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C H A P T E R O N E THE CENTURY OF UNBELIEF Christ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature Believe me,your Christ,were he born in our time,would be the most undistinguished and ordinary of men; he would be utterly eclipsed by today’s science and by those forces that now advance humanity. Vissarion Belinsky, quoted by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Old People,” Diary of a Writer Belief and Unbelief in Russian Society In calling the nineteenth century in Russia “the century of unbelief,” I do not wish to argue that a great secularism descended upon the country between 1800 and 1900 due to which no one believed in God any longer. On the contrary, Orthodoxy was alive and well in Russia, which, by 1914, boasted some 55,173 churches and 29,593 chapels,1 along with hundreds of monasteries and tens of thousands of priests and monks. Russia was truly a Christian nation, united by a single faith whose calendar of feast days and fasts regulated the daily lives of millions of peasants, merchants, and members of the nobility. Icons occupied places of honor in the corners of rooms in peasant huts and estate houses alike and Orthodox practices and beliefs made up a common cultural fabric that bound all levels of Russian society together. At the same time, however, there was also a growing conviction, mainly among the educated strata of Russian society, that religious belief was something of a cultural atavism whose place in 17 The Century of Unbelie human society had long been superseded by the sciences and the ascendancy of rationalism as a guiding principle—the culmination, to be sure, of the secular impulse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that accompanied Peter the Great’s Westernization of Russia and Catherine’s championing of Enlightenment ideas, marking these centuries as the beginning of unbelief in Russia, at least as far as Russian intellectual life is concerned. But it was in the nineteenth century in particular that various strains of materialism made significant inroads into Russian culture,giving rise to an aggressive secularism that became the very hallmark of the progressive intelligentsia and culminating in a revolution that would usher into existence the first officially atheist state in the world. The nineteenth century, then, more fittingly merits the label of the century of unbelief than do its predecessors. One of the most eloquent champions of the secular mindset in nineteenth -century Russia wasAlexander Herzen,an ardent opponent of the Church who believed religion,like the other institutions of tsarist society,threatened the autonomy of the individual. At the same time, Herzen argued that religion had ceased to be important in the lives of the educated class. He declared in his memoirs that “nowhere does religion play so modest a role in education as in Russia.”2 Here, as Joseph Frank reminds us, Herzen was “talking about the education of the children of the landed or service aristocracy, whose parents had been raised for several generations on the culture of the French Enlightenment and for whom Voltaire had been a kind of patron saint.”3 Other Russian intellectuals were much broader in their indictment of Russian religiosity. In his famous 1847 “Letter to N.V. Gogol,” Herzen’s friend and fellow socialist visionary ,Vissarion Belinsky, proclaimed that the peasants, too, were hardly Christian in the true sense of the word.“The Russian muzhik utters the name of the Lord while scratching his behind,” Belinsky writes.“He says of the icon: If it isn’t good for praying, it’s good for covering the chamber pots. Take a closer look and you will see that it is by nature a profoundly atheistic people. It still retains a good deal of superstition, but not a trace of religiousness.”4 Belinsky is surely exaggerating for effect in his assertions about the atheism of the common folk, but he is right to insist that Orthodoxy was far from properly understood or correctly practiced across the Russian Empire. The question Belinsky is really asking is to what extent Orthodoxy can be considered primarily a cultural rather than spiritual force in Russian life, that is, a religion whose believers largely go through the motions of their faith—fasting, receiving the sacraments, attending liturgy, and so on—without understanding what they are C H A P T E R O N E 18 doing and without feeling particularly religious about it. This kind of Orthodox Christianity is, at best, no more than a...


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