Sense of Life. Articles in English. Russian anti-Catholicism. Part 2.
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Russian anti-Catholicism. Part 2

In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial ideology took the form of Slavophilism, or a conviction that the future — in terms of both politics and civilisation — belonged to Slavs and among them to the most powerful Slavic country: Russia.

Russian anti-Catholicism. Part 2

The Slavophilic circles eagerly used the concept of the “rotten West”. To revive the West, they believed, it was necessary to implement the Slavophilic agenda, i.e. to bring about the political and cultural domination of Russia over the whole of Europe. The revival was to come thanks to Orthodox Christianity.

Catholicism — chiefly to be blamed for the “rotting” of the West

As Ivan Kireyevsky (1806–1856), one of the founders of Slavophilism, wrote: “An orthodox person knows that to attain the integral truth an integral reason is necessary, and the pursuit of such integrity is a constant purpose of his efforts.” Only Orthodox Christianity had preserved in itself the strength for organic and integral (two key words for the Slavophiles) development. The West, because of Roman Catholicism, had lost such strength completely.

The new version of Russian imperial ideology, similarly to its predecessor or the idea of Moscow as the “third Rome”, was permeated with radical anti-Catholicism. According to Slavic ideologues, all evil — from Protestantism, through the French Revolution, to socialism — was rooted in papal Rome and the Catholic Church united with it.

Kireyevsky believed that the Roman Church had begun to drift away from the truly Christian spirit when, by way of pagan Rome, it was entranced by the “triumph of the formal reason of man over everything which is found in and beyond him.”

The new version of Russian imperial ideology, similarly to its predecessor or the idea of Moscow as the “third Rome”, was permeated with radical anti-Catholicism

A strong influence of the Slavophilic ideology, including its anti- Catholic component, can be seen in the work of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Similarly to his Slavophilic mentors, he believed that Russians had a special mission to accomplish: the spiritual renewal of the whole world, including — or rather above all — the “rotten West”. “We bring the world only what we can offer it and at the same time what it needs: Orthodox Christianity, the orthodox, glorious and eternal religion of Christ and a total moral renewal under its sign. And we shall bring forth a [new] Elijah and Enoch to fight the Antichrist, i.e. the spirit of the West.”

Bismarck — our ally

What placed the West in urgent need of spiritual renewal? To this question, Dostoyevsky answered in the same vein as the Slavophiles: Roman Catholicism was to blame. “In the West, Catholicism is to blame for the loss of Christ, and for this reason the West is on the decline, solely for this reason”, wrote the author of Crime and Punishment.

Blamed on Catholicism, the moral decay of Western civilisation continued for centuries, according to Dostoyevsky. Any kind of revolutionary upheaval — be it the French Revolution or socialism (communism) — was ultimately caused by Catholicism or its worst form: “Jesuitism”. Catholicism was the cause of all evil, because it replaced the Christ of the Gospel with a Christ created in its image who yields to Satan’s third temptation — that of power. It is for this reason that popes from the earliest to modern times aspired to be “tsars over tsars, rulers over rulers”.

There is, however, only one true tsar: the tsar of Russia, the Orthodox tsar. The world will be spiritually cleansed when the “political right and primacy of the Great Russian tribe in the entire Slavdom is realised finally and undeniably.”

According to Slavic ideologues, all evil — from Protestantism, through the French Revolution, to socialism — was rooted in papal Rome and the Cath- olic Church united with it

Before this vision comes true, any ally in the struggle against Catholicism — as the author of Demons stressed — ought to be welcomed with open arms. In this context, Dostoyevsky pinned great hopes on the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf unleashed in Germany by Otto von Bismarck. The Russian writer spared no praise for the German Chancellor who — as Dostoyevsky emphasised — needed Russian support as the “chief enemy of the papacy and the Roman idea” and as such “looked deeper”, because he saw what many people in the West could not see: a profound spiritual similarity between Catholicism (papacy) and socialism. This is what the author of The Brothers Kara- mazov wrote in 1864: “From Catholic Christianity, only socialism will grow, from ours [Orthodox], brotherhood will grow.”

The primary task: to destroy Catholicism in Poland

Russian plans to heal the “rotten West” would stand no chance of success if Poland were not “healed” first, meaning if Catholicism were not radically undermined in Polish lands. St Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński, Archbishop of Warsaw during the January Rising, rightly observed:

“To understand the Russian government’s attitude to the Catholic Church in Polish lands, in particular in Lithuania and Rus’, one should never lose sight of the fact that nothing so effectively hinders the partitioning powers from swallowing and digesting their prey in their own organisms as the Catholic religion. Even Polish nationality did not form so hard a divide between the victors and the vanquished as did religion.”

The saint’s words are borne out by the study of the policies of the Russian partitioner towards Catholicism in the territories of the former Polish Commonwealth that came under tsarist rule as a result of the Partitions. From the outset, the policies were hostile towards the Catholic Church of both the Greek (Uniate Church) and Latin rites. Those policies went hand in hand with systematic support for enlarging the property of the Orthodox Church (in particular in the territories seized by Russia in 1773–1795). Within this context, the figures speak volumes: in 1772, within the historical lands of the Polish Commonwealth, there was only one Orthodox diocese. In 1914, there were as many as nine.

