednyi produced a satire intended to debunk not only Christ...


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pp. 81-86
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