Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Sirico Parables book

    R&L: In your writings on economics, you say that Orthodox Christian values, while not supporting an unfettered laissez-faire capitalism, do in fact support a socially-responsible, free-market system. How widespread are these views in Russia?

    Gvosdev: A good reference point for this is the Jubilee Bishops' Council, which was held in August 2000. At this conference, the Russian Orthodox Church adopted an authoritative document, the “Bases of the Social Concept,” that sets forth the official church position on a variety of social questions. In the section dealing with economic issues, the document notes: “Those who work have the right to use the fruits of their labor … At the same time, in accordance with God's commandment those who labor are ordered to take care of those who for various reasons cannot earn their living, such as the weak, the sick, strangers (refugees), orphans, and widows—and to share with them the fruits of work.”

    The Church maintains that all individual freedoms—both political and economic—are balanced by social responsibilities. This is a view that increasingly is being adopted by the Russian business community as well. When he spoke at the Carnegie Endowment in the spring of this year, Viktor Vekselberg, chairman of the board of Siberian-Urals Aluminum, discussed some of the ways that Russian business is responding to the call for increased social responsibility—from full payment of taxes to active sponsorship of charitable and educational programs. Indeed, most Russian companies now have active philanthropic programs.

    R&L: The “Social Concept” adopted by the bishops also affirmed the legitimacy of private property?

    Gvosdev: That's correct. The relevant parts are found in section seven: “The Church urges Christians to see in property God's gift given to be used for their own and their neighbors' benefit .… At the same time, Holy Scripture recognizes the human right to property and deplores any encroachment on it .… The Church recognizes the existence of various forms of ownership. Public, corporate, private, and mixed forms of property have taken different roots in the course of historical development in various countries. The Church does not give preference to any of these forms.”

    This is significant because, first and foremost, there has always been a certain romanticism in Russian thought, especially during the ninteenth century, about the superiority of communal property over private ownership. During the 1990s, the “hard left”—including the Communists—tried to link the rejection of private property both with Christianity and with Russian nationalism. Gennady Zyuganov, who was the Communist candidate for the presidency in 1996, used the slogan “Jesus Christ was the first Communist” in his efforts to win votes from religious believers. So it was important for the Church to reiterate that the concept of private property did not contradict Orthodox values. It is also important to keep in mind the Soviet legacy. Whatever one thinks of the way in which Anatoly Chubais handled privatization, one cannot escape the dilemma he faced. At that time, he said: “We had to make hundreds of thousands of people do something they had never done before. We had to fundamentally change their attitude to property.”

    R&L: The Bishops' Council also affirmed the growing importance of intellectual property rights and deplored copyright violations. Has the Church's stand on IP issues had any effect on government policy?

    Gvosdev: The state hasn't adopted any policy just because the Church has made a declaration. But what is important is the message that it sends to Russian society. In Russia, as in other parts of eastern Europe, there is a steady trade in bootleg cassettes, compact disks and software. The Church's statement is a reminder that counterfeiting copyrighted material is stealing. It attacks a very prevalent attitude that theft is only wrong when one steals tangible items from a neighbor, and that stealing from a company or the state isn't wrong “because no one gets hurt.”

    R&L: Russian President Vladimir Putin got Church backing earlier this year for his push to encourage private pensions funds, and for his anti-corruption drive. In what way was this support helpful?

    Gvosdev: The Church does not have a political constituency or a bloc of voters. But the Russian Orthodox Church is seen as the conveyer of national values, morals, and culture, in short, one of the yardsticks for assessing what is authentically Russian. Most citizens of the Russian Federation—approximately 70 percent—identify themselves as Orthodox. So for many Russians, believers and non-believers alike, the Russian Orthodox Church remains the final arbiter as to whether something can be considered “Russian” or whether it is “alien.”

    R&L: A council sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church published a “Ten Commandments for Businessmen” earlier this year, with the blessing of Patriarch Alexiy II and participation of business people. What, if any, discernable impact has the statement made on Russian life?

