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A New Decalogue for Russian Business

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

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Russian Orthodox Church offers moral guidelines for business.

The good man ... treats what is given him not for his selfish enjoyment but for wise administration.
St. Basil the Great, "Letter to Amphilochius"

In early February, the eighth meeting of the "World Russian People's Council"--a civil society forum sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church and bringing together representatives of religious, cultural, political and business groups from all across Russia and the Russian-speaking diaspora--released a code of ten moral principles to guide Russian business.

Prepared by a mixed commission comprised of theologians, parliamentarians and business representatives, the charter builds on the "Social Doctrine" released by the 2000 Orthodox Bishops' Council and represents an ongoing effort to make traditional Orthodox social teachings relevant to twenty-first century conditions.

The code explicitly endorses the concept of private property, condemning those who "misappropriate other peoples' property." It attacks the "culture of envy" that lay at the heart of the old communist system, proclaiming that "It is immoral to envy other people's well-being and encroach upon other people's property."

The "commandments" urge Russian businesspeople not to break their contractual promises, not to defraud partners, and not to withhold pay from their employees--all notable "sins" committed by many Russians involved in business during the 1990s.

What also makes the code significant is that it implies that productive, honest work in business is a moral calling. One of the major criticisms of the Orthodox Church in recent years has been that it has defined the notion of a Christian vocation far too narrowly, that it measured a person's religious commitment by piety and ascetic practice. This document tries to return to a broader notion of sanctification, which includes the possibility of serving God by being a moral and effective businessperson.

Yet the code does not endorse a laissez-faire market system. It works from the premise that the rights to property and ownership must be understood within the context of stewardship, echoing St. John Chrysostom's observation that "Wealth is not forbidden if it be used for that which is necessary." The first commandment enjoins Russian entrepreneurs: "Take care of the welfare of other people, the nation and the country when seeking personal welfare" and the second observes, "Wealth is not an end in itself. It must serve for the creation of the good life for individuals and the nation."

The document also draws upon the traditional Russian concept of sobornost', or conciliarity, to put forward a vision of public-private partnerships, of joint efforts between "government, society, and business" for creating a healthy standard of living for all citizens, especially the disabled and the vulnerable.

So the business community is called upon to be good and faithful stewards of the country's economic assets. Work is now underway for a companion Decalogue to guide government officials in the performance of their duties.

While President Vladimir Putin, himself a practicing Orthodox Christian, has not yet publicly commented on the code, many of its sentiments have been echoed in his own speeches. His Administration, currently embroiled in conflicts with the so-called "oligarchs," will no doubt welcome the seventh commandment, which condemns any inference of business into politics and proclaims the separation of business from the state. The document's unequivocal condemnation of tax evasion as "stealing from orphans, the aged, disabled and other unprotected categories of people" also resonates with the Putin team since one of the primary charges now being levied against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive officer of the Yukos oil company, is defrauding the state of its proper share of taxes. Finally, its emphasis on consensus rather than competition implies some support for Putin's own vision of state-directed capitalism, where assets are held in private hands but the government sets overall economic priorities.

Whether this code, however, will have any real impact in guiding the behavior of Russian entrepreneurs remains to be seen. The "Ten Commandments for Businesspeople" are phrased as principles, not as regulations binding on Orthodox Christians. Moreover, many businesspeople in post-Soviet Russia are either not practicing Orthodox Christians or Orthodox altogether. Some recent studies have indicated that many Russians involved in business are disinclined to accept any guidance in economic matters from the Church, preferring to emulate Western models.

But while many Russians may not be churchgoers, the Orthodox Church is still highly respected as the transmitter of traditional Russian culture and values, as witnessed by the participation of representatives of every political party--including the most pro-Western, pro-liberal groups--in the work of the World Russian People's Council. By beginning to address in greater detail questions about morality and business, the Church is helping to set the stage for the transition from the "Wild West" capitalism of the 1990s to a more civilized and predictable business system.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev follows the interaction between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian society and serves as executive editor of The National Interest.

Read this article on the Action Institute website. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 2/18/04

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