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The Impact of Orthodoxy

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The broad scope of state authority and the dominance of a state religion or ideology are often seen as key enduring aspects of traditional Russian political culture characteristics of both of the old regimes—the tsarist and the Soviet. The tsarist government regarded autocracy and Orthodoxy as the chief pillars that ensured political order and social stability in the empire. Its concern in protecting and maintaining these principles was seen in the great efforts it made to promulgate the official doctrine of “Orthodoxy—Autocracy—Nationality.”  

The doctrine’s first component proclaimed the essential role that the official Orthodox Church and its teachings occupied in Russian life. The second component proclaimed that Russia needed an absolute monarch as the central element in its political system (the word autocracy refers to a regime that concentrates power in the hands of an absolute ruler, or autocrat). The final component proclaimed the special character and value of the Russian people as an imperial nation unifying various ethnic groups of a gigantic empire.

Orthodoxy has left an indelible mark on Russian spiritual, cultural, and political traditions. Both Russia and the West represented predominantly Christian civilizations. However, Christianity reached them through different channels. Rome was the West’s main mediator of Christianity, whereas in Russia’s case it was the Byzantine Empire that acted as its Christian “godmother.” Byzantium was the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and it saw itself as its heir after the collapse of the western part in 476. Catholicism (the western form of Christianity) reflected the peculiarities of Roman civilization, whereas Orthodoxy (the eastern form of Christianity) was imbued with the spirit of Greek civilization that dominated Byzantium at the time of the implantation of Christianity in Russia.

Central to Orthodox Christian beliefs was the concept of the joining together of the earthly and the heavenly order. The authority of the emperor was the power that linked these two worlds. When exercised properly, the emperor’s power was capable of resolving all contradictions between the imperfect world of mortals and the ideal celestial order. It was able to bring this world into harmony with the next. For this reason, the authority of the “true” tsar was seen by the Orthodox religion as a guarantee of salvation after death.

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Russian Political Culture


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