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Russia’s Freaky History with the Cult of Mother Earth

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The Russian digs Mother Earth.

This has been the case from Russia’s earliest years when dark and brutal paganism soaked her culture in blood.[1]

The Russian venerates Mother Earth for her black depths, for the crops of life she provides, and for the resting home she gives at death. She is the Russian’s “embodiment of kindness and mercy”[2] in a land that has seen too much cruelty and vengeance.

Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima Loved the Earth

The Russian’s fervor for Mother Earth is vividly illustrated in Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima, the Starets of Alyosha Karamozov’s monastery in The Brothers Karamazov.

Father Zossima was graphic in his love for Mother Earth. He urged his disciples to prostrate themselves and kiss the earth:

“Kiss it tirelessly, love it insatiably, love all men and all things, seek that fervor and ecstasy of love. Water the earth with tears of joy and love those tears.”[3]

This devotion to the earth in the Russian’s religious mind led to Zossima’s belief in the unbreakable bond[4] between the divine world, man, and creation: a bond that creates an intimate existence between each person and other creatures. In the words of Fr. Zossima:

A “dying youth asked the birds to forgive him. That may sound absurd, but when you think of it, it makes sense. For everything is like the ocean, all things flow and are indirectly linked together, and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world. . . Understand that everything is like the ocean. Then, consumed by eternal love, you will pray to the birds, too. In a state of fervor you will pray to them to forgive you your sins.”[5]

The bond, Zossima said, makes each person responsible for each other.

“Every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally — every man for all people and for each individual man who lives on earth. Such awareness is the crown of a monk’s life and, indeed, the crown of any human life on earth.”[6]

Zossima also urged his disciples to make themselves “answerable for all men’s sins. . . For as soon as a man sincerely accepts the idea that he is answerable for the sins of all men, he will recognize that that is, indeed, the truth, that he is answerable for everybody and everything.”[7]

Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

It’s Beautiful and Almost Heretical . . . Almost

This Cult of Mother Earth is unique to the Russian religious mind, and, though it is beautiful, it can lead to heterodox beliefs because it tends to foster pantheistic notions of God.

It’s not surprising that Russia’s first “authentically original Russian philosopher,”[8] Gregory Skovoroda (1722–1794), dipped into pantheism, though he was a Christian. At the age of 43, Skovoroda, the self-proclaimed “Russian Socrates,” became a strannik, a wanderer, who spent the rest of his life wandering Ukraine with a knapsack, living with friends and the poor, giving spiritual lessons. Although his lessons were infused with Christian notions, his name for God was “Nature,” and he gave her praise normally reserved only for God:

“Nature is good to every creature that breathes . . . In her sedulous providence she has prepared all those things without which the happiness of the least worm cannot be accomplished.”[9]

But the Cult of Mother Earth’s uniqueness and potential risk really rests more in its passionate emotional fervor, as seen in Fr. Zossima’s counsel (to be taken literally) to kiss the earth tirelessly and to water it with tears and to preach to the birds.

Intellectually, it’s not much of a heretical risk.

The Cult is Arguably Just the Sacramental . . . on Steroids

Western philosophy, especially Scholasticism, reached staid, orthodox, intellectual conclusions that parallel the emotional poetic conclusions of Fr. Zossima.

Although the earth is not God and is separate from Him, it is God’s creation and therefore it resembles God. In the West, philosophers (such as Etienne Gilson) say the world is “analogous” to God. It is a “universe in which all things bear the traces of the divinity.”[10]

This gives the world, to echo the words of John Henry Newman, a sacramental character,[11] “a sacred world with a relation to God inscribed in its very being and in every law that rules its functioning.”[12] As a result, holy men like Sts. Francis and Bonaventure found a high and unique joy in contemplating God as mirrored in His universe.

Moreover, the earth is imbued with finality, in the Aristotelian sense of having a final cause, a goal. Although we can never know exactly why God created, all knowledge we have of God shows that He could have created for no other reason than love. He wanted to create beings that rejoice in His glory, like (analogous to) parents who, in unadulterated love, prepare a birthday party for their child solely to see the joy on the child’s face. All things are directed toward the final cause of glorying in God — and the glory starts by appreciating His creation.

Each human, the being made in God’s image, plays a particularly important role in this appreciation.

Imbued with the faculty of reason, he is equipped with free will to choose to find God’s glory and participate in it. In this way, he is like the angels but unlike any other earthly creature.

