Russia, Saint Petersburg, February 2017. Exactly 100 years after the armed uprising of Petrograd soldiers and workers, known as the February revolution which led to the overthrow of the autocracy and the events that followed from this.
It’s time to pay attention to another event which is directly opposite in its meaning – the non-reciprocation of evil for evil, the non-resistance of evil with violence. How does this manifest in Russia today, in the world, in individuals? Are there examples of non-resistance amongst our contemporaries? And up until now why have so few people recognised its Christian meaning?
To answer this and other questions we turn to Vitalii Adamenko, the editor of the online library Beyond violence.
The threshold for sensitivity to violence
— Vitaly, your library is very detailed concerning the historical aspects of non-violence. At the same time, the same topic practically doesn’t exist in modern publications and media. Why don’t people concern themselves with the fact that their everyday safety is thanks to violence and the threat of violence?
I see this as two points. The first concerns the personality, its inner striving, enthusiasm. If this striving is expressed implicitly then there is little desire for knowledge – the person quickly stops at the level they have achieved no matter where that may be.
The second point is that often we learn a pre-determined set of ideas. And if our surroundings are dominated by a loyalty to violent attitudes then we will adopt this view.
— Is that all it includes? What does a person’s ‘sensitivity’ to violence depend on?
I think that this is determined by many factors, it begins in childhood, in one’s upbringing etc. A system of accidents. Who knows what would have happened to Chertkov, an opponent of all violence, if he had not been sent by his protestant mother to like-minded people in England in order to protect him from secular society’s evil influence. There he started to learn the gospel and to wonder if his life could work with what he had learnt.
— But what can make someone reconfigure their already established views?
The main problem is ignorance. Until you come across some kind of text, situation, living example… But even then this can occur ‘in tangent’ to your life, not necessarily perceived and understood.
However, striving for non-violence in your own foundations can have different goals: the desire to change your own life, the desire to create a ‘new world’ etc. Most commonly it is a combination of several motives – hence the difference in actions.
— How did it develop for you personally? What caused you to understand your role in the mechanism of non-violence?
It all started with an introduction to Tolstoi’s publications from his youth. Later I read others: Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Koestler, Fromm… – but nobody became as important to me as Tolstoy.
In childhood I was interested in maths and physics, so after graduation I studied at the faculty of computer science at the Samara aerospace university.
At age 12 Vitalii purchased, and read with pleasure, Shipachev’s textbook on higher maths.
But the further I went the more I started to feel that my studies conflicted with what I had read: about the need for physical labour, the non-participation in government violence and the non-use of its benefits etc. Remember that in one of Tolstoi’s letters it says that if you go to university to avoid enlisting in the army then it is more honest to become a soldier than to sit on the necks of the working people…
— And what happened next?
I left the university. I left because of a non-disclosure agreement about state secrets. I refused to sign it and explained its meaning to the guys in my course. And although the bosses tried to convince me to stay I didn’t see any reason to continue my studies.
At the same time I tried to remove myself practically from violence: I became a stricter vegetarian, restricted my social circle, refrained from watching TV etc. But after some time I understood that if I were to stop all contact with the outside world, and deprive myself of even formal contact, that there would be a void. I started to search for supporters of non-violence online and beyond and that’s how I came to know Aleksey Trushnikov and his library… Well, the rest you already know.
The spiritual foundations of non-violence
— In your opinion, is it possible to practically implement the principal of non-violence without a spiritual foundation, without faith?
It’s possible. But it’s important to understand that if a person rejects violence, rejects living egoism, then he loses something. And at some point asks the question: ‘what am I depriving myself for?’ Faith gives you the spiritual idea, religious meaning, the foundation for this rejection.
— Does the Gospel prohibit violence?
Absolutely, yes. Nevertheless, every subculture, collection of people, sets its own limits of implementation. Starting with how to punish your children, and ending with allowing armed violence.
— Why don’t representatives of even the most active religious groups (for example, Jehovah’s witnesses) go further than refusing military service? Why aren’t there any examples among the orthodox community – even simply the recognition of their participation in violence, contrary to Christ’s commandment? Why do people not wish to ‘unwind the chain’ of violence to its end, to their own daily participation in it?
