Is it of the essence in Russia to realise an economic model based on Orthodox Christian ethics? Is it important to justify a business on religious grounds? What means can an Orthodox Christian use to promote peace? Why is the commonly held notion that the “Protestant work ethic” shall improve the economy nothing but a myth? In this interview with Interfax, Andrei Poklonsky, the chairman of the Russian Club of Orthodox Maecenases, answers these questions.
What do you see as the basic purpose of the Russian Club of Orthodox Maecenases?
The mission of our Club lies in “good works” by Orthodox-oriented businesses devoted to the decrease of tensions and stresses in our Russian society. This is a large task, some would say it is immense, but it can be accomplished with a combination of joint efforts and well-coordinated management. However, one of our most important purposes is the ordering of our lives in accordance with the tenets and practises of our faith and beliefs. By doing so, we cease to be “Sunday Christians”. What is the meaning of all this? It means that we build our professional life, in our case, in the business world, based on the ethics of Orthodox Christianity. I know… this does sound very otherworldly… but, if we do not aim for a high standard, we shall not be able to solve even the simplest problems.
What specific objectives do you have in mind?
Firstly, we must discuss the embodiment of the idea of “Christian economy”, its “incarnation”, if you will. This is not only possible, it is necessary. We should not be discussing some abstract “Orthodox economy”, for economic laws are objective, and there is no alternative to the market economy. What model of the market economy shall we realise in Russia? Shall we centre it on industries focusing on cutting-edge technology or shall we base it on the extraction of raw materials? Or both? Whatever we choose, Orthodox ethics can and must be a factor in the market economy. Religious motivation must be the specific stimulus for social justice. For example, in the Orthodox catechism we read that to withhold the rightful pay of a worker for honest labour is a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance. Our religious beliefs should govern our care of our natural resources, and they should inform our mutual duties to one another and our country (i.e. “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”).
Russia has abundant God-given natural resources, but we can lose them if we misuse them. Our Church now has freedom; it would be a sin not to use it. The most urgent task facing us, after we resolve our petty differences, and roll up our sleeves, is to be “missionaries” in society. We must work to improve the spiritual education of our people, in all the spheres of their lives. From those who understand… God demands much… but, we can do it! It is in this spirit that we Orthodox businessmen came together to serve our Church and our motherland. It is our duty to insert Orthodox moral values into the market economy and to foster the emergence of an economic class grounded in Orthodoxy. Do you remember how some tried to tell us that only the “Protestant work ethic” would allow the Russian economy to rise up from its knees, and that Orthodoxy was allegedly a neo-feudal and regressive belief? The reality is entirely different! We have our answer to the notions of Max Weber. Orthodox ethics are the foundation of capitalism. Orthodoxy is a necessary part of the modernisation of Russia on a traditional basis.
It is no less important to use Orthodox Christian methods to promote peace. We should use the means of a strong and responsible person, one who does their best not to live a lie. We must proclaim the fact that an Orthodox Christian can and must excel in all areas of life. By being strong, free, and morally responsible people, Orthodox Christians can make positive contributions in all aspects of economic, cultural, and public life. This is even more necessary in the face of anti-Church propaganda that proposes that Orthodoxy is infantile and voluntarily flees to the margins of reality. They claim that the Church so hates and fears the contemporary world that it runs into a self-imposed dungeon, and that Christians refuse to take responsibility for themselves, their family, and their country. This is the view they attempt to spread concerning Orthodoxy.
Russia was “spiritually disarmed” during the decade of the ‘90s. We all know the results. Nevertheless, the accusation that we Orthodox ran into a self-imposed dungeon or wished to emulate the self-immolation of the Old Believers is false.
Are there examples from Russian history illustrating the attempt to realise the Orthodox world view in the economic sphere?
We saw striking examples of this in the twentieth century. For instance, Archbishop Antony Khrapovitsky of Volyn, a great Russian theologian, founded a bank in the Pochaev Monastery that made loans to Little Russian peasants that lifted many of them up from under dependence upon usurious moneylenders. This increased both the prosperity and political stability in Volyn. Without the support of the monastery fathers, no candidate standing for election to the State Duma could win office. In Volyn, there were no left wing or right wing extremists, since the work of the monastery fathers in the economy cut the ground out from under their feet. In addition, the fathers worked hard to increase the level of education. The print run of Pochaev Pages exceeded two million!
Another example was St Serafim of Vyritsa, who was a prosperous fur merchant before he became a starets (“elder”, a term for wise and holy monk). He transacted business entirely without legal papers, and extended credit in full confidence, not demanding surety. He cared for his workers, and he paid them well. In addition, he showed much charity to the poor of St Petersburg.
Orthodox economic theories also found their place in the intellectual life of the White Russian émigrés. In 1922, under the direction of Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky, a congress focusing on Russian economic revival took place in the German city of Baden-Reichenhall. In its programme, the term “national capitalism” appears. The congress embodied the ideas of Metropolitan Antony concerning Orthodox ethics in the market economy in its declarations. It spoke of the spiritual responsibility of owners of capital and of the peace that should exist between capital and labour.
