Rethinking religion in early modern Russia

The European Studies Council at the MacMillan Center at Yale hosted a conference titled, “Rethinking Religion in Early Modern Russia,” on April 7-8. “We now know enormously more about the details of religious experience, ecclesiastical structures, and the writings of many of the main intellectual leaders of the church. At the same time our understanding of these phenomena has not kept pace with the empirical revolution,” said Paul Bushkovitch, Professor of History at Yale University. Thus, the conference was meant to become a forum where the specialists on Russia’s history of religion, would gather “to take stock of what we know and to look for new ways to comprehend this new information about a period of enormous and fundamental change.” The conference was divided into four sessions: Foundations, Seventeenth Century, Allies and Opponents, and The Reorientation of Orthodoxy. The session chairs and discussants throughout this two-day conference were Harvey Goldblatt (Yale University), Valerie Kivelson (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor), Doug Rogers (Yale University), Paul Bushkovitch (Yale University), Vera Shevzov (Smith College), Sergei Antonov (Columbia University), Nadieszda Kizenko (State University of New York, Albany).

Opening the first session, Bushkovitch, presented his study The Church and Russian Foreign Policy 1480-1725. Bushkovitch stated that there were many fundamental issues that the basic narrative omitted or did not fully cover. One of them, for example, is “how the church made decisions.” Furthermore, Bushkovitch believes that this is part of a larger issue — the lack of knowledge of the decision-making process in the Russian state. Understanding the role of the duma and the decision process in it is key to understanding the role of the church. Another issue is “the character of the various epistles and homilies” from churchmen during Russia’s wars with its neighboring states. Bushkovitch questioned the often-made claim that these epistles and homilies were “patriotic” and glorified the ruler. “This is just not true,” said Bushkovitch. The 1480 epistle of bishop Vassian to Ivan III is actually a criticism of the ruler and other texts merely called on the soldiers to be good Christians.  Peter the Great, however, ceased to consult the church. “If I am right, then we have here what might be called a ‘silent change.’ The church produced no great polemics against Russia’s enemies in his reign, but the church was out of the chain of decisions about foreign policy. This was the case from the Azov campaigns onward to 1725 and afterwards.”

The second panelist was Jennifer Spock (Eastern Kentucky University). Spock presented a paper on the life of male monks in pre-Petrine Russia. Drawing on bibliographic and scholarly data, she showed that it was nearly impossible for a monk to survive if he adopted a life-style significantly different from that of laity. Given regional conditions, the daily life of the monks was in many respects similar to the life of lay people. Their style of life did not always follow the traditional monastic rules, and “the lives of Russian monks were of a rather chaotic character.” Despite the fact that monastic life in Russia is generally not well documented, she was able to find archival documents and gain insight into monastic life of the northern monastery on Solovki. According to Spock, as surprising as it might sound, the monks of Solovki led rather open lives and interacted with lay people to a great extent. This archival study represents clear evidence that in the early modern period the monastic life in Muscovite territories was similar to the lifestyle of lay people of that region.

Continuing the theme of the first session, David Goldfrank (Georgetown University) offered a discussion of the abbot St. Joseph Volotsky and one of his main works The Enlightener, stating that “despite the fact that in the last 170 years the researchers and historians have significantly improved understanding of this historic figure, many aspects still require additional research.” Goldfrank devoted his talk to his ongoing research into Joseph’s work The Enlightener. He looked at its logical structure, demonstrated the logical structure of the work, and analyzed the figure of Joseph. Goldfrank believes that a thorough analysis of Joseph’s will greatly contribute into the study of theology and rhetoric of that period.

