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  • Freedom of Conscience, Freedom of Confession, and "Land and Freedom" in the 1860s
  • Victoria Frede (bio)

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill vigorously promoted freedom of conscience as an "indefeasible right." All citizens should be treated as equal under the law, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of religious affiliation. Under no circumstance should state and society set about determining what constitutes religious truth, or what kind of behavior is appropriate for religious believers. Debating religion and ethics in the press was healthy, but individuals should not be forced to make their beliefs known to the public, nor should they feel compelled to identify themselves with any church. No human being should ever be "accountable to others for his religious belief."1 In Russia, radicals and liberals were inclined to agree with Mill. All objected to the regime of censorship in imperial Russia that stifled the expression of heterodox views, to the state's denial of a right to privacy, and to the prosecution of dissenters.

When the revolutionary movement coalesced early in the reign of Alexander II, participants hoped to take advantage of discontent among peasant sectarians and Old Believers. By making religious freedom one of their demands, they sought to unite with dissenters against the imperial state. Yet, as their activities shifted from London to St. Petersburg, then to the Russian provinces, revolutionaries came to fear that their conception of freedom was fundamentally different from that of peasant dissenters. Not only did the complex of ideas that Mill packaged as an "indefeasible right" have to be separated into two principles, but these principles began to seem [End Page 561] incompatible. One was freedom of confession—the right of all religious believers to fulfill the ritual demands of their faith. The other was freedom of conscience—the right to speak and think as they wished, the right to decide which religious or ethical systems to assent to, the right not to identify with any religion at all, and most critically, the right not to be compelled to make their religious beliefs known if they did not want to. This essay seeks to explain why freedom of conscience and confession posed such problems for radicals by concentrating on the experiences of Russia's first revolutionary group, Land and Freedom (Zemlia i volia), in the early 1860s.

As is well known, freedom of confession, the right of individuals to practice whatever religion they choose, was conspicuous largely for its absence in imperial Russia. The state practiced religious tolerance to an extent, recognizing several major religions alongside Orthodox Christianity, most notably Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and Islam. State policies toward these religions remained inconsistent, however, and dissent within them was forbidden: the state prosecuted heterodoxy, targeting Old Believers and sectarians with special vigor. Converting from one denomination to another was made difficult, and conversion from Orthodoxy was strictly forbidden. Adherence to some religion was obligatory.2 The situation did not change in any fundamental way when Alexander II ascended the throne in 1855, though some Old Believers hoped that policies of greater tolerance would be part of the package of reforms he introduced.3

Figures who played a key role in the foundation of Land and Freedom—Nikolai Platonovich Ogarev, Vasilii Ivanovich Kel´siev, and Nikolai [End Page 562] Aleksandrovich Serno-Solov´evich—looked specifically to sectarians and Old Believers as the segments of peasant society most likely to rebel, an idea they adopted from Alexander Ivanovich Herzen. They would promote freedom of confession in broadsheets that targeted these groups. The first Land and Freedom was an umbrella organization called together between late 1861 and early 1862 by activists in St. Petersburg. Its purpose was to coordinate revolutionaries throughout Russia in anticipation of a major peasant uprising, which was expected in the spring of 1863, when the emancipation of the serfs was scheduled to take effect. It dissolved in 1864.4 In its revolutionary proclamations, Land and Freedom pursued two key goals: the immediate redistribution of land to the peasants and the creation of representative government at all levels, from the capital, to the regions, to the villages.5

While the group was short-lived, it was important as the first...


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