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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.4 (2002) 723-727

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Aleksandr Sergeevich Lavrov, Koldovstvo i religiia v Rossii, 1700-1740 gg. Moscow: Drevlekhranilishche, 2000. 572 pp. ISBN 5-93646-006-1.

In this wide-ranging study, Lavrov leads the reader along a meandering path over the highways and byways of religious culture and practice in the early 18th century. The book is worth reading closely, for it proffers an incomparable array of vignettes, showing intimate facets of religious life among the high and the humble, the secular and the clerical, the sectarian and the synodal in the years before and during the Petrine reforms and in their immediate aftermath. In its wealth of material, it provides more insights into everyday practices than I would have thought possible, and it paints a vivid picture of the looseness and heterogeneity contained under the rubric of Orthodoxy and along its blurry edges, where idiosyncrasy shaded into dissent, sectarianism, or heresy. Lavrov's archival excavations allow us to come to know the lives and spiritual worlds of a colorful array of people. For its wealth of material alone, this is an extraordinary contribution to the study of popular religion in the 18th century.

The book covers a vast number of topics and subtopics in the history of popular religion and religious reform. Divided into four main chapters - "Religion and Society," "Popular Religion," "Dvorianstvo and Religion," and "The Petrine Church Reform" - the book packs each chapter with a hectic array of loosely connected, sometimes repetitive or overlapping subtopics. Under the rubric of "Popular Religion" we learn about travniki and popular notions of magic, about feasts and communal celebrations, rites of passage, the Mother of God and Parask'eva Piatnitsa, intercessors and healers, veneration of relics, veneration of miracle-working icons, popular eschatology, and holy fools. In the following chapter, on the religion of the elite, we are immersed in discussions of the religiosity of the elite, household shrines, fundamental religious types, elite Old Believers, and the elite and witchcraft. The last chapter outlines the motivation, content, and impact of the Petrine reforms, setting the context for the entire discussion of early 18th-century religion, which would have been welcome at the beginning of the book. The organizing logic of the book is hard to identify, as it veers from one topic to the next and follows crossed and sometimes seemingly contradictory principles, such as dividing chapters by class but then convincingly demonstrating the ways in which belief systems transcended class and practices were widely shared. Even the two parts of its nominal subject, witchcraft and religion, hold together only tenuously, and in places lose their connection altogether. The book is really about religious belief and practice, with magic and [End Page 723] witchcraft constituting a significant aspect of those beliefs and practices. The work is not unified by a clear interpretive argument or framework.

Nonetheless, each part is decidedly fascinating. Do not plan to skim the book, because the gems are in the details, and in the crystalline insights scattered throughout. Aside from the cases that are so beautifully presented, Lavrov offers sharply perceptive comments along the way and raises intelligent and important questions. His introductory survey of the state of the literature provides a clear historiographic framework and sets that historiography in its own historical context. Most moving is his discussion of the effect of Soviet ideology in silencing scholars of religion and magic. He advances some intriguing ideas, not always fully worked out, about how Soviet ideology shaped even the quasi-oppositional thought of the Tartu School of Semiotics, and hence influenced Western scholarship as well. As he suggests, the field of religious and cultural studies is a dynamic and growing one right now, as post-Soviet Russian scholars enjoy their ability to work and publish on these topics. (Keep an eye out for the next major contribution in the field, by Elena Borisovna Smilianskaia, appearing soon.)

When Lavrov turns from historiography to history, his ideas are equally intriguing, but less clearly laid out...


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