Opening the second section of the conference, which focused on the seventeenth century, Harvey Goldblatt (Yale University) spoke about his work on Ruthenian & Muscovite Cultural Relations in the Seventeenth Century: The Legacy of the Athonite Monk Ivan Vyšens ́kyj. Goldblatt’s talk was “devoted to certain aspects of the seventeenth-century cultural relations between the Orthodox Slavs of the Polish Commonwealth inhabiting the Ruthenian lands and the Russian lands under the Muscovite tsars.” The Ruthenian monk’s work was popular with Russian Old Believers. Indeed all but one copy of Vysens’kyi’s Knyzhka are Russian, not Ukrainian, and come from the 18th-19th centuries. Goldblatt’s study concluded that the textual material in the best nineteenth-century copy (of Old Believer origins) shows that it “could be seen as a single compositional unit with a clear and deliberate organizing principle and well-marked structural contours. The Old Believer readers could find in this text both a denunciation of the great evil in the world around them and instructions on how to return to the old faith.”

Kevin M. Kain, (University of Wisconsin, Green Bay) offered a discussion about his study on the “cases of the efforts of Russian rulers to create or restore ‘New Jerusalems.’” In his paper New Jerusalem and the Politics of Byzantine Renewal in Russia:The Resurrection of the Resurrection ‘New Jerusalem Monastery’ in the Reign of Tsar Fyodor Alekseevich (1676-1682) Kain described the history of the monastery as part of the notion of Russia as the new Israel, with a new Jerusalem that replicated the old in the monastery and even the Kremlin palace. Kain contended that, “this question calls for a reframing of the New Jerusalem concept,” and proposed “that this reconceptualization should recognize the practice of historical replication as political-religious ideology.” Moreover, according to Kain, the reign of tsar Fyodor Alekseevich prefigured an increasing feminization of the ideology of the New Jerusalem and “the paradigms that he established were copied especially by Empress Elizabeth” in the eighteenth century.

Taking the focus back to the time of the reign Fyodor Alekseevich’s father, Aleksey Mikhailovitch, Lidiia Sazonova (Institute of World Literature, Russian Academy of Sciences) presented a thought-provoking paper on Religious-Cultural Conflicts in Early Modern Russia. In it, among other things, Sazonova spoke about the several ideological orientations — some looking to the West, others to the East — that existed in XVII century Russia. Thus, the reform of patriarch Nikon was of great importance not only for the religious life of the Empire, but it also had a number of sharp religious cultural conflicts that defined the intellectual atmosphere and Russia’s course of development in general. Particularly, she emphasized the opposition of “Grecophile” and “Latinizer” schools among the main bookmen of the church in Russia. Sazonova believes that despite this conflict between Grecophile and Latinizer schools, “it is doubtful that there existed any fundamental inconsistency between them,” instead, the controversies were of internal nature; and the real dispute transpired between patriarch Nikon and Old Believers. Sazonova concluded that the issue of religious cultural conflicts in Early Modern Russia is extremely “complex, dynamic, full of controversies” and needs further detailed investigation and analysis, the information for which is contained in manuscripts that require detailed examination and publication.

Contributing to the topic of the third session — on allies and opponents —Nikolaos Chrissidis (Southern Connecticut State University) stimulated the conversation about Greek-Russian relations in the XVI-XVIII Centuries. Talking about the issue of sources, Chrissidis proposed to take a new approach for studying Greek-Russian relations; that is, he proposed to go beyond the narrow tracking of Greek clerics and “widen the archival search when dealing with Greek-Russian relations” and branch out to Turetskie dela (Turkish files) in the Russian archives and “to look into Russian-Bulgarian relations” in addition to the sources used today. From what we do know, it seems that the Greeks did not just come to Russia looking for money for their churches and institutions. They were also a varied group. Chrissidis pointed out that it is important to look at “people who show up in the sources in many capacities other than clerics or merchants.” He believes there has to be a Greek history of Russia, an account of what the Greeks thought about Russia, not just what the Russians thought about the Greeks. “We need to look at the Greek sources beyond the ones we have been looking at and see if there are more Greek and Russian sources.”

