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  • Religious Tolerance in the Russian Empire’s Northwest Provinces
  • Theodore R. Weeks
Aleksandr Iur′evich Bendin, Problemy veroterpimosti v Severo-Zapadnom krae Rossiiskoi imperii (1863–1914) (Problems of Religious Tolerance in the Northwest Territory of the Russian Empire). 439pp. Minsk: BGU, 2010. ISBN-13 978-9855184400.

The Russian Empire was a tolerant state—within certain boundaries. As is well known, the Orthodox Church held a position of special prominence and privilege, non-Christian religions were tolerated but hardly respected, and a number of Christian denominations or sects from Baptists to Old Believers were regarded with considerable suspicion by Russian officials. Then there was the Catholic Church: inevitably identified with the Polish nation, Jesuits, and disloyalty to St. Petersburg, its freedom of maneuver was greatly reduced after the uprising of 1863. Robert Blobaum’s statement that in this period, which lasted to the end of the Russian Empire, “the Roman Catholic church was simply terrorized into submission,” expresses a generally held conviction among both professional historians and the general public in Poland and Lithuania.1 A. Iu. Bendin explicitly and at length argues against this conception, countering that both before and after the religion tolerance ukaz of 17 April 1905 Russian measures toward Catholicism in the Northwest provinces were characterized by a reasonable desire to maintain public order, prevent ethno-religious strife, and protect Orthodox believers from aggressive Polonism.2 This argument, based on an enormous amount of archival research, cannot be dismissed. Indeed, most historians would agree, [End Page 876] I think, that the Russian Empire was more interested in public order and stability than in proselytizing or crushing the Catholic faith.3 However, Bendin considerably weakens his case by concentrating entirely on Russian sources; his bibliography does not include a single title in any other language. He does cite, in two footnotes (21–22), some recent works by Darius Staliūnas, Paul Werth, Mikhail Dolbilov, and others, but the arguments of these historians are never considered, not even as a foil against which Bendin might argue. In the end, Bendin’s book is extremely useful as a reflection of the mentality of Russian officialdom in the post-1863 period. As a work of critical historical scholarship, however, the work is quite unacceptable.

This is unfortunate, because the author’s larger thesis—that the late Russian Empire was characterized more by rule of law and religious toleration than by capricious repression and grinding pressure to force conversions to Orthodoxy—is very well taken. From the time of the Great Reforms (1860s–70s) even Russian conservatives recognized that a modern state could not be run simply by the whim of an autocrat. At the same time, however, the logical next step—to discard or at least downplay assertions of the tsar’s unlimited power—was never taken, not even after 1905. In fact, as such causes célèbres as the Vera Zasulich trial showed, the tsar and his bureaucracy could not simply do as they pleased—nor did they want to. There was both a genuine desire to stick to legal norms and a tendency to circumvent the legal system by declaring various forms of martial law or (as in the aftermath of the Zasulich trial) by transferring irksome court trials away from the civilian system.4 Still, to return to the western provinces, at times one still encounters a “master narrative” of dastardly Russian officials unrestrained by any laws or administrative rules conniving to Russify hapless Poles, Lithuanians, and others (official Russia regarded Belarusians and Ukrainians as legitimate objects of Russification).5 This is not to say that no attempts were made at [End Page 877] conversion, and, of course, if individuals were to embrace Russian culture fully and voluntarily, so much the better from the point of view of official Russia. The general attitude and policy, though, was deeply conservative, accepting of the status quo and in this sense tolerant.

In the past decade, several important works have looked into the complicated national-religious situation on the Russian Empire’s western frontier. While emphases differ, there is general agreement that the most radical (anti-Catholic and Russifying) period was the decade or so after the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection...


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