"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).

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Heretics and Colonizers

It has been fashionable for quite some time to condemn the proponents and the very idea of both "colonialism" and of "heterodoxy," sophomorically and simplistically insisting that both are nothing more or other than a disguised version of libido dominandi. One can accept without anxiety some recognition that some battles against heresy may have been motivated more by "political" concerns than doctrinal ones per se (if, indeed, one can even make such distinctions without anachronism: I am skeptical that one can); but such a recognition should in no way trouble any Christian who recognizes that the Church, like Christ, has both a human and a divine nature. Similarly, one can accept that not all colonial ventures ended happily--though many did, on balance, if the still-flourishing democracies in countries of the former British Empire are reliable examples, and I think they are.

Along comes a new book--new in paperback form, that is, having been published in 2005 in hardback--by Nicholas Breyfogle, which examines the linked phenomenon of Heretics And Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire In The South Caucasus (Cornell University Press, 2011, 347pp.). 

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Heretics and Colonizers, Nicholas B. Breyfogle explores the dynamic intersection of Russian borderland colonization and popular religious culture. He reconstructs the story of the religious sectarians (Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks) who settled, either voluntarily or by force, in the newly conquered lands of Transcaucasia in the nineteenth century. By ordering this migration in 1830, Nicholas I attempted at once to cleanse Russian Orthodoxy of heresies and to populate the newly annexed lands with ethnic Slavs who would shoulder the burden of imperial construction. 
Breyfogle focuses throughout on the lives of the peasant settlers, their interactions with the peoples and environment of the South Caucasus, and their evolving relations with Russian state power. He draws on a wide variety of archival sources, including a large collection of previously unexamined letters, memoirs, and other documents produced by the sectarians that allow him unprecedented insight into the experiences of colonization and religious life. Although the settlers suffered greatly in their early years in hostile surroundings, they in time proved to be not only model Russian colonists but also among the most prosperous of the Empire’s peasants. Banished to the empire’s periphery, the sectarians ironically came to play indispensable roles in the tsarist imperial agenda.
The book culminates with the dramatic events of the Dukhobor pacifist rebellion, a movement that shocked the tsarist government and received international attention. In the early twentieth century, as the Russian state sought to replace the sectarians with Orthodox settlers, thousands of Molokans and Dukhobors immigrated to North America, where their descendants remain to this day. 

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