This month, the University of Chicago Press published Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism, by Anya Bernstein (Harvard University). The publisher’s description follows.
Religious Bodies Politic examines the complex relationship between transnational religion and politics through the lens of one cosmopolitan community in Siberia: Buryats, who live in a semiautonomous republic within Russia with a large Buddhist population. Looking at religious transformation among Buryats across changing political economies, Anya Bernstein argues that under conditions of rapid social change—such as those that accompanied the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and the fall of the Soviet Union—Buryats have used Buddhist “body politics” to articulate their relationship not only with the Russian state, but also with the larger Buddhist world.
During these periods, Bernstein shows, certain people and their bodies became key sites through which Buryats conformed to and challenged Russian political rule. She presents particular cases of these emblematic bodies—dead bodies of famous monks, temporary bodies of reincarnated lamas, ascetic and celibate bodies of Buddhist monastics, and dismembered bodies of lay disciples given as imaginary gifts to spirits—to investigate the specific ways in which religion and politics have intersected. Contributing to the growing literature on postsocialism and studies of sovereignty that focus on the body, Religious Bodies Politic is a fascinating illustration of how this community employed Buddhism to adapt to key moments of political change.
This month, Cornell University published Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia by Valerie Kivelson (University of Michigan). The publisher’s description follows.
In the courtrooms of seventeenth-century Russia, the great majority of those accused of witchcraft were male, in sharp contrast to the profile of accused witches across Catholic and Protestant Europe in the same period. While European courts targeted and executed overwhelmingly female suspects, often on charges of compacting with the devil, the tsars’ courts vigorously pursued men and some women accused of practicing more down-to-earth magic, using poetic spells and home-grown potions. Instead of Satanism or heresy, the primary concern in witchcraft testimony in Russia involved efforts to use magic to subvert, mitigate, or avenge the harsh conditions of patriarchy, serfdom, and social hierarchy.
Broadly comparative and richly illustrated with color plates, Desperate Magic places the trials of witches in the context of early modern Russian law, religion, and society. Piecing together evidence from trial records to illuminate some of the central puzzles of Muscovite history, Kivelson explores the interplay among the testimony of accusers, the leading questions of the interrogators, and the confessions of the accused. Assembled, they create a picture of a shared moral vision of the world that crossed social divides. Because of the routine use of torture in extracting and shaping confessions, Kivelson addresses methodological and ideological questions about the Muscovite courts’ equation of pain and truth, questions with continuing resonance in the world today. Within a moral economy that paired unquestioned hierarchical inequities with expectations of reciprocity, magic and suspicions of magic emerged where those expectations were most egregiously violated.
Witchcraft in Russia surfaces as one of the ways that oppression was contested by ordinary people scrambling to survive in a fiercely inequitable world. Masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and officers and soldiers alike believed there should be limits to exploitation and saw magic deployed at the junctures where hierarchical order veered into violent excess.
Law and religion is not at the very forefront of the rapidly changeable geo-political situation regarding Syria (though, as we have noted here, it is certainly in the immediate background). But somehow, some way, law and religion managed to make its way into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New York Times editorial (which the Times decided to title, “A Plea for Caution From Russia“), printed on no less exceptional a date than September 11. After condemning “the language of force” (at least when used by the United States) and praising the newly emergent “growing trust” that marks his “working and personal relationship with President Obama,” Putin saw fit to throw a final rhetorical body-blow against American exceptionalism by deploying the language of law and religion:
I carefully studied [Obama's] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
My friend and St. John’s colleague, Peggy McGuinness, alerts me to a worthwhile review essay by the Berkley Center’s Irina Papkova, “Believing in Russia,” on a religion and media blog called The Revealer. Papkova reviews Geraldine Fagan’s Believing in Russia–Religious Policy After Communism (2013). Here’s an excerpt:
Without being iconoclastic, “Believing in Russia” is based on impeccable research, and brings a useful corrective to many widely held assumptions about religion in Russian society. Journalists writing about Russian politics for major news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post usually present a cozy relationship between the ROC and the Putin regime, suggesting that this relationship is detrimental to religious minorities and non-religious Russians. There is some truth to this view but, as Fagan’s work demonstrates, the marginalization of minority faiths has as much to do with bureaucratic incompetence and the weakness of the rule of law in Russia as with the ROC’s plan to obliterate competition from other religions. Fagan tells the story of how religious policy is created and applied across the Russian Federation. In doing so, she brings to light the role of personalities and personal convictions of bureaucrats in creating guidelines for how the state should deal with religion, and the efficiency with which they are applied.
You can read the whole review here.
Next month, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. will publish Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia (2013)by Koenraad De Wolf. The publisher’s description follows.
This gripping book tells the largely unknown story of longtime Russian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov — from Communist youth to religious dissident, in the Gulag and back again. Ogorodnikov’s courage has touched people from every walk of life, including world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.
In the 1970s Ogorodnikov performed a feat without precedent in the Soviet Union: he organized thousands of Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians in an underground group called the Christian Seminar. When the KGB gave him the option to leave the Soviet Union rather than face the Gulag, he firmly declined because he wanted to change “his” Russia from the inside out. His willingness to sacrifice himself and be imprisoned meant leaving behind his wife and newborn child. Continue reading
Last week’s post about WEIRD values (that’s “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”) drew a number of comments over at First Thoughts, where I cross-posted. Readers focused on the implications for the West’s relations with the Muslim world. It’s worth noting, though, that the clash is not limited to Muslim-majority societies. Most of the world is non-WEIRD. Events is Russia last week demonstrate what I mean.
