Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Source Book on Lived Religion

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From sermons and clerical reports to personal stories of faith, this book of translated primary documents reveals the lived experience of Orthodox Christianity in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia. These documents allow us to hear the voices of educated and uneducated writers, of clergy and laity, nobles and merchants, workers and peasants, men and women, Russians and Ukrainians. Orthodoxy emerges here as a multidimensional and dynamic faith. Beyond enhancing our understanding of Orthodox Christianity as practiced in Imperial Russia, this thoughtfully edited volume offers broad insights into the relationship between religious narrative and social experience and reveals religion's central place in the formation of world views and narrative traditions.

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Introduction: Faith and Story in Imperial Russia

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Heather J. Coleman

STORIES LIE AT THE HEART OF EVERY FAITH, OF EVERY FAITH community, and of every individual’s religious identity. Each religious tradition shares a central story that explains, orders, and thereby gives meaning to, the universe. A set of narratives of the collective experience of that story becomes the basis for religious communities, whether denominational, national, or local. And individuals develop their religious identities as they use these public stories to make sense of their own autobiographies.1

This collection invites readers to explore how nineteenth- and early twentieth-century-Russians lived out Eastern Orthodoxy – a major Christian tradition that is relatively little known in Western scholarship and culture. Through both public narratives such as sermons, lives of saints, hymns, and clerical reports, and personal stories of faith told in diaries, memoirs, miracle tales, and confessions, the documents offered here provide new insights into the lived religious and social experience of imperial Russia.

 

1 The Miraculous Healing of the Mute Sergei Ivanov, 22 February 1833

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Christine D. Worobec

POSTHUMOUS MIRACLES BEFORE SAINTS’ RELIQUARIES AND AT gravesites that local believers thought contained the remains of holy individuals were ubiquitous across early modern and modern Orthodox Russia. They attested to the need and desire of communities to have their own protectors and intercessors before God in an uncertain world of illnesses, epidemics, and chronic conditions. Although miracles during or after the life of the holy person provided evidence of God’s grace and rationale for sanctification, the process for sainthood in the medieval and early modern periods was not regularized. The political objectives of the monastic institutions’ princely patrons, as well as local community and monastic interests, spawned petitions for canonization, to which the pre-modern church generally acquiesced.

Beginning with the mid-seventeenth-century church reforms and culminating in Peter the Great’s 1721 Spiritual Regulation and replacement of the patriarchate (established in 1589) by the Holy Synod to oversee ecclesiastical affairs, changes in the official recognition of saints occurred. Skepticism about certain devotional practices and beliefs among the laity and fears about false miracles and saints, as well as unregulated saints’ cults, made ecclesiastical hierarchs hesitant to acknowledge new saints and accept new miracles without verification. Such concerns were fueled by the growing strength of the Old Believer movement, which opposed the seventeenth-century church reforms, and the development of sectarian movements, along with the influences of the Protestant Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformation, and Enlightenment. Accordingly, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed few canonizations.

 

2 The Miraculous Revival and Death of Princess Anna Fedorovna Golitsyna, 22 May 1834

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Christine D. Worobec

TWO UNDATED COPIES OF THIS EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF Princess Anna Fedorovna Golitsyna’s miraculous revival after being pronounced dead by medical experts and of her subsequent death have survived in two different Russian archives in separate files devoted, in one case, to miracles attributed to both icons and saints and, in the other, to the full or partial biographies of spiritually uplifting individuals, most of whom had been monks. The shorter of the copies found in the latter category lists the author as Golitsyna’s spiritual adviser, the parish priest Mikhail Lavrent’evich.1 The editor of the redaction presented below is identified only by the initials G. K. The comments that G. K. made in the narrative itself, which he bracketed with the markings // and which I have kept in the translation and added where necessary, suggest that he was preparing either a sermon (if he, too, was a priest) or publication of the noblewoman’s experiences for the edification of both Orthodox believers and non-believers. The record does not contain any evidence that the supposed miracle underwent investigation or the process of verification, although the original author is careful to note that he is relaying eyewitness testimonies. Such verification had become standard by the late eighteenth century. In polemical language the editor G. K. reveals his concerns about the dangers of the triumph of scientific rationalism over religious faith as well as the popularity of Pietism and other Protestant influences among members of the Russian nobility and his belief in the strength of the Orthodox God, whose omnipotence and grace, as demonstrated in this miracle story, ultimately triumph over both science and Protestantism.

