Barbara Skinner. The Western Front of the Eastern Church: Uniate and Orthodox Conflict in 18th-century PoMnd, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. DeKaIb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. Tables. Maps. Bibliography. Index, xvi, 295 pp. $42.00, cloth.
It was nearly a decade ago that Gregory Freeze called for a more rigorous, archivedependent, and conceptually innovative study of religion in Russia. "One can only hope," he wrote, "that the next decade of scholarship will be more diversified, explore new problems, and draw more generously on the rich holdings outside the central repositories" ("Recent Scholarship on Russian Orthodoxy: A Critique," Kritika: Exploration in Russian and Eurasian History 2.2 [Spring 2001]: 278). Freeze' s admonition pertained first and foremost to the history of Orthodoxy in Russia, but his entreaty - and his daring and honest criticism of the state of scholarship at the time - applies just as well to the field of religious history in the entire East Slavic space, not just Russia and not just Orthodoxy. A decade later, Freeze' s call to push beyond "archival dilettantism" and to expand the focus of research past well-worn and tired topics has been heeded by Barbara Skinner, whose study of the Uniate and Orthodox conflict in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus has done more than offer precisely the kind of study Freeze envisioned. It provides a model for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research for us to follow.
Skinner has offered a detailed and richly documented history of the eighteenth-century Uniate-Orthodox confessional wars on the spaces along the shifting border between Poland-Lithuania and the Russian Empire. These were wars like those fought a century or more earlier in Western Europe: as much a battle over religious territory as it was over religious customs and ideas. The language Skinner uses to describe and imagine this warfare is vivid and deliberately military. Readers encounter boundaries "contested," "cease-fires" erupting on the "front," "religious battle lines" drawn and redrawn, "alliances" formed and broken, and religious communities "victorious" in their confessional "struggles" with their "opponents." The "front" in this war moved back and forth over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the Rzeczpo spolita expanded and contracted, as it met with alternating successes and failures in dominating the western reaches of the Qipchaq Steppe, and as the internal political system found, then promptly and permanently lost, its stability, legitimacy, and potency. As the boundaries moved, so too did the confessional lines in this disputed space, which had largely been absorbed into union with Rome at the Union of Brest (1596). Skinner's rich descriptions of the lives of Christian communities in this border space help the reader to imagine the insecurity and instability of religious life that the residents of these spaces endured.
The book is divided into two halves. After an introductory first chapter, the next three chapters look more in cross- section than chronologically at vital descriptive features of the Uniate community in Poland-Lithuania after Brest: parish life, the clergy, and the general Problematik of religion and identity. …