Holy Rus'

The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia

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John P. Burgess
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Until recently, the study of Russian Orthodoxy has mostly been the preserve of a narrow group of specialists. In the past decade, the Russian Orthodox Church has received more attention outside of that circle, as it has clearly played an increasingly important role in Putin’s Russia. Although the specialist literature has grown more diverse in recent years—with analyses from political scientists, sociologists, and ethnographers—what attracts broader attention is the political role of the Russian Church. That attention, moreover, has overwhelmingly been negative in the West, ranging from the Church hierarchy’s support for President Putin, anti-Westernism, anti-gay legislation, condemnation of Pussy Riot, and opposition to the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia, John Burgess is not particularly interested in those questions, and they do not feature prominently; those looking for critical reflections on the Church’s stance on such issues will be disappointed.

This book is written from the perspective of a participant-observer. Burgess, a Protestant theologian, spent two years in Russia (in 2004–2005 and 2011–2012) and traveled extensively, and he looks at things from the vantage of a sympathetic outsider who has nevertheless immersed himself in the life of Russian Orthodoxy. Although his method is ethnographic, the questions he asks are not those of an anthropologist, but of a theologian. The book’s starting point is the Orthodox Church’s attempt to “re-Christianize” Russian society after seventy years of state-sponsored atheism. Although some three-quarters of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians today, the percentage who are active is very low. Therefore, the Church sees its task as “in-churching” the population of nominal Orthodox Russians.

Burgess states that “Orthodoxy promises intimate, trusting relationship between divinity and humanity and among humans. Here and now, even if fragmentarily and incompletely, people are able to pursue holiness and deification. They begin to take wonder at existence and overcome alienation and enmity” (208). For Russia, this vision of reality and the aspiration for beauty and spiritual transformation has not only been a personal pursuit, but a national one, and Russians believe that this reflection of the transcendent can be perceived in their greatest contributions to culture (in literature, music, art, architecture). This is the vision which Burgess calls “Holy Rus’,” and which he sees the Russian Church as trying to recapture since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Burgess takes seriously the project of “re-Christianizing” Russian society and drawing people into the vision of Holy Rus’, and seeks to ascertain how the Church is going about it, what are the challenges, and what are the results. He is less interested in official pronouncements than in the real efforts on the ground as carried out by local Orthodox parishes, monasteries, educational institutions, and organizations. The central chapters of the book take up a series of case studies examining precisely these areas of church life: education (at all levels), social ministries to those in need, remembrance of the repression by the Soviets through the canonization of New Martyrs, and the revitalization of parish life. In each of these cases, Burgess sees real successes and real lives being touched for the good. But the numbers of those touched remain relatively small because, in most cases, someone has to choose to get engaged. The basic problem remains: how to transform the zakhozhane—those who “drop by,” for example, just to light a candle—into prikhozhane—parishioners, or regular church goers.

One of the central themes of the book is the tension between religion as personal transformation and “civil religion”—where religious symbols and stories provide meaning and cohesiveness to society. Burgess admits that as a Protestant coming from a pluralistic Western environment, the attempt to restore Orthodox values to public life is a “highly dubious proposition” (42) because Christianity is supposed to be about the personal pursuit of the spiritual—not about cultural or national identity. Moreover, the quest to re-Christianize Russia can and does go hand-in-hand with an effort to reassert the Church’s dominant position in society bolstered by (and in return bolstering) the state, running the risk of seeking power and privilege while compromising its freedom and integrity.

Many actors within the Russian Church recognize these dilemmas. But overall, they view the process of re-Christianizing individuals and society as fundamentally interconnected. And though the ambiguities never disappear for Burgess, he concludes that the greater presence of the Church in Russian society increases the opportunities for un-churched Russians to encounter it and its call for something transcendent and transformative. The paradox is powerfully encapsulated at the end, when he recounts the story of a young couple who had studied in religious schools but became disaffected by the current Church. They ask Burgess how he can title his book Holy Rus’ “when you can see the Church’s obsession with power and control?” Yet to Burgess’s surprise, they tell him they still plan to baptize their son, and when they walk into a church or hear the liturgical music or make pilgrimage to a monastery, “something ineffable touches us,” which is not about the Church, but “about goodness and love, beauty and justice” (224). In essence, they have answered their own question.

One important point that comes through in this book which is easily lost on those who focus on the politics and pronouncements of the patriarch is the sheer diversity within contemporary Russian Orthodoxy. And though the “official” Church may dominate the public face—which is now closely tied to the Putin regime—on the ground many clergy and laity are unhappy with the compromises, with criticisms often shared by both “liberals” and “conservative.”

Although some readers will be dissatisfied with Burgess’s approach as too sympathetic or insufficiently critical, especially of the Russian Church’s political role, that is clearly not what the book set out to do. What it succeeds in doing, rather, is getting beyond high level politics to the grass roots of actual engagement—and demonstrating the appeal that the Orthodox Church does have for a large segment of the Russian population, perhaps despite the political role of the patriarchate. By its very nature, the book is anecdotal, though firmly rooted in the scholarly literature about religion in Russia; rather than an attempt at a comprehensive portrayal of Orthodoxy in contemporary Russia, it is rather like a series of snapshots, conveyed with insight and nuance. With that in mind, the book is engaging, thoughtful, personal, and accessible by the non-specialist, and can profitably be read by anyone seeking to understand the role of religion in contemporary Russia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott M. Kenworthy is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University.

Date of Review: 
March 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John P. Burgess teaches at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A Fulbright Scholar to Russia in 2011, he has travelled extensively within Russia, lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and made pilgrimage to some of Russian Orthodoxy’s most important monasteries, parishes, and holy sites.  He is the author of four other books on religious subjects and lives in Pittsburgh, PA.


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