Alexander Lavrov (Université Paris-Sorbonne) shared his findings on the scripts of Archpriest Avvakum (one of the founders of Old Belief in Russia). Lavrov showed images of the letters and documents that had been rediscovered in 1911 by one of the Russian historians of the twentieth century, Iakov Barskov. Lavrov’s close examination and analysis of these documents led him to several possible conclusions about the handwriting of Avvakum. First, he supposed that it is quite possible that the Avvakum used two different handwritings. He rejected the commonly stated speculation about Avvakum’s left-handedness, which allegedly explained why he was able to write after his right hand and a tongue had been cut off during the execution of 1680. Instead Lavrov proposed a different explanation, saying that there is “no need to look for an anatomical explanation of this story; this is not a story about a cruel execution, but about a miracle where despite having been deprived of the gift of writing and speech, people were able to write and speak.”

Offering her input, Vera Tchentsova (Maison Française d’Oxford) shared her discoveries that she had been able to make working in manuscript collections in Greece. Her study shed the light on the problem of the transfer of the Kievan metropolitanate to the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarch. In her study, A Patriarchal “Blessing of Release” for the See of Kyiv Dated 1686: New Archival Material, New Interpretations, Tchentsova was able to overcome the challenge of finding non Moscow-centered material. She shared with the audience and the panel that several years ago, “while looking through a Greek manuscript, out of mere curiosity” she came across “paperwork about the 1686 decisions on the transfer the see of Kiev and the procedure of elections of metropolitans.” This allowed for a more accurate analysis of the procedures and outcomes in that 1686 decision. For example, among many new clarifications, these Greek texts revealed that “the decision of 1686 gave the patriarch of Moscow the right only to ordain the metropolitan of Kiev, but never granted to Moscow the full array of canonical rights over Kiev,” says. Tchentsova. This new array of documents discovered by Tchentsova is a significant breakthrough in the study of the integration of the see of Kiev to the Patriarchate of Moscow.

The presentation of Margarita Korzo on Catholic Sources of the Russian Orthodox Literature of the 17th Century was another invaluable contribution to the theme of the third session and the overall mission of the conference. Setting her task to analyze the paths of infiltration of Catholic influence into the Orthodox literature, Korzo looked at “three particular examples when the Catholic texts were used in their entirety and translated in full.” The first such example is the case when the Moscow scribe directly translated the Catholic text from Latin; the second example when the Moscow scribe, unaware of the original Latin version, edited and modified into a simpler language the text which had previously been translated in Kievan metropolitanate; and the third example is a Catholic text which was translated in Kievan metropolitanate and this version was then circulated in Russia. A close examination of these three ways, led Korzo to conclude that “working with the Catholic sources required a great deal of talent of the Moscow scribe to conceal the Catholic borrowings.” However, according to Korzo, there is a clear duality in the attitude towards the Catholic tradition. This is also seen in the fact that not all the texts concealed their Catholic origins and even “despite the negative and often hostile attitude of Grecophiles towards the Catholic traditions, they were very familiar with these traditions and did not shy away from occasional usage of the compilations created by the ‘Latin heretics.’”

Speaking within the framework of the last session — the reorientation of Orthodoxy — Maksym Iaremenko (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) presented his study on The Successful Process of Synodal Unification. The unification of religious cultures and traditions was necessitated by formation of the new Synodal church in the Russian Empire during the reign of Peter the Great. According to Iaremenko, “one of the most important steps towards an integrated Synodal church was the unification and standardization of church books because books were the basis for the formation of common religious practice.” Importantly, this unification was aimed to guarantee some sort of control over Ukrainian presses and “help keep out Latin influences, which were characteristic of Ukrainian religious culture of the 17th century.” The process of unification of Kievan books according to Russian standards was not a simple and short process due to various reasons, such as financial considerations and intellectual factors. To Iaremenko, the answer to the question when the Kievan eparchy fully became part of an essentially a unified Synod remains unclear. Within the framework of the conference that was meant to set the thought-provoking arguments and questions, Iaremenko finished his presentation with the question to the panel and colleagues: “when did Kievan eparchy become fully a unified Synodal unit?”

