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Reviewed by:
  • Letters from Heaven: Popular Religion in Russia and Ukraine, and: Ispoved′ v Rossii v XIV–XIX vekakh: Issledovanie i teksty
  • Nadieszda Kizenko
John-Paul HimkaAndriy Zayarnyuk, eds., Letters from Heaven: Popular Religion in Russia and Ukraine. ix + 277 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. ISBN-13 978-0802091482. $63.00.
M. V. Korogodina, Ispoved′ v Rossii v XIV–XIX vekakh: Issledovanie i teksty [Confession in 14th-to 19th-Century Russia: A Study and Primary Texts]. 584 pp. St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2006. ISBN 5860074689.

Dmitrii Samarin first coined the term “popular Orthodoxy” in an essay that incorporated it into its title.1 The essay was published in 1918, which, as A. S. Lavrov later commented sardonically in his own tour de force study, “was the surest way of ensuring it would be unread and forgotten.”2 As the two books under review show, however, oblivion has been the fate of neither the term nor the essay. Letters from Heaven examines “popular religion” from a variety of perspectives, while Maria Korogodina focuses specifically on manuscript penitentials—the lists of questions purportedly asked by priests at confession—to reach larger conclusions about “popular belief” in Orthodoxy. Taken together, the two books offer a vivid example of the recent renaissance of scholarship on religiosity in Russia and Ukraine.

A book like Letters from Heaven is long overdue. The terms “popular religion,” “popular piety,” and “popular belief” have been current in academic scholarship for decades. Their appearance coincided with the shift from “hard social” to “new cultural” history, as scholars began to challenge previous assumptions that culture was something shared across lines of class and gender, and to stress the potential for resistance in “popular” culture. In the Slavic field, the term is uniquely charged. For over a century, some scholars of East Slavic history argued that dvoeverie (“dual faith”)—the simultaneous combination of Christian beliefs with pre-Christian “superstition”—was what distinguished popular faith from that of the educated elites.3 Only the hardiest [End Page 641] of Slavophiles dissented, declaring boldly that what actually distinguished the “people” (narod) from “society” (publika) was that the people had faith, and the elite did not.4 But the term “popular religion” vanished almost as quickly as it came. Scholars of Western Europe criticized it from a variety of perspectives. Leonard Boyle proposed that, rather than calling any particular phenomenon “popular,” it was more useful to determine how closely it was connected to church liturgy. Eamon Duffy preferred “traditional”; William Christian, “local.”5 For scholars of Eastern Europe, a comparable turning point came when Christine Worobec and Eve Levin separately criticized the concept of dvoeverie, convincingly demonstrating the interpenetration of the “clerical” and the “popular.”6

The volume under review links all these interpretive strands. With the criticisms that “popular religion” has received, Himka and Zayarnyuk want to see if it remains useful at all. To this end, they adopt the framework of Mircea Eliade and thus concentrate on the religion of peasant society and the laity.7 This focus on the masses rather than on the sophisticated and learned is in some ways quite reasonable, but it is also fraught with problems. It is by no means clear that urban religion is inherently less “popular” than that of the peasants. Nor does it seem possible to draw such a sharp line, as the editors seek to do, between those who “produce” religion and those who “consume” [End Page 642] it. Indeed, some of the most valuable essays in the volume are those that question such distinctions.

In methodological terms, the most useful essay is Paul Bushkovitch’s discussion of spirituality in the time of Peter the Great. This is a crucial era for conceptualizing “popular religion,” precisely because Peter’s reign has been conventionally taken to mark the bifurcation of Russian society into “high” and “low”—that is, into a Westernized “elite” and a still-traditionally Russian “popular.” In this version, the cultural unity of late Muscovy was disrupted under the impact of foreigners, new educational norms for the elite, and Ukrainian-educated clergy. But to what extent may we speak of a real cultural split between the court and the rest...