- Conformity and Defiance in a Religious Key
After neglect over much of the 20th century, the topic of religion occupies a prominent place in the historiography of modern Russia today. Recent work [End Page 869] on the Soviet period has explored antireligious policies and campaigns,1 the Soviet regime’s “concordat” with Orthodoxy in the midst of World War II,2 the distinct experience of non-Orthodox religious groups,3 secularism and atheism in the postwar period,4 and finally the connections of other religious groups with global communities of believers.5 A separate literature examines the experience of believers and communities in the post-Soviet era, thus revealing both continuities and ruptures across 1991.6 [End Page 870]
The books reviewed here connect to all these trends, while also linking religious questions to broader historical problems of dissidence, wartime trauma, migration, and economic life. Even as they address different problems and religious traditions, all five confront the degree to which believers in the USSR conformed to that country’s established structures and worldviews. The religious people at the center of each book exhibited varying inclinations to conform with the Soviet order, though their determination to practice their faith made them all dissidents to one degree or another.7 Together, the books provide valuable insights into the mechanisms by which dissident elements in the USSR could be integrated into the Soviet order, the foundations for resisting such integration, and the compromises that the regime itself was willing to make to secure such compliance. They also help reveal the meanings and limits of privacy in the Soviet context, as well as the consequences for believers of all stripes of the regime’s turn toward Russocentrism from the late 1930s.
The chronological center of gravity for all five books is the postwar period, with one starting in 1941 and two taking their accounts into post-Soviet decades. They explore the experience of ordinary believers without ignoring the larger political frameworks and agents that shaped that experience. The books address five different religious groups—Muslims, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, and Orthodox Christians—which allows us to consider both predominant and minority faiths, including those that were denied recognition by the Soviet state.
The most sharply focused study is Hiroaki Kuromiya’s account of the depressing experience of 14 Adventists in Soviet Ukraine, against whom a remarkable criminal case was launched in December 1952. Ascribing these unfortunate citizens to a splinter group of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, authorities accused them of violating Soviet law by taking a pacifist stance against universal military service. In effect, these defendants were triply marginal: already at the edge of society in a socioeconomic sense—they were poorly educated and lacked steady work—they were also targeted as dissidents within a religious tradition that was itself marginal to Soviet society. [End Page 871]
Several overlapping issues were central to the Adventists’ prosecution, beginning with their pacifism. Whereas the early Soviet state had made some allowances for conscientious objection, these were subsequently withdrawn, and by the early 1950s refusing military service “constituted a grave criminal offence, almost an act of treachery” (44). While some Adventists had...