But, unlike the angels but like other earthly creatures, he participates in creation as a bodily being — a being that walks on, struggles with, pounces upon, and gets buried in, the earth. As a creature with reason but also a body, he alone is equipped to participate in God’s creation, to increase the manifestation of God’s glory on earth through his actions. The Pseudo-Dionysius taught that there is nothing more divine in this world than to become a cooperator with God in His creation.[13]

And he cooperates with God in His creation by imitating God’s motive for creating in the first place: Love. Love — the concern for another person or thing that detaches the individual from self-regard — is the cornerstone of religion because it is the cornerstone of creation.

We love the animals and rocks because God made them; we particularly love other men because they are made by God in His image; we ultimately love God because He first loved us and there is, ultimately, nothing else for us to do.

It’s a ternary structure — earth, man, God — all tied together. Just like the Russian Cult of Mother Earth, tied together in an “unbreakable bond.”

Photo by Angelo Casto on Unsplash

Seen in this light, Father Zossima’s words should be understood literally, and, depending on our emotional fervor, followed in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi, who preached to the birds, who had a loving “relationship to everything, to man, beasts of the fields and forests, the birds, the fish, trees, flowers, even stones, the sun, the moon, the wind and the stars, fire and water, rain and snow, storms, the earth, summer, winter, and the tender elegy of springtime.”[14]

We should water the earth with our tears in sorrow for our fellow man’s sins, thereby returning to the earth water from our God-created body in an act of love for the creature made in God’s image. Water the earth in joy, in celebration of the earth’s existence. Condemn yourself when you sin — for your sin must reverberate throughout creation. Do not judge a person when she sins, for your earlier sins contributed to her sin. Even if the cause and effect cannot be seen, the link is there just as, when you hit a chainlink fence, you cause links twenty yards away to rattle, although nothing immediately next to a rattling link would be able to see the cause.

All the while, of course, avoiding any pantheistic confusion.

The emotional fervor that accompanies the understanding of Mother Earth often leads to a tendency to collapse God into His creation, to eliminate His transcendence, which leads to the confusing words of Gregory Skovoroda.

Erich Przywara, the twentieth-century theologian who heavily influenced Edith Stein and Hans Urs von Balthasar (perhaps the greatest of all modern theologians), taught that the history of modern thought “may be interpreted as the inability to hold together the polarity between God’s transcendence and immanence; that is, of running aground either in the pathos of stressing God’s omnipotence, thereby robbing the world of its own reality or by overwhelming it with God’s transcendence . . . or by the world absorbing God into itself through pantheistic identification with him . . .”.[15]

In other words, most, if not all, errors in modern thought result from the inability to maintain the balance that exists in a proper understanding of the Cult of Mother Earth.
Photo by Nikolay Vorobyev on Unsplash

Communism: A Heresy that Raped the Cult

Numerous examples could be cited, but, from the standpoint of Russia’s Cult of Mother Earth, perhaps the most important is the example offered by Communism.

As an uncompromisingly atheistic system, Communism robs the world of all sacramental character, effectively ejecting God from the earth and denying any relevance to transcendence, just as Karl Marx’s master, Ludwig Feuerbach, attempted to do with his doctrine of alienation, which taught that God is nothing but a mental fabrication created by the projection of man’s best qualities into transcendence.[16]

Marx, in his early writings, expressly prohibited any discussion of first things, realizing that they ineluctably lead to God. In order to squelch them, Marx taught that such questions are mere abstractions and, accordingly, for the socialist (worthy) man, impractical and therefore irrelevant.[17] Marx, fearing that such questions would disrupt his immanent system, was so fearful of questions about transcendence that Eric Voegelin described him as a “spiritually diseased” man who suffered from “logophobia.”[18] Lenin similarly detested religion.[19]

Thus Communism seems to stand at the polar opposite of Gregory Skovoroda and a Russian tradition that sometimes veered too closely to pantheism. It therefore may seem surprising that Russia became the testing ground for Communism. But opposites are often closer together than commonly supposed because they stand equidistant from the truth. From this standpoint, Russia was a predictable victim of Communism (and perhaps it is not surprising that Skovoroda was one of the few religious thinkers admired by Lenin — so much so that Lenin wanted to erect a monument to him[20]).

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks carried out Marx’s fear and hatred of transcendence.

In 1918, legislation excluded the Orthodox Church from all participation in the educational system and confiscated all Church property — making the Church, from a legal perspective, a non-entity.

