"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Orthodox Russia in Crisis

Northern Illinois University Press continues to publish important monographs on Orthodoxy, especially Russian Orthodoxy, and they have just brought out a new book: Isaiah Gruber, Orthodox Russia in Crisis: Church and Nation in the Time of Troubles (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), 300pp. I asked the author for an interview, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background.

IG: I was born in the U.S.; studied Russian history in Canada; and have since lived in Russia, Israel, Australia, and Greece! That is probably a fair summary. I have always been interested in the history of religion, particularly the many and complicated interactions between Jewish and Christian ideas, people, and traditions. How have various sets of beliefs developed over time? What roles are played by specific texts, languages, concepts, changes, and errors? How do entrenched convictions affect human behavior? Why do communities hold to or abandon certain ideas? These are the kinds of questions I like to think about as I investigate the all-encompassing field of history.

AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

IG: A coalescence of personal research interests and current events. I had written my master's thesis on diplomatic relations at the beginning of Boris Godunov's reign. As a result, I was acquainted with historiography on the catastrophic "Time of Troubles" (a loose translation of Russian Smutnoe vremia or Smuta, usually defined as 1598-1613). A number of questions in that literature intrigued me, but especially the fact that the role of the Russian Orthodox Church always seemed very prominent but had apparently never been fully examined. Meanwhile, the trope of "Smutnoe vremia" was being used constantly to describe realities in contemporary post-Soviet Russia, including violence and lawlessness that had filled the void after the collapse of an apparently strong state. Moreover, the Orthodox Church was making a resurgence after the end of seventy years of communism. Indeed, many Russians were looking to the Church, which in some interpretations "saved Russia" from the Troubles of the early 17th century, as the way out of a "new Time of Troubles." I realized that the topic of the Russian Orthodox Church and religion during the Time of Troubles could have both great significance for historiography and great relevance for current affairs.

AD: You note that there is considerable dispute over the very periodization of the "time of troubles" and over its basic events and causes. Why is there such confusion and dispute?

IG: Largely because of the relative lack of sources, and the particular weaknesses of the sources that do exist. Many of the Russian narratives were written retrospectively and were strongly influenced by the political and religious orthodoxy of their time. This limits their utility in some respects if one is trying to understand what actually happened during the Time of Troubles. Many of the accounts written by foreigners have other biases or reveal a less than complete understanding of Russian realities. Meanwhile, actual documents from the period itself are far scarcer than one would like, and the ones that at first glance seem to contain the most information also turn out to be the most propagandistic (and thus not necessarily reliable)! So it is hard to know who or what to trust, and different historians have different ideas about how to deal with this complex material. Yet at the same time, the Smutnoe vremia is considered of such great importance for Russian history -- and was such a dramatic and catastrophic period -- that it has attracted and continues to attract a great deal of attention. Given this overall context, controversy is inevitable.
Boris Godunov

I think that the question of periodization per se is somewhat different. The early 17th century brought many calamities to Russia: horrendous and widespread famine, numerous wars, endemic banditry, political instability, and so forth. Contemporaries often described this period as smutnoe, which meant both "confused" and "rebellious." But of course time itself does not come with historical signposts telling us, "This is when the Confused, Rebellious Period began," or, "This is when the Golden Age of Spanish literature ended," or even, "This is when Rome fell." Such notions are usually the artifacts of historians and others working on the basis of their own conceptualizations. Hence any such periodization will be arbitrary to some extent, emphasizing certain factors at the expense of others. When it comes to the first Russian Time of Troubles, I think good arguments can be advanced both for the traditional periodization (1598-1613) and for several alternatives; for example, starting in 1601 with the onset of the Great Famine instead of in 1598 with the accession of Boris Godunov. Yet however one chooses to define it chronologically, obviously the Time of Troubles cannot be separated entirely from earlier and later events. The large number and considerable variety of proposed periodizations is also evidence of the deep fascination that the horrific Smutnoe vremia has ignited for 400 years among scholars, poets, musicians, churchmen, politicians, and people from all walks of life.

AD: Your preface notes that many of your sources treat "ecclesiastical" matters as one with what we today might call "political" or "economic." This has led some Western polemicists to reproach Russian Orthodoxy for being part of, and captive to, "caesaropapism." More recently, a number of scholars have come to dispute that charge. What does your research tell us about this notion?

