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  • The Emergence of "Freedom of Conscience" in Imperial Russia
  • Paul W. Werth (bio)

Among the core civil freedoms that Nicholas II granted—or promised—to his subjects in the Manifesto of 17 October 1905 was "freedom of conscience."1 Although the October Manifesto itself was extracted from an autocracy under duress, the imperial government's initial engagement with the idea of freedom of conscience thereafter was striking for its seriousness and depth. The Department of Religious Affairs of the Foreign Confessions, the agency within the Interior Ministry that administered the empire's diverse non-Orthodox faiths and was charged with implementing this new freedom in legislative form, offered a remarkably expansive, liberal, and individualistic definition as its starting point. In an internal memorandum of 1906, the department defined freedom of conscience as the "right of every person possessing a sufficiently mature self-consciousness to declare or proclaim his faith, or even the absence of such, without hindrance and without any legal detriment." The only limitations that the department identified on such freedom concerned the "requirements of state order," which prevented citizens from appealing to their faith in order to violate the state's criminal laws, social order, or morality or to refuse obligations before the state.2 When the Ministry of Justice began to speak [End Page 585] of "conditions" limiting the right of Russian subjects to transfer to the religion of their choice, the department countered that the freedom of conscience granted by the manifesto should "undoubtedly" be understood as "granting to each person complete self-definition in matters of religion."3 And in response to the proposal of 49 liberal Duma delegates explicitly guaranteeing freedom of conscience to each citizen of the Russian Empire, the department noted that its own proposals, though perhaps different in form, would nonetheless embody the "aspiration to establish freedom of conscience in its full scope" (ustanovit´ svobodu sovesti v polnom ee ob"eme).4

The department's embrace of freedom of conscience as a core principle for Russia's further development reflects the broad currency—though not universal acceptance—that this concept had attained in the country by the early 20th century. On one level, this might seem a logical, almost inevitable outcome. The proposition that the human conscience is or should be free strikes the modern Western person as so self-evident that it scarcely requires explicit elaboration. From this standpoint, the emergence of this idea even in illiberal Russia serves merely as a testament to its essential soundness and naturalness. The present article, however, seeks to strip freedom of conscience of its self-evidence by examining the historical process of its emergence in imperial Russia over the course of the 19th century.5 I begin from the proposition that this idea was initially alien to prevailing conceptions about religious consciousness and adherence and accordingly occupied little or no place in either the intellectual landscape or the legal and administrative order of the imperial state. I ask: By what path did the concept "freedom of conscience" come to occupy such a central place in the deliberations of the state and in the discussions of society by the early 20th century?

Largely neglected in research before the 1990s, the question of religious freedom in Russia has since been analyzed along several different [End Page 586] but intersecting trajectories.6 One treats religious freedom principally as a problem in intellectual history, more particularly in the history of Russian liberalism. Thus Patrick Michelson has traced the emergence of the idea of religious freedom in Russia and its eventual embedding in the political program of the Liberation Movement of the early 20th century.7 Randall Poole has meanwhile identified the centrality of "freedom of conscience," along with human dignity and rule of law, to the philosophers associated with the Moscow Psychological Society, founded in 1885.8 John D. Basil identifies important proponents of this ideal among the many critics of Russia's "synodal system" of ecclesiastical governance.9 Elsewhere in the present issue of this journal, Victoria Frede examines the case of Russian radicals in the 1860s, who promoted a liberal conception of religious freedom in the context of revolutionary aspirations that were generally hostile toward...