Nothing Weird About Orthodox Tradition

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Together with the rest of the Eastern Christian world, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated Easter on Sunday. In English, Orthodox Christians refer to Easter as "Pascha," a word related to the English adjective "paschal" and to the French Paque or Italian Pasqua.

Going by any of these names, Orthodox Easter this year came almost exactly a month later than the same Western Christian holy day commemorating events immortalized most recently and multilingually by Mel Gibson. Why did the Russian Orthodox Church celebrate Easter a month "late" and why, in general, are Orthodox Christian traditions so "weird"?

I submit the following observations not as a defense of our traditions but as an offering toward a deeper understanding of their significance to modern-day Russia. As strange as it might seem, the current disconnect between Russian and Western worldviews traces back -- more than 1,000 years -- to the geographical, linguistic and theological differences between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.

As a third-generation descendant of Russian emigres, I was raised in New York in a slightly Americanized version of the Russian Orthodox Church -- the main difference being that the liturgical language in use is English rather than Church Slavonic. And although I had an essentially standard American childhood, I still managed to imbibe enough Russian cultural idiosyncrasies to enable me to view the Kremlin's position on many issues as not only understandable but in many instances defensible.

First, why did Easter come so late in Russia this year? Well, as anyone familiar with Judaism should know, Passover was celebrated this year from April 19 to April 26. With another genuflection to Mel Gibson, the event known to Christians as the Last Supper was a Seder service that Jesus Christ officiated. In Eastern Orthodox Europe, Easter must come during or just after the Jewish Passover. For the first millennium of Christian history, the undivided universal church followed this practice until Rome instituted changes to the secular calendar for Western Christendom -- for example, adding leap years. Although Rome got the astronomy right, this made a mess of the Paschal cycle (meaning the procedure for calculating the Feast of Feasts) vis-a-vis Easter's Jewish roots as well as in the interests of ensuring a unified, universal Christian festal calendar.

As students of Russian history know, the precursor to the modern Russian state was founded by the Kievan Prince Vladimir, who in 988 -- give or take a year -- accepted conversion to the Byzantine (Greek-speaking) branch of Christianity. At the time, this appeared to be a solid move geopolitically. Byzantium -- technically, Eastern Rome -- was a mighty empire situated relatively near to the Russian lands. Forging a dynastic and cultural alliance with the Byzantine emperors served to establish a strong North-South political and military axis between Constantinople and Kiev.

Roll the clock forward five centuries, however, and it might be argued that St. Prince Vladimir guessed wrong. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks, and one-half of the twin-star alliance that stood between the new, post-schism Roman Catholic West and Islam further to the east and south had crumbled. This, combined with Russia's constant struggle for political and military parity with the Germans and Scandinavians to the west and freedom from the occupying Mongol-Tatar hordes from the east, resulted in an indelible stamp of paranoia -- a fear of encirclement -- in the Russian collective psyche.

These two factors -- having unexpectedly adopted a now essentially unique religion and struggling to maintain the medieval Russian polity free from foreign invaders -- resulted in what has been described as a messianic mentality. A formulation that received popularity with the Russian people and especially among the nation's fighting forces was: "The first and second Romes have fallen. Moscow is the Third Rome, and a fourth there shall never be."

During the Soviet era, one thing that many Russian emigres knew in their bones was that Western analysts -- a predominantly secular if not agnostic lot -- inaccurately discounted the significance of Russia's Orthodox Christian heritage. The Soviet Union's propagandists rapidly and obviously replaced Christian symbolisms and rites with parallel Communist equivalents. This alone constituted grudging acknowledgement of the significance of Orthodox Christianity to the Russian collective psyche.

For our purposes, however, the key distinguishing feature of the traditional Russian social construct was its reliance on the Byzantine model of governance. In the Latin West, the Roman patriarchs, or popes, were forced to adopt secular, administrative functions as a result of the total collapse of the Roman Empire. In this context, such accretions as universal papal jurisdiction and the infallible right to define church doctrine might seem almost inevitable. But for an additional 1,000 years -- until 1453 -- the Greek-speaking Eastern Church functioned exclusively within an intact secular empire.

To the Byzantines, the emperor's civic reign dovetailed seamlessly with the Orthodox Church's jurisdiction over the souls of Eastern Rome's citizens. This concept was referred to as symphonia, but it had little if anything to do with music.

Thus, when Patriarch Alexy II congratulated both President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and their spouses during Sunday's midnight Paschal vigil in Christ the Savior Cathedral, he was reinvigorating the Byzantine tradition of symphonia between church and state. The Western -- primarily Protestant -- paradigm of a "wall" between these two institutions has no bearing in this context. This observation is not intended as a critique or defense of either construct, but rather to highlight this contrast in traditions.

To criticize Russian society, including the resurgence of the Orthodox Church, by using post-Enlightenment Western European arguments is not only out of context, but also likely to reinforce Russia's paranoia reflex. Even the harshest critic of the new Russian state ought to be sympathetic to the collective sentiment that they received little if any tangible credit from the West in exchange for quietly giving up and walking away from 50 years of Cold War confrontation.

In this context, Russians feel free to reach back into their Russian-Byzantine heritage in search of the building blocks for a 21st-century state. Western criticisms of this experiment should be offered in the context of an informed dialogue that includes familiarity with and sensitivity to Russia's distinct and -- to Russians, at least -- honored traditions.

Vladimir Berezansky Jr., a U.S. lawyer, has worked in Russia for 15 years.