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  • Recent Scholarship on Russian Orthodoxy:A Critique
  • Gregory L. Freeze (bio)

Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, scholars had devoted little attention to the modern history of Russian Orthodoxy and, implicitly, regarded it as of little significance.1 Such neglect dates back to pre-revolutionary historiography, which essentially ignored the Orthodox Church – partly because of the anti-religious bias broadly shared in the intelligentsia, and partly because of the restrictions on access to ecclesiastical archives (then still under tight church control). Even a modicum of scholarly interest vanished after 1917; apart from anti-religious tracts,2 Soviet historiography on modern Russia ignored the church or at most made derisive passing remarks. Not until the 1970s did Soviet scholars evince interest in modern religious history. To be sure, they were principally concerned with the dissenting Old Believers, but they also took into consideration the church itself.3 Although that research slowly expanded in the 1980s, even before perestroika, it remained a marginal element when compared with the massive research on other problems. Not that Western scholarship had much reason to boast of greater productivity; rather, it either cloned the research of pre-revolutionary scholars or (in the spirit of the Cold War) battled distortions in Soviet historiography. Only in the last decade has Russian Orthodoxy finally become a major focus of research. If nothing else, that research has posed a challenge to antireligious assumptions and encouraged historians to give more attention to the role of the church and religion – in politics, social relations, and culture.

Although the quantity has increased exponentially, the quality is less impressive. To be sure, given the past neglect, even sheer quantity – when it unearths and disseminates new data, when it demolishes conventional stereotypes about Orthodoxy – is useful. Still, despite the archival access and the suspension of [End Page 269] ideological imperatives, the last decade has done little to illuminate the meaning of Orthodoxy in modern Russian society and culture. The argument here is not that archival research has been naive or uncritical (as some armchair historians are wont to claim), but that it has been either dilettantish or misdirected.

First, however, one must give proper due to the positive contributions. In addition to compiling bibliographical and archival tools,4 post-Soviet scholarship has been particularly zealous in the publication of archival materials.5 Despite some shortcomings (a fascination for the sensational over the quotidian6 or disregard for scholarly conventions7 ), many compilations present important documents and meet rigorous scholarly standards of documentary publication. Exemplary in this regard is Nikolai Nikolaevich Pokrovskii's two-volume collection of top-secret archival materials (including documents from the Presidential Archive and the Central Archive of the FSB [Federal Security Service]).8 Such publications illuminate the role of prominent figures, reveal the sharp differences among Bolsheviks, and sometimes indicate the difficulties facing implementation at the grassroots level. The principal shortcoming of most documentary publications, however, is the one-sided focus on the party and state, reducing the church and believers to passive victims. Moreover, most documentary collections deal exclusively [End Page 270] with the Soviet era; rarely do they devote attention to the pre-revolutionary era.9

Scholarly research has, similarly, focused on the Soviet era. The Russian Orthodox Church itself has sponsored much of this work, its principal goal being to chronicle the repression of clergy and believers; it has also enjoyed privileged access to archival materials, notably those of the state security organs.10 Although its primary focus has been on martyrs and the purpose is to canonize rather than analyze,11 these publications do contain information about believers, the confrontation with authorities, and their eventual fate at the hands of the security organs.12 Secular historians have been concerned less with victimization than anti-religious policy and its implementation. This research devotes relatively little attention to the revolution and civil war13 and instead concentrates mainly on the 1920s and, to a lesser degree, the 1930s. In general, these studies primarily serve to chronicle the convoluted campaigns against the church and emphasize an abiding determination to neutralize the church as a "counter-revolutionary" force in Soviet society.14 While the theme of Bolshevik...


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