[Paleopsych] TLS: Priests and peasants
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Tue Mar 29 20:45:08 UTC 2005
Priests and peasants
16 July 2004
RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY ON THE EVE OF REVOLUTION. Vera Shevzov. 358pp.
Oxford University Press. £30 (US $49.95). - 0 19 515465 7.
Since the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union there has
been a revival of interest both in the Russian Orthodox Church, and in
its immediate pre- Revolutionary history. Vera Shevzov, an assistant
professor in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at
Smith College, has written a fascinating study of Orthodoxy as it was
experienced by ordinary Russians in the decades between the great
reforms of the 1860s - beginning with the liberation of the serfs in
1861 - and the Revolution of 1917. Drawing largely on archival
material only recently easily accessible, she examines what it meant
to belong to the Orthodox community at a time when the Russian Empire
was fast approaching its fatal crisis.
Reforms in the governance of the Empire initiated a new era in the
life of the State Church. The peasants were now free to lead their
lives by themselves. The educational efforts of both Church and State
improved their religious knowledge, and encouraged them to play a less
passive part in church life. In particular the Revolution of 1905,
which gave other faith communities legal rights, initiated a period of
intense self-examination in the Church. It culminated in the
All-Russian Church Council of 1917-18, which restored the Moscow
Patriarchate and reformed Church structures.
Hotly debated in those years was the definition of "Church" itself.
Two principal views emerged. Some, in line with the reorganization of
the Church imposed by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century,
began with the nationwide institution. They emphasized the role of the
bishops and clergy, and, under the influence of Roman Catholic
teaching, often distinguished them as teachers from the laity who were
taught. Others, influenced by the ecclesiology of sobornost
("catholicity" or "togetherness") advocated by Khomiakov, began with
the parish, the local community, and emphasized the unity of clergy
and laity in one community of faith. This debate remained unresolved
In the life of ordinary Orthodox believers, most of whom in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived in villages, the church
building was central.
It was the sacred space around which was constituted the worshipping
community, whose members were responsible for building and maintaining
it. Churches played a key role in the celebration of village feasts,
some of which celebrated major festivals in the ecclesiastical
calendar, while others were local in character.
Chapels, too, were significant. They were constructed by individuals
or local communities in places sanctified by a miracle or by the
appearance of an icon.
Icons were omnipresent in Orthodox life and devotion. Many were
considered miracle-working, and were the objects of special
veneration. Among the most popular were icons of Mary the Mother of
God. Shevzov illustrates these aspects of Russian Orthodox life with
abundant instances drawn from the material she has studied. Her book
reveals the crisis in self- understanding faced by Orthodoxy on the
eve of the Revolution in 1917. Unable to agree even about the
character and nature of the Church itself and the role of the laity
within it, churchmen disagreed about whether to concentrate on the
renewal of the parish or the restoration of the Patriarchate.
Meanwhile believers lived their lives as members of the Orthodox
community in the framework of a complex Christian narrative in which
Scripture, liturgical tradition, and local and personal experience
were interwoven. They were aware of the institutional aspects of
Orthodoxy: the Holy Synod in St Petersburg and the local bishop rather
closer at hand. But alongside the bishop's authority believers often
set that of Mary, experienced more intimately through her icons.
If Russian Orthodoxy was passing through an internal crisis, it was
also faced with external problems. Modernization in Russia, as
elsewhere, brought many difficulties for the Church. Religious faith
was questioned, and often rejected, by the intelligentsia, even if at
the beginning of the twentieth century some of its members began to
take a renewed interest in Orthodoxy. A still greater crisis loomed.
Hardly had the Church succeeded in calling the long-awaited Local
(that is, Russian) Council than it was confronted by the militant
atheism of the Soviet Union. Its internal debates were forcibly
suspended, to be resumed only after the collapse of the Soviet Empire
and its Communist regime. Vera Shevzov's book is not only of immense
interest as a historical study, but contributes to an understanding of
the Russian Orthodox Church today, which despite the immense changes
of the Communist period has still to resolve some of the issues of the
immediate pre-Revolutionary period, including those of the parish and
the role of the laity.
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