 

3 Monastic Incarceration in Imperial Russia

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A. J. Demoskoff

DURING THE IMPERIAL PERIOD, RUSSIAN ORTHODOX MONASteries often served a life-giving function, in both a spiritual and a physical sense, as centers of pilgrimage and charity.1 It would be remiss, however, to deny a more controversial side to their history. The practice of incarcerating individuals in Russian Orthodox monasteries would doubtless fall into this latter category. Peter the Great is a well-known example, since he consigned his half-sister, Sophia, to a convent in order to seize the throne in 1689. But political intrigue represents a very small percentage of the people who were confined in monasteries. More frequently, members of the clergy, landowners, and even peasants were sentenced to perform public penance by the ecclesiastical courts or by one of the many secular regional authorities.

Most people who served time in monasteries did so within the context of traditional practices of public penance. The “crime” was most likely to be a sin under biblical or church law, with sexual sins such as fornication and adultery being at the top of the list. Missing confession and communion as well as heresy and apostasy were also common reasons to be sentenced to public penance. Indeed, avoiding confession and communion was at times a way of concealing sectarian belief. A sentence of public penance usually involved living under monastic rule, attending church services within the monastery and answering to a confessor. The goal was reformative rather than punitive, so good behavior and outward signs of repentance could result in the reduction of a sentence.

 

4 Letters to and from Russian Orthodox Spiritual Elders (Startsy)

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Irina Paert

SPIRITUAL ELDERS (STARTSY) WERE PERSONS OF EXCEPTIONAL spiritual insight who provided religious directorship to neophytes. Even though many of the elders were priests or monks, or both, being an elder was not a church office, but rather an informal ministry. The reputation of an elder was established “from below” by ordinary believers and an elder’s disciples. While the practice of spiritual guidance (starchestvo) has long been cultivated within monasticism, in nineteenth-century Russia it spread beyond monasteries and penetrated the lives of lay people. Many spiritual elders were heralds of the neo-Hesychast revival, which was characterized by an interest in mystical theology and the centrality of mental prayer in spiritual life. This interest was stimulated by the publication in 1794 of an anthology of early Christian writings on ascetic life, prayer, and the importance of spiritual guidance, under the title of Dobrotoliubie (Philokalia, literally “the love of beauty,” in Greek, or “the love of good,” in Russian), translated from Greek by St. Paisii Velichkovskii.

 

5 Sermons of the Crimean War

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Mara Kozelsky

THE CRIMEAN WAR (1853–56) STARTED AS A LOCALIZED DISPUTE between the Russian and Ottoman Empires over the protection of Orthodox subjects of the Sultan living in the Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (part of modern-day Romania). Fearing Russian expansion after its early success at the Battle of Sinope (30 November 1853), England and France joined sides with the Ottoman Empire by March of 1854. Their entrance shifted the primary theater of war to the Crimean peninsula and entailed protracted violence for more than a year. One of ten wars between Russia and the Ottoman Empire from the reign of Peter I through World War I, the Crimean War was the most pivotal conflict of the Eastern Question, a complex international debate stemming from Europe’s presumption to manage the affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

From Russia’s official declaration of war, religion figured prominently. Priests actively participated through deed and rhetoric. They worked on the front lines to comfort parishioners and to protect churches from plunder. Continuing an old tradition, monks served alongside sailors and soldiers, ministering to those in need. In a new development, monks supervised the activities of the Russian Sisters of Mercy, the Russian counterpart to Florence Nightingale and her nurses. At the end of the war approximately 200,000 Muslim Tatars emigrated from Crimea to the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarians and other Orthodox refugees from Ottoman territory settled in their vacated villages.