A similar dynamic was shown by the number of Orthodox parishes; as in the case of Orthodox dioceses, its growth largely resulted from the successive dissolutions of the Uniate Church by the tsarist regime (in 1839 in the annexed territories, in 1875 in the Kingdom of Poland). From 1860 to 1905, the Russian authorities disbanded over one hundred Catholic (Latin rite) parishes in the Vilnius, Minsk and Lutsk dioceses. A considerable number of them had already been in the possession of the Orthodox Church for a long time. In the Congress Kingdom, after 1875, the number of Orthodox parishes increased more than sevenfold (from 42 to 309), chiefly as a result of forcibly “transferring” Uniates to the Orthodox Church.

The visible manifestation of the expansion of Orthodoxy at the expense of Catholicism in the lands of the Polish Commonwealth, namely the extensive programme of building Orthodox churches in Polish lands, placed the greatest stress on the annexed territories. However, one of the greatest Orthodox churches in the Russian Empire was built in the centre of Warsaw, on Saxon Square, during the late nineteenth century. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was torn down on the orders of the government of independent Poland during the 1920s.

Latinism — the reason behind Poland’s betrayal and fall

These policies of the Russian government were accompanied by an equally intense propaganda campaign, targeting “Polish Latinism”, as Polish Catholicism was contemptuously referred to. The campaign reached its peak during the January Uprising (1863–1864) and later, after the rebellion had been put down, when the tsarist regime implemented brutal policies of Russification. Polebaiting insults were accompanied by an equally vituperative attack on Catholicism.

The masters of Russian propaganda coined the term “Judas of Slavdom” in respect to Poland. Poland’s “betrayal” was to accept baptism from the Latin (Western) Church during the tenth century and not, “as all other Slavs did”, from the Byzantine (Eastern) Church. Like all propaganda, this disregarded the historical facts that before Poland, Christianity was accepted from the Western Church by Slavic Czechs and Croats.

Anti-Catholic propaganda in Russia during the 1860s intended to instil in its audience the conviction that accepting Catholicism was, from a longer perspective, the main reason for the collapse of the Polish state. A few years prior to the January Uprising, Russian historian and political writer Konstantin Kavelin wrote:

Catholicism brought about the decay of all the Slavic tribes it affected. It is, indeed, a product of the European civilisation, but the whole question is at what stage in its development a Slavic nation may adopt European elements without losing its autonomy. Aristocratism and the cosmopolitan Church would not allow a nation to develop such a robust state, the formation of which is the only product of history and the only true achievement for which the Great Russian tribe deserves credit.

Anti-Catholic propaganda in Russia during the 1860s intended to instil in its audience the conviction that accepting Catholicism was, from a longer perspective, the main reason for the collapse of the Polish state

In the specific case of the Polish nation, Catholicism — claimed the masters of Russian propaganda — was the factor which accounted for Polish “enmity” towards Russia. Ivan Aksakov, a leading author of Pole-baiting texts during the period of the January Uprising, wrote in May 1863:

“When Poland shows remorse and detaches itself from Latinism, then it will be possible for her to exist among Slavic countries, but a Catholic Poland will never be on friendly terms with Russia; she will always be ‘le boulevard de l’Occident’, and ‘l’avant-garde de l’Europe’. […] The rebirth of Poland is possible only if Catholicism is renounced and her statehood traditions are broken with”.

Anti-Catholic hysteria knows no bounds

At the time of the January Uprising, the Russian press (even the socalled serious press) carried lots of trumped-up stories about “the second St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” allegedly perpetrated on civil and military Russians in Warsaw on the night of 22 January 1863 (the beginning of the uprising). Hysterical stories mentioned thousands of innocent victims treacherously murdered by Poles. The role of killers was assigned by Russian propaganda to the insurgents, but also to Catholic priests, especially Jesuits, who were considered incarnations of all evil.

This hysteria even engulfed people who might be expected to remain more critical of sensational rumours. Telling in this context is an entry in the diary of the Russian writer Vladimir Odoyevsky, under the date 15 February 1863: “Today a telegram — in Warsaw a kind of ‘St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre’. Russians were treacherously slaughtered in their quarters. Jesuits do not sleep.”

Such was the description of the Polish armed bid for independence, during which — as all scholars studying the history of the January Uprising well know — Warsaw did not witness any “repetition of the ‘St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre’”. Violence against the defenceless civil population was used by the other side. In many locations in the Russian partition, the tsarist army perpetrated mass murders of Polish civilians.

When the January Uprising continued in the Russian partition, in Russia, record circulation was achieved by a fake ‘Polish catechism’, consisting of supposed secret instructions to the Polish clergy ordering them to treacherously and mercilessly slay all Russians in Poland. This hysteria was echoed in the words of Dostoyevsky, who, stating with regret that “with the Poles, the entire civilisation has changed into Catholicism”, immediately added that the Poles “in the name of Catholicism burned Russia and flayed Russians. They persecuted us, spat on us as if we had been slaves, did not consider us humans. And why was it so? What do you think? It was because of the Catholic propaganda, the proselytising fury, the desire to Polonise and Catholicise.”


The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in September 2020.

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