Sacred Stories. Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia

By Paert, Irina | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Sacred Stories. Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia


Paert, Irina, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Mark D. Steinberg and Heather J. Coleman, eds. Sacred Stories. Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia. Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007. vii, 405. Illustrations. Bibliographical references. Index.4

This volume consists of fifteen essays on various aspects of Russian religious modernity and promises to fill a gap in the cultural history of Late Imperial Russia. The authors and editors wittingly shun from analysis of institutionalized religion and church-state relationship. Instead they focus on aspects of popular religion, religion and the individual, religion and art, and on a broader issue of how religion shaped modern identities.

The opening essay by Christine Worobec analyzes 247 press reports of miracles related to three nineteenth-century saints. The article establishes the social profile of the recipients of miraculous cures and provides insight into the popular attraction of sainthood in the modern age. It also analyzes the intentions, as well as the didactic, ideological and moral purposes of the "miracle tales." Roy Robson's essay is based on travel accounts to Solovetski monastery by pilgrims. It raises important questions about the changes in popular religion in the Late Imperial period, using the case-study of a remote monastery that turned into a vibrant religious centre capable of accommodating thousands of pilgrims with the aid of modern transportation and skilful monastic management.

Vera Shevzov deals with the narratives related to the Kazan Mother of God icon and demonstrates how through the visual image, liturgy and homily popular perception of the Kazan Mother of God icon was "scripted" by associating the icon with a specific version of national identity and with moral and spiritual norms of individual behaviour.

Gregory Freeze's article, based on the 'failed divorce' cases that were considered by the Vilna consistory and local courts, shows a wide gap between the 'sacramentalist' conception of marriage held by the church, on the one hand, and the secularist view of divorce by the laity, on the other. He distinguishes between several types of 'divorce narratives' according to class, gender and religion showing profound differences in perception of marriage among the privileged and unprivileged, male and female plaintiffs.

Two contributions to the volume, by William Wagner and Nadieszda Kizenko, bring into focus the gendered aspect of "sacred stories." Kizenko examines 163 written confessions that have been retained in the personal files of Father John of Kronstadt, 121 of which came from women. She points out that women were more prone to internalize the ideas of culpability that were present in the standard Orthodox prayers for penitents and to admit their lack of knowledge of the Orthodox faith. Wagner's article examines the evolution of the Orthodox discourse about women hi the course of the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that by the late nineteenth century even conservative sections of the Orthodox Church recognized women's social roles, thus expanding the previously limited views of women that focused on their roles as mothers and wives.

Three contributions, by Paul Werth, Heather Coleman and Nicholas Breyfogle deal with the problems of sectarianism and confessional transfer during the era marked by the changes of the official norms of religious toleration. Werth's article shows contentious understanding of the "freedom of conscience" by the various groups within Russian officialdom and the uneasiness with which the state reacted to conversions to heterodox faiths and to Christian sectarianism. Coleman's article addresses the subject of religious violence between sectarians and the Orthodox villagers. It points out that religious dissidence destabilized the social fabric of the traditional community, including family relationship and village administration. …

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