Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

"A Spiritual Chernobyl"

April 1, 1991 -

That's how Robert R. Reilly, who visited the Soviet Union three times last year, describes the situation in the U.S.S.R. (Crisis, February, 1991). He explains:

Seven decades of the big lie have left a moral landscape more barren than the moon. The dimension of this lie about man is so enormous that there is not an aspect of daily life left undistorted by it. The normal reference points to life are gone. 

Reilly recalls the warning issued by Czar Nicholas IPs Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte, who wrote on October 9, 1905: "The idea of human freedom will triumph, if not by way of reform then by way of revolution. But in the latter event it will come to life on the ashes of 1000 years of destroyed history."

Witte's prophecy has been fulfilled in the Soviet Union, writes Reilly. "The family, religious faith, property, law—all lie shattered. Even the communists are appalled." Pavel Lungin, a Soviet film director said in an interview, "everyone is deformed, yet everyone wants to live a normal life. But they can't." As Reilly reminds us, normal life is based upon some recognition of the spiritual truth about man, but when dogmatic atheism blots out this truth, the results are evident everywhere in the form of wrecked institutions, utter cynicism, and indifference to the well-being of others.

Many people look for renewal of the communist system through instituting a market economy. Yet there is very little understanding in the Soviet Union about the need for a more fundamental change, according to Reilly. People want to be free from the shortcomings of an inefficient and wasteful economy, yet they do not know or do not want to embrace a way of life that is nurtured in the truth about God and man. Egor Gaidar, the economic editor of Pravda, told Reilly that Western and communist societies have much in common because they share their interest in alleviating poverty and want. Reilly disagreed strongly:

We have absolutely nothing in common. Marxism-Leninism is not an economic, social, or political enterprise. It is a metaphysical enterprise whose purpose is the transformation of man into God and the world into a terrestrial paradise. You have succumbed to the oldest temptation of man, that whispered by the serpent to Eve: ye shall be as gods. In order for man to be a god, he must have no God before him. Therefore, your metaphysical enterprise requires atheism as its foundation. 

Reilly unsuccessfully tried to convince the Pravda editor that the Gulag was a logical outcome of the atheistic premise of Marxism-Leninism.

A Nagging Question

Thus the debate continues. It's a debate that is also conducted in Western society, and it is formulated in the question: can man be good without God? (See the thoughtful article by Glenn Tinder in The Atlantic Monthly, December, 1989.) Many in the West are confident that the answer to that question is yes. But there is nothing in history to support that opinion. In fact, the opposite is true. As the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev said, "Where there is no God, there is no man either."

What could possibly transform the Soviet Union in such a way that it becomes a truly free and humane society? The obvious answer is a spiritual rebirth. Fortunately, Russian voices calling for such a change are not absent. For example, Zoya Krakhmalnikova, exiled to Siberia for anti-Soviet Christian activism, has said, "Unless we return to Christian civilization, we will not renew our society." Krakhmalnikova pointed out that the Russian people are guided by ideas and need something to believe in. Stalinism was like a faith that promised paradise on earth. It failed. "Now people have lost faith in paradise on earth and are searching once again for eternal beliefs."

Reading this gripping description of the spiritual desolation in the Soviet Union leaves one with a nagging question. If it is true that freedom and civilization cannot exist without belief in God, what are our prospects as a nation that is busy dismantling the remnants of a Christian culture in the name of democracy and human rights?

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment