Of Religion and Empire Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia

By Dowler, Wayne | Canadian Slavonic Papers, June-September 2001 | Go to article overview

Of Religion and Empire Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia


Dowler, Wayne, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Robert P. Geraci and Michael Khodarovsky, eds. Of Religion and Empire. Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. vi, 356 pp. Map, Index. $49.95, cloth; $21.95, paper.

As the editors of this interesting collection note, historians have largely neglected the religious diversity of the Russian Empire. That diversity was immense, and the essays in this volume touch on only a few of the faiths and sects with which the Tsars' subjects identified. The aim of the authors is to reconnoitre the terrain of religious identities in imperial Russia rather than to form firm conclusions. They variously explore the attitudes to human identity in Russia and the place of religious ideologies in social integration, measure the success of Orthodox conversion efforts, assess the ways in which various groups experienced incorporation into the empire, and examine how religious diversity shaped Orthodoxy and Russian-ness. Wide-- ranging as they are, the essays collectively succeed in delineating the major issues related to religious diversity and identity in the empire of the tsars.

George Michels looks at the campaign of Archbishop Afanasii of Kholmogory against the Old Belief in his northern see. Afanasii took little interest in converting natives but ruthlessly punished those who flirted with the Old Believers. He realized that the weaknesses of Orthodoxy were in part responsible for Old Believer successes and sought to strengthen the administration of the Church and to increase its physical presence among parishioners. Eugene Clay argues that the progressive rationalization and institutionalization of Orthodox theology left room within the Church by the second half the nineteenth century for various pietistic heresies that found truth in direct spiritual experience and not in rational discourse. The clergy were poorly prepared by their training to cope with this spiritual challenge. Clay notes that the Church largely failed to build on the popular piety that animated village life. Theodore Weeks finds that the forced "reunions" of Uniates with Orthodoxy of 1839 and 1875 were the result not of an overreaching plan on the part of central authorities but, rather, of largely local initiative. He notes that the Uniate "converts" to Orthodoxy returned to the Uniate Church en masse when the opportunity arose in 1905. John Klier similarly concludes that the Russian state had no "continuous, consistent policy of conversion directed at the Jews" (p. 93). On the contrary, both Church and state were highly suspicious about the sincerity of Jewish converts, who gained civil benefits in return for conversion. In any event, few Jews converted. Later in the collection, Firouzeh Mostashari sees little consistency in Russian religious policy in the Caucasus. Benign neglect alternated with conversion campaigns and both gave way to failed attempts to impose bureaucratic controls over Muslim clerics.

Michael Khodarovsky fills out the picture of the efforts of the Church to convert non-Christians up to 1800. Most converts were pagans and their conversions were mostly nominal. Two of the more interesting essays are by Paul Werth and Agnes Kefeli. …

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