 

6 The Diary of a Priest

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Laurie Manchester

BEGINNING DURING THE GREAT REFORM ERA OF THE 1860S, Russian Orthodox priests were encouraged by the bourgeoning clerical press to keep confessional diaries. In these personal diaries they were to chart not only their own spiritual progress, but, in contrast to the Puritan practice of individual diary keeping, to some extent that of their parishioners as well. In part, this was a practical necessity born of the high illiteracy rates of Russian Orthodox parishioners. But it also underscores the greater authoritative power Orthodox priests, endowed with sacramental authority, had over their parishioners. As the Russian revolutionary movement spread and the autocratic government unsuccessfully sought to control the process of modernization, reform-minded publicists within the Russian Orthodox Church interpreted the crisis engulfing Russia primarily as a moral crisis. Asking priests to keep diaries was part of a movement to save Russia by elevating the morality and erudition of its priesthood. Diaries were to serve as mirrors to priests’ souls, as a means to identify and correct existing imperfections. Given the social isolation many rural priests suffered, diaries were also to serve as a much needed friend. In turn, because few rural priests could afford to buy many books, diaries could afford a means of working on self-improvement at no cost. In keeping with the church’s disregard for any dichotomy between public and private, diaries were to chronicle a priest’s parish work as well as his domestic life. Priests were instructed to note anything good or bad they had done each day, everything that had made an impression on them, and their feelings about the main events of the day.

 

7 “Another Voice from the Lord”: An Orthodox Sermon on Christianity, Science, and Natural Disaster

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Nicholas Breyfogle

MULTIPLE EARTHQUAKES SHOOK THE LAKE BAIKAL REGION OF Russian Siberia for several consecutive days beginning on New Year’s Eve 1861/62.1 In the province’s capital city of Irkutsk, buildings wobbled violently, cracked, and collapsed (especially churches and other stone structures). Church bells rang uncontrollably and an organ in someone’s house suddenly started playing on its own – an eerie, discordant music to accompany the screams of residents and the crashing of household items that tumbled to the ground. Barrels of fish weighing over seven hundred pounds went flying across courtyards; animals howled and ran in panic. Across the lake, on the eastern shore on the Tsagan Steppe, the shock of the earthquake unleashed a tsunami that rolled rapidly over the steppe and then retreated as quickly as it came. It left behind a “mincemeat” landscape and piles of ice blocks more than two kilometers inland. More ominously, water began to gush from widespread fractures in the land created by the seismic shaking and the ground began sinking. More than two hundred square kilometers of the Tsagan steppe, along with the villages on it, sank permanently underwater – Atlantis-style.

 

8 A Ukrainian Priest’s Son Remembers His Father’s Life and Ministry

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Heather J. Coleman

THIS MEMOIR TAKES US INTO THE WORLD OF THE VILLAGE priest in Kiev diocese between the 1830s and 1850s – a time when Kiev province was a relatively new addition to the Russian Empire. Although the city of Kiev itself had been ruled by Russia since 1667, it was only with the Partitions of Poland of 1793–95 that the provinces of Right-Bank Ukraine (Kiev, Volynia, and Podolia) were incorporated into the Russian Empire. It was an often violent process, but St. Petersburg characterized the annexation as a repatriation of Orthodox, Russian lands that rightfully belonged to Russia.

