The field of religious studies in general, and the study of global Christianity in particular, both suffer from a lack of understanding of, and exposure to, Eastern Christianity. Understanding World Christianity: Russia addresses this shortcoming through an appraisal of Russia, perhaps the most prominent and visible exemplar of the rich traditions found in the Christian East. The volume is part of an ongoing series on Christianity across the globe. Historian Scott Kenworthy and religious studies scholar Alexander Agadjanian have blended their individual specialties to produce a fluid and thorough synthesis of Christianity as practiced in Russia.
The authors show how Christianity, and especially the Orthodox Church, has played a central role in Russian cultural, political, and social developments. This began with Kievan Rus’, a loosely organized federation of Eastern and Northern peoples existing from the late-9th to mid-13th century, and which was Christianized under Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, in 988 CE. More than a millennium later, Russia boasts the world’s fourth largest Christian population, with more than 100 million believers. The vast majority identify with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the primary (though not exclusive) focus of this volume. These processes were disrupted by seven decades of Soviet rule but are now being revived during the long Putin era. Today, 40 percent of Orthodox Christians worldwide live in Russia.
Agadjanian and Kenworthy structure their study in six chapters, adhering to the conventions of the Understanding World Christianity series. In many ways, they put forth what can credibly stand in for a thousand-year general history of Russia and its environs, from the baptism of Kievan Rus’ to the present day. They offer a nuanced primer on the place of Russia within Eastern Christianity (chapter 1), studies of the history and geographies of Russian Christianity (chapters 2 and 3), brief biographies and summaries of major figures, theologians, and theological ideas (chapters 4 and 5), and finally, a rich and instructive survey of Russian Christianity in the 21st century (chapter 6). In doing so, they offer a carefully outlined, meticulously structured exploration of Russian Orthodoxy as a distinctly Eastern Christian tradition, and in turn instructively emphasize how these practices differ from those of the Western Christian traditions more familiar to most readers.
One of the most useful sections concerns the complicated and often tragic experiences of Russian Christians during the Communist era. As the authors correctly note, this is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Soviet history, especially in the English-language historical literature. Their account is not just valuable for its thorough summary of Soviet anti-religious policies and their impact on the Russian Orthodox Church, but also for its careful attention to other, smaller Christian groups, which were subjected to these same measures of suppression and oppression.
The authors close with a compelling account of a global superpower in tension. Today, the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church has become a flashpoint in global affairs. In recent years, the Moscow Patriarchate has grown noticeably closer to the Putin regime, and religious conservatives worldwide are now looking to Russia as a lodestar for “traditional” notions of gender, sexuality, and the family as framed by the global “culture wars.” The visibility and utility of the church within Putin-era statecraft is rising, as are individual identifications with the Orthodox Church, which in 2016 was said to encompass more than 70 percent of Russia’s population. Yet as the authors assert, in terms of actual, fervent participation, however, the figure is considered to be less than 5 percent. A 2018 Pew survey found that Russia has the lowest level of active churchgoers in any predominantly-Orthodox country.
Of particular note is the authors’ description of lived religious experience, synthesizing a growing academic literature that explores both official and vernacular Orthodox practices. They write that Russian Orthodox believers establish deep connections with holy objects like icons and relics, maintain elaborate prayer rules, form relationships with spiritual elders, and attach religious meanings to natural features such as springs. In pre-revolutionary times, believers often clashed with the Russian Church and its clergy over the interpretation and management of evolving vernacular and popular devotions. According to the authors, during the Soviet period, these same elements helped believers to carve out their own personal and private spiritualities in the absence of a free and accessible institutional church. Today, they are contributing to new forms of spirituality and practice as more Russian citizens embrace Christianity. Here we see the delicate dance of Russian religiosity in its full complexity: the interrelation of personal piety with the impetus of the Church to filter and control folk religion, and the external factors which molded how believers built their religious worlds.
A shortcoming of this book, albeit minor, is the rigid structural constraints of the series, as the content within the six thematic chapters does not always flow in a logical or sequential way across the volume. Yet this does serve a purpose, in that these sections could stand in whole or part as introductory teaching texts in a variety of contexts and disciplines. For example, instructors of Russian literature will find the sections on monasticism illuminate Fyodor Dostoevsky and his characterization of Father Zosima in his seminal 1879 work The Brothers Karamazov. And students of theology will delight in the cogent summaries of major debates sprouting from the Russian tradition, as well as the brief but thorough surveys of the positions and major works of key thinkers like Pavel Florensky and Sergius Bulgakov. This is a worthy and valuable achievement, offering in just a few dozen pages numerous entry points for a rich journey through some of the most important theological writings of the Christian East.
Meticulous, wide-ranging, and backed with a definitive bibliography, this survey fills a significant gap in the literature on global Christianity, and also on Eastern Christianity. For specialists, scholars, students, and general readers alike, it offers a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the teachings and practices of Russian Christianity and serves as a rich entry point for those seeking to learn more about one of the world’s largest Christian communities.
Aram G. Sarkisian is the 2021-2022 Chabraja History Department Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University.
Aram G. Sarkisian
Date Of Review:
March 21, 2022
Scott M. Kenworthy is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University.
Alexander S. Agadjanian is faculty at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
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