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The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 790-791

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Russkii katolitsizm: Zabytnoe proshloe rossiikogo liberalizma (Russian Catholicism: The Forgotten Past of Russian Liberalism). By Ekaterina NikolaevnaTsimbaeva. (Moscow: Editorial URSS. 1999. Pp. 184. €13.80 paperback.)

The provocative title reflects Tsimbaeva's desire to rescue Russian Catholics from "a reputation as reactionaries and mystics, and in the nineteenth century, as traitors of the motherland" (p. 146), instead seeing their Catholicism as a way to spiritual and political liberty for the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people. Her central concern is the handful of nineteenth-century ethnic Russian converts to Roman Catholicism, omitting the institutional and diplomatic side of Russian Catholicism, as well as non-Russian Catholics like Poles, Lithuanians, some of the Volga Germans, and Eastern Rite Catholics of the borderlands.

Tsimbaeva presents a clear picture, with short biographies of some major figures, of two distinct generations of Russian Catholics, one dominated by educated aristocratic women of Alexander I's time, and the second under Nicholas I, mostly men who lived abroad, a number joining religious orders. The author also discusses connections among the more random conversions of the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Tsimbaeva's thesis is that the ideology of Russian Catholicism had its roots in Alexander I's dream of a universal Christian church. It was first articulated fully by Petr Chaadaev, who, while remaining Orthodox, saw Roman Catholicism as the reason for Western Europe's advanced civilization in contrast to a backward and despotic Russia, its church and society crippled by state control. Chaadaev had a profound influence on the Russian-born Jesuit Ivan Gagarin, who tirelessly promoted an Orthodox reunion with Rome that would respect national and cultural differences and would bring true freedom to Russia. The author sees this vision of a universal church based on Rome continued by the turn-of-the-century religious philosopher and poet Vladimir Solov'ev, who joined the Eastern Rite Church in 1896, but died Orthodox, and through him influencing writers of the Silver Age. [End Page 790]

Tsimbaeva's portrayal is convincing, and she successfully transcends negative pre-revolutionary Orthodox and nationalist stereotypes, Soviet-era polemics, and the sometimes overly confessional and hagiographic Catholic accounts. But in emphasizing Russian Catholicism's liberalism, she does not always give enough weight to religious and dogmatic motives nor to conservative sympathies. Sofiia Svechina, for example, was close to the traditionalist Comte de Falloux, while Gagarin praised August Freiherr von Haxthausen's endorsement of Nicholas I's Russia.

The book includes a brief history of Catholicism in Russia before Alexander I, an analysis of sources for and previous works on the subject, a list of Russian converts, and a survey of Catholicism in twentieth-century Russia. Such broad coverage reflects an understandable desire to acquaint Russian readers with a topic distorted and neglected until recent1y, but sometimes results in unevenness and omissions. The woman of letters and promoter of church reunification Zinaida Volkonskaia deserves more attention than the few lines here, while the twentieth-century writer and ecumenist Hélène Iswolsky is not mentioned.

Tsimbaeva has used a wide range of printed and archival sources, especially the rich holdings of the Bibliothèque Slave in France, as well as archives in Russia. Notable omissions are the works of Raymond McNally on Chaadaev and Gleb Struve's biography of Petr Kozlovskii.

Overall, Tsimbaeva's signal contribution has been to rethink the story of Russian Catholicism as an integral part of the broader Russian intellectual and social context, and as such her book deserves a wide audience.


Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr.
Saint Louis University



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