Beyond the Monastery Walls

The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814-1914

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Patrick Lally Michelson
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this beautifully written and important book Patrick Michelson contends that for many Russian Orthodox hierarchs today, “asceticism is generally considered to be the practice of national and confessional identity, a method of life that both generates and embodies a specifically Russian Orthodox mind-set” (4). For these thinkers, to be Russian is to be Orthodox and to be Orthodox is to be ascetic. Russian Orthodox asceticism is often contrasted favorably to the corrupt ideologies associated with the West—individualism, sexual license, secularism, or capitalism. 

How did a set of Christian practices become part of a national myth? Michelson argues that the equating of “Russianness” with “asceticism” originated in the theological academies of the 19th century, during a long period of patristic and monastic revival. In the previous century, Russian rulers like Peter I (r. 1682-1725) successfully curtailed the growth of monasteries, placed restrictionson the tonsure, and established new state controls over monks and nuns. Catherine II (r. 1762-96) went further, secularizing church property, closing over 500 monasteries, and laicizing two-thirds of the empire’s Orthodox monks and nuns. While in 1700 Russia had 1,201 monasteries and convents, by the end of 1764 that number had been reduced to 225. In the late 18th century however, the monk Paisii (Velichkovskii, 1722-94) led an intellectual defense of contemplative monasticism, translated the Philokalia—a collection of teachings on prayer compiled by the Athonite monks Nicodemus the Hagiorite [1749-1809] and Macarius of Corinth [1731-1805]—from Greek into Slavonic, and promoted the techniques of hesychastic prayer. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Emperor Alexander I (r. 1801-1825) turned away from the ecumenical mysticism that he had favored in his youth and embraced a more traditional form of Orthodoxy. During the latter part of Alexander’s reign, the Russian Orthodox theological academies initiated a major project to translate many of the early church fathers into vernacular Russian. At the same time, the numbers of monasteries, monks, and nuns also began to grow once again, and by 1914, there were over 1,000 monasteries and convents in the empire.

These broad movements framed a debate about the nature of asceticism and its relationship to the Russian people. In the 1860s, progressive revolutionaries such as Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828-89) had embraced the atheism and materialism of contemporary German philosophers, including Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72). In his novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), Chernyshevskii offered his own atheistic version of asceticism embodied in characters who sacrificed themselves for revolutionary ideals rather than for personal salvation. Faced with such attacks on theism, many Russian Orthodox intellectuals responded by identifying Christian asceticism as an essential Russian characteristic. Drawing on both Kantian idealism and the church fathers, the philosopher Pamfil Iurkevich (1826-74) developed a Christian anthropology that denied Chernyshevskii’s materialism by asserting the reality of humanity’s spiritual nature. Beyond this, Iurkevich explicitly connected ascetic practice with a conservative politics of transcendence that supported monarchism. Michelson contends that Iurkevich engaged in the modern nationalist project of mythmaking, reifying the “Russian people” and politicizing monasticism.

In the late 19th century the novelist Fedor Dostoevskii (1821-81), Bishop Feofan the Recluse (1815-94), the monk Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807-67), and Archimandrite Mikhail Kozlov, (1826-84) sought to popularize what Michelson labels moderate “philokalic asceticism” which “stressed Christian renovation through acts of mental discipline, prayer, dispassion, and stillness” over a harsher “somatic asceticism” that included severe mortification of the flesh (32). Writing for broad audiences, these religious thinkers deliberately brought the ascetic practices outlined in the Philokalia “beyond the monastery walls” and into the Orthodox laity. Influenced by such ideas, the monarchist philosopher Konstantin Leont’ev (1831-91) made asceticism a central pillar of Byzantine civilization that offered an alternative to Western progressive positivism. By the time of the First World War, the nationalist myth that attributed ascetic qualities to the Russian people—who were engaged in a universal redemptive mission—was widely accepted among the luminaries of Russia’s “religious renaissance.” Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944), for example, considered Russia’s involvement in the War-to-End-All-Wars as a selfless ascetic feat [podvig] of the Russian people. Some of this imagery survived into the Soviet Union, whose official and popular historians also portrayed the victorious Great Fatherland War (World War II) in similar language. However, as Michelson notes in his epilogue, Christian asceticism proved unequal to the twin challenges of war and revolution. Nevertheless, the discourse about asceticism continued in the Russian Orthodox diaspora. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox thinkers turned again to this asceticism discourse as they sought a new national narrative. 

To his credit, Michelson notes that asceticism is a fuzzy concept that means different things to different people. Part of his challenge is to illustrate how the debates over asceticism shaped its meaning during the long 19th century. At times, the term asceticism seems so broad as to lose any special significance. Are gentleness, peace, love, and sympathy really “ascetic attitudes” rather than normal Christian virtues (178)? Can all the church fathers be considered ascetics? Can “philokalic asceticism” with its bodily exercises and breathing rituals really be so sharply distinguished from “somatic asceticism”? Curiously, Michelson never mentions the radical priestless Old Believers who rejected the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon (r. 1652-58) as apostasy. These Orthodox dissenters denied the possibility of marriage and lawful sexual intercourse in the age of the Antichrist; they brought asceticism “beyond the monastery walls” long before the seminary professors did. Michelson is more narrowly focused on the elite discourse of a few influential intellectuals who developed a powerful narrative about the nature and redemptive mission of the Russian people.

By analyzing these myths and the discourse that generated them, Michelson has illuminated an important aspect of the debates over the “Russian idea” and the continuing efforts of politicians, statesmen, and church leaders to justify the multicultural union that was the Russian Empire, and is the Russian Federation. By tracing the development of these nationalist myths and setting them in their 19th-century philosophical contexts he convincingly demonstrates the power of religion to shape politics. Anyone interested in the relationships between religion, nationalism, and empire will find this book enlightening.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Eugene Clay is Associate Professor and Head of the Religious Studies Faculty at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Lally Michelson is associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University and the coeditor of Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.