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Russia's Time of Troubles

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The late Andrei Sakharov was the nuclear physicist who gave the Soviets the hydrogen bomb. He and his wife, Yelena Bonner, later became prominent dissidents, critical of the Soviet regime, which collapsed in 1991. Yelena Bonner summed up the Soviet government this way: "The Bolsheviks are like a bunch of squatters who have taken over a house and are waiting for the police to arrive."

Having taken over the Russian house in 1917 without the consent of the people, the Bolsheviks (communists) attempted to fill a vacuum left by the collapse of a dynasty that had ruled for more than three centuries. The communists, wedded as they were to a system that couldn't work, consequently made a big mess of everything.

It appears little has changed. The new democratic Russia is led by a former KGB official who seemed bewildered during the country's latest crisis, the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk.

Officially, it didn't sink; it simply "descended to the bottom of the sea." Officially, no lives were lost, and contact with the sub was maintained at all times.

This was the official stance until the lies were no longer credible and the extent of the disaster was revealed. By then it was too late for foreign technology, sent on request by Britain and Norway, to attempt a rescue.

Officially, foreigners are still to blame for the incident, the Kursk supposedly having been in a collision with an American or British submarine during naval exercises. Most outsiders, however, acknowledge that torpedoes in the submarine exploded, killing most of the men immediately, with others dying in the days that followed.

Newspapers reported that President Vladimir Putin's first concern when hearing of the loss was of the financial consequences; his second worry was the impact on the navy. Only then was any thought expressed for the men.

After 70 years of communism, during which Russians and other Soviets had no rights and no recourse to settle injustices, it is understandable that Russian leaders lack experience and don't know how to react in a crisis like this. A pervasive feeling persists that squatters have taken over the house and are waiting for the police to arrive. A feeling is evident that the present system is only temporary, that the country is waiting for something better to come along-a system thatwill usher in another 300 years of stability.

Fascination with Czarist past

Fascination with the czars continues. Perhaps it's the ubiquitous Imperial architecture of the Romanov period that still dominates the skyline of Russia's second city, St. Petersburg. Or maybe it's the pre-Romanov architecture of the Kremlin in Moscow and other kremlins in other ancient cities. Or it could be the restored fortunes of the ancient Orthodox Church, again at the center of Russian life after wandering 70 years in the communist wilderness.

Centuries-old Russian Orthodox churches are being restored, their onion domes dominating ancient communities in stark contrast to the hideous massive concrete blocks that were communism's architectural gift to the Russian people. The new architecture, like modern technology, seems to be letting the people down while the magnificent palatial buildings of the 18th century remain securely standing and fully functional.

Russians' sense of longing for their glorious past was summed up recently in Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky's book The Rasputin File, based on material about the last days of the Romanovs that has only recently become available.

Radzinsky, host of a popular history program on Russian television, was a member of the recent Government Commission for the Funeral of the Royal Family-the family (the Romanovs) the Bolsheviks murdered in July 1918.

The Romanovs' bodies had been hastily disposed of in the city of Ekaterinburg. The commission's task was to recover the remains, identify them through DNA and arrange for a suitable funeral. It was decided that the czars should be buried along with most of their ancestors in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Here is part of Radzinsky's account of the day of the funeral:

"Then the funeral march burst forth. The cortege of buses with the royal coffins began to move. And the miracle was extended. The quarrels all vanished. And the entire city came out to meet them. People stood in an unbroken line, extending for many kilometers, from the airport all the way to the Peter and Paul Fortress. And there were people in the open windows of the buildings. And others were waiting on their knees. And the President [Boris Yeltsin], who the day before had refused to attend the funeral, had that day suddenly flown to Petersburg to repent before their coffins for all our evil deeds in the departing century.

"They found their resting places in the Peter and Paul Cathedral-across the Neva River from their palace and among the tombs of their ancestors. And all Russia buried them that day. And in the country, there was a long forgotten sense of joyful union, of a moved, happy ease. As if a stone had fallen away from the soul. As if some terrible spirit had at last released the 'czars' and flown away from Russia for good. Or was it only for a moment? And an illusion, after all?" (Edvard Radzinsky, The Rasputin File, 2000, pp. 502-503).

