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Religious freedom and the problem of tolerance in Russian history.

Every modern society has encountered challenges arising from difference--ethnic, cultural, or religious. Yet homogeneity is not always viewed as desirable, and at times specific differences have been deemed worthy of the state's protection. When and why such differences come to appear advantageous, or at least tolerable, is exactly the kind of riddle that historians like to sink their teeth into.

The controversy surrounding the (re)election of Vladimir Putin on 4 March 2012 as Russia's president is a recent example from the realm of politics. His victory, with more than 64 percent of the vote, was widely regarded as being the product of fraud and deceit, much like elections to the parliament several months earlier. By itself, the fact of electoral manipulation was nothing new, yet the reaction of at least segments of the Russian populace proved more dramatic than anything since the end of the USSR. The two points of greatest suspense became how far the Putin government was prepared to permit demonstrations, and what kinds of risks Russian citizens would be willing to take to voice dissatisfaction. Protestors, primarily urban elements who have attained a certain level of material affluence and now seek a fuller realization of their citizenship, demanded respect for "civil dignity." (1) At a minimum, they contended that the government should respect their electoral choices. For its part, the Russian government allowed tens of thousands of protesters to march, even as it subjected many to arrest and sought to delegitimize their activism. At present, it is unclear whether a new mood of defiance on the part of some sections of the population will lead the state to conclude that certain forms of difference, including political difference, are tolerable. The fact that the government's allies accuse protestors of engaging in "provocation" and of being instigated and bankrolled by foreign states or other entities hostile to Russia implies a negative answer. (2) Yet the government has been less aggressive in intervening in more recent mayoral elections and even passed a new law reinstating direct gubernatorial elections. The demonstrators' quest to secure dignity and the government's decision to tolerate dissent thus stand at the core of this recent, intriguing political moment in Russia.

Parallels can be drawn between this contest over legal dignity and civil rights in the early 21st century and the debate over religious freedom in the 19th century--which, given the particularistic nature of empire, covered much of the same ground. Indeed, the forum that we offer in this issue of Kritika investigates the balance that the state must strike between tolerating and repressing dissent; the question why, in any particular case, a state may choose to exercise tolerance; and the elaboration of a language of "dignity" and the impediments that stand in the way of its formulation. That Russia's presidential elections would take place just as Kritika was making final preparations for a forum devoted to religious freedom in Russian history was fortuitous.

The forum grew out of a session at the New Orleans meeting in 2007 of what was then the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. It was the collective sense of Kritika's editorial group at the time that this was a historical problem ripe for more intense exploration (none of the forum's authors was an editor at the time). Indeed, both shortly before and after that session a number of important works emerged to reveal the centrality of religious institutions, confessional difference and dissent, and ideas of spiritual freedom (and unbelief) for tsarist practices of imperial rule and major trajectories of Russian thought. (3) The problems of religious difference, toleration and conflict, and the relation between spirituality and modernity have also been prominent recently in a broader European historiography. (4) The present forum is designed, in part, to extend this conversation.

Its central preoccupation is the problem of religious freedom in Russia from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. Encompassing formal political tracts, revolutionary activism, and imperial governance, the forum aspires both to identify the scope and contours of Russian conceptions of religious freedom, and to account for the contexts and conditions in which they became operative--and in which their limits became most evident. Gary Hamburg begins the forum with an extensive overview of Russian thinking on religious toleration from the 16th century until the Decembrists. Noting that some of the early articulations of Russian thought actually occurred outside Muscovy, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Hamburg is particularly interested in the influence of the European Enlightenment on Russian thought. He concludes that until the reign of Catherine the Great its impact was limited, and that even those influenced by European thought focused less on theoretical justifications than on the practical advantages of religious toleration. The heavily qualified character of toleration in Russian thought is also something that Hamburg emphasizes. In the end, having provided numerous examples of "tolerationist" thought, Hamburg finds that they "did not constitute a national discourse or sustained, diachronic dialogue on the subject" (556).

If Russian thinkers and statesmen did not engage with the topic of religious freedom in a systematic fashion before the mid-19th century, Victoria Frede shows that religious concerns eventually animated some radicals. Concentrating on Russia's first revolutionary group--Land and Freedom (Zemlia i volia)--in the early 1860s, Frede highlights a central problem facing the zemlevol'tsy: they did not share the religious beliefs of peasants and workers whom they sought to draw into their movement. Hoping to mobilize discontent among peasant sectarians and Old Believers against the regime, the radicals felt compelled to hide their own lack of belief. Although they were generally inclined to support full freedom of conscience (including the right to atheism), radicals were nervous about promoting such ideas among dissenting peasants whom they assumed to be deeply religious. This forced them to hedge their statements and to call for freedom of confession, which implied a universal if diverse religiosity among Russia's population, rather than freedom of conscience. The tensions between these two conceptions of religious freedom in the radicals' thoughts and proclamations are at the core of Frede's analysis. When combined with Hamburg's discussion (see, e.g., 520-21), her account shows that there were a range of expressions--veroterpimost', svoboda ispovedaniia, svoboda sovesti--in currency that emphasized different degrees and different dimensions of religious liberty.

