Authority, and Meanings of Religious
Toleration in Imperial Russia
PAUL W. WERTH1
If Orthodoxy occupied an explicitly privileged place as the [preeminent and predominant] faith of the Russian Empire, the imperial state nonetheless forged important ties of co-operation with other confessions and its representatives. Indeed, the American historian Robert Crews has argued recently that the state in Russia served as a patron of recognized confessions, [committed to backing the construction and implementation of 'orthodoxy' within each recognized religious community.] By assuming this obligation, [the state became deeply enmeshed in intraconfessional disputes as the guardian of religious 'orthodoxy' for the tolerated faiths] in Russia. In this respect, imperial Russia represented a [confessional state,] for which connections with clergies and pious activists offered not only a basis for deepening its regulatory and disciplinary reach into nonOrthodox communities, but also a source of cohesion for a large and diverse realm.2
Crews astutely identifies the confessional foundations of the imperial Russian state, which indeed conditioned many of the state's interactions with its subjects. Moreover, by elucidating patterns of interdependence and mutual penetration between religious communities and the state, he provides a crucial corrective to a simplistic nationalist historiography that portrays the state as intrinsically hostile to the so-called [foreign confessions]3 and construes non-Orthodox religiosity as a refuge from the government's intrusion. My goal in the present essay is nonetheless to propose that in practice the state's attitude towards the 'orthodoxy' of foreign confessions was more ambivalent than Crews' account allows, especially when we move beyond the reign of Nicholas I (1825–55). Undoubtedly, the state sometimes deployed police power for the purposes of suppressing dissidence within recognized non-Orthodox religions and in general regarded new religious teachings and [sects] with a healthy dose of suspicion. Likewise, the state's laws made no provision for the recognition and institutionalization of new confessions and sects.4 Yet, when it came to the question of whether it was the state's job to guarantee the purity of non-Orthodox religions and to protect them from [schism,] the government often answered in the negative and in its actions exhibited uncertainty and inconsistency.