- Russian Sects Still Seem Obscure
"Not much is published on the mysterious teaching of the Khlysty and the Skoptsy," is how Pavel Mel'nikov, a government official also known as the popular writer Andrei Pecherskii, began his 1867 essay. 1He was wrong and he knew it. Before Mel'nikov, essays and books on the subject were composed by such widely known authors as Martyn Piletskii (a teacher of Pushkin), Ivan Liprandi (the founder of Russian counter-intelligence), Vladimir Dal' (author of the famous dictionary), Afanasii Shchapov (the leading Populist historian) and Vasilii Kelsiev (an émigré revolutionary who published four volumes of documents related to the Schism and sectarianism). Mel'nikov's obliviousness did not stem from his personal style but from the logic of the field in which he wrote, which tends more towards adventurous storytelling than to conscientious research. In esoteric fields, scholars are rarely grateful to their predecessors. An author finds autonomy in an unknown continent discovered on a well-known, even old-fashioned spot. Anxiety of influence transforms into awe of mystery. To attract publicity, an author characterizes her subject as "mysterious," "forgotten," and "obscure"; to gain respectability, she pretends to demystify it.
After Mel'nikov, a great deal was published on Russian sects. Sectarian "mysteries" were a central preoccupation of such luminaries as Vasilii Skvortsov [End Page 165](Orthodox missionary and editor of the Synodal newspaper), Aleksei Prugavin (Socialist-Revolutionary and ethnographer), Vasilii Chertkov (Tolstoyan luminary and the movement's second most important figure), and Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich (Social Democrat and author very close to Lenin). Each boasted a small army of groupies as well as top-level connections in the world of publicity. Each wrote or edited numerous volumes on the Khlysty, Skoptsy, Dukhobory, Molokane and other sectarians. Every Russian encyclopedia from the late 19th and early 20th century, moreover, contained entries on these sects, often furnished with impressive bibliographies. Contemporary Western scholars were fully aware of this literature. 2Such stars of pre-revolutionary journalism as Vasilii Rozanov, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Mikhail Prishvin wrote book-scale works on Russian sects. Before and after the revolution, fictionalized sectarians were central characters of major novels of Andrei Belyi ( The Silver Dove), Maksim Gor'kii ( The Life of Klim Samgin), Andrei Platonov ( Chevengur), Anna Radlova ( Povest' o Tatarinovoi), and Vsevolod Ivanov ( The Kremlin).
For two centuries and until the present day, Russian sectarianism has remained a hot political issue. The large-scale project of Protestant Reformation initiated by the government of Alexander I produced a fierce debate on sects. The Orthodox hierarchy blamed the reformers for "sectarianism," "mysticism," and "masonry." The emerging nationalism of the nobility did not assimilate the culturally foreign tradition of evangelism and the Bible Society. After a decade of struggle, Napoleon's victor capitulated. In Russian cultural history this period is comparatively well studied, but it is still in need of radical reassessment today. The epoch still appears to us through Pushkinian texts, which prompt hostility to the state and aesthetic contemplation of the Orthodox Church. But for observers of subsequent Russian attempts at capitalism without Reformation, Max Weber would make a better companion. To my mind, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalismsuggests what could have happened in 19th-century Russia, but did not.
The anti-Alexandrine resistance conflated Russian Orthodoxy with Russian nationalism under a mystical umbrella of Slavophilism. Although this hybrid failed in the realm of practical politics, it proved viable as an imaginary construct (even now, current theoreticians of the radical Left such as Aleksandr Dugin aim at reviving the same connection). For a project that strove to conflate nation-state with a specific religion, sects represented an exception and a threat. Correspondingly, [End Page 166]the radical...