Lived Orthodoxy and Confessional Diversity: The Last Decade on Religion in Modern Russia

By Werth, Paul W. | Kritika, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Lived Orthodoxy and Confessional Diversity: The Last Decade on Religion in Modern Russia


Werth, Paul W., Kritika


A decade ago in these pages, Gregory Freeze critiqued the historiography of religion since the fall of the USSR, remarking that it had "done little to illuminate the meaning of Orthodoxy in modern Russian society and culture." (1) Ten years on the situation looks rather different--in more ways than one. The meaning of Orthodoxy in a range of contexts has become a central preoccupation for historians of both the modern period and earlier eras. Indeed, in this essay I propose that a deep engagement with "lived Orthodoxy"--a concern for that religion as an adaptive cultural system and the variety of ways in which it was internalized and practiced--represents one of the principal accomplishments of the last decade. (2) Nowhere has this development been more significant than in work on Orthodoxy in the rapidly changing conditions of late imperial Russia, which serves as the central focus of this essay. Indeed, the relationship between Orthodox piety and "modernity" has accordingly emerged as another central vector of the last decade's scholarship? At the same time, it has become clear that Russia's religious history can no longer be contained under the heading "Russian Orthodoxy," as was the case in Freeze's essay. The scope of investigation has expanded substantially to include the other religions of Russian history--principally, but not only, Islam. These major themes--lived Orthodoxy, modernity, and multiconfessionalism--represent the three most significant trends in the scholarship of the last decade.

Some of this work entails a preoccupation with institutions, biography, texts, and ideas. Scholars have produced valuable institutional histories clarifying the place of the Holy Synod and its chief procurator in Russia's governmental structures; the functioning of Orthodox theological academies and ecclesiastical courts; and the 19th-century flowering and feminization of Orthodox monasticism. (4) Even a topic as seemingly shopworn as Peter the Great's church reforms has gained new sources and fresh perspectives in the hands of talented historians. (5) The biographical genre continues to inspire both imaginative scholars and engaged readers, while illuminating crucial aspects of religious life in Russia through investigation of Konstantin Pobedonostsev and a curious assortment of colorful bishops and monks. Such figures could facilitate the acceptance of Enlightenment principles or promote novel ideologies like Christian socialism, yet in other cases they hindered political and religious change or embroiled the church in scandal. (6) Engaging with particular corpora of texts, researchers have examined catechisms to understand the formation of Orthodox confessional consciousness; written confessions as narrative forms that constructed the sacred for ordinary believers; and didactic texts that promoted "Orthodox domesticity" by seeking to shape the behavior of women. (7) Meanwhile the intersection of Orthodox theology with philosophy, especially in the Silver Age, continues to represent a vibrant subfield that integrates culture, intellectual history, and literature. (8) A series of scholars have meanwhile wedded institutions and ideas by investigating debates about the Synodal system, the development of Orthodox ecclesiastical law, and the appearance of discourses about religious freedom. (9)

If these studies demonstrate how little we knew about core institutional and ideational attributes of Orthodoxy in Russia, many of them also cross into the realm of "lived Orthodoxy," where arguably the biggest strides in the last decade have been made. The application of "lived religion" to Russian Orthodoxy came as a response not only to the predominantly institutional histories of Orthodoxy in the past but also to the conception of "popular religion," which had often framed previous inquiry. That conception has been criticized because it presupposes two dichotomies--between elite and nonelite forms of religious culture, and between the laity and the priesthood--that ignore elements of culture shared across social distinctions and that often leave the common folk conceptually "outside of the parameters of the Church to which many of them professed to belong. …

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