In the following years, huge numbers of bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and Orthodox laity were sent to prison or concentration camps and tens of thousands were martyred. The clergy were prohibited from engaging in charitable or social work. They were not permitted to hold catechism classes or Sunday school for children. Church youth groups were prohibited. Clergy and church-goers were watched, harassed, and persecuted. Churches were closed on a massive scale.

At the same time, the Communist Party carried out an elaborate anti-religion campaign, forming the “League of Militant Atheists,” holding offensive anti-religious processions in the streets (especially at Easter and Christmas), opening the Museums of Religion and Atheism, often in former churches such as Kazan Cathedral of St. Petersburg.[21] The persecution continued into the late 1980s, possibly into the early 1990s.[22]

Russia Will Rise Again . . . In Some Freaky Form that Borrows from Its Neighbors

Communism’s collapse left a vacuum that still isn’t filled, 30 years later.

Russia has always been a country that takes ideas and practices from the outside, then twists and turns them into something uniquely Russian. This tendency seems endemic to Russia, perhaps ingrained from its inception when its Slavic peoples continually expanded from the western side of the great east European plain into the north and east, resulting in no fixed boundaries between them and their neighbors, with the consequence that they relentlessly assimilated other cultures — an assimilation that influenced Russia’s pre-historic language and customs.[23]

The earliest years of Russian history show an influence from Finnish races, steppe peoples, the Greek colonies on the northern coasts of the Black Sea, Persia, Vikings, and possibly even Israel through the dominance of the mysterious Khazars, a proselytized Jewish nation, in the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas.[24]

After Prince Vladimir’s baptism, Russia was so influenced by the Byzantine Empire — in its alphabet, literature, legal system, and art — that Russian culture for the next few centuries has been referred to as “tributary” or “received” culture of Byzantium, albeit a culture transformed by its “pre-historic customs, beliefs, and spirit of the Russian people and their land.”[25] After two hundred years of cultural stagnation under Mongol rule in the 13th and 14th centuries, a new outside force — hesychasm from Mt. Athos — deeply and permanently impressed itself on Russian spirituality, contributing to a monastic surge that single-handedly peopled Russia’s great northern forests.[26]

The Russian’s tendency to twist outside ideas or practices into something uniquely Russian is especially illustrated here. From the spirituality of Mt. Athos, arose in Russia the institution of the starets. In this institution, the Elder (the Starets) of the monastery is sought by younger monks, surrounding laymen, even ministers of state, for advice. He also develops remarkably close ties with his disciples — a starets, said Dostoyevsky, “is one who takes your soul, your will, into his soul and his will.”[27] Dostoyevsky illustrated this institution in the personage of Starets Zossima.

The spirituality of Mt. Athos was the last significant eastern force to penetrate Russia. The future outside forces were from the West. In 1631 Peter Mogila founded a school of humanistic studies based on the Jesuit college in Poland and Western Europe, which became known as the Academy of Kiev.[28]

Later that century and in the early years of the next century, Peter the Great started the process of forcibly westernizing Russia, contributing to an intellectual and art renaissance imitative of Europe’s Renaissance two hundred years earlier. Perhaps more significantly, later in the eighteenth century Catherine the Great became enamored with the Enlightenment, so much so that Voltaire and Diderot recognized her as a fellow philosophe,[29] thereby fathering the movement known as “Russian Voltairism” and moving Russia toward secularized western tendencies.

It was a tendency that culminated in the conquest of Germany’s Karl Marx in 1917, which is well symbolized by Lenin’s return — accomplished with the help of the German military who hoped Lenin would foment revolution in Russia, thereby crippling her war efforts — from Zurich to Petrograd,[30] where he took charge of the revolution.

Like his Russian forebears, Lenin took a western idea, Marxism, gave it a twist — rejection of the historical determinism that is the core of Marxism[31] but which did not fit Russia’s state of development — and created a new political philosophy, widely-known as Marxism-Leninism in order to distinguish it from orthodox Marxism, a philosophy that is purposefully atheistic, a philosophy that leaves no room for the Cult of Mother Earth, a philosophy that, put into practice, resulted in the murderous persecution against the Church described above.

Solzhenitsyn Didn’t Want Russia to Turn West

Shortly after arriving as an exile in the United States in 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn offended his American guests by bemoaning the weakness and spiritual torpor of the West. Although he had previously admired the West and looked to it for salvation from Communism, upon arriving here he immediately knew the West could offer no cultural guidance.