IG: That is a good question -- and somewhat complicated. The prototypical example usually given for "caesaropapism" is that of Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman empire. But many historians now believe that even the Byzantine empire was not really, or not usually, caesaropapist at all. The idea of "symphony" is probably a better framework for trying to understand the usual conception of church and state within Orthodox Christianity. In other words, the "secular" and "spiritual" rulers and hierarchs were seen as conjointly constituting the right form of government, each side of the coin being indispensable for projecting God's rule on earth. Church and state were not supposed to be independent from each other, but rather interdependent. In my book, I compare the power of state and church to the power of the sword and the pen. These are different kinds of power: physical force vs. the force of ideas. One is not necessarily "stronger" than the other, although that can often appear to be the case. Hence the classic debating question: "Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?" Both sides can be argued convincingly.

In the Time of Troubles, the Russian Orthodox Church exercised an exceptionally important legitimizing role, ostensibly representing the "voice of God" in determinations of who was the rightful ruler. Partly as a result, every new tsar of the period had to have a new patriarch as well! If nothing else, this reality illustrates a deep interdependence of state and church in the politico-religious "public sphere" of early modern Russia. A tsar may have possessed the physical power to depose a patriarch; but he needed to do so only because the patriarch's voice also represented a very powerful force, one that might well undermine his power.

The fact that most "ecclesiastical" documents of the time are also "political" or especially "economic" in nature is simply a reflection of the actual activity of churchmen, which was not restricted to what we today call "religious" matters. The Russian Orthodox Church was deeply involved in territorial exploration, colonization, prison wardenry, banking, estate management, resource exploitation, trading, military service, bookmaking, and other matters that the modern mind does not automatically associate with "religion." In my book, I wanted to reflect the nature of the actual source base about the Church during the Troubles, not only questions that are categorized as "religious" today.

AD: Tell us about the role of monasteries in the period you survey, particularly their economic activity and impact.

Trinity Sergius Lavra
IG: First it is necessary to say that I was not able to investigate the activity of monasteries comprehensively, due to the weak source base. Hundreds of monasteries existed in Russia at this time. Yet we have documents dating from the Time of Troubles for only a relative few of them, due largely to fires and other tragedies of early modern history. Most of the surviving records pertain to the wealthiest and most famous institutions, like the Troitsa Sergiev and Kirillo Belozersk monasteries. 

These documents tell the story of vast landholding and commercial activities, of "mega-corporations" involved in trading salt, fish, grain, and a variety of other commodities while also administering estates and buying up property. Economic profitability was important to the managers of these wealthy enterprises, and at least some of them actually increased their revenue during the worst years of the famine. The major monasteries were able to stockpile large amounts of food, fodder, and other provisions even while, according to some estimates, up to a third of the population was starving to death. This seems to have contributed to popular resentment and distrust of the ecclesiastic elite, a probable factor in rebellion. Monasteries did also try to help the poor, but usually with only a minuscule percentage of their income. In 1605, Hegumen Antonii and Elder Protasii of the Solovetskii monastery traveled to Moscow, conducting a variety of business along the way. At one point, they gave the new Tsar Dmitrii -- often called "False" or "Pseudo-Dmitrii I" in historiography -- presents valued at 100 rubles. By contrast, they spent only a few altyny (equivalent to 0.16 ruble) helping the poor. Other documents show that this kind of ratio of business to charity expenditure was fairly typical for major monasteries at the time. The main purpose of these head monks' journey to the capital was to obtain several official charters granting economic rights and privileges -- charters that all the major monasteries aggressively pursued, and which led them to support whichever ruler might happen to come to power. The idea held by some that the Russian Orthodox Church resisted "False Dmitrii" as a non-Orthodox usurper is certainly not borne out by these or other documents. Instead, leading monasteries honored and supported him in order to continue to receive massive tax exemptions and usufructuary rights for their business enterprises.

The fragmentary data do not allow certain conclusions; but it seems that many major monasteries continued to be profitable until the latter stages of the Smuta, when the state itself finally collapsed and Polish-Lithuanian forces occupied Moscow. The monasteries' pursuit of wealth had contributed to perpetuating the Troubles by driving a further wedge between elite and populus and by failing to provide relief for endemic suffering. In the last years of the period, their own loss of economic profitability, along with the considerable destruction caused by foreign invasion, may have helped to provide a previously missing incentive for leading monasteries to act to improve the overall situation. Of course, smaller monasteries and hermitages probably had a different experience, but we have little evidence about that.

AD: You note that the painful memories of the "time of troubles" have shaped Russian consciousness ever after, and are even today still potent. Why is that? Why should events from 400 and more years ago still be so potent?

