Their religious roots, not their Communist experience, support authoritarianism and risk aversion.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity has done more to shape certain ex-Communist countries than communism. It also, some say, made their people relatively unhappy and anti-capitalist. This theory got a lot of play in 1990s Russia but has now resurfaced in a fresh World Bank working paper.
Its authors, former Bulgarian finance minister Simeon Djankov and Elena Nikolova of University College London, analyzed data from the World Values Survey and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Life in Transition Survey to study the correlation between religious background and attitudes. They concluded that Orthodoxy made certain countries fertile ground for communism and generally shaped their path as distinct from those taken by countries steeped in Western Christian traditions. They wrote:
Western Christianity (which gave rise to Catholicism and Protestantism) placed emphasis on rationalism, logical exploration, individualism, and the questioning of established authorities. Eastern Christianity (from which Eastern Orthodoxy originated) was associated with mystical and experiential phenomena, was more affectionate and communitarian, and put less emphasis on law, reason and questioning authorities. Remarkably, these long-run attitudinal differences survived after nearly 50 years of communism.
Communist rulers weren’t church-friendly but, according to Djankov and Nikolova, they exploited the features of the Orthodox worldview that they found useful, such as the emphasis on tradition, communitarianism, “less reliance on legal exchanges” and a greater respect for authority. So the mindset shaped by the suppressed religion persisted, suppressing respect for the rule of law, iconoclasm, creativity and innovation.
If you’re like me, at this point you begin to hear echoes of what Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians and people in former Yugoslavia (but not Greeks — they were rich back then and knew about capitalism) were told by emerging elites in the 1990s: that, in full accordance with the late German philosopher and political scientist Max Weber’s work, capitalism was closely linked with the Western religious tradition, especially with Protestant ethics, and that this explained the relative success of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic in their post-Communist transitions.
“Theological differences among different Christian denominations may have set countries on different development paths long before the arrival of communism,” Djankov and Nikolova write.
This article appeared originally on April 26, 2018 on Bloomberg View. Republished with permission.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.