We must reclaim this heritage now. Some of the political and economic élite now understand that without Orthodox ethics, the “law of the jungle” shall apply, and it shall devour them. If they can put this understanding into practice by bringing healthy ideas into our economic life, as did St Serafim of Vyritsa, they shall steer society to the thought and experience of these great elders who had excelled in the business world, which shall give us a chance to create a strong and flourishing economy on a moral and religious foundation.
What projects has your Club realised to date?
Our Club has been in existence since 2003. We are not theorists; we tend to stick to concrete matters. For instance, we help orphanages. One such establishment was for children whose fathers were killed in action protecting our Russian motherland. We do not simply give them Orthodox formation and a chance to grow spiritually, we also lift them to their feet, helping them to grow up independent and confident Orthodox citizens of Russia.
We also help one of our more active members, the famous composer Georgi Gladkov, in his search for talented children. His goal is unique and urgent. He goes to schools after classes are finished in order to seek out musically gifted children in order to help them develop their talent, especially if they come from poor families unable to afford private lessons. To my mind, we must extend such activity both in the church, the business world, and in the political sphere. We must seek out the talented, nurture them, and help them realise their potential. It is people who solve problems! Since we Orthodox Christian businessmen bear a responsibility for the future of the nation, we must create avenues of social mobility to ensure a prosperous future for our church and country. At this moment, we are guiding our activity based on Christian ethics. For example, our chapter in Kemerovo oblast pays 150,000 roubles (6,150 USD 4,200 Euros) for every child born into a working family.
One of our most interesting projects is “The Measured Icon”. This is an icon painted after the birth of a child that is the same height as the baby. Several things are accomplished in this. A sacred object appears in the life of the child from its very beginning. It reminds the child and its family of its heavenly patron. On a more mundane level, it provides work for hundreds of iconographers, which helps us to revive our ancient Orthodox tradition of iconography, a “theology in colours” that raises the soul and spirit of the Christian to the contemplation of holy things. However, in our contemporary age, we need to explain the sense of the “teaching of the image” in Orthodoxy. Therefore, there is a catechetical aspect to the “Measured Icon” project. We have published a little booklet in simple and accessible language explaining the “teaching of the image” is impossible without a link to the Orthodox Church and the sacraments it offers.
We must understand that the triumph of Orthodoxy in Russia shall NOT come automatically, because of our old traditions. It is necessary for us to learn to explain Orthodoxy to people in an intelligible fashion that is accessible to our neighbours, colleagues, and business associates. However, we must never do so in a hypocritical fashion, for we know that “whoever must do it, the Lord Himself shall give (the gifts necessary for the task)”. Thus, this led us into another project, the publication of the book Theology for Beginners (editors’ note: It sounds like a Russian version of Theology for Dummies! A VERY good move, I say.). It is intended for an audience of ordinary people who are not associated with the Church at present, and it explains in simple language why all the things in the Church are necessary, such as God, faith, the Church itself, and even such seemingly minor details as why clergy wear beards and why the church services are in Slavonic rather than modern Russian. Now, as never before, such an elementary apologetic for ordinary people is needed, otherwise, we shall end by preaching only to ourselves. That would be an utter catastrophe.
Another pressing project is the mass construction of prefabricated church buildings. These can be erected quickly, quite often in days. The main missionary territory is own large cities. In Moscow and St Petersburg, the majority of the churches are in the city centre, which is practically uninhabited. In many residential districts of Moscow, there are no parish churches. For example, in Greece, there are 10 million people, and there are 20,000 parishes to serve them. We should expect that we should need one parish per 1,000 people to have a normal church life. We must solve this problem. As a solution, we have come up with the idea of prefabricated church buildings. The design has already been finalised, and it is ready for mass production. The first such building shall be erected in Kemerovo, and others shall follow soon after in seven other Federal Okrugs (regions). Finally, we shall establish such churches in the “Three Capitals of Holy Rus’”, Moscow, Minsk, and Kiev, as a sign of the unity of our peoples and the inseparability of our Russian Orthodox Church. We have the blessing of the ruling bishops to create new communities in the neighbourhoods so that these new parish churches can become the centre of community life there.
As you can see, the aims of our club have increased over time. Firstly, there are now more members, we now have 12 regional divisions throughout Russia, and some 35 more regional and foreign divisions are in the planning stages. One of the most important things in our philosophy is that we believe in independence of action for the local bodies in our club. We wish to act in cooperation with both the political authorities and the leading elements of society. Our members are not geriatric oligarchs who enriched themselves by plundering the ex-Soviet state economy. Rather, we are young self-made people who achieved success through the application of our own talents and labour.
We have created a Board of Trustees for our Club, and many prominent people have become part of it. They include the theologian Deacon Andrei Kuraev, Deputy of the State Duma Sergei Baburin, the composer Grigori Gladkov, the well-known Orthodox journalist Kirill Frolov, and many others. We have the task of bringing our contemporaries to the faith, to tell them of our values, and to show the world that independent and successful people cannot help but be anything but an Orthodox Christian.
25 December 2007