The last of those expressions is at the center of Paul Werth's essay, which traces the emergence of the ideal of freedom of conscience and illuminates the historical circumstances in which it gained currency. His account thus combines elements of intellectual history also present for Hamburg and Frede with bureaucratic texts generated in the process of governing the empire. Werth proposes that the idea emerged most forcefully in the 1860s in the context of disagreements between Orthodoxy and Lutheranism in the Baltic region and shows how it gained growing importance for the Russian public in the following decades. This process culminated in the early 20th century, when freedom of conscience had gained such currency that the autocracy was compelled to include this ideal in the October Manifesto. Yet Werth also addresses opposition to freedom of conscience and echoes a point made by Frede: for people with a conscience informed by genuine belief, the question of religious liberty was especially complicated. Both articles thus raise a crucial philosophical question: to what extent is unbelief or indifference a necessary precondition for toleration and religious freedom?

The intellectual and philosophical dimensions of the problem are of central concern to Randall Poole, who offers a commentary on the three essays that simultaneously represents an original synthetic essay in its own right. He locates the roots of freedom of conscience as an idea somewhat earlier than does Werth, noting that Slavophiles had begun to articulate a conception of "inner freedom" as the moral foundation for self-determination prior to the 1860s. Poole acknowledges that this was not quite the liberal conception of freedom of conscience as an individual right guaranteed by law, but he insists that it nonetheless "helped promote the rise of such a concept" (620). Tracing the lineage of the concept among liberals, he succeeds also in connecting it to Russian religious philosophy, especially in the figure of Vladimir Solov'ev. Indeed, Poole demonstrates how the central concept of Solov'ev's philosophy--Godmanhood--was dependent on human autonomy and self-realization, and that the nature of religious freedom was thus of crucial significance for debates about Solov'ev's ideas. Poole weaves the findings of the forum's other authors into his own exegesis of many of the Russian texts central to the elaboration of religious freedom as an intellectual project. He also provides an incisive overview of many of the most interesting findings of the recent literature on Western Europe.

Even as it probes different dimensions of the problem of religious freedom, the forum leaves many critical questions unexplored. The essays here focus almost exclusively on Russian discourses, whereas the problem of religious freedom had great importance to individuals and communities using other languages, such as Polish, Tatar, Armenian, or German. The period after 1905, once freedom of conscience had been promised but not fully implemented, also remains generally beyond the purview of the forum. (5) Finally, the discussions recounted here were, for the most part, either philosophical or very general in their orientation. We still have much to learn, therefore, about what religious freedom meant in particular contexts, and how ordinary subjects understood and negotiated religious difference. We at Kritika hope that such investigations will follow, both in our own pages and in other venues.

(1) As one report on meetings following the parliamentary elections in December remarked, "The majority of those who came genuinely sought and seek to defend their civil dignity." See Aleksandr Buzgalin and Andrei Kolganov, "Entuziazm mass vs. tsinizm vozhdei: Narod ne bezmolvstvuet, no chto dal'she?" (27 December 2011) ( politic/7966503.html, accessed 28 April 2012).

(2) See, for example, NTV's documentary film "Anatomiia protesta," which aired 15 March 2012 (, accessed 28 April 2012).

(3) Heather Coleman, Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Nicholas Breyfogle, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire in the South Caucasus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Robert D. Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Patrick Lally Michelson, "'The First and Most Sacred Right': Religious Freedom and the Liberation of the Russian Nation, 1825-1905" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007); Barbara Skinner, The Western Front of the Eastern Church: Uniate and Orthodox Conflict in 18th-Century Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009); G. M. Hamburg and Randall A. Poole, eds., A History of Russian Philosophy, 1830-1930: Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Mikhail Dolbilov, Russkii krai, chuzhaia vera: Etnokonfessional 'naia politika v Litve i Belorussii pri Aleksandre II (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010); A. Iu. Polumov, K. P. Pobedonostsev v obshchestvenno-politicheskoi i dukhovnoi zhizni Rossii (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2010).

(4) Consider, for example, the following works, some of which are discussed in Randall Poole's essay in this forum: Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Stuart Schwartz, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); and Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

(5) Several recent works investigate this period nonetheless: Peter Waldron, "Religious Reform after 1905: Old Believers and the Orthodox Church," Oxford Slavonic Papers 20 (1987): 110-39; Ralph Tuchtenhagen, Religion als minderer Status: Die Reform der Gesetzgebung gegenuber religiosen Minderheiten in der verfassten Gesellschaft des Russischen Reiches, 1905-1917 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995); Iu. S. Belov, "Pravitel'stvennaia politika po omosheniiu k nepravoslavnym veroispovedaniiam v Rossii v 1905-1917 gg." (Candidate's diss., Rossiiskaia akademiia nauk, Institut rossiskoi istorii, Sankt-Peterburgskii filial, 1999); A. A. Dorskaia, Svoboda sovesti v Rossii: Sud'ba zakonoproektov nachala XX veka (St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Rossiiskogo gosudarsrvennogo pedagogicheskogo universiteta im. A. I. Gertsena, 2001); John D. Basil, Church and State in Late Imperial Russia: Critics of the Synodal System of Church Government, 1861-1914 (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2005); and A. A. Safonov, Svoboda sovesti i modernizatsiia veroispovednogo zakonodatel'stva Rossiiskoi Imperii v nachale XX veka (Tambov: Izdatel'stvo Pershina, 2007).
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Title Annotation:From the Editors
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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