By now, most readers are familiar with Pussy Riot, the feminist punk band that stormed the main altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to protest collusion between the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin. Three members of the band were convicted of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in prison. Last week, authorities released one of the three on appeal, in response to evidence that she had not, in fact, participated in the cathedral protest. The other two band members continue to serve their sentences.
In the West, Pussy Riot has become a cause célèbre, with human rights groups protesting the authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia. This is not surprising. From a Western perspective, the band’s punishment seems unduly harsh. Yes, Pussy Riot insulted a place of worship – one with important, and sad, historical associations – but no one was harmed. At most, the members should have been fined for a misdemeanor and let go. Within Russia, however, support for Pussy Riot is remarkably low. Although some Russians believe the band members made a valid point about church corruption and have served enough time, the large majority of Russians apparently believes the sentences were appropriate, Continue reading
I assumed everything had been said about the Pussy Riot trial that ended in Moscow last week, but Rod Dreher has just posted a couple of thoughtful emails about the case from a Russian Orthodox Christian who has asked to remain anonymous. The emails are fairly long, and some of what the author says will interest only people who closely follow Orthodox Church theology and politics. Much of what he says is of broader interest, though. He explains that Orthodox believers in Russia feel besieged from without and within the Church: both from juvenile antics like the Pussy Riot protest and from corruption within the Russian Orthodox Church itself. The current Patriarch and his allies in the hierarchy, the author says, are reverting to an old-style Russian melding of church and state, endorsing Putin in return for money, status, and freedom from accountability. Here’s a sample:
[A]s Orthodox Christians in Russia, we are beset by both – attacks from the “outside” insulting our Church, as well as from irrational and irresponsible actions of our own clergy and even – the patriarchate’s officials. Unlike our brothers and sisters in [other Orthodox churches], we, in Russia, have no ability to ask or receive accountability from our hierarchs and primates. And this, truly has a devastating effect on the state of the Church and its reputation in Russia. Should not such problems be openly addressed outside the internet? Should not we speak of our own sins in the wake of new attacks on our Church?
If you’re interested, read the emails in their entirety.
We try to give both sides of the story at CLR Forum, so here’s a link to thoughtful defense of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot by National Review‘s John O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan writes that he initially had no sympathy for the members of the band, but that he has changed his mind on reading their in-court statements. In his view, the Pussy Riot protest has been misunderstood by critics as an anti-Christian act. (It’s a misunderstanding the band’s supporters apparently share: activists cut down a memorial cross in Kiev, and Madonna stomped on a cross at a recent concert, to express their solidarity). If you read the statements, O’Sullivan argues, Pussy Riot comes across as a group of sincere and thoughtful Christians who are protesting the corruption of the Orthodox Church and its subservience to Putin.
O’Sullivan’s defense is interesting, but I don’t really buy it. The members of Pussy Riot, who have been known to stage public orgies in museums, haven’t shown a lot of interest in Christianity before. The translations of the statements I’ve seen on Rod Dreher’s site throw in a lot of stuff besides Christianity and seem, well, adolescent in their insistence on the speakers’ authenticity and intellectual importance. (Anytime speakers compare themselves to Socrates drinking the hemlock, you’ve got to be a little skeptical). Being juvenile is no reason to be in prison, of course; the authorities should have fined the members of Pussy Riot and let them go. It’s a stretch to see them as Christian martyrs, though.
Over at Real Clear Religion, Baylor historian Philip Jenkins has a powerful essay on the Pussy Riot trial and the Western media’s failure to take seriously the religious provocation the stunt represented:
Putin may be a thug, and Pussy Riot might be feminist warriors for human rights, but the particular act for which they faced trial is much more controversial than is commonly reported in the West. A good case can be made that it was a grievous act of religious hate crime, of a kind that would be roundly condemned if it happened in a country that the West happened to like.
Jenkins recounts the long history of Christian persecution under the Soviets, which involved intimidation and murder on a massive scale, often accompanied by anti-Christian agitprop in sacred places. Jenkins writes:
Russia’s new religious freedom is a very tender shoot, and the prospect of future turmoil has to agonize those believers who recall bygone horrors. These fears are all the more pressing when modern-day activists seem to reproduce exactly the blasphemous deeds of the past, and even in the precise places. When modern-day Orthodox look at Pussy Riot, they see the ghosts of Alexandra Kollontai and her militiamen, or the old Soviet League of Militant Godless. Are they wrong to do so? . . .
So no, I won’t be giving to any Pussy Riot support groups.
I’ve written before that Pussy Riot has been in prison for long enough; a two-year sentence for what they did seems very disproportionate. I’d have fined them for trespassing and let them go. But it is striking that so few in the West see the other side of the story.
Anatole France famously observed that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges. What would he have said about this weekend’s events in Marseille? At a rally in solidarity with Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band currently in prison for hooliganism, a group of protesters donned the band’s trademark neon balaclavas (above). The police immediately arrested the protesters for violating the French ban on veiling one’s face in public. The ban, which went into effect last year, was obviously directed at Islamic niqabs. To avoid any appearance of bias, however, the law formally forbids face veils generally. If tried and convicted, the protesters are subject to a fine of €150 and a compulsory citizenship course. CLR published a symposium on the ban and other aspects of church-state relation in France in 2010 – check it out here.
Posted in Commentary, Mark L. Movsesian
Tagged Comparative Law and Religion, France, Headscarves, Islam, Laicite, Religion in Europe, Religious Freedom, Religious Liberty, Russia, veils