Confessional Politics and Religious Loyalties in the Russian-Polish Borderlands

By Wessel, Martin Schulze | Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Confessional Politics and Religious Loyalties in the Russian-Polish Borderlands


Wessel, Martin Schulze, Kritika


Mikhail Dolbilov, Russkii krai, chuzhaia vera: Etnokonfessional'naia politika imperii v Litve i Belorussii pri Aleksandre II (Russian Borderlands, Alien Faith: Imperial Ethnocultural Policy in Lithuania and Belorussia under Alexander II). Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010. ISBN-13 978-5867938048.

Barbara Skinner, The Western Front of the Eastern Church: Uniate and Orthodox Conflict in 18th-Century Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0875804071. $42.00.

Both of these books deal with a territory that belonged to Poland until the partitions and became an integral part of the Russian Empire thereafter. Together, they show that the significant politicization of confessional and (proto-)national diversities characteristic of the eastern territories of Poland before partition continued in the western borderlands of Russia in the 19th century. Both authors examine how culturally heterogeneous states treated heterodox confessions and explore the cultural meanings that were attributed to ethno-religious minorities. In both cases, the central question is how traditional loyalties were managed and transformed in periods of religious change and (proto-)national "awakening."

The two studies are part of a broader trend in the history of empires that focuses on the integration of frontier areas in ethnic and religious terms. With regard to Russia, much of the research on borderlands has concentrated on the southern and eastern peripheries, where the ethnic lines between Russians and non-Russians were relatively distinct. (1) In contrast, the ethnic and religious situation in the western borderlands featured a more contested delineation between Russians and other ethnicities, primarily Ukrainians and Belorussians. Innovative research on the western borderlands has underlined the foundations of 19th-century conflicts in the intertwining of Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian history since the early modern period; (2) and it has elaborated on the multilayered forms of Russian administration, which pursued goals far more complex than the frequently used term "Russification" would suggest. (3) Another important insight of modern research is that the imperial bureaucracy could not rely on stable types of self-identification among the Russian and non-Russian populations, a situation that further complicated efforts to govern the region. (4)

Skinner and Dolbilov build on this innovative research on the management of ethnic and religious identities in the borderlands between Poland and Russia. The politics of state interference in confessional affairs and the stories of tolerance and intolerance are the main issue of the two books. (5) In the historical literature, the enlightened rule of Catherine II is the main reference point for the question of tolerance in the Russian Empire. Yet Catherine's decree of 1794, published after the second partition of Poland, sought to convert the new Uniate subjects of the Russian Empire to Orthodoxy and thus to extinguish an entire faith. The story of this dramatic promotion of mass conversion in 1794 is the terminal point of Barbara Skinner's story in The Western Front of the Eastern Church. Skinner's narrative covers the period from the Union of Brest in 1596 to the partitions of Poland in 1772-95. Focusing primarily on the 18th century, Skinner is interested in the long-lasting Uniate--Orthodox conflict that unfolded in the Rzeczpospolita and continued within the Russian Empire after the second partition of Poland. The story is about conflict in a very complex sense: Skinner analyzes the political and religious changes in Poland-Lithuania and Russia that resulted in new confessional identities for the adherents to both faiths. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Poland-Lithuania affected the Orthodox confession to a high degree, as it had to adapt to the new situation after the Council of Trent. …

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