Aleksei Beglov, in Search of "Sinless Catacombs": The Church Underground in the USSR/V Poiskakh "Bezgreshnykh Katakomb": Tserkovnoe Podpol'e V SSSR

Article excerpt

Aleksei Beglov, V pooiskakh "Bezgreshnykh katakomb": Tserkovnoe podpol'e v SSSR (In Search of "Sinless Catacombs": The Church Underground in the USSR). 349 pp. Moscow: Izdatel 'skii sorer Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi and Arefa, 2008. ISBN-13 978-5946253031.

In the last two decades, the study of religiosity in the USSR has experienced a predictable boom. The unexpected growth in the influence of religious organizations in post-Soviet public space, plus the scale of previous repression, combined with the relative openness of state archives, have generated hundreds of studies and document collections. Moreover, whereas in the 1990s research focused principally on mass repression against religious organizations in the 1920s-30s, more recently the attention of researchers has been drawn to the period of the 1940s-60s. Accompanying this shift has been another new tendency: whereas in the 1990s research on the Soviet period was clearly divided into confessional histories--indeed, volumes on this topic were issued not only by Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin, the official historian of the ROC, but also by certain Protestant sects--and lay histories (although personal religious convictions were often responsible for the historian's interest in the topic), in the 2000s a growing number of works are intended for a broad lay audience while retaining a confessional perspective. (1) Their appearance on the shelves of Moscow's and Petersburg's "humanities" bookshops has ensured the entry of a clerical perspective on Soviet religiosity into the worldview of readers who did not always suspect that they were being subjected to missionary influence or religiously motivated manipulation. This was all the more true in that the authors of such material are frequently people formally affiliated with lay scholarly organizations.

Among these formally "lay" historical works are those of Ol'ga Vasil'eva, Boris Kolymagin, and Sergei Firsov. (2) The work by Aleksei Beglov reviewed here may be added to this list. It is co-published by the Moscow Patriarchate's publishing house and its subdivision for political journalism, which has its own imprint, Arefa. Unlike the works of many precursors, the book has a judicious foreword, a "seductive" title, and a well-formulated topic; therefore it will inevitably be bought by university libraries, which usually ignore Orthodox historical literature.

Specialists have long looked forward to this book by Beglov, who for more than a decade now has published in the pages ofAlfa i Omega, the church's small-circulation journal, or in little-known short-run collections of documents from the Moscow Orthodox underground. Yet when all is said and done, the monograph proves to be a disappointment.

The basic aim of his book is to provide a description of all illegal church activity, without reference to the specific church groups involved. Thus groups that opposed the Moscow Patriarchate and those that were loyal to it are lumped together. At first the approach seems justified, since most of the references to illegal actions by Orthodox people in the official documents that Beglov uncovered say nothing about these groups' attitudes toward the Moscow Patriarchate. Yet, as we shall see, this approach is problematic.

The book begins with a solid foreword in good scholarly style, which analyzes in detail the genesis of the word "catacomb" as applied to illegal Soviet-era Orthodox activity and demonstrates that the members of the movement used it very little themselves until at least the 1970s (and then only in Leningrad). Beglov rejects the stereotype established in the historiography, to the effect that the "catacomb" church found itself in constant political opposition not only to the secular authorities but also to the official church hierarchy. To describe the groups in question more accurately, Beglov proposes a new term of his own devising: the "church undergound." He also argues for abandoning the "statist" approach traditional to Russian historiography--an exclusive focus on state policy toward religious organizations--in favor of an analysis of the social composition of members of underground groups, their ideology, daily activism, and other dimensions that so interest modern historians, sociologists of religion, and anthropologists. …