IG: Memory, whether of individuals or collectives, is a complicated and dynamic process. The Russian Smuta was an extreme, protracted, and excruciating crisis. This gave it the possibility of remaining deeply embedded in the national consciousness. Once historians, poets, musicians, and others repeatedly dramatized it as the period of greatest threat to the survival of Russia as a national and religious entity, that possibility began to come to fruition. With some legitimacy, the Time of Troubles was seen as "unquestionably" Russia's greatest crisis until the Revolutions of 1917. Other crises -- even Napoleon's invasion -- were compared to the early 17th century, thus further entrenching such an interpretation in the national identity. The Revolutions and subsequent brutal Civil War stimulated numerous additional comparisons, as Russia seemed to be repeating all the horrors of the original Time of Troubles: barbaric slaughter, famine, cannibalism, etc. And as mentioned above, many Russians have spoken of a "new Time of Troubles" even in the post-Soviet period, largely because of the great disorientation and uncertainty brought about in the wake of regime change and institutional collapse. The historian Ivan Zabelin once defined Smutnoe vremia as "a great reeling of the state."

Yet I think there is another dimension at play here as well. The Smutnoe vremia was so complicated and multifaceted that it easily lends itself to a wide range of interpretations and agendas. In 1913, the Romanov dynasty tried to shore up its hold on imperial power by making extensive use of the history of the Time of Troubles. In post-Soviet Russia, the national mythology and chief holiday (4 November) have been re-founded on themes from the Troubles, since Bolshevik observances are no longer suitable. Today Vladimir Putin tries to capitalize on the notion of a grave "threat from the West" by comparing contemporary American and European initiatives to the Smutnoe vremia. The Russian Orthodox Church takes a similar approach, citing the danger of "Catholicization" of the country that it sees as existing in both periods. Meanwhile, most ordinary Russians have come to view the post-Soviet period as a "new Time of Troubles" simply because the term speaks to them of chaos, collapse, corruption, violence, upheaval, and suffering. At the same time, one of the most prominent aspects of the historical Smuta was rebellion against the powers-that-be, combined with various forms of populism; and so dissent of all kinds can easily make use of this legacy as well. The official state and church may advance one type of interpretation while other groups use almost identical rhetoric to promote diametrically opposite views -- after all, that is precisely what happened in the original Smutnoe vremia!

AD: Could you say that part of the lingering pain of the memories of the troubles are still active today in the tension between Orthodox and Catholics, especially in areas once under Catholic domination like Galicia (Western Ukraine)?  

IG: Well, the issues in Western Ukraine among Orthodox, Catholic, and the hybrid Uniate belief predated the Russian Time of Troubles; and as you say, they have continued until today. Also, being outside the boundaries of the Muscovite state, Galicia was not directly affected by the Smutnoe vremia per se. However, related conflicts, and generally speaking the Russo-Polish(-Ukrainian) wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, certainly do figure into the narratives of the various sides. As for Russian Orthodox believers in particular, I would say that many of them still view the Time of Troubles as a result of Catholic aggression. So the Muscovite Smuta is one of a number of important historical events that can play into continuing tension among Orthodox, Catholic, and Uniate communities in the region.

AD: I recently interviewed Svitlana Kobets on her research into Russian "holy fools" (Iurodstvo o Khriste) and she notes that their numbers seemed to thrive during the 15th and 16th centuries. Would you see any connection between the time of troubles and the rise of such figures--especially a figure like St. Basil the Fool?

IG: I think it is quite possible.  Iurodstvo is a phenomenon characterized by extreme non-conformism and absolute refusal to accept the status quo and social norms. For the iurodivyi or "holy fool," even the highest rulers of state and church, who constantly present themselves as the embodiment of truth and justice, may in actual fact be liars and frauds. Attempting to strip away that pretense is certainly a form of rebellion, even if sometimes tolerated. Documents of the Time of Troubles include elements that are similar to the style of iurodstvo. One religious vision tale apparently dating from 1606 has Christ himself state, "There is no truth in the tsar or the patriarch!" In my book, I talk about the "fragmentation of Orthodoxy" that took hold as people increasingly adopted that illegal view and disregarded the word of the official church and state. In both iurodstvo and in the rebellions of the Smutnoe vremia, the dissenters did not see themselves as leaving Orthodoxy, but rather as presenting the true Orthodoxy in contrast to the polluted form prevailing in Moscow (or elsewhere). So there may well be a connection, although of course many other factors were also involved in the mass uprisings of the early 17th century.