He was disappointed by its moral relativism, lack of self-restraint, hastiness, superficiality, and unbridled capitalism that had worked its way from the pocketbook to the heart. He was dismayed by the grabbing materialism of the consumer, widespread television stupor, and love for intolerable music.[33]

In 1978, he told the Harvard graduating class:

“But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”

Not surprisingly, Solzhenitsyn found the source of western stultification in the Enlightenment. He hates the Enlightenment; it is “his great enemy.”[34] Solzhenitsyn realized that, as the Enlightenment took hold, “limitations were eroded everywhere in the West” and “a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries. . .”.[35]

That emancipation included a lack of respect (and, needless to say, worship) for Mother Earth, for the sacramental nature of creation, as evidenced by the pollution of Mother Earth in the name of progress — from Chernobyl to the fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland (the city that now houses the hall of fame for “intolerable music”).

It’s an unhealthy disrespect: it cuts against our nature as the middle link in the ternary structure of God-man-earth. It is not surprising that it has resulted in the backlash of the extremist elements in the environmental movement. These elements exhibit a hysteria and fanaticism that are best explained as the unleashing of the dark forces gathered by a long-lasting and thorough act of repression — here, a repression that denied the sacramental nature of our world.

If Russia turns again to the West, hopefully it will adopt the West’s good traits, and, by leaving behind the West’s secularized filth, twist them into something spiritually edifying, perhaps becoming a Starets to the whole world, a Starets that returns us to an understanding of the sacred nature of the earth, a mother to be loved, because she is the offspring of a God who loves — a mother to be awed because she is the offspring of a God otherwise to be feared.


[1] For an example of its brutality, see the description of a Russian pagan funeral rite in the tenth century set forth in Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Christendom College Press, 1987), 431. In the rite, six men raped a slave girl, then strangled her as an old woman, “the angel of death,” repeatedly plunged a dagger between her ribs. Her corpse was then burned on her master’s funeral pyre.

[2] George Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (Nordland Publishing Company, 1975), 13.

[3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Bantam Books, 1981), 390.

[4] See Tomas Splidik, The Spirituality of the Christian East (Cistercian Publications, 1986), 188.

[5] The Brothers Karamazov, supra, at 387.

[6] Id. at 196.

[7] Id. at 387.

[8] The Beginnings of Russian Philosophy, the Slavophiles, the Westernizers, vol. 1 Russian Philosophy (University of Tennessee Press, 1994), 8.

[9] Id. at 15–16.

[10] Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 99.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 100.

[13] Id. at 144.

[14] Paul Gallico. See Saints for Now, ed. Clare Booth Luce (Ignatius Press, 1993), 129. When this ternary structure of existence is understood, the legends about St. Francis’ relationship with the animals — such as the fish that received mercy from St. Francis and then followed his boat and waited for him to return from shore — become intuitively believable. Perhaps the people in the Middle Ages who believed these legends were not so much simpleminded as they were existentially aware — and it’s not surprising that a modern culture that has lost this awareness would view them with contempt.

[15] Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 36.

[16] It can be argued that Feuerbach, and subsequently Marx, were pantheistic because they taught that mankind will thrive once it recaptures the Godly characteristics and brings them back to earth (where they can be used to create the perfect society).

[17] See Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Gateway Editions, 1990), 23–25.

[18] Eric Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution (Duke University Press, 1975), 259.

[19] According to Lenin, “There can be nothing more abominable than religion.” See Paul Johnson, Modern Times (Harper & Row, 1985), 50–51.

[20] James Billington, The Icon and The Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (Vintage Books, 1970), 242.

[21] See Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1993), 145–148.

[22] Id. at 157–163.

[23] Fedotov, supra, 4.

[24] Id. at 5.

[25] The Beginnings of Russian Philosophy, supra, 3.

[26] Monks, in search of God, would abandon the distraction of civilization, but the people, in search of guidance, would follow, thereby expanding civilization to surround the monks, who would again take off to find God in the isolated wilderness. Eventually they reached the Arctic Ocean. See Sergius Bolshakoff, Russian Mystics (Cistercian Publications, 1980), 17.

[27] See Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’ Seminary Press, 1993), 127.

[28] The Beginnings of Russian Philosophy, supra, 7–8.

[29] Id. at 9.

[30] Johnson, supra, 49.

[31] Johnson, supra, 54.

[32] The development is traced in Eric Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution, supra.

[33] See Edward Ericson, Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Regnery Gateway, 1993), 132–138. See also the text of the Harvard Commencement Address. Re-printed in Imprimis, August 1978.

[34] Ericson, supra, 145.

[35] Ericson, supra, 146.