Religious Toleration in Russian Thought, 1520-1825

By Hamburg, G. M. | Kritika, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Religious Toleration in Russian Thought, 1520-1825


Hamburg, G. M., Kritika


In his landmark essay On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described religious freedom as the foundation of liberty of thought, opinion, and sentiment and as "practically inseparable" from freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He asserted, "No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected is free, whatever may be its form of government." (1) Like so many other 19th-century thinkers, Mill regarded religious freedom as the virtually exclusive product of Western civilization, even though he had the honesty to admit that intolerance "is so natural to mankind ... that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. In the minds of almost all religious persons, even in the most tolerant countries, the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves." (2)

Mill's position on the foundational importance of religious toleration to the wider practice of civil liberties deserves careful consideration, as does his caveat about the "tacit reserves" often attached to toleration. But Mill's assumption that religious toleration should be associated primarily with Western societies is almost certainly a major historical blunder. As Amartya Sen has contended in his essay The Argumentative Indian, religious toleration in South Asia has roots in the 3rd century BCE and took modern form in the 16th century under Emperor Akbar. (3) Thus the South Asian record of tolerating, even celebrating, religious and intellectual diversity rivals or exceeds that of the West. Moreover, no historian can be insensible to the fact that in 20th-century Europe, the supposed "home" of religious toleration, powerful political regimes committed themselves to the destruction of religious pluralism. Clearly, given the stakes for human liberty posed by religious toleration and the elementary misunderstandings surrounding the history of the phenomenon, it is urgent for scholars to analyze the development of toleration in Europe and elsewhere.

This essay analyzes Russian thinking about religious toleration from the first quarter of the 16th century to 1825. The essay is divided into seven parts: a brief survey of recent historiography on religious toleration in early modern Europe; a short analysis of Russian terms connoting toleration; a multipart analysis of tolerationist thinking from the early 16th century to 1825; and an examination of the patterns of Russian tolerationist thinking with special reference to the European Enlightenment. The chief goal of the essay is to juxtapose Russian toleration, in theory and practice, with the early modern and modern record in Western Europe: in this context, the impact of the European Enlightenment on Russian toleration will receive special attention. Since this essay is a speculative piece designed to provoke informed discussion and further research, the reader should not expect monographic depth or strict proportionality in the treatment of subjects under scrutiny.

At the outset, the reader should note that, in both Western Europe and Russia, the concept of religious toleration applied chiefly to groups rather than to individuals. It usually connoted freedom of religious practice for a religious minority or set of minorities, but not necessarily for all minorities in a polity. Toleration did not generally entail freedom of preaching to members of other denominations, particularly to members of the established Church, nor did it generally imply freedom of the press for the tolerated group. By definition, freedom of conscience denoted an individual right of religious belief and practice: it was therefore a more sweeping right than anything connected with toleration.

In historical literature, religious toleration has sometimes been associated with the phenomenon of secularism, itself a multivalent concept. In certain contexts, the adjective secular has been used by historians to distinguish any political measures not directly bearing on religion: the trouble with this usage, especially for pre-Petrine Russia, is that the Russian worldview was thoroughly religious, so for a Muscovite to imagine an act of state devoid of religious significance was difficult. …

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