Situated on the frontier between the Austrian and Russian empires, between the Polish Catholic and Russian Orthodox religious worlds, the Southwest Region (as Right-Bank Ukraine was called after 1832) remained a volatile borderland right until 1917. In 1800, only official Kiev spoke Russian. Poles continued to dominate the regional nobility and rose in rebellion in 1830–31 and again in 1863 against Russian attempts to change the traditional political and social patterns of the region. Most urban residents were Yiddish-speaking Jews; they also frequently served as the leaseholders who ran the Polish estates and mills. The villages remained the preserve of the Ukrainian-speaking peasantry and the Orthodox clergy that emerged from their ranks. Relations between these groups bore the scars of the great religious and political struggles that had accompanied the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century. In particular, the struggle between the Orthodox Church and the Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church (which had agreed in 1596 to a union with Rome, recognizing the supremacy of the Pope in exchange for the preservation of eastern Christian liturgical practice in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) for the allegiance of the Ukrainian population had left its mark. Although most Uniates in Kiev Province had converted to Orthodoxy, whether voluntarily or forcibly, in the mid-1790s, only in 1839 did St. Petersburg “reunite” the Uniate Church with Orthodoxy and in effect suppress the Uniate faith in the region. Yet social and political tensions would continue to take on important religious and ethnic colorings. During the nineteenth century, Right-Bank Ukraine was increasingly incorporated into the Russian social, administrative, religious, and cultural world. By the 1880s, when this article was written, all official business and education took place in Russian; and, indeed, publications in Ukrainian had been outlawed in 1863 and again in 1876 in an effort to combat the emerging nationalist movement in the region and to ensure that the cultural orientation of the increasingly literate common folk was Russian.

 

9 Akathist to the Most Holy Birth-Giver of God in Honor of Her Miracle-Working Icon Named “Kazan”

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Vera Shevzov

IN THE STUDY OF MODERN RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY OVER THE past two decades, perhaps the least studied and appreciated topics – socially, culturally, politically, and religiously – remain liturgy and prayer. The complexity of the Orthodox liturgical calendar and the trove of its liturgical texts, combined with the fact that believers’ voices – especially those of lay men and women – describing liturgical and prayer experiences are difficult to unearth, often contribute to the scholar relegating this area of Orthodoxy to the arcane and archaic aspects of its tradition.

The excerpt below offers students of modern Russian Orthodoxy the opportunity to consider the creative role and various functions of liturgy and prayer in Orthodoxy’s sacred storytelling culture. The excerpt is from a specific genre of communal and private prayer – the akathist hymn – that enjoyed enormous popularity among all strata of believers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Russian term akafist originates from the Greek akathistos, meaning “not sitting,” implying that the hymn is to be chanted while standing. Akathist hymns in honor of Christ, the Mother of God, and saints were chanted in Russia privately and collectively, in churches, chapels, private homes, and monastic cells. Part of their appeal lay in the fact that the chanting could be entirely initiated by laity; the presence of clergy was not necessary.

 

10 A Nineteenth-Century Life of St. Stefan of Perm (c. 1340–96)

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Robert H. Greene

LIVES OF THE SAINTS (ZHITIIA SVIATYKH) WERE AMONG THE most popular reading material for Orthodox Russians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of its efforts to improve religious knowledge and catechize the laity, the Russian Orthodox Church promoted the popularization of saints’ lives in church newspapers, devotional pamphlets, and occasional publications, in the hope that men, women, and children could learn from the example of “God’s Beloved” and imitate the Christian virtues of faith, love, and good works that the saints embodied in life. Diocesan newspapers and Orthodox journals from the latter half of the nineteenth century encouraged priests to incorporate examples from saints’ lives into their sermons and to hold informal discussions (besedy) with their parishioners on the moral lessons that the faithful could glean from the lives of the holy dead. Literate parishioners were enjoined to borrow copies of saints’ lives from the church library and familiarize themselves in their free time with these texts. Although a saint’s written life was seldom lengthy, Orthodox publishing houses also issued condensed and easy-to-read versions of the lives, often with a helpful paragraph at the end summarizing the valuable lessons that believers might learn from the saint in question. In 1895, for example, the religious journal Kormchii [The Helmsman] ran a year-long series called “Lessons from the Lives of the Saints,” in which readers were given succinct and pointed instruction on such various moral and religious topics as the preservation of chastity, the importance of visiting the sick, the existence of miracles, how to live in Christian harmony with one’s spouse, how to avoid both gossip and flattery, and the significance of confession and communion for an Orthodox Christian.