    Gvosdev: It's too early to say at this point. As with many other statements, the “Ten Commandments” reflect ideals rather than reality.

    But one of the wealthiest businessmen in Russia, Igor Naivalt, owner of Russia's largest construction firm (the Baltic Construction Company), is renowned for donating a tithe on his profits to the Orthodox Church. There is also a growing entrepreneurial class that takes very seriously its responsibility for improving the welfare of society through active sponsorship of cultural and philanthropic projects. This is especially evident in a number of regions where government, business, and charitable groups meet together in what are termed “social chambers” to enhance cooperation. Even international charitable NGOs note an increasing “indigenousization” of charitable giving. Some 70 percent of the budget for Charities Aid Foundation's Russia projects now comes from Russian donors.

    R&L: Is the Church in any position to offer this kind of guidance? Alexander Yakovlev, a former adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev, estimates that during the 70-year reign of Communism more than 200,000 Christian clergy were murdered, in many cases after beastly torturing. What effect has that had on the Church's institutional ability to participate in the social and political life of Russia?

    Gvosdev: This is a great tragedy. Historian Dimitry Pospielovsky refers to the losses suffered by the Orthodox Church during the 20th century, particularly during the holocaust of Stalin's tyranny during the 1930s, as the “eradication of the best.” Not only did Soviet persecution deprive the Church of many of its best minds and most effective thinkers and leaders, but the regime tried to reduce religion to the celebration of rituals, to deprive the Church of any meaningful social role. It really has been only fifteen years since the Orthodox Church was first given the opportunity to engage in philanthropy, to engage society via the airwaves, to begin to take its mission beyond the four walls of the church building.

    And the rapid expansion of the Church during the 1990s has meant that many of its clergy and lay leaders are insufficiently trained. Indeed, many ordinary Russians still do not have a strong grounding in Orthodox beliefs and certainly not its social ethos. Russian society was profoundly secularized by the Soviet regime. Even today, while up to 70 percent of Russians describe themselves as “Orthodox,” only about six percent attend church services on a regular basis.

    R&L: One of the Ten Commandments for business people holds that “Wealth is not an end in itself. It must serve for the creation of a good life for any individual and the nation.” This is a characteristic expression of Orthodox thought on stewardship, is it not?

    Gvosdev: It is taken directly from the patristic traditions of early Orthodoxy. In this view, it was not the acquisition of wealth that was taken as a sign of divine favor, but what a person did with this wealth. The Izmaragd, a medieval Russian compendium of patristic sayings, advised, “Fortune is not born with you, but is entrusted to you by God for a few days. Therefore, distribute as a steward what is entrusted to you anywhere the entruster orders.” And St. Basil, in his famous advice to Amphilochius, notes that “The good man … neither turns his heart to wealth when he has it, nor seeks after it if he has not. He treats what is given him not for his selfish enjoyment but for wise administration.”

    R&L: Another commandment asserts that “the political authority and the economic authority must be separated.” What is the background for the Church's statement here?

    Gvosdev: Here, one sees the influence of current developments rather than a return to historical traditions. After all, in Russia's medieval commercial republics—city-states akin to Italy's Genoa or Florence—wealthy merchants and artisans were often entrusted with political leadership.

    So this statement reflects the Church's endorsement of the “bargain” offered by President Vladimir Putin to the heads of Russia's major financial-industrial groups, the so-called “oligarchs”—to retain the opportunity to amass large fortunes in Russia, but not to use that wealth to purchase political immunity or to control the course of Russia's economic development.

    R&L: Have Church leaders taken any position on the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the Yukos oil chiefs? Is it possible to generalize, in a larger sense, about the Church's view of the oligarchs who did very well for themselves in the sell-off of state enterprises?

