Sacred and Profane Space in the Modern Russian City: A Choice of Russian Jews

By Nosenko-Stein, Elena | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Sacred and Profane Space in the Modern Russian City: A Choice of Russian Jews


Nosenko-Stein, Elena, Cultural Analysis


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Introduction

Some scholars stress the decline of many traditional collective identities, and the emergence of new ones at the same time (Davidman 1991; Giddens 1992; Vermuelen and Govers 1994; Eriksen 1993; Anthias 2001). The deep crisis of some traditional religions and nations is one aspect of the phenomenon (Gans 1994; Smith 1995; Horowitz 2001; Calhoun 2004). The other is the "ethnicity explosion" and the "religious renaissance" in many parts of the world (Bentley 1987; Banks 1996; Brubaker 2004). In any case, a person identifies him or herself more and more with his or her religion or culture, even though some ethnicities and religions are declining. Paradoxically, we can see that personal self-identification, free from many former collective ties, is very widespread (Cavalcanti and Chalfant 1994). These tendencies are also typical of Jewish identities in many countries.

All these processes, including ethnicization and de-secularization, have led to a change--real and perceptive--of urban space. The Soviet homogeneity has been substituted by diversification--ethnic and religious elements of the urban landscape are more evident now in Russian urban centers. "Patterns of popular taste [I would also add, patterns of mass culture, E. N-S] reflect, among other things, attitudes to the city, the state, the nation, the family, money, foreigners, minorities, the arts and the system" (Stites 2000, 2). Temples of various religions (churches, mosques and synagogues), as well as centers for ethnic activities (communal and Diaspora centers, all kinds of clubs for studying ethnic traditions, music etc.), play a more significant role in the lifestyle of modern Russian citizens and in the urban landscape than formerly. These changes, in their turn, result in deformations, sometimes strange ones, in the identities of ex-Soviet people.

This article is dedicated to the choice of sacred and/or profane spaces by modern Russian Jews. These spaces refer to synagogues, Christian churches, and/or other places, mainly spaces of leisure activities and centers of economic support for their members. I will try to demonstrate the perception of these places in the context of Jewish or non Jewish identities of the Jewish population in Russia today.

Modern Russia is a deeply divided society. We can see many splits in the social and cultural spheres of this country so it is impossible to speak about a common sacred myth or a grand narrative in Russia. Russia's Jewry, being a part of this "society in transition," is also a very heterogeneous community (Kochan 1972; Gitelman 1988). As a result, there is no common Jewish identity (Nosenko 2004: 52-53) and no common sacred spaces for Jews in Russia today.

Sources and Methods

In conducting my research I chose to use qualitative methods, such as oral and life history, since they are more useful than quantitative ones in anthropological studies. This article is based mainly on the results of my field research which I carried out from 1999 to 2009 in several Russian cities and towns (Moscow, St Petersburg, Penza, Krasnodar, Smolensk, Veliky Novgorod, and some other urban centers in the European part of Russia). I conducted a total of 250 in-depth interviews. Interviews were informal and indirect, that is, informal conversations where the interviewer tried to minimize her role and give the lead to the narrator. Yet I had a special interview guide that included several areas of topics that I wanted to cover. Interviews lasted from thirty minutes to six hours, depending on the willingness and time of the informant. There is no single representative sampling in qualitative research; I relied on what is known as "theoretical saturation", where the researcher gets enough evidence for his/her theory and new interviews might add details but do not affect the main concepts (see Bertaux 1981; Hummersley 1989). As a result, the main source of this study is texts of interviews with the attendants of different Jewish organizations, as well as with people of Jewish origin who have never visited them. …

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