 

11 Written Confessions to Father John of Kronstadt, 1898–1908

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Nadieszda Kizenko

AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, WHEN THESE confessions were written, Orthodox Christians in the Russian empire learned how to confess their sins from a variety of sources. Children going to their first confession at the age of seven learned from their mothers, older siblings, church school, and even children’s story-books. A daily confession at the end of the evening prayers in the standard prayer-book kept fresh the main categories of sin and a general sense of compunction. Before and during Great Lent, when most people went to their annual confession, priests delivered sermons on the sacrament’s importance. Lenten church services fostered the themes of sinfulness and repentance. Published guides grouped by sins pertaining to the ten commandments contained helpful questions meant to aid in soul-searching, and concrete models of what to say. Fictional accounts, such as those written by Tolstoi and Dostoevskii, illustrated how literary heroes like Konstantin Levin and Natasha Rostov went to confession. Although such models dealt with conventional spoken, or auricular, confessions, the confessions presented here show how successfully they could be adapted to written form.

 

12 An Obituary of Priest Ioann Mikhailovich Orlovskii

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Laurie Manchester

BEFORE THE FIRST DIOCESAN NEWSPAPER BEGAN PUBLICATION in 1860, very few obituaries of clergymen were printed. As such newspapers gradually began to open in every diocese, it became standard for priests’ obituaries – usually several pages long – to be published. The obituaries of rural priests, who comprised approximately ninety percent of all priests, were written by either their fellow clergymen or their sons. Since they almost always discuss the lives, both personal and professional, of the deceased from cradle to grave, these obituaries provide rich biographical information about village priests. Similar to hagiography, they also provide an outline of what the author revered in the values he invokes when he praises the deceased, thereby also affording a window into the ideals of the parish clergy. Lastly, because clergymen and their families were supposed to adhere to a “model piety” that parishioners could strive to emulate, the values described in obituaries shed light on how Russian Orthodox Christians were ideally to live their lives.

 

13 Not Something Ordinary, but a Great Mystery: Old Believer Ritual in the Late Imperial Period

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Roy R. Robson

TAKE A LOOK AT THE TWO MEN ON THIS POSTER: ONE PRAYS with an angel defending him, while devils sneak up on the other one. Other than that, it is very difficult to tell the two men apart. In fact, both are Old Believers, the most traditional segment of imperial Russian Orthodox culture. Though long persecuted by the state-sponsored Russian Orthodox Church, the Old Believers did not stray from Orthodoxy so much as intensify it, doggedly adhering primarily to the rituals, texts, and art of the generation before Peter the Great.

The term “Old Believer” encompasses dozens of smaller groups. Though differing in ideology, they bonded through their shared desire to follow the “ancient piety” of seventeenth-century Russia, crystallized in practices before the reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon and accepted by a church council in 1666. Of all the rituals, the most important was how to make the sign of the cross. For Old Believers, this was no empty movement of a hand “waving in front of their faces.” Instead, the sign of the cross brought a symbol to life, physically realizing the mystery of Christ’s existence on earth, his divinity, and the power of God to shield, help, and transform Christians.

 

14 Orthodox Petitions for the Transfer of the Holy Relics of St. Stefan of Perm, 1909

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Robert H. Greene

IN BOTH THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE, RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY places great stock in the belief that the saints in heaven are willing and able to work miracles for the benefit of the living faithful on earth. Imperial-era sources reveal the manifold ways in which Russian Orthodox laypeople and clerics alike stressed and celebrated the tangible, sensory presence of the sacred in their everyday lives. While Orthodox theologians maintained that the “spiritual hearing” of the saints was so keen that they could discern and heed the prayers of the faithful anywhere on earth, believers felt that the shrines and reliquaries that housed the holy relics of the saints were the most direct conduits through which the miraculous intercession of the holy dead might be obtained. Orthodox miracle stories and devotional literature emphasized that physical contact with the saints (through touching or kissing their relics and shrines) was the most immediate way for believers to procure the miracles and healing cures they so desired.

