Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Religion and Authoritarianism by Karrie Koesel (University of Oregon). The publisher’s description follows.
This book provides a rare window into the micropolitics of contemporary authoritarian rule through a comparison of religious-state relations in Russia and China – two countries with long histories of religious repression, and even longer experiences with authoritarian politics. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in multiple sites in these countries, this book explores what religious and political authority want from one another, how they negotiate the terms of their relationship, and how cooperative or conflicting their interactions are. This comparison reveals that while tensions exist between the two sides, there is also ample room for mutually beneficial interaction. Religious communities and their authoritarian overseers are cooperating around the core issue of politics – namely, the struggle for money, power, and prestige – and becoming unexpected allies in the process.
Even casual observers know that Orthodox Churches traditionally have close ties with the state. So many in the West don’t know what to make of the fact that, in the current conflict in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church appears to be siding with the protesters. The New York Times, for example, reports that protesters running from riot police in Kiev take refuge in a historic Orthodox monastery, and that the Church’s patriarch, Filaret (above), strongly opposes the government. Filaret has stated that Ukraine should look West and join the European Union, and that President Victor Yanukovich, who recently announced that Ukraine would not agree to a long-anticipated trade deal with the EU, should resign.
To understand what’s going on, one has to know a little about the divisions within Orthodoxy in Ukraine. Patriarch Filaret is the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyvian Patriarchate. The Kyvian Patriarchate is in schism from the main body of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which, as its name suggests, is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The Moscow Patriarchate does not recognize the canonical status of the Kyvian Patriarchate; indeed, no Orthodox Church in the world does. (To make things even more confusing, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA is under the jurisdiction of neither the Kyvian or Moscow Patriarchates, but the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople).
It’s not at all surprising, therefore, that Patriarch Filaret would support closer ties with Europe and a weakening of Russian influence in Ukraine. He and his flock are likely to have more status and independence in a Ukraine that looks toward the West. This is just another example of how religious and political interests often converge. As Daniel Larison writes, it will be interesting to see if there is now a pro-Russian pushback from those Ukrainians loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.
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.