Further thoughts on revolution, remembrance, and the revitalization of civil society

Nov 12, 2019

And totalitarianism, transcendence, and the triumph of truth.

Assumption College professor and The Idol of Our Age author Daniel J. Mahoney offers well-informed and shrewd reflections on the Revolution of 1989, in commemoration of them three decades ago, to open up the newest of Law & Liberty’s always-interesting and -substantive Forum series. His “Beyond the Ideological Lie: The Revolution of 1989 Thirty Years Later,” well worth the read, properly considers the year in the shadow of 1917.

Mahoney powerfully argues that 1989 is distinct from 1917 in a real historical sense, because people behind the Iron Curtain merely cried out for a normal existence, freed from violence, lawlessness, and systematic mendacity. It was a revolt against totalitarian regimes built on force and deception, the “ideological lie.” The uprising was inspired by the witness, the voices, and the pens of St. John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—each of whom, in their ways, eloquently testified to the imperative of truth against the ideological lie.

In particular, for example, “Solzhenitsyn told the cynical Soviet leaders—who were themselves prisoners of ideological categories and clichés, revealed in their using the wooden language of ideology in private—that the persecution of religious believers was beyond irrational,” as Mahoney recounts.

No self-respecting state or pragmatic political class sets “useless good-for nothings” to harass and persecute its best citizens—those who work hard, don’t cheat, and live decently and honestly in their relations with others. Ideology had given rise to lies, great and small, that had suffocated ordinary people, and the most talented, energetic, and morally serious thinkers, artists, and workers, even as it sowed distrust and cynicism in society at large. “Nothing constructive rests upon it” and “everybody knows it,” Solzhenitsyn wrote.

As Mahoney sees it, the main protagonist in the totalitarian drama of the 20th Century is now beginning to breathe, slowly but surely, with both lungs—as they’re cleared what remains of the deadly congestion. Russia has transcended the worst evils of ideological despotism, he maintains, while acknowledging unacceptable levels of private and public corruption.  

The Orthodox Church is coming to life again, Mahoney correctly notes. Even though many outside Russia still understandably call for public confession of its misdeeds, it does regularly pay homage to the thousands martyred under Communism. A long and winding road, so far only traveled in part.

The same road

That road counts amongst its many pilgrims all these many years The Benedict Option author Rod Dreher, who has been chronicling his journey to Russia in The American Conservative. In a November 3 post, he offers his thoughts on a visit to St. Seraphim of Sarov in a neighborhood some 50 kilometers from Moscow’s city center. It, too, is worth the read.

Following Divine Liturgy, Dreher accompanies Fr. Alexey Yakovlev, the parish priest, on a tour of the church complex. Construction began on the grounds, which served as a garbage dump, in 2009. Seven years later, the bells were in place, the iconostasis erected, and finishing touches completed.

Dreher then learns about, and describes in the piece, the parish’s commitment to a program through which its members and others learn traditional carpentry skills to help save holy buildings that have fallen into ruin. Every summer, participants travel to Russia’s far north to work. Since its first project in the Arkhangelsk region in 2010, 370 participants have helped restore 153 churches.

They are restoring and deepening respect for a most-significant element of the country’s religious and cultural history. In helping to restore this memory, they help truth triumph over “the ideological lie.” It is the same road of the revolution of 1989, 30 years on.

Hope to stagger

We at The Giving Review last week marked Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky’s death with a cutting observation of his about American philanthropy, as part of which we disapprovingly noted the large, establishment foundations’ preoccupation with “big ideas” and “big solutions” to global issues.

With my co-editor Bill Schambra, we thought of the relatively modest resources devoted to the post-Soviet revitalization of civil society in Russia and areas of what had been the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe by the foundation for which we worked, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. Much more resources were devoted to strengthening and promoting civil society in Wisconsin and all of the U.S.

The philanthropic focus was on rebuilding, renewing, and sustaining strong families and community institutions—seeing beneficial economic, social, and cultural impacts. On, as Mahoney generally highlights, good and decent people actively working within their families and communities to recover memory and revitalize their spiritual identity and cultural confidence. On the kind of people whom Dreher highlights in particular.

They remain at work today, and can still be supported, including through the many various church-affiliated and other social-welfare groups. There are several entities trying to encourage and promote them, as well, including the Urbi et Orbi Foundation, among others. Their task remains daunting, to be sure. The winding road is long, but worth trying to travel.

“I really do wish that every American Christian could have the experience I’ve had these past few days,” Dreher concludes, “learning about what people suffered for the sake of their faith in God, and where they found the hope to stagger onward rejoicing.”