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Religion in Modern Russia: Revival and Survival
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As several recent review essays in Kritika indicate, the study of Orthodoxy and of religion in general in modern Russia has flourished over the past 15 years. Moving beyond previously dominant topics, this scholarly work has added substantially to our understanding of religious culture and experience in Russia and their relevance for a wide range of issues. The five books reviewed here make a significant contribution to this growing body of literature. Focusing on the revival of spiritual eldership (starchestvo) and monasticism and the veneration of saints’ relics in imperial Russia, as well as the survival of these forms of religious life during the Soviet era, they provide valuable insight into the nature of spiritual authority among the Orthodox faithful during the 19th and 20th centuries, the responsiveness of Orthodox institutions to modernizing change, and the influence of shared religious experience on personal and collective identities. All five studies, moreover, are based on impressive research that makes use of extensive bodies of published and archival sources; for the Soviet period, Oleg Kirichenko also draws heavily on field interviews.

Given the overlap in the authors’ topics, there are many similarities in their arguments. Broadly, all five authors describe dynamic processes of interaction through which religious institutions were revitalized, spiritual authority was established, and personal and collective identities were formed. These processes took place partly within monastic communities, and Irina Paert, Scott Kenworthy, Gleb Zapal´skii, and Kirichenko demonstrate the central role played by spiritual elders in reviving monastic life in the prerevolutionary period. But while pursuing their own inwardly focused objectives, elders and monastic communities also sought to exercise spiritual authority within the wider Orthodox community. As the authors show, their success in doing so—like the veneration accorded particular saints’ relics—depended in large degree on the extent to which they fulfilled the expectations of believers. These expectations included conformity with ideals regarding appearance, behavior, and the setting and experience of interaction. But they also included the perceived ability of elders, monastic communities, and saints through their relics to satisfy the varied and changing spiritual and other needs of the Orthodox faithful who turned to them. Again as the authors demonstrate, the efforts to meet these needs satisfactorily for a large number of believers in a context of modernizing change shaped the activities of elders and of monastic communities, resulting in adaptation to new conditions despite the frequently professed aspiration for the renewal of authentic forms of Orthodox ascetic and monastic life. According to the authors, these processes of interaction also helped shape Orthodox identities on the local and the national levels, through both direct experience and the awareness of their widespread commonality among the faithful. This capacity to shape identity helps explain the use of images of spiritual eldership and monasticism in cultural discourse and political conflict both prior to and after 1917. As several of the authors show, the October Revolution did not eliminate these processes of interaction but dramatically altered the circumstances in which they took place, producing radically different trajectories of institutional development.

According to Paert, Kirichenko, Kenworthy, and Zapal´skii, the renewed tradition of eldership contributed significantly to the revitalization of Orthodox spiritual life during the prerevolutionary period because of the disproportionate spiritual authority exercised by elders both within and outside monastic communities. Paert offers a masterful and theoretically well-informed analysis of the nature of this authority and of the evolution of spiritual eldership in Russia from the 18th century through the early post-Soviet era. Drawing on sociological studies of charismatic authority, she argues that the authority of elders derived not from any formal position or the sanction of ecclesiastical authorities but chiefly from the personal reputation for holiness gained through conformity with Orthodox ideals and cultural expectations of ascetic piety, efficacy in providing advice and spiritual guidance, and the perceived gifts of healing and foresight. Hence, although elders recognized the authority of the Orthodox hierarchy, which in turn more ambivalently acknowledged theirs, they occupied an institutionally ambiguous space that was created by the exercise and recognition of their personal authority. Although this situation often led to conflict between elders and both ecclesiastical and monastic authorities (a tension also noted by Zapal´skii...



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