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  • A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People
  • Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal
A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People. By Nadieszda Kizenko [The Penn State Series in Lived Religious Experience.] (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2000. Pp. xiv, 376. $65.00 clothbound; $22.50 paperback.)

Father John of Kronstadt (1829-1908) was the "first modern Russian religious celebrity" (p. 2). Renowned for his charitable work, his charismatic preaching and healing (it was widely believed that his prayers "worked"), and his liturgical innovations, his face was on picture postcards and he had the equivalent of his own postal code. To his followers, he was a "living saint," to his detractors, a demagogue and the epitome of reaction. [End Page 560]

Kizenko attributes Father John's celebrity to his ability to address problems and anxieties induced by modernization. Convinced that he was living in particularly evil times, he decried wealth (even earned wealth) and inequality in themselves as evil, enjoined his followers to give all their belongings to the poor, and taught that everything must be informed by Christian ideas. His ability to combine elements of contemporaneity with more perennially Orthodox pronouncements gave his "sermons their potency and made him seem to many Russians to be a holy man sent specifically for the changing conditions in which they lived" (p. 85).

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881 intensified Father John's sense of impending doom, which became even more intense after Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), and more intense yet during the Revolution of 1905-1907. He called for divine vengeance against sinners and corruptors of the people, especially Lev Tolstoi (who denied Jesus' divinity), modernizers, and revolutionaries, and he supported the Union of the Russian People, the political party of the extreme right.

Kizenko also tells us about the milieu in which Father John's religious views and practices were formed, about how church and state authorities responded to the problem of dealing with a "living saint," and about the mentality of the men and women from all levels of society, including monks and nuns, who wrote to him. Particularly poignant are letters from wives of alcoholics asking Father John to pray for their cure. Another chapter treats the Ioannites, persons who "believed that the world as they knew it was about to end... and that they could find salvation only by going to God in the person of Father John" (p. 200). Unlike Father John (who repudiated them), they subverted the traditional church hierarchy in various ways, by having women in leadership positions, for example. The last chapter treats Father John's posthumous legacy, in the Soviet Union and in the emigration.

Kizenko's portrait of Father John is generally sympathetic—too sympathetic for my taste. He strikes me as a fanatic. Identifying with the desert fathers and other Christian ascetics, he advocated fasting, avoiding certain foods and drinks, and eschewing even "innocent" pleasures and diversions. Finally, he did not consummate his marriage (Orthodox parish priests were expected to marry)—why is not known.

Kizenko claims that Father John was not a visceral anti-Semite (p. 243). Indeed, he denounced the Kishenev pogrom (1903), but then backtracked and apologized to the Christians of Kishenev for his "onesidedness." I would like to know his views on the "Jewish question" generally. Did he revile Jews for denying Christ and/or as Christ-killers (stopping short of advocating violence and murder), and/or as agents of the modernization or secularization he hated? Did he say anything about the pogroms of 1881-82? Russian liberals and radicals wanted to abolish legal restrictions on Jews. What was his position, if any?

That said, I consider A Prodigal Saint required reading for persons interested in religion and religiosity in the modern world, for even though Kizenko's focus [End Page 561] is on Russia, she makes interesting comparisons to trends in Western Christianity, especially among Catholics in France. Also, Kizenko writes very well. Her book is a pleasure to read.

Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal
Fordham University
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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0708
Print ISSN
0008-8080
Pages
pp. 560-562
Launched on MUSE
2004-09-13
Open Access
No
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