Belief and Unbelief in Russia

By Swoboda, Philip J. | Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Belief and Unbelief in Russia


Swoboda, Philip J., Kritika


Victoria Frede, Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia. xiv + 300 pp. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0299284442. $26.95.

Avril Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius. The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da Vinci, xxiv + 304 pp. New York: Continuum, 2010. ISBN-13 978-1441187000. $29.95.

Much 20th-century history writing was shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by the "secularization thesis," which maintains that religious beliefs and religious institutions are doomed by the advance of modernity to a continuous and irreversible decline in their intellectual and social influence. Over the past 30 years, events have rendered this thesis distinctly less compelling than it once was, even to observers with no particular sympathy for religion. In many parts of the globe--including the former Eastern Bloc--ancient religious traditions have offered us vivid demonstrations of their adaptability and staying power. As "secularization" loses credibility as a conceptual framework within which to understand the history of religion in the modern era, historians have begun to articulate alternative frameworks. (1)

Historians who abandon the assumption that the waning of religious belief in modern societies is the ineluctable consequence of modernity itself are immediately presented with an array of exciting intellectual challenges. The phenomenon of religious unbelief in these societies can no longer be taken for granted; it must become the object of careful historical research and analysis. Some recent books in the field of modern Russian history have taken up these challenges in a self-conscious and sophisticated way. One example is William Husband's "Godless Communists, "a study of the antireligious policies of the Soviet state in its early years and of the Russian masses' response to them. (2) Husband called attention to the complexity and ambiguities of ordinary people's attitudes toward religion and the church in the late tsarist period, then went on to argue that that such ambivalence persisted under Bolshevik rule. Without denying that religious observance declined in the early Soviet period, he argued that the Party's failure to understand the strength of the masses' traditional beliefs greatly limited the efficacy of its measures to promote atheism.

A newer study, focusing on the elite rather than the masses, is Victoria Frede's Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia. Frede's book is an important contribution to scholarship on 19th-century intellectual history. It examines how and why religious doubt, and later atheism, became genuine intellectual options for members of the Russian intelligentsia between the 1820s and the 1860s. Some of the figures upon whom her narrative concentrates play a prominent role in every study of the intelligentsia: Herzen and Ogarev, Chernyshevskii, Dobroliubov, and Pisarev. About all of these she has remarkably interesting and illuminating things to say. But the book also includes chapters on obscure radicals of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s whose intellectual adventures she regards as no less worthy of the historian's attention that those of the familiar heroes of the saga of Russian radicalism. Indeed, one of Frede's more piquant claims is that the first full-blown atheists in Russia were none of these mighty names, but three young men of the merchant class who hung out together at the end of the 1840s in the tobacco store which one of them owned in Petersburg (92).

Frede's point of departure is the bold assertion that, at the beginning of the 19th century, atheism, in the strict sense, was a position that was neither "thinkable" nor "speakable" by educated Russians (11). The notion that there have been cultural contexts in which it was impossible to be an atheist is, of course, not new. Those familiar with Lucien Febvre's famous book on Rabelais (translated into English as The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century) will hear an echo of Febvre's argument that 16th-century European intellectuals simply lacked the necessary materials--from an adequate philosophical vocabulary to a modern "concept of the impossible"--with which to construct an atheistic worldview that could present itself as a serious alternative to the Christian one. …

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