    Gvosdev: The Church walks a fine line because the oligarchs and the financial-industrial groups that they control have been and continue to be major donors to the educational and philanthropic work of the Church. Some of the oligarchs—such as Sergei Pugachev or even Boris Berezovsky—are baptized Orthodox Christians. A stable middle class has not yet coalesced to become the prime supporter of religious activity, and so, as with other parts of civil society—political parties, newspapers and media outlets, and charitable organizations—the Church continues to depend on the wealthy few for support. The Church has made the point that the concentration of wealth itself is a neutral condition, as it “can produce both sinful phenomena, such as theft, money-grubbing, unfair distribution of wealth, and the proper and morally justified use of wealth.”

    R&L: This brings us back to the question of privatization. Did the privatization of industrial assets and natural resources, admittedly badly managed, sour many people on market economics? What will it take to change that perception?

    Gvosdev: In theory, privatization should have worked to create a vast stake-holding class. For a short moment in the mid-1990s, more Russians held securities than Americans. The problem was that the reformers grouped around President Boris Yeltsin bought into the theory of creative destruction—raze the old system to the ground, unleash the market, and everything will shake itself out. Not a lot of attention was paid to preparing the soil—not only in creating viable regulatory and legal institutions that police a free-market but also in the enormous cultural change produced by the reforms.

    R&L: In May, Putin said Russia could double its GDP by 2010 and noted that only strong economic growth could provide the means to solve social problems. Has he become a free-marketer?

    Gvosdev: Putin is a pragmatist. He has embraced free-market measures—among them the flat tax, reducing the size of the bureaucracy, simplifying regulations—because they produce results, not out of any ideological predilection for such things.

    R&L: There is a growing sense in the West, among policy analysts and the media at least, that Putin is pushing for economic liberalization but not political reform. Is this your perception? And how far can economic prosperity advance without democratic reform?

    Gvosdev: Putin wants a regime that, while ensuring political stability, will promote economic growth. Yet the Putin team grapples with a paradox. While recognizing the immense value created by a pluralistic, competitive society, it fears that unrestrained pluralism—especially in the absence of strong mediating institutions—will be destructive for Russia.

    What emerges is what I have termed “managed pluralism.” In such a system, there is some room for competition and choice but the central authority consciously regulates the available social, political, and economic options by design, with an eye to preserving stability or consensus. It is not accidental that Putin's advisors have paid close attention to the East Asian model for economic and political transition.

    R&L: In the West, liberal democracy has developed in some places to an extreme of individualism. In the economic sphere, that can mean greed and selfishness. Is there any sense among Church leaders and the Russian populace that the Western model doesn't fit them?

    Gvosdev: Metropolitan Kirill said as much a couple years ago in an address to the European Council of Religious Leaders in Oslo. He noted that Western institutions are “based on the so-called liberal principle, which proclaims individual freedoms as the highest value. The structure of society as a whole is arranged in a way to ensure the maximum possible realization of the individual rights and freedoms.” In contrast, Eastern Christian civilization, he observed, “has other characteristic features, such as the indisputable priority of the spiritual over the material, of self-denial and self-restriction over the aspiration for earthly success, of common interests over private ones, of the faithfulness to the truth and ideals over worldly benefits and earthly wellbeing.”

    What the Church finds lacking in the Western model is the absence of any effective check on individual liberty if the use of that freedom leads to ends that are destructive for society. In traditional Orthodox thought, the individual conscience is supposed to be a person's “autocratic master,” to use a Russian medieval saying—but historically the Church has accepted what we might term the Constantinian bargain—the opportunity to use the power of the state to improve the human condition. Patriarch Alexiy himself has observed, “The state has limited functions. It can protect that which is good. It can repulse evil. But only man himself, through his personal effort, can directly cultivate goodness.” Yet the temptation is always there to use the state as a shortcut.

    Most Read

    Nikolas K. Gvosdev follows the interaction between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian society and serves as executive editor of The National Interest.