Gary Marker (State University of New York at Stony Brook) shared what brought him to the topic of the gender troubles of Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich. He does not believe that anyone before him “combined the phrases ‘gender trouble’ and ‘Feofan Prokopovich’ in one sentence.” Nevertheless, he thinks “it is worthwhile to turn to Feofan because it is important to talk about gender in more concrete terms”; and because examination of Feofan’s sermons can reveal the kind of messages he was sending to his audiences, to those who would really understood. As Marker became more interested in the idea of gender, he discovered that Feofan had a lot to say about these things. “I am interested in it less in terms of the influence, but more in terms of what Feofan is actually saying and how he reconstructs it and what the implicit argument might be, what the implicit image is,” says Marker. Reading though the texts made him realize that “they all are sophisticated, complex, multi-layered documents that are structured around a well-crafted, well-conscious model of rhetoric.” This is why he tried to deconstruct them and reveal what is imbedded in the sermons at a certain time. This, in turn led him to a discussion of silences and absences — that is, “in the sermons and in some other texts there would be places where an educated audience recognized when something is not there.” And in Feofan’s sermons Marker can see the discussion about specific women through their absences. Feofan’s minimalism about the bogomater’ (mother of God), for example “is extremely striking,” said Marker, adding that “it is hard to avoid a conclusion that his view of her is a little more than a birth mother of Christ, that she has no specific agency of her own.”

Andrey Ivanov (University of Wisconsin – Platteville) brought the conference full circle by presenting a highly stimulating study on whether Russia had anything like a religious reformation, focusing on the hypothesis of the twentieth century Russian Orthodox theologian and church historian father Georges Florovsky that religion in eighteenth century Russia was the story of the impact of the Reformation. Ivanov argued in the paper that he presented, “that Russia did indeed experience a profound impact of the European Reformation” and that “Russia’s own reform was not an isolated development accidentally influenced by Western ideas, but was rather an extension of a much wider European continuum of religious change.” Despite the fact that there exist various definitions of the European Reformation, there are some generally agreed basic characteristics that that are broader than the Protestant Reformation alone. It was “a church reform with particular characteristic steps as a reaction with reformist impulses either against the Catholic Church or within the Catholic Church and had some form of transition to modernity,” said Ivanov, arguing that the process of reformation in the Russian church fits all these characteristics. Ivanov argued that “the Russian reform ended with the official reaction against reformed and enlightened Orthodoxy, a reaction that started in early 1820s and continued with increased intensity after 1825.” This Russian “reformation” replayed the course of development of Europe, which had moved from debating Luther to debating Voltaire. “Russia mustered this transition in some 105 years or so,” said Ivanov, ending with posing the question to the audience to what extent Russia did indeed experience a religious reformation.

All the thought-provoking ideas and questions that the panelists raised in their presentations throughout the course of this two-day conference engaged the participants in lively conversations. Once again, according to Bushkovitch, “the end of Soviet paradigms has made possible the rapid expansion of historical research in a great many areas, the history of religion being one of the most obvious. For the early modern era, as well, this expansion has meant a revolution in empirical knowledge.” The conference represented and identified the many accomplishments of scholars in the past quarter century, such as a much more nuanced conception of the relationship of the church to Catholic and Protestant teaching; the story of monasticism and Old Belief; and the role of the patriarchate and the Synod in the life of the church and the state. The speakers also noted areas for further research: the history of liturgy; the seventeenth century schism; the daily experience of Orthodox believers; and a more thorough reconstruction of the institutional structure of the church, among others. This conference brought in many fresh views, theories, and questions that should stimulate further discussion on the topic and contribute to the history of religion in Russia.

The conference was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation and the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund.


Written by Kamila Orlova, M.A. program in European & Russian Studies, Class of 2018.

April 17, 2017