It is as if Russia has not come to terms with its history. Again, this can be understood when we realize that the Soviets essentially froze history. It is as if nothing of any great significance happened before they came to power, and everything that took place during their 70 years was perfect. No other interpretation was allowed.

Now Russians are free to discover and think about their past and compare themselves with other European countries they knew little about under communism.

A new book, Nicholas II: The Interrupted Transition, by French historian Helene Carrere d'Encausse, shows the reformist nature of the last czar's regime. Russia was slowly moving toward a constitutional monarchy, which was the model for the more successful European nations at that time. Communism interrupted this evolution. Now the country tries to make up for lost time and build on those early reforms.

There has been no talk of a restoration of autocracy. The European experience has been that constitutional monarchy is the best way to ensure democracy. Under that system the head of state is a hereditary position with limited political powers. This severely restricts the probability of a politician becoming a dictator. It doesn't always work, but historically it has worked well in many countries.

On the other hand, most republics have too easily succumbed to dictatorship. Russia under communism and Hitler's Germany are two of the worst examples.

Formula for dictatorship

The present Russian system makes it too likely for a dictator to arise. Repeated crises like those in recent months will likely lead to stronger central government and eventually could lead to one man becoming a dictator. Fears of this possibility were increased recently when the Russian president's powers increased at the expense of regional governors and Russia's fledgling free press came under attack with the arrest of a major independent media mogul who had been critical of the government.

Recent months have brought a catalog of disasters for the new Russian president. An explosion in a Moscow subway killed several people. Speculation is rife that Chechens were behind the blast in retaliation for Russia's continued disastrous presence in Chechnya, where countless young Russian men have been slaughtered in a never-ending bloody conflict.

Then came the submarine disaster. Before the month was over, a fire in Moscow's 33-year-old television tower-the pride of the Soviet system when it was built-left several firemen dead. Now the tower, taller than the Empire State Building, is a dangerous monument to disaster that could collapse at any moment. It is "symbolic of the state of the nation as a whole," acknowledged President Putin.

The last decade has seemed like a replay of Russia's Time of Troubles, the period between the two dynasties that ruled Russia for more than 1,000 years. Comparisons were drawn between Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia until a few months ago, and Boris Godunov, the interim czar who dominated Russia until the beginning of the 17th century.

Then a new dynasty began in 1613 with the coronation of 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov. Ironically, the first and last Romanov czars were named Michael. Nicholas abdicated in favor of his brother Michael, who was to be a constitutional monarch. The Bolshevik Revolution ended his reign before it began.

A further irony is that the first Michael was at the Ipatiev monastery when asked to be czar. The last Romanovs were slaughtered in the basement of the Ipatiev house. Ironies like this are not lost on the Russian people.

With no nobility to speak of and a Romanov family divided, it is unlikely that Russia will introduce a constitutional monarchy. This increases the likelihood of dictatorship-unless Russia can move fast to improve its economy.

Catch-22 hinders progress

Here's Russia's catch-22: Economic progress depends on political stability. But political stability is not likely until there is some economic progress. This would give a government legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

The perception in Russia that people in government are like squatters waiting for the police to arrive has a ring of truth to it. People at the highest levels in many countries are corrupt; they line their pockets at the expense of the people they are supposedly serving. It was Lord Acton, the British ambassador to St. Petersburg at the time of Peter the Great, three centuries ago, who observed that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Russian leaders are no longer autocratic, but an all-pervasive bureaucracy perpetuates corruption. One reason the search for survivors of the Kursk took so long was the need for rescuers to obtain permits from various government departments before being given permission to act.

Another Russian irony is that many Russians would like to see a return to autocracy. They look at their history and see that the leaders who accomplished the most for the country had absolute power. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin are the three most often mentioned. Catherine the Great is another.

In the midst of all the present confusion, religion has made a comeback among the Russian people. Radzinsky's book shows the role religion played in the nation before the revolution. The state church was the Russian Orthodox, as it is again. Moscow was the "Third Rome" after Rome and Constantinople. The country's official name was the Holy Russian Empire.

