One of the hallmarks of the quarter-century of post-Communist transition in Eastern Europe and Eurasia has been the reclaiming of religious traditions. Nowhere does this recovery of religious identity mark a more striking turn about than in the former Soviet Union, and specifically in the Russian Federation. While it is true that the literary output of Soviet-era Russian intelligentsia often remained dissenting and conspicuously Christian, more so perhaps than elsewhere in Europe, the Russian Orthodox Church and its institutions, protected in the prerevolutionary Russian Empire, were subjected to suppression and destruction in the Soviet period. Monasteries, seminaries, and printing presses were closed or repurposed, churches often destroyed or abandoned, and clergy exposed to persecution—all with the ideological support structure of an official atheism institutionally backed by the organs of Soviet power. Although there were movements anticipating the “rebirth of Orthodoxy” already during earlier wartime and post-World War II generations, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively closed the era of official state atheism and opened the door for the renewal of Russian Orthodox institutions. Intended for a broad public audience, John Burgess’s Holy Rus’ is an attempt to interpret the significance of the “rebirth of Orthodoxy” in post-Soviet Russia. Burgess brings to this effort the sympathetic skills of a liberal, Calvinist theologian and the insights of a determined, persevering observer who managed over the course of ten years to combine lengthy stints in Moscow and St. Petersburg with frequent travels to outlying regions as far removed as rural Dudachkino, the island monastery of Solovki, and a women’s monastery in Minsk. He was aided in this effort by equally sympathetic Orthodox apologists from St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities in Moscow and leading Moscow area clerics, notably including Fr. Vladimir Volgin. The thesis of Burgess’s work is that there is a permeating “re-Christianizing” vision of integration and harmony evolving within the Russian Orthodox Church as it seeks once again to “enchurch” the Russian nation (votserkovlenie). This is the intent of the Holy Rus’ title, which refers both to the vision itself and to the concrete efforts of the Russian church effectively to turn the millions of nominal believers who identify culturally with Orthodox Russia into “true believers” fully incorporated into the life and practices of the church and its doctrines. Burgess ultimately speculates that this vision of Holy Rus’ could serve as a kind of counterpart to a civil religion, a religious vision transforming the Russian nation (and, by extension, Putin’s Russia) into a body with a shared sense of its own unique purpose and value for the world. For reasons I note below, I find this organic view of the Russian nation and its potential identification with the Russian church problematic. But the value of Burgess’s work rests not in his overarching, somewhat theocratic, big picture. The work is important rather for the insights it provides into specific features of post-Soviet Orthodox life—its engagement in educational training, its social ministry activities, its focus on the lives of the newly martyred, and, more broadly, the vitality of its parish life. As in other sections of the account, Burgess’s treatment of religious education is filled with illustrative first-person anecdotal references, in this case to Bible study sessions attended, ease of access to new religious training materials, and so on. Each of the subtopics he considers merits more extended analysis, as in the case of his discussion of the 2009–2012 pilot program to introduce religious education into public schools. This pilot project offered a menu of optional secondary school subjects, ranging from courses on the foundations of Judaic, Buddhist, or Orthodox culture to a course on secular ethics. Burgess reports that despite the hope of some Orthodox clerics that such courses would introduce young students to Orthodox faith and practice, the reality is that few of the students in the pilot program in Moscow (<25%) and St. Petersburg (9.5%) opted for study of “foundations of Orthodox culture.” Such discussion suggests both the strength and the limits of the Burgess account. By calling attention to the issue of religious training in public schools (alongside several other training categories), Burgess has documented the chasm separating post-Soviet from Soviet education with respect to religion. But, as elsewhere, the sheer number of issues considered limits the kind of definitive analysis that would allow one to draw firm conclusions, as in the specific case of the experiment with religious education in public schools. Interestingly, Burgess’s first-person anecdotal account of a Moscow church Bible study session indicated rather light attendance, with marginal participant interest in or attention to fundamental doctrinal issues—this, despite the obvious novelty of such sessions in relation to the Soviet past. One wonders in this context whether the limited response to religion courses in public schools and the light attendance in isolated parish Bible study sessions pose potential questions about the efficacy of the votserkovlenie/Holy Rus’ project. The strength of Burgess’s account is in its sympathetic description of first-person encounters, but the anecdotal nature of his observations sometimes makes it difficult to draw wider conclusions. Burgess’s account is more convincing when it comes to his treatment of social ministry efforts within the church. He witnesses the model program to counter drug addiction launched by Fr. Mefodii Kondrat’ev at St. George’s parish, three hundred miles northeast of Moscow, as well as monasteries’ efforts to use their resources for social work: the women’s Monastery of Martha and Mary in Moscow and St. Elizabeth’s Monastery in Minsk (Belarus); the work of lay sisterhoods such as that of St. Dmitrii working with a local Moscow hospital; and that of Iosif-Volokolamsk Monastery outside Moscow, working with delinquent children. Burgess ties this social ministry of the church closely to the revival of monastic institutions and their charitable work, crediting such social work with advancing the Russian church’s wider “enchurching”/votserkovlenie efforts. There is no effort to quantify this social work of the church. The “rebirth of Orthodoxy,” it seems, is constituted by initiatives from below, from the local revival of monastic institutions, and from individual lay and clerical figures often far removed from the bureaucratic center of the Moscow Patriarchate. The additional chapters on “the new martyrs” and on “parish life” provide additional first-person documentation for the popularity of what Burgess sees as an alternative narrative provided by the church, one that at times overlaps with the nationalist and state narratives extolling patriotic antifascist efforts in World War II, for example, but one that is also attuned to concerns for the spiritual integrity of the Orthodox Church. A final chapter on “the future” uses a modified typology drawn from the Russian political scientist Irina Papkova to address the diversity of positions staked out within the Orthodox Church on modern Russian religious culture. It is this last issue of alternative voices and narratives that seems to me to pose the greatest challenge for Burgess and his claims on behalf of Holy Rus’. In the end, his Holy Rus’ is an integral vision of an organic Orthodox communion linking the Russian nation to its spiritual roots. But is it really possible to claim that there is a shared vision uniting the monarchist cleric Fr. Aleksandr Shargunov, whose Social Committee for the Moral Regeneration of the Fatherland appeals for strong authoritarian state leadership to destroy the evils of secularism, with the late Moscow cleric Fr. Aleksandr Men’, whose openness to liturgical linguistic reform and Christian ecumenism almost certainly led to the violent assassination of Men’ by axe in 1991? Do these churchmen really share a common vision, or ought they rather be seen as opponents offering two radically different perspectives on a post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church? On top of this internal division within Holy Rus’, there is also the reality that the Russia to which Burgess offers Holy Rus’ as a potential civil religion is a complicated multi-ethnic empire that touts ever more fervent Russian nationalism at its own peril. Are the Tatars of Kazan ready for Holy Rus’? John Burgess’s Holy Rus’ ought to be read by all people interested in Russian Orthodoxy today. It documents the internal side of one of the most dramatic transformations separating contemporary Russia from its Soviet antecedent. Moreover, it reveals the extensive travels over a ten-year period of one of the more insightful Western theologians commenting on Eastern Christianity today. One need not buy his thesis to appreciate the value of his work. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 8, 2018
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