A variety of other circumstances also suggest various connections. The iurodivyi Ioann of the late 16th century is traditionally interpreted as having predicted the Time of Troubles by telling people to expect "many visible and invisible demons in Moscow." Accounts of the Time of Troubles itself include numerous reports of strange predictions and omens. Svitlana Kobets and other scholars generally view iurodstvo as a distinctively Russian phenomenon, one that was influenced by the precedents of Hebrew nevi'im ("spokespersons" or prophets) and Byzantine saloi ("imbeciles" or holy fools) but came to assume a unique national form. I think there is evidence that the Smutnoe vremia also greatly advanced the formation of a specifically Russian consciousness or mentality. It is noteworthy that new national forms or ideas of the period sometimes adopted the language of official Orthodoxy but without accepting the dicta of the center. Finally, Patriarch Hermogen's role at the end of the Troubles might almost be said to represent an unintentional synthesis of official church power with iurodstvo. Imprisoned and mistreated for refusing to submit to the currently reigning powers, the patriarch rebuked his compatriots for what he saw as their willful destruction of the homeland and the true faith. Probably the humiliating and onerous conditions out of which he spoke (perceived as similar to those of a iurodivyi?) played a role in enabling the restoration of Russia as a country.

AD: You note that much has been written by historians on the time of troubles, and many histories of the Russian Church are also extant, but nobody has explored the role of the latter in the former. Why do you think the Church's role was overlooked?

IG: When I was in Moscow doing research for this project, Russian historians told me that they had often wondered when someone would finally take up the topic of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Time of Troubles! Yet within a few weeks of archival research I understood very well why seemingly no one had produced such a monograph in 400 years. The nature of the sources made it extremely difficult. Most things were impossible to know; most questions would have to remain unanswered. In addition, culling for clues would entail dealing with an unusually wide range of material, from theology to geology and diplomacy to music. It's not so much that the topic was "neglected" or "overlooked" per se -- after all, it was always considered of great importance, and a large number of published works do include information about it. Rather, scholars understandably focused on specific issues that seemed more accessible rather than attempting a comprehensive study of the Church during the Troubles, which may have seemed impossible or at least daunting. Hopefully in my book I have been able to offer a fair overview that takes into account both what is known and what is not known about Orthodoxy at this critical juncture in Russian history.

AD: The time of troubles coincides with the Raskolniks and that schism in the Russian Church. Tell us something of what you discovered about those developments.

IG: The Church schism (raskol) and related rebellions to which you are referring occurred about a generation after the Time of Troubles. Historians have often pointed to the Smutnoe vremia as the origin of this subsequent politico-religious crisis, calling the Time of Troubles a critical "watershed" in the history of Russian religion. But what precisely changed in the early 17th century, or how exactly the Smuta led to the Raskol, was usually left unstated. I wanted to discover if there really was a connection; and if so, what it was. My conclusions are necessarily somewhat speculative, but by drawing also on the work of other scholars I do see numerous such connections between the two crises. The split between official and unofficial Orthodoxies during the Time of Troubles prefigured the revolts of various raskol'niki (schismatics), who also refused to accept the word of patriarch and tsar. Readiness to fight and willingness to die for dissident politico-religious opinions characterized both periods. The best-known aspects of the Raskol -- controversies over correcting service books and other aspects of church ritual -- were already at issue during the Time of Troubles. In both crises, the official church and state had to war to retain their claimed monopoly on truth and consequent ability to control the population. Yet these wars were not 100% successful. A strong spirit of dissent lived on, not only through the 17th century, but also in the 18th-21st centuries. And the more authoritarian and repressive the subsequent regimes became, the more remarkable were their conscientious dissenters.

AD: You note that some Russians of the time began to see themselves as a New Israel, while others of the time spoke of a new or Third Rome. What do these self-designations tell us?

IG: The "New Israel" idea is one that has been foundational for virtually every form of Christianity, from ancient times until today. Although in the 1st century Sha'ul/Paul argued against this approach in his letter to the community at Rome (see esp. ch. 11), the decision was soon made to create a Gentile religion that would be completely separate from the Jewish people, faith, and customs. This intentional separation from Jewish antecedents and neighbors culminated in the Emperor Constantine's (in)famous verdict at the 4th-century council of Nicaea: "Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd." His ruling was followed in history by abundant laws (and inquisitions) designed to keep Jews and Christians apart and to prevent Christians from observing Jewish practices. Yet the Bible had been written exclusively or almost exclusively by Jews, provided no justification for such an approach, and spoke constantly of Israel. The solution that early Christian theologians found for this knotty problem was to posit a change in the meaning of the word "Israel." Instead of referring to the Jewish nation, it was said to refer selectively to the Christian community as a whole or to particular "orthodox" Christian communities. Thus the Roman and Byzantine empires viewed themselves as the "New Israel," and East Slavia or Rus' (the medieval antecedent of today's Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) inherited this conception upon adopting Eastern Christianity in the late 10th century.

