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Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia: Religious Activists in the Village.

Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia: Religious Activists in the Village. By Glennys Young (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. xiv plus 307pp. $47.50/cloth).

Influenced by pioneering and prodigious work on the Russian Orthodox Church by Gregory L. Freeze, subaltern studies, and cultural histories of the French Revolution, Glennys Young has written a significant book on clerical and lay religious activism in the l920s Soviet countryside. An in-depth examination of the political, social and cultural history of the Russian Orthodox Church at the parish level provides an important corrective to the traditional structural approach that has assumed that the church was decimated by Bolshevik policies of deinstitutionalization, violence against the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and anti-religious propaganda. In fact, the 1920s witnessed revitalized parishes, the politicization of a significant core of lay villagers, as well as full-scale resistance to Soviet anti-religious directives. That resistance, according to Young, reflected not only the new circumstances of the post-revolutionary era, but also generational conflicts within the village and the growth of lay authority in the parish, both of which stemmed from the time of the emancipation in 1861. Young's book will be standard reading for scholars of peasantries around the world as well as those interested in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union and their graduate students. Unfortunately, its density will render it less appealing to undergraduates.

Utilizing newspapers, publications of the League of the Militant Godless, Bolshevik Party records, ethnographic reports, and archival sources relating to various cultural organizations dedicated to enlightening the population in socialist and modernist principles, the author highlights developments in Leningrad, Saratov, and Smolensk provinces. She buttresses the study of those developments with examples from other parts of what had been pre-revolurionary European Russia (including Ukrainian provinces which are regrettably undifferentiated from the Russian examples at a time when a strong Ukrainian national identity was taking shape). The official sources are analyzed with a critical eye to ways in which Soviet policy mobilized resistance and ways in which authorities reacted to the growth and tenacity of resistance at the parish level. This means that parishioners' voices are heard only indirectly through the prism of official resources. The systematic study of the voluminous peasant petitions to the state with regard to parish matters will have to await the further work of Gregory Freeze and William Husband. Another weakness of Young's sources lies in the tendency of Soviet discourse to overemphasize binary oppositions within society, especially between rural and urban, peasants and workers, the young and old, and men and women. On the one hand, Young does a masterful job in analyzing the gendered rhetoric of Soviet anti-religious propaganda, but on the other she may overstate generational divisions within the village. Certainly her characterization of some peasant beliefs as pagan reflects an uncritical adoption of both ecclesiastical and Soviet language.

Despite the limitations of the sources, Glennys Young convincingly presents the 1920s Soviet village as an experiment in democratization and the creation of a civil society. From the heady days of the revolution onward, villagers succeeded in wresting control over parish affairs by placing them directly under communal control. Ironically, they were able to adapt their village politics to Bolshevik rural institutions. The newly formed village soviets accordingly contained religious activists, including members of the clergy and those sympathetic to the church, as the village mobilized to assert its religious and legal rights vis-a-vis the Bolshevik state's Decree on the Separation of Church and State, the Constitution, and religious instruction. Indeed, Bolshevik laws and policies themselves bore the responsibility of acting as catalysts for religious opposition, a paradoxical outcome that marked other state policies, Young notes in her conclusion.

Naturally, the activism of believers and resurgence of the parish met opposition from a number of quarters but, according to Young, that opposition resulted more from everyday village politics and jockeying for local control than a commitment to atheism. Enjoying less political and cultural power than their landed counterparts, landless peasants and in-migrants tended to count themselves among the anti-religious. These less stable types, however, did not have an institutional base from which to fight local powerbrokers until the organization of the Society of the Friends of the Newspaper Bezbozhnik [The Godless] in 1924 and the League of the Godless in 1925. Even then, in the countryside of what Young characterizes as an underinstituionalized state, the organizational structures were weak. Furthermore, "as a rule the Party proved unable to channel the popular antagonism toward religious belief and practice into the institutional forms and activities championed by the regime."(141) While opposition on the par t of youths toward their elders reflected antireligious sentiments, Young argues that when viewed in the pre-revolutionary context, those sentiments were more symptomatic of anti-clericalism and disdain of parish authority than necessarily atheistic declarations. Even Communist Party and Komsomol members, those most sympathetic to anticlericalism and antireligious acts, could not entirely abandon their religious attachments. They tended to be part-time anti-religious activists, focusing their attention on campaigns such as Komsomol Christmas and Easter celebrations as well as antireligious disputes that usually raised the ire of fellow villagers and solidified their opposition. At other times, they too continued to have their children baptized and either adorned the walls of the village soviet's meeting place with icons or acquiesced to having icons there.

Ultimately, the revitalization of the parish and the success of religious activists in using village soviets to uphold religious practices throughout the twenties prompted a more systematized state assault from 1928 onward on peasant traditionalism and autonomy. Thus by drawing attention to religious culture, Young provides us with another important corrective, this time to views of decision-making behind collectivization. The Stalinist picture of the recalcitrant village is broadened to include not only economic traditionalism as an impediment to the creation of socialism, but also the peasantry's cultural and political antagonism to the socialist state.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Worobec, Christine D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:981
Previous Article:Social Identity in Imperial Russia.
Next Article:The Peasantries of Europe: From the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries.
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