After seven decades of religious persecution by the communists, Russia celebrated 1,000 years of Christianity in 1988 during the Gorbachev thaw. The people remembered Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, who ordered the forced baptisms of his subjects when he himself decided to convert. Naturally, under such conditions, many of the old pagan beliefs and practices survived and have continued to modern times. At the time of the last czar the Orthodox Church struggled with a rival spiritual power-a mystical amalgam of orthodoxy and paganism that, through the monk Rasputin, influenced the royal court.

Now religion is back at center stage, and the Orthodox Church again dominates the religious life of the nation. Under pressure from the church, the government has made it more difficult for Western religions to practice there.

Biblical solutions to Russia's problems

One irony is inescapable: The solution to Russia's present crisis lies in the pages of the Bible. The Scriptures contain a great deal of advice for governments, both ancient and modern. Advice is included, too, for the ruled as well as for rulers.

Perhaps the most famous passage in the Scriptures regarding government contains Christ's instruction to "render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21).

Tax evasion is a major Russian problem. Without revenue, government cannot function. Teachers, military personnel and others on the government's payroll go unpaid for months. Even when they are paid, their wages are so low they hardly cover the monthly food bill. The commander of the Kursk received the equivalent of $250 per month. Conscripts on the submarine received only $30 per month when they were paid at all.

The revenue shortage also meant that only three submarines could be in service at any time-this in a nation that played a key role in the second-most-powerful military force on earth-the former U.S.S.R.-only a decade ago.

Although Jesus Himself condemned tax evasion, the Scriptures highlight a major factor contributing to this problem-the incredible ability and appetite of government to take too much for itself.

When the Israelites rejected God and said they wanted to be ruled by a human leader, like all the nations around them, God warned them of the natural tendency of government to take more and more from the people. This warning is recorded in 1 Samuel 8:

"This will be the behavior of the king [any human leader] who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen ... [and] will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.

"And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the LORD will not hear you in that day" (verses 11-18).

Here we see God's warning against government-the tendency of governments to start small and become big. Under the communists the government controlled everything. Under the czars, before the liberation of the serfs under Czar Alexander II as recently as 1861, the people were mere possessions of their rulers. With such a history the heavy hand of government is still a major problem in Russia. Some would make it even heavier as a solution to current problems.

When the people have no rights the economy will not flourish. For a nation to thrive its people must have the prospect of bettering themselves. As individuals prosper so the nation itself becomes richer.

Russia has made halfhearted attempts during the last decade to encourage individual initiative, but government's heavy role has ensured that criminal activity, from tax evasion to trafficking in human beings and drug smuggling, is the quickest way to make money. This also means that money has accumulated in foreign banks outside the country, depriving Russian companies of much-needed investment. Russia's problems are compounded by the fact that many old-guard communists, even former KGB officials like Vladimir Putin, have managed to hold onto power in one way or another.

A major weakness of many nations today is that the rights of ordinary people are not acknowledged or accommodated. This includes property rights. Any accumulation of assets means nothing-everything can be taken away at the whim of government.

The book of Micah addresses this problem. Speaking of a time in our future after the return of the Messiah and the establishment of righteous government over the earth, we read that "everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4).

Russia urgently needs a law giving the people the right to private property protected from government confiscation. It needs a system of checks and balances to stop the excesses of government. There is still no law in place granting farmers the right to their own land in perpetuity-land on which they can work hard, develop and hand down to their children. Such a law would boost agricultural production, ensuring greater prosperity for all.

Perhaps all this is too much for Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin. Being the leader of a great nation was similarly overwhelming to ancient Israel's newly chosen King Solomon. Realizing his own limitations, he asked God for "an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?" (1 Kings 3:9). Verse 10 shows that his request pleased God. Because of his humble attitude when he inherited the mantle of power, God gave Solomon great wisdom in ruling the nation of Israel.

Such humility today on the part of world leaders would also be blessed by the Creator of the world.

Russia is going through a major era of change. Change can be negative or positive. Russia has a historic opportunity to break away from its past and move toward a better political and economic system than it has had before, either under the communists or the czars. It's a historic opportunity that Russia's leaders would do well not to miss. GN