Coercion and Conversion: Violence and the Mass Baptism of the Volga Peoples, 1740-55
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 543-569



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Coercion and Conversion:
Violence and the Mass Baptism of the Volga Peoples, 1740-55*

Paul W. Werth


This article concerns what may be regarded as the final step in the Christianization of Europe. In a short 15-year period in the mid-18th century the vast majority of the animist peoples of the Volga region, as well as a portion of its Muslims, were converted to Orthodox Christianity. 1 Most historians of these conversions would agree that force and intimidation were crucial elements in the striking numerical success of this missionary campaign. Thus the Tatar historian Faizulkhak Gabdulkhakovich Islaev claims that, from 1741, "violence became state policy in the organization of missionary work." 2 In a slightly more modest formulation, Michael Khodarkovsky contends that under Empress Elizabeth (1741-62) the imperial government "put new emphasis on using force and legislative decrees, rather than teaching Christian doctrine." 3 Complaints filed by new converts confirm that some non-Christians indeed became victims of violence. A Chuvash petition of 1745, for example, describes how a certain archpriest, "together with other priests and peasants of the Dudin monastery, coming at night to Chuvash homes, and catching them, Chuvash, with their wives and children, mercilessly beat them and baptize them against their will, and likewise on the roads they catch Chuvash and subject those Chuvash to violent conversion." 4 The very fact that official prohibitions against the use of force [End Page 543] in the matter of conversion were so frequently repeated provides indirect evidence that violence was more than just incidental.

My goal in this article is nonetheless to complicate this simplistic picture of a state-initiated campaign of missionary violence. In doing so, I do not contend that these mass baptisms were largely peaceful and voluntary, and even less that spiritual concerns—recognition on the part of converts of Orthodoxy's truth and superiority over other religious systems—represented a central factor for more than a mere handful of converts. Yet it is crucial to recognize that neither the Orthodox Church nor the imperial government openly sanctioned the use of violence in the matter of conversion, and on the contrary insisted that force and coercion could not produce legitimate conversions. The available evidence suggests that in practice the state's success in baptizing so many non-Russians derived primarily from its ability to establish a set of incentives—some of them negative, no doubt—sufficient to draw the heterodox to the baptismal font "voluntarily"—i.e., of their own accord. The violence that did occur may be best explained not by state initiative and sanction, but by St. Petersburg's inability to exercise adequate control over the actions of its subordinates, who in superseding officially sanctioned missionary methods were driven either by greater missionary zeal (in the case of several prominent hierarchs) or by a desire to use conversion as a way of facilitating the exploitation of non-Russian rural inhabitants for personal enrichment. In effect, central authorities had far greater power to initiate and terminate a missionary campaign than they did in managing its execution.

Sources of the Missionary Impulse

The conquest of Kazan' in 1552 had been followed by the conversion to Orthodoxy of at least some non-Russian inhabitants, 5 but for most of the period before the 18th century neither the state nor the church did much to promote conversion. At times there were bitter struggles between Orthodox monasteries and nearby non-Orthodox communities, which antagonized some non-Russians and turned them against Christianity. 6 But these conflicts, apparently involving economic [End Page 544] matters (principally land) rather than religious ones, may well have been atypical. 7 In any event, neither these monasteries nor the Orthodox hierarchy more generally promoted conversion in an organized way in the 17th century.

Nonetheless, developments within Orthodoxy in the 17th century would eventually produce a stronger missionary impulse. First, as Georg Michels has recently demonstrated, the Moscow Patriarchate in...


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