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  • Religious Freedom and the Problem of Tolerance in Russian History

Every modern society has encountered challenges arising from difference—ethnic, cultural, or religious. Yet homogeneity is not always viewed as desirable, and at times specific differences have been deemed worthy of the state's protection. When and why such differences come to appear advantageous, or at least tolerable, is exactly the kind of riddle that historians like to sink their teeth into.

The controversy surrounding the (re)election of Vladimir Putin on 4 March 2012 as Russia's president is a recent example from the realm of politics. His victory, with more than 64 percent of the vote, was widely regarded as being the product of fraud and deceit, much like elections to the parliament several months earlier. By itself, the fact of electoral manipulation was nothing new, yet the reaction of at least segments of the Russian populace proved more dramatic than anything since the end of the USSR. The two points of greatest suspense became how far the Putin government was prepared to permit demonstrations, and what kinds of risks Russian citizens would be willing to take to voice dissatisfaction. Protestors, primarily urban elements who have attained a certain level of material affluence and now seek a fuller realization of their citizenship, demanded respect for "civil dignity."1 At a minimum, they contended that the government should respect their electoral choices. For its part, the Russian government allowed tens of thousands of protesters to march, even as it subjected many to arrest and sought to delegitimize their activism. At present, it is unclear whether a new mood of defiance on the part of some sections of the population will lead the state to conclude that certain forms of difference, including political difference, are tolerable. The fact that the government's allies accuse protestors of engaging in "provocation" and of [End Page 509] being instigated and bankrolled by foreign states or other entities hostile to Russia implies a negative answer.2 Yet the government has been less aggressive in intervening in more recent mayoral elections and even passed a new law reinstating direct gubernatorial elections. The demonstrators' quest to secure dignity and the government's decision to tolerate dissent thus stand at the core of this recent, intriguing political moment in Russia.

Parallels can be drawn between this contest over legal dignity and civil rights in the early 21st century and the debate over religious freedom in the 19th century—which, given the particularistic nature of empire, covered much of the same ground. Indeed, the forum that we offer in this issue of Kritika investigates the balance that the state must strike between tolerating and repressing dissent; the question why, in any particular case, a state may choose to exercise tolerance; and the elaboration of a language of "dignity" and the impediments that stand in the way of its formulation. That Russia's presidential elections would take place just as Kritika was making final preparations for a forum devoted to religious freedom in Russian history was fortuitous.

The forum grew out of a session at the New Orleans meeting in 2007 of what was then the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. It was the collective sense of Kritika's editorial group at the time that this was a historical problem ripe for more intense exploration (none of the forum's authors was an editor at the time). Indeed, both shortly before and after that session a number of important works emerged to reveal the centrality of religious institutions, confessional difference and dissent, and ideas of spiritual freedom (and unbelief) for tsarist practices of imperial rule and major trajectories of Russian thought.3 The problems of religious difference, toleration and conflict, and the relation between spirituality and modernity [End Page 510] have also been prominent recently in a broader European historiography.4 The present forum is designed, in part, to extend this conversation.

Its central preoccupation is the problem of religious freedom in Russia from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. Encompassing formal political tracts, revolutionary activism, and imperial governance, the forum aspires both to identify the scope and contours of Russian conceptions of religious freedom...


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