Early in my first Russian-language course, our professor noted that the word for “Sunday” is the same as the word for “resurrection.” Somebody asked her how that word had managed to survive under 70 years of totalitarian atheism. She replied that Russian is so permeated with Christian images that it would be impossible to remove them without abandoning the entire language.

Orthodox Christianity will have a profound influence on Russia in the 21st century. Western journalists, who have an even worse grasp of Orthodoxy than of pre-Vatican II Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism, see that influence almost entirely in terms of nationalist bigotry. Some see the Orthodox mind as peculiarly hospitable to collectivism and authoritarianism. But in fact, the most tyrannical features of modern Russia are precisely those that have been borrowed from Western models. When Peter the Great and his successors abolished the patriarchate of Moscow and turned the Orthodox Church into a virtual branch of government, their inspiration was not ancient Byzantium but Lutheran Sweden. And the totalitarian ideology par excellence was copied by Russians from a German atheist.

We clearly cannot predict the future role of Russian Orthodoxy by watching Patriarch Alexei and today’s other top bishops, who got where they are today by kissing the hands that enslaved them, nor by examining the ecclesiastical bureaucrats of the 19th century. The leaders of the 21st-century Russian Orthodox Church will be independent actors, drawing on a tradition that predates Peter the Great by 18 centuries. For a glimpse of what this revitalized tradition might be like, we need only read one book: an almost forgotten volume, published in Moscow in 1909, entitled Vekhi or “Milestones.” Vekhi is a collection of essays by seven Russian intellectuals, a prophetic warning against the revolutionary abyss into which Russia was about to fall. Most of its authors had been Marxists in their youth. Several had suffered arrest or exile under the czarist government. But by 1909 they were well along in their various pilgrimages back toward tradition and religion. All but one would later go into exile after the Bolshevik victory.

One of these authors, for example, was an economics professor who later became an Orthodox priest and head of the Orthodox seminary in Paris. Another one, also an economist, eventually converted to Orthodoxy from Judaism. Yet another, Nikolai Berdiaev, became one of the leading philosophers and religious thinkers of the 20th century. And Petr Struve, who had been a leading Marxist theoretician in the 1890’s, would lead the journalistic crusade against the Soviet state after 1917.

The Vekhi authors repudiated the central tenet of socialism, that the salvation of mankind comes through politics. As one of them said, “We recognize the primacy . . . of spiritual life over the outward forms of society. . . . The inner life of the individual . . . and not . . . some political order is the only solid basis for every social structure.” Another affirmed, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you, so is the Kingdom of the Devil.”‘

But Vekhi is only indirectly a book about politics; it is more a book about men’s souls, specifically the souls of the revolutionary intelligentsia. Reading it is like reading Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils; it is so prophetic about the moral character of the revolutionary regime that you have to remind yourself that it was written before 1917, not afterward. It dissects the revolutionary soul with the kind of unsparing precision and depth of knowledge available only to people who were former revolutionaries themselves.

At every point, the Vekhi authors rejected the new morality of the revolution in favor of an older morality drawn from sources such as the Bible. They rejected what one of them called “the idolatrous worship of party interests. . . that unprincipled morality that judges deeds and thoughts from the point of view of their partisan usefulness.” Instead of partinost, or “party spirit,” they upheld the pursuit of objective truth and intellectual integrity. Instead of factional bitterness and fanaticism, they upheld humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Instead of nihilism and terrorism, they upheld a moderate politics of constitution-building and of respect for historical institutions. Instead of economic determinism, they upheld individual freedom and responsibility. Instead of envy and romantic alienation, they upheld competence and hard work. Instead of materialism, they upheld absolute moral standards toward which men strive—and by which they are judged.

In some ways this vision is just as incompatible with today’s Western consumer culture as with revolutionary socialism. You could apply whole paragraphs of Vekhi‘s chapter on Russian student life to the self-indulgent babyboomers of our own society, almost without changing a word. Vekhi describes the same worship of youth, the same pursuit of ideological fads at the expense of education, the same self-righteous preachiness on issues of public and political morality combined with licentious hedonism on issues of personal morality. One can imagine what the Vekhi group would have to say about Soviet yuppies who yearn for American blue jeans.

It may seem from this description that the Vekhi authors were simply more moderate socialists than the Bolsheviks, that perhaps they were like the Mensheviks or the Social Revolutionaries. Not so: Vekhi rejected not just Bolshevism, but all forms of revolutionary Marxism and populism. In 1918, after the full horror of Leninist rule had become manifest, one Vekhi contributor wrote that “the Russian socialists, had they found themselves in power, would either have had to remain simple chatterers, doing nothing to put their ideas into practice, or else to have done from A to Z everything that the Bolsheviks did.”

Some of the most fascinating passages in Vekhi are about economics. Both Nikolai Berdiaev the philosopher and Semen Frank the economist saw economic production as analogous to spiritual and cultural creativity; both saw production as more valuable than distribution; and both rebuked the socialists for reversing this priority. Berdiaev said that “in the thoughts and feelings of the Russian intelligentsia, the claims of distribution and equalization always outweighed the claims of production and creation. This applies equally to the material and the spiritual realms.”

Frank said that “distribution . . . is a mechanical rearrangement of readymade elements, in contrast to production, the creative formation of the new. And socialism is a world view in which the idea of distribution has replaced the idea of production. . . . The intelligentsia is almost as unconcerned about spiritual production, the accumulation of ideal values, as it is about material production; the development of science, literature, art, and culture in general are much less dear to it than the distribution of ready-made spiritual goods to the masses. . . . It is not the . . . scholar, artist, inventor or philosopher who earns the honorable title of cultural worker, but . . . the teacher, popularizer or propagandist.”

Unlike socialism, the Vekhi paradigm is quite hospitable to entrepreneurship and private property rights. Unlike either the socialists or the Slavophile reactionaries, the Vekhi authors explicitly opposed the traditional peasant communes in favor of individual ownership of land. In fact, one reason to read Vekhi today is as an antidote to the tendency to classify all Russian thinkers as either Westernizers or Slavophiles—with the latter usually cast as the bad guys. The Vekhi authors don’t fit neatly into either of these categories. They saw themselves as Russian nationalists, but they rejected the Slavophiles’ deliberate isolation from Western culture. They were eager to learn from Western examples such as the English constitutional tradition or the German university system. In fact, they accused the revolutionaries of being too narrow in their borrowings from the West, of crudely imitating the Utopian socialism of the early 19th century and ignoring everything else.

Within their own lifetimes, the authors of Vekhi failed in just about everything they were trying to do. They failed to steer the moderate wing of the Kadet Party away from its fatal alliance with the hard left. They failed to persuade the alienated intelligentsia to work for constitutional reform within the czarist system. They failed to inoculate their country against the epidemic that they saw coming. On the other hand, they were vindicated by the fulfillment of their darkest prophecies. But in the long run, the Vekhi group may experience the same fate as one of the Western writers who influenced them, like them an early opponent of a seemingly irresistible revolution: Edmund Burke. In the 1790’s it seemed that Burke’s ideas were also doomed for the trash-bin of history. But it turned out that his Reflections on the Revolution in France enjoyed its greatest influence not in the 1790’s but many decades after his death. In the 21st century Russia may see a similar resurrection: that of a moral and social vision based on Orthodox Christian humanism.