In general, this is not typical just for Jehovah’s witnesses, but also for Mennonites and other religious branches. But namely, to consider yourself ‘above’ others who don’t want to be saved. For them they need violence and to participate in it. But not for us ‘the chosen ones’. Such groups often limit themselves to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’. If they are met with some kind of persuasion they will involuntarily take part because they do not want to oppose the will of another by violence.
However, there are also examples of genuine thinking about their role in the multiplication of violence. Not only verbally but also in actions. For example, the story of Archimandrite Spiridon (Kisliakov), who refused to bless soldiers from the first world war. Or the story of Albert Skarvan, a Slovakian military doctor who refused to serve. Or modern American Quakers who refuse to pay taxes which support wars etc.
But really, there are few known examples. Only by allowing yourself to doubt can you ‘fall out’ from the bosom of traditional views, of religious and secular views, thereby losing your voice. In general, you can only remain within society’s framework of life up to a certain point, up until a certain rejection of violence. This is commonly followed by withdrawal from people or isolation of yourself and your views.
— How do you rate the global movement in this area as a whole?
Rather positively. On the one hand, the twentieth century in terms of the number of violent deaths is much higher than the previous centuries. But on the other hand it’s hard to deny the humanism movement that has happened recently.
— Exactly how long has this been happening?
We can say from the Reformation era. When the gradual understanding of the original meaning was laid down in Christian teachings began.
— Can you say with certainty that your own action – the ‘Beyond violence’ library – is in line with God’s plan?
Counter question: ‘What is included in God’s plan?’ We can’t say with certainty that even Christ acted (partially or completely) in line with God’s plan. We simply have no proof. God’s plan is unknown to us. I don’t think that the ideas of non-violence are universal ‘world-wide’ values. Especially if you look to neighbouring Muslim countries, where, if the concept of non-violence exists, then it is extremely unimportant compared to other religions. Or simply to look at nature where there’s one law – survival of the fittest.
But I believe that movement towards a peaceful coexistence, what the library aims at, has meaning in any case. I strive to make what has been accumulated available so that we can progress.
Yes, everyone has their own progress. Someone will make noticeable changes in their life, but for someone else just to become acquainted with these materials is already a noticeable step. Everyone has their own progress.
About specific progress
— What is happening now in the world with the movement of Tax Resisters, putting this principle on a legal basis, how realistic is this initiative in your opinion?
I’m sure that its fruition is in the near future. There’s already young people who are completing the ACS (alternative civil service) in Switzerland, not paying the so-called ‘war tax’. There’s messages about people who refuse to fill out their US tax returns correctly. The movement is slowly gaining force. I think that the government will have to enter into a system of ‘alternative taxes’.
— What else is happening in the world, linked to the realisation of the principle of the non-reciprocation of evil for evil?
If we are talking about global changes then we can note modern abolitionists, who oppose criminal punishment. There’s still the police and the court, but rather than spending time behind bars and paying a fine to the state, the criminal must pay damages to the victim. A number of Scandinavian countries have already implemented this practice. The most notable figure of this movement was Nils Kristie, a Norwegian researcher.
— Do you think that you have already completed your own ‘progress’, everything possible in your personal path towards non-violence?
Here it’s very important to not take on more than you can handle. Don’t overestimate your capabilities, your own energy… Nothing good can come from it if you try to do more than you can.
I see my mission as the development of the ‘Beyond violence’ library. It’s actually already complete. Today the ‘supply’ even exceeds the demand in society for non-violence.
— The website is slightly too full of adverts. Can anything be done about this?
It’s in the plans to move to another website where there are less annoying adverts. But whether we can do this is still unknown.
— What are your other interests in life?
Soviet rock music, from the mid 80s to the beginning of the 90s… The group ‘Kino’ and what came after. It’s the best period of Russian rock. And now, by the way, if you go to an older rock group’s concert the audience is looking forward to the older songs over the new ones.
We’ve already talking about higher maths, this is also a long-term interest of mine.