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Reviewed by:
  • Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia
  • Alissa Valles (bio)
Victoria Frede, Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), 314 pp.

This study of the skeptical, areligious, and antireligious views of four generations of Russian poets and thinkers has much of the drama and texture of a Turgenev novel, without slacking on intellectual and historiographical discipline. The intricate ways in which the Russian Orthodox Church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was bound up with the structure of Russian autocracy, and the increasing urge among young educated men and women to break free of both—under threat of suffocation at home and inflamed by ideas from the West—are described through novelistic scenes from Moscow, Petersburg, and the provinces. Here, groups of young friends struggle toward intellectual autonomy in a social climate not merely dank with prejudice and stale dogma but distorted and poisoned by censorship and state terror. Although Frede treats of some of the usual suspects—Herzen, Chernyshevsky—she refreshes the picture of the Russian nineteenth century by giving most attention to lesser-known radical groups—such as the Tobacco Store Circle of Vasilii Katenev—and their inner dynamics. She shows (quoting widely from her subjects’ rich correspondence, journals, and prison interrogation records, as well as published writings) how dependent early doubters were on the emotional and intellectual support of friends and also how quickly these bonds could be broken down and manipulated by police officials for maximum humiliation and social control. Countering the traditional Soviet account of a triumphant tide of atheism, this book does the tricky job of disentangling denials of God from denials of autocratic authority and distinguishing between atheism and doubt as phases in the development of individuals’ subjectivity, their use as political tools, and the purely philosophical status of their formulations. If this book does not answer the old question of whether there is an innate millenarianism in Russian culture, it greatly refines and animates the terms of the debate.

Alissa Valles

Alissa Valles is the author of two poetry collections, Salvage (forthcoming) and Orphan Fire, as well as editor and cotranslator of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose. A contributor to Polish Writers on Writing and The New European Poets, her poems and translations have also appeared in Common Knowledge, the New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Review of Books, the Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Verse, and TriQuarterly.



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