A number of circumstances coincided to give the New Israel idea special force in Muscovite Russia. Officially, all non-Orthodox (such as Catholics, Jews, and pagans) were regarded as infidels, heretics, or schismatics. Meanwhile, Muslim conquests of the Middle East and southeastern Europe meant that Russia could regard itself as the only Orthodox Christian state in existence after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This enabled a further conjunction of the national and religious identities. "Russia," "Orthodoxy," and "Israel" became nearly interchangeable in the minds of Muscovite bookmen. It was not uncommon for them to refer to Russia as "Israel" or "New Israel." During the Time of Troubles, Patriarch Iov proclaimed Boris Godunov to be "the liberator of us, the New Israel." The rebel tsar or "pretender" known as "False Dmitrii II" added "Second Israel" to his official title and declared himself "the only Christian tsar under the sun." It is likely that the ubiquity of such expressions led to similar "New Israel" ideas among the common people. One Russian folk tale of uncertain provenance actually modified the story of the Samaritan woman at the well found in John 4. In both versions, Yeshu'a/Jesus asks for a drink of water, which surprises the woman "because you are a Jew!" In the original account, his response leads to a discussion that includes the striking statement, "You (Samaritans) bow to that you do not know; we (Jews) bow to that we know, for salvation is of the Jews!" In the Russian folk tale, the response is quite different but just as surprising: "You are lying (when you say that I am a Jew); I am pure Russian!" Material such as this illustrates a popular variation on how Jewish writings were appropriated, modified, and assimilated into the national-religious self-conception of Russia.

The notion of Moscow or Russia as the "Third Rome" has a curious and still somewhat unclear history. A few decades ago, this idea was being touted as the key to understanding all of Russian civilization. Now some scholars think that it hardly existed at all as an official theory. And those who do accept its validity disagree on its meaning. According to what is still the most common interpretation, the "Third Rome" idea expressed a notion of translatio imperii, or "transfer of empire." Thus, the primacy of Rome in universal sacred history passed first to Constantinople and then to Moscow (or Rus' generally, or perhaps even Novgorod). Such an idea would not contradict but rather complement the New Israel formulation. Putting the two theories together, Russia figures as the second Byzantium, the third Rome, and the fourth Israel. In a religious or eschatological sense, Russia then looks like the repository of salvation and defender of truth for the whole world -- since, in the classic formulation attributed to the monk Filofei of Pskov, "a fourth Rome there shall not be!" Naturally, scholars disagree on whether Muscovite ideology of the 16th-17th centuries really had such a "messianist" flair or not. I do tend to think that an element of this was present, even if it has been over-emphasized at times. Russian scribes borrowed extensively from the civilizations of Israel, Rome, and Byzantium; but they also "competed" against those perceived former vanguards in advancing Russia's own aspirations to greatness. The Time of Troubles may have seen a maturation or crystallization of such national-religious identities and self-conceptions, both among the literati and the common folk.

AD: What lessons of the time of troubles do you see as being especially pertinent today?

IG: In my book's conclusion, I cite a contemporary author (Sergei Perevezentsev) who has written about the "lessons" of the historical Time of Troubles. In his view, Russians must learn to turn to Orthodoxy and the Church as the true path, the way out of calamity, and the means of strengthening the country. This is not an uncommon view in Russia today, even though the role of the Church has become quite controversial in contemporary society. However, my research on the Orthodox Church during the Troubles tells a somewhat different story. It reveals something that everyone should know already, but that is often forgotten or obscured: that a church organization (or government or corporation or sports team) is made up of varied people who are not necessarily any better or worse than those outside the organization. They can be just as susceptible to things like greed, deception, and extortion. The Russian Orthodox Church today manifests many of the same features that characterized it 400 years ago during the Time of Troubles, including with respect to its relationships with money and power. Patriarch Kirill explicitly seeks a new "symphony" with the state, and has been known to wear a watch valued at $30,000 while actually lecturing on the importance of asceticism! Could privileging the official Church help Russia become "stronger"? Possibly. Would there be a cost -- especially a moral cost -- associated with this course of action? I believe so. One "lesson" of the Time of Troubles is that the Church and Orthodoxy did probably help to end the period of calamity -- but they also helped to cause and to perpetuate the crisis. A better solution for Russia (or any country) is for all members of society to devote themselves to honesty instead of deception and to fair dealing instead of corruption. Official, institutionalized ideologies and religions are often incapable of delivering truth because they must preserve perceived "orthodoxy."

1 comment:

  1. I'm not really comfortable with all this knocking of Patriarch Kirill for wearing an expensive watch. God knows we Catholics had and still have hierarchs (including Popes) who have spent money on far greater luxuries. This is not a matter of theology but of basic fairness...


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