Old Believers, Religious Dissent and Gender in Russia, 1760-1850

Article excerpt

Irina Paert. Old Believers, Religious Dissent and Gender in Russia, 1760-1850. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003. xi, 257 pp.

This excellent book explores questions of gender, sexuality, marriage, and family among priestless Old Believers (especially the Theodosians and Pomorians of Moscow) in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Russia. Interest in gender and sexuality in Russian history has been, with a few notable exceptions, relatively (and regrettably) scarce. Meticulously researched, intricately argued, and clearly written (albeit with perhaps a little too much repetition), Paert's study makes an original and exciting contribution that begins to redress these lacunae. It also adds to the growing field of religious history (both as lived faith and as state/Synod policies); inserts new life into the study of early nineteenth-century Russia, which has also suffered a relative neglect; and opens new vistas on the study of Russian urban life.

Through an examination of such topics as celibacy/virginity, asceticism, and marriage, Paert strives to explore "the gender aspects of the Christian religion in a non-Western context," in particular the "religious perceptions of sexuality and its impact on sexual difference" and the "impact of religious discourse on the production, change, and interiorization of gender models" (pp. 6-7). Marshalling an impressive discussion of comparative and methodological material from other European and Christian contexts, Paert illuminates the important differences between gender systems in western and central Europe and those that developed in post-Petrine Russia, especially the enduring influence of Eastern Christianity. Rightly, Paert does not confine her study of gender solely to women, but also explores masculinity and manliness.

Paert opens with an excellent overview of the genesis and early history of Old Belief, focusing particularly on the dilemma posed to the sacrament of marriage by the absence of priests ordained according to the old rites and the millenarian expectations of the schismatics. Priestless Old Believers championed celibacy, asceticism, and communality as appropriate ways of life in the age of the antichrist. In the process, they transformed gender hierarchies, allowing both men and women "to locate their social selves outside the traditional markers of identity, such as marriage, motherhood and fatherhood" (p. 232). Religious dissent and sexual asceticism offered women certain forms of empowerment-the possibility for income, authority within the community and in dealings with social superiors, and both physical and social movement-through a break with the traditional restrictions that family, community, and the experiences of repeated pregnancy and childrearing imposed upon women. Men, for their part, found that celibacy and alternate family structures "relieved [them] from the burden of supporting a family and paying social dues" (p. 232).

In exploring the early history of the schism, Paert underscores the prominence of both women and the question of gender, arguing that "the presence of a theological debate in which women played an important role is a suppressed story of Old Belief (p. 30). In the period of active struggle against the church, Old Believers held up the notion of manliness (muzhestvo, andreid) as an ideal for both men and women. Women who stood up for their beliefs-whether in rebellion, withstanding arrest and torture, self-immolation, renunciation of motherhood, or escape to the borderlands-were considered to have "left female weakness behind and took on manly wisdom," as Awakum declared (p. 29). Paert goes further: "Women's participation in the religious opposition was, in fact, an assertion of female spiritual authority" (p. 29). Indeed, Old Belief had special appeal for women because it affirmed women's spiritual equality and the right of women to baptize, lead services, read Psalter, and lead other women in their religious lives. …