New York Street Named after Russian Saint Might Become the Path to the Future*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

With everyone fixated on the current conflict and the countless displays of hostility between the West and Russia, an important announcement is getting lost along the way. There is now a street in New York City named after a Russian saint.

At the request of the Orthodox community, New York City officials have given a new name to the street that is home to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The street was renamed in honor of St. Tikhon, the Russian Orthodox hierarch who spearheaded the construction of the cathedral in 1902. As of this October, the street will be called St. Tikhon Way. St. Tikhon is more familiar here in Russia as the first patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church following the restoration of the patriarchate and a confessor who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime.

But even before the historic Council of the People’s Deputies in 1918 when St. Tikhon was elected patriarch, he served the church in the U.S., ministering to people of Orthodox faith and preaching Orthodoxy to Americans. Bishop Tikhon’s gently affable and sociable nature helped him establish warm and friendly relations with everyone: Russians living in the U.S. as well as Americans; Orthodox and Protestants; Christians and non-Christians. He traveled extensively throughout the U.S., visiting Orthodox communities in many cities. St. Nicholas Cathedral is just one part of St. Tikhon’s legacy on the American continent. And today this legacy is especially important. Against a pervasively dark backdrop, renaming a street in honor of a Russian saint is an unexpected ray of light.

The news is rife with examples of Russophobia — hostility directed not only at the Russian government, but at Russia’s people and its culture. People of Russian origin face gross discrimination, regardless of their personal political sympathies or the position they take on the conflict. The “cancel culture” that was borne of the West’s own internal strife has been fully deployed against Russia. At times the results are simply absurd, but sometimes the victims of cancellation are in no mood to laugh. This is all old news at this point, but it is important to note that it is not the whole story. There are other messages out there. For example, Russian scientists have noted particularly friendly treatment at foreign conferences, even friendlier than usual.

The West is not — and has never been — a monolith. After all, each person has their own free will. Some will happily jump at the chance to hate someone (anyone!) after so many years of being groomed in political correctness. Others do the opposite; perhaps, for example, by supporting the renaming of a street in honor of a Russian saint or by making a point of granting a Russian scientist extra presentation time. Of course, most of the time this does not signify support for Russia in the current conflict, but at least it is a refusal to import that conflict into the arena of religion, science or culture. It indicates a desire to avoid a total rupture of all ties.

Such behavior requires courage and personal independence, such that people can put their own values above the fear of appearing insufficiently patriotic or getting caught in some “defamatory association.” It suggests hope, a gaze fixed on the future. The present moment is not the final chapter of history. Apart from governments in conflict, there are also ordinary people in search of peace rather than enmity, fellowship rather than estrangement.

In times of heated confrontation, it’s easy to generalize: Everyone hates us, and we have reason to hate everyone. No, not everyone. And hatred has never made anyone stronger or helped anyone achieve their goals. In a world where brains have long since mattered more than brawn, an adrenaline rush often does nobody any good.

It may seem to some that Russia’s “soft power” is gone forever. Once you get a bad reputation, people readily accept everything that supports it while rejecting anything that casts you in better light. For example, even though Lyudmila Denisova’s fake news stories have been officially refuted, they continue to shape public perceptions of the conflict in the West and keep popping up as known truths.

But soft power is not only a matter of bringing people around to your point of view. It can also achieve more modest but equally important tasks, such as undermining the process of turning the enemy into a caricature. And so we should take notice and appreciate those shining exceptions to the generally negative backdrop. One such exception is St. Tikhon Way in New York.

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