Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War

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Betsy C. Perabo
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474253758.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Betsy Perabo’s monograph, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo-Japanese War, is a well-written, accessible, and thought-provoking study that advances scholarship on both the history of this early 20th-century war and the political theology and war ethics of the Russian Orthodox Church. Perabo rightly claims that “Western Christian discourse on political theology and war all too often has an American or Anglo-American focus” (4). Her examination of political-theological themes in the context of the Russo-Japanese war and her use of many Russian-language sources reduces this sizeable gap in English-language scholarship. Similarly, her claim that “Western Christian theologians often see Eastern Orthodoxy as a foreign form of Christianity that Roman Catholics and Protestants must leave to the Orthodox experts” (4) resonates with my experience—and frustration—as one such “Orthodox expert.” While many Orthodox thinkers (especially in countries like Russia, Greece, and Romania) eschew deep engagement with Western Christian sources, too many Protestant and Catholic thinkers continue to teach and write in ways that elide Orthodox Christianity. Thus, Perabo’s efforts to dig deeply into Russian Orthodoxy’s history and tradition, bringing them into constructive conversation with Western thinkers and concepts, are a welcome and important development.

Among Perabo’s most valuable contributions is her presentation and discussion of primary source materials written by Bishop Nikolai (Kasatkin) of Japan. Nikolai, who would later be canonized as a saint and given the title “equal to the apostles” by the Patriarchate of Moscow, was entrusted with shepherding the Orthodox faithful of Japan from 1861 until his repose in 1912. He faced the extraordinary challenge of being a Russian native pastoring to a young Japanese Orthodox Christian flock in Japan throughout the entire Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Perabo’s analysis of Nikolai’s journals offers a fascinating glimpse into the missionary philosophy of the Russian Orthodox Church at the turn of the century, the pastoral virtues and cultural sensitivity of an exceptional foreign missionary, and the interior struggle of a genuine man of faith torn apart by a sense of loyalty to both sides in the war and by the spiritual heaviness of violence and death on a massive scale. Perabo complements Nikolai’s views with insightful passages from other sources ranging from Russian and Japanese media reports to the journals and writings of Tsar Nicholas II, Leo Tolstoy, Konstantin Druzhinin, and Father John (Sergiyev) of Kronstadt, among others. 

While both Perabo’s commitment to examining political-theological sources from outside of North American and Western European contexts and her (very fair) presentation of the practices and beliefs of Orthodox Christians during the Russo-Japanese war deserve praise, the book’s argument is not as clear or as developed as one might hope. The work reads well, but it reads more as religious history than as a constructive analysis of political theology or war ethics. If one is looking for a theologically robust account of Orthodox reflection on war and empire during this historical period, one will likely be disappointed. Important perspectives—like those of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Solov’ev are introduced but not synthesized. Similarly, if one is hoping to come away with a sense of how Russian Orthodoxy’s political theology or ethics of war compare to those of prominent Roman Catholic or Protestant thinkers, Perabo’s study will help, but it leaves the analytical heavy lifting to the reader. The figure whose writings are addressed more than any other, Bishop Nikolai, are—by Perabo’s own admission (172)—neither systematic nor especially theological. This is not to say that his role and witness before, during, and after the war do not merit the reader’s attention; it is simply to say that the author’s efforts to present Nikolai’s “political theology” seem somewhat misguided, and her contention that “the book demonstrates how the Russian Orthodox tradition both supplements and challenges the Christian moral language of war used in the Western just war tradition” seems overstated. 

I would, however, like to end on a strongly positive note because I genuinely learned much from Perabo’s book. She offers insights into Russian religiosity and politics—from religious freedom and missiology to military martyrdom and Russian exceptionalism—that are just as relevant for understanding today’s issues as they were a century ago. Even if Perabo does not accomplish all she sets out to do in this short work, she accomplishes much, and I recommend her book to scholars and general readers alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Perry T. Hamalis is Cecelia Schneller Mueller Professor of Religions at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Betsy C. Perabo is professor of religious studies at Western Illinois University.

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