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  • Religion and Enlightenment in Catherinian Russia: The Teachings of Metropolitan Platon by Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter
  • Barbara Skinner
Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, Religion and Enlightenment in Catherinian Russia: The Teachings of Metropolitan Platon (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013). Pp. 193. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $32.00.

This remarkable book constitutes the first major study of the religious component of the Russian Enlightenment. It thus stands as a noteworthy addition to the new scholarship on the Enlightenment in Europe that has critiqued the traditional focus on secular intellectual, political, social, and cultural aspects and has argued that religious thought was integral to and intertwined with eighteenth-century secular developments (most notably in David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna, [2008]). Scholars of the European Enlightenment who have not given much thought to Russia and Orthodox regions of Eastern Europe now have a book that offers convincing evidence of the integration of Enlightenment concepts into traditional Orthodox thought in the eighteenth century. Scholars of eighteenth-century Russia now have food for thought about the coexistence of modernity and tradition within that seemingly most conservative of Russian institutions, the Orthodox Church. In this succinct study of four thematic chapters, Wirtschafter gracefully reveals a new perspective on Russian Orthodoxy’s eighteenth-century experience, as one infused with European Enlightenment-era concepts, blending teachings on salvation with the age’s emphasis on learning and progress.

Wirtschafter accomplishes this by analyzing the sermons and devotional works of the most prolific and well-known Enlightenment-era prelate in the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Platon Levshin (1737–1812). A man of humble origins but brilliant intellect, Platon rose from seminary teacher and rector to become the religious instructor for the heir to the throne, archimandrite, bishop, archbishop, and finally, in 1787, Metropolitan of Moscow. His short and long catechisms became the basic texts for teaching Orthodoxy in the Russian Empire; [End Page 249] his description of the Orthodox Church was translated into English, French, and German; his sermons to the St. Petersburg court were published and widely distributed; and he coauthored a sermon collection for use by all parish clergymen in the Russian Church. Consulting the twenty volumes of his published works, primarily sermons given at the Court of Empress Catherine II, Wirtschafter has carefully teased out Platon’s most notable themes to shape the arguments within each of her chapters. This was not done within a vacuum: her bibliography attests to extensive reading on the Enlightenment in general, and her arguments exhibit a keen understanding of the major issues within Enlightenment studies pertaining to Western Europe. Her first chapter provides this intellectual context to set Russian clerical “enlighteners” fully within the modernizing intellectual currents of the eighteenth century, with an emphasis on moral lessons for social progress, on reconciling faith with empirical learning, and on optimism for the improvement of humanity through learning.

The fundamental argument in this book is that Russian Enlightenment cannot be fully understood without considering the intellectual developments within the Orthodox Church, both those that accorded with Western Enlightenment principles and those that did not. Wirtschafter demonstrates that Russian religious teachings were grounded in Enlightenment-era concepts prevalent in Western European thought, but also argues that the Orthodox religious tradition helped to make the Russian Enlightenment distinctive in its rejection of any opposition to the rigid social and political order, in reconciling the belief in social progress with an acceptance of the existing power structures. This latter point constitutes a powerful blow against previous arguments connecting Enlightenment thought in Russia to the radical revolutionaries who brought down the tsarist regime. That connection, Wirtschafter posits, is a chimera.

The second, third, and fourth chapters provide striking insights into how the Orthodox Church managed to reconcile an acceptance of the rigid social and political structures in Russia with an openness to modern concepts of equality and progress. Platon’s sermons centered on promoting morality, which he saw as the product of both secular and spiritual learning. Moral education was “preparation for virtue” (42), which led people toward individual perfectability, the core concept of the Orthodox understanding of salvation and one “consistent with Enlightenment principles of equality, progress, and...


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pp. 249-251
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