Inochentism and Orthodox Christianity
Religious Dissent in the Russian and Romanian Borderlands
- ISBN: 9781472432186
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: June 2019
In Inochentism and Orthodox Christianity: Religious Dissent in the Russian and Romanian Borderlands, James Kapaló presents a fascinating study of a religious dissenting group in the borderland region of southeastern Europe over the course of the 20th century. The study focuses on the region of what is today the Republic of Moldova, but during the past century the boundaries shifted between the Russian Empire, Romania, and the Soviet Union, and the movement cut across Ukraine, Transdniestria, Moldova, and Romania. The movement emerged from within the Russian Orthodox Church, and Kapaló appropriately labels it as ‘liminal Orthodoxy,’ which drew simultaneously from and transgressed Orthodox beliefs, practices, and culture. Its followers continued to think of themselves as Orthodox, yet had a complicated relationship to the Orthodox Church, frequently rejecting the institutional church and thinking of themselves as more orthodox than the Orthodox. Kapaló employs both historical and ethnographic approaches, drawing on hagiographical and visionary texts, images, archival collected and held by state agencies which sought to control or suppress the movement, as well as interviews with contemporary followers, all presented through sophisticated analysis.
The movement grew up around the charismatic Moldovan Orthodox monk Inochentie Levizor (1875-1917), whose rise in popularity coincided with the rise in pilgrimage to a new holy site in Balta (now Ukraine). Inochentie served the pilgrims through preaching, confession, and performing exorcisms, and developed his own distinctive message focused on the imminent end of the world, in preparation for which he called on his followers to adhere to a monastic lifestyle, fast strictly, and eschew marriage. These pilgrims, many of whom experienced ecstatic possession and trances, began to proclaim Inochentie a healer and a prophet, and roamed the countryside proclaiming his message. Russian Orthodox Church authorities grew apprehensive and tried to discipline him by transferring him to another monastery under close supervision, but thousands followed him even when he was sent to a monastery in the far north. His followers came to believe that he was the Holy Spirit incarnate—a level of divinization that certainly transgressed any acceptable norms for the Orthodox Church.
In the interwar period, Bessarabia (the region between the Dniester and the Prut rivers) became part of the greater Romanian state, where most Inochentists found themselves. The state was preoccupied with trying to create a unified nation centered on national identity and Orthodox Christianity, and as a result state authorities and police sought to control and eradicate Inochentism. As a result, the movement went underground and branched off into various subgroups in interwar Romania. After World War II, Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union, and once again the Inochentists were subject to repression, although the group paradoxically grew in the Khrushchev period (1958-1965), when renewed anti-religious campaigns closed Orthodox churches and monasteries and drove Orthodox believers underground. As a perpetually liminal religious movement, the Inochentists were adept at hiding from authorities and survived the Soviet period.
One distinctive feature of Kapaló’s approach is that he examines the Soviet and Romanian states in parallel. Though there is growing literature on religious repression under the Soviet regime, Kapaló highlights the repressive nature of the Romanian regime during the interwar and especially war-time periods, before Bessarabia was a part of the Soviet Union. (He passes over the Terror of 1937-1938, however, when religious activists of all stripes were most systematically and brutally repressed, which certainly had no parallel in Romania.) This history is complex to untangle throughout, as the author has to sift between competing sources that are alternately hagiographical or hostile. Moreover, he presents a compelling analysis of the vernacular religion of the people and its creative adaptation of Orthodox iconographic style to depict its own leaders and beliefs.
Kapaló argues that “Inochentism sprang from monastic roots” (266) and that it retained links with monastic culture as it continued to develop. The analysis would have been enriched by a deeper engagement with literature on Russian monasticism of the period (beyond Irina Paert’s work on elders), not only to elucidate those connections, but also to reveal ways in which Inochentism profoundly differed from monastic culture (such as its emphasis on learning humility through obedience). The charismatic authority of spiritual elders frequently was in tension with the bureaucratic authority of the institutional church, yet a modus vivendi was most often found. These patterns, rather than “encapsulating the identity of Inochentie” (59), suggest how Inochentie departed from that model. Although the book engages the literature on religious dissenters in Russia and the Soviet Union, this is less the case concerning the literature on the Orthodox Church itself.
As recent literature has highlighted, late Imperial Russian Orthodoxy was very dynamic, with an upsurge of monasticism, pilgrimage, and other expressions of popular religiosity; at the same time, there were tensions within the church about when creative expressions transgressed acceptable boundaries. This context could have been brought out more, and Inochentism could have been compared with other movements that transgressed the boundaries of Orthodoxy—such as the Ioannites (the followers of John of Kronstadt), the Name Glorifiers, or the “mad monk” Iliodor (Trufanov). Similarly, the fate of monastic communities that transformed themselves as agricultural collectives in the 1920s until they were repressed during collectivization might serve as a parallel to the fate of the Inochentist commune. It would have been interesting to know more about how the “Archangelists” responded after one of the movement’s leaders, Alexandru Culeac, effectively confessed in the Soviet press that it was a sham (143, 247). Finally, Kapaló emphasizes that the Orthodox Church viewed the Inochentists as sectarians because of their rejection of marriage, their communal lifestyle, and the prominence of women in the movement; but were the theological issues—namely the Inochentists’ tendency to deify their leaders—so unimportant to Orthodox church leaders?
The book raises many fascinating questions, not all of which can be readily answerable from the sources. As it is, the book makes a singular contribution: theoretically compelling, it is the first comprehensive treatment of religious culture in a very complex region with shifting boundaries and multiple ethnic and linguistic groups, almost completely unknown to Western scholars of religion.
Scott M. Kenworthy is a professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University (Ohio).Scott KenworthyDate Of Review:April 1, 2022