- Foreign Faiths, Toleration, and Religious Freedom in the Russian Empire
Religious diversity was a striking characteristic of imperial Russia. Under the Romanovs’ rule there were Russian Orthodox, adherents of the Armenian Church, Protestants, Catholics, various dissenters, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and pagans. Religion was a constituent element of imperial subjects’ identity as well as an important category employed by the regime to conceptualize and manage the empire’s tremendous cultural diversity. In light of the “imperial turn” in Russian historical studies, this phenomenon has received increased attention from historians (including Paul W. Werth) who have explored the experiences of various non-Orthodox communities and state confessional policies, as well as the implications of empire for one of the main institutions in tsarist Russia, the Orthodox Church.1
Paul W. Werth’s new book, The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths, builds on this scholarship while also providing a much broader picture of the multi-confessional landscape in tsarist Russia than has been available to date. The book examines the historical experiences of the empire’s major non-Orthodox [End Page 205] groups, the so-called “foreign faiths,” over the time period from the first partition of Poland in 1772 to the eve of World War I. Werth’s other original contribution is his focus on religious freedom in tsarist Russia, a problem that with some exceptions heretofore has not been studied systematically.2 The tsarist state and its interests played an important role in shaping the empire’s religious regime; therefore, Paul Werth’s state-oriented account of the development of religious freedom in respect to “foreign faiths” is very useful. Werth’s study is based on research conducted at archives in Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia. Given his focus on the state’s perspective and policies, the book substantially relies on Russian-language sources from the rich collection of the tsarist Ministry of the Interior’s Department for the Religious Affairs of Foreign Confessions, which was responsible for managing the empire’s religious diversity.
Werth approaches the problem of religious freedom in two ways: by providing his own assessment of the scope and the character of religious freedom offered by the imperial regime; and by examining the official discourses of religious freedom, in particular, tracing the emergence of the ideal of “freedom of conscience.” He notes that in tsarist Russia, the “concepts that were used to designate religious freedom varied depending on time and circumstances” and that the meanings of this concept were historically contingent (6). Therefore, he does not offer a singular historical notion of religious freedom (which is understandable); neither does he provide his own definition of this concept. Throughout the book, he uses the terms “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” interchangeably. Sometimes, unless he refers to it as a historical term, he employs the concept of “religious toleration” in the same sense (3). Given his twofold task, however, it might have been useful to have Werth’s own clearly articulated definition of religious freedom at the beginning of the book to help readers differentiate between Werth’s perspective and those expressed by the historical actors, as well as to better [End Page 206] understand how he assesses the degree of religious freedom in Russia. Having Werth’s definition would especially help us follow his insightful analysis of the key elements of Russia’s confessional order, such as institution building, legislation, and the state’s approaches to the issue of integrity of “foreign faiths.” It seems to me that without explicitly stating as much at the beginning of his study, Werth evaluates Russia’s realities against a modern ideal of religious freedom, which is conceived as a positive principle associated with autonomous individuals endowed with rights, as well as plurality, and relativism. If this is the case, I have no objection to such an approach, which I find analytically productive as it allows us to clearly see what the Russian religious order was and what it was not.
While the Orthodox Church occupied a...