Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Holy Fools in the Digital Age: Strategies of Self-Positioning in the Russian-Language Orthodox Blogosphere

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Holy Fools in the Digital Age: Strategies of Self-Positioning in the Russian-Language Orthodox Blogosphere

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article analyzes the blogs of Russian-language Orthodox priests on the platform of LiveJournal. com, focusing on how bloggers reflect on their own activities, how they manage their identities, and how they relate to the secular Other and to the Church hierarchy. The analysis draws on the medieval Russian tradition of "holy foolishness" as the context which helps bloggers orientate themselves in and make sense of the digital environment, associated with a threat to the Orthodox ethos and theology. The article argues that Orthodox bloggers are a closed circle, opposed to the secular "outside world." In relation to the Church authority, their position is ambiguous: they simultaneously distance themselves from the task of carrying out the Church mission online, and capitalize on their spiritual status for the purpose of "creation of the self' in the digital age.

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Never before in Russia's thousand-year history did ordinary people experience involvement in the discussion of societally important questions to such a scale as when mass blogging became part of Russian everyday life in the early 2000s, contemporaneously with the decade of "stability", surging oil prices and unabashed consumerism. The new technology of blogging encourages users to formulate and express their attitudes on political issues, and to comment on experts' opinions. (1) Blogging forges audiences of "friends" and "followers," thereby creating a historically unique--and probably transient--moment where "ordinary" Russians feel that their thoughts matter and their voices are heard. More than that, with a risk of overstatement, one can argue that technologies of self-expressing and self-presenting, which recently became accessible to the masses, compensate for the lack of the historical experience of the Reformation and Enlightenment. In the West, this experience shaped the idea of individual autonomy, (2) much contested in the context of Russian authoritarian and military political culture and religious asceticism. As such, in Russia, blogging has become more than just a sign of the times, or another outlet for individuals' creative voices and political deliberation. Instead, it is the primary experience of individuation and political reasoning, (3) the space where crowds of well-fed Russians, who care for themselves, are being taught to value the autonomy of a human being, the importance of a personal opinion, and the inviolability of the private sphere.

It is important to emphasize that Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity, which dominated Russia's cultural life for centuries and craves socio-political ascendance in today's Russia, (4) suspects the idea of the "cultivation of the self," sinful self-adulation, devilish egoism, narcissism and heresy. By the same token, the co-habitation of the Orthodox ethos and the liberal doctrine of humanism has never been straightforward. For example, on 21 March 2016, Patriarch Kirill attacked the "global heresy of human-worshipping [chelovekopoklonstvo]." (5) Likewise, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev), Kirill's closest follower and suffragan, emphasizes that human self-assertion leads to self-destruction." (6)

Hence, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is not neutral toward digital technologies. In the past decade, the ROC has massively migrated to the digital environment; the vast majority of the highest clerics, monasteries, parishes and spiritual educational institutions have webpages and social media accounts. Patriarch Kirill, for example, has accounts on Facebook and Vkontakte. (7) For his flock, there are many other digital media available, such as a virtual chapel (though this provoked a lot of controversy among the priests). Orthodox dating sites, chat rooms where Orthodox priests consult believers and so on. At the same time, studying the ROC's take on these new media, one cannot shake the impression that, beneath the official vision of the internet as a "useful tool for the Church mission," (8) there is a deeply ingrained fear that digital media posit an existential threat to the theological tradition and religious practice of Orthodoxy. …

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