 

15 Dechristianization in Holy Rus? Religious Observance in Vladimir Diocese, 1900–1913

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Gregory L. Freeze

COMPARED TO FRENCH AND ENGLISH HISTORIOGRAPHY, scholarship on Russian religious life has yet to map out the patterns of religious observance. The fundamental question concerns the scale of “dechristianization” before the 1917 revolution: did believers abandon the faith, cease attending church, and omit rituals and sacraments (such as confession and communion)? Did literacy and secular mass culture, industrialization and migrant labor, and radical propaganda undermine religious life? Did proselytizing by other confessions (especially after 1905) lead to large-scale “apostasy”? One place to look for answers is the documentation amassed by the church – the reports and statistics on religious observance that the church compiled each year. From the church’s perspective, was religious life waning on the eve of the 1917 revolution?

Given the heterogeneity of this vast empire and the sheer volume of the data, it is essential to focus on a single diocese – in this case, Vladimir. An old religious heartland, Vladimir remained a bastion of Orthodoxy, claiming 1.6 million adherents (98 percent of the province in 1901).1 Here the church had a strong institutional base: the bishop had two vicar-bishops and 69 local deans (blagochinnye) to help govern the dense network of monasteries, clergy, and parishes. But the church faced growing challenges in Vladimir – rapid industrialization, cultural change, revolutionary agitation, and proselytization by other confessions (especially Old Believers and sectarians).

 

16 Petitions to the Holy Synod Regarding Miracle-Working Icons

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Vera Shevzov

ICONS HISTORICALLY PLAYED AN EXTRAORDINARILY IMPORTANT role in the lives of Orthodox believers in imperial Russia. Officially linked since the eighth century with the church’s teachings regarding Jesus’ identity as both human and divine, icons found their justification in the Orthodox Christian understanding of the incarnation and the nature of humanity. Moreover, as quintessential symbols of religious and national identity, icons were as often bearers of political and social meaning as they were of the spiritual and theological.

While the prominence of icons in imperial Russia is well known, the complexities and nuances associated with their use and veneration are much less appreciated. The two cases that follow offer first-hand insights into the often entangled world of iconic piety from the perspective of two lay believers, both male peasants, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lay men and women frequently petitioned diocesan officials and even central church authorities in the capital, St. Petersburg, testifying to their active engagement in church life. Their letters concerned a broad array of issues, including parish administration and management, the construction of churches and chapels, fund raising, and icons, to name a few. Their numbers rose and took on a particularly sharp, candid tone at the end of the nineteenth century, and especially in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1905, when many lay believers seemed to awaken to their roles and responsibilities as members of the church.

 

17 Missionary Priests’ Reports from Siberia

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Aileen Friesen

SIBERIA OCCUPIED A CONTRADICTORY PLACE IN THE RUSSIAN imagination. It simultaneously evoked the image of a cold, inhospitable place of exile, of a land populated by native groups considered outside of civilization, and of a geographically wondrous and diverse region, rich in natural resources. By the late nineteenth century, with the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Siberia also became Russia’s hope for solving its agrarian crisis caused by population increases and land shortages in European Russia. Populating this vast territory beyond the Urals with “civilized” Russian settlers preoccupied the state; looking after the religious needs of these settlers preoccupied the Russian Orthodox Church.

This process of colonization created numerous opportunities and challenges for the Russian Orthodox Church. Millions of peasants relocated from Ukraine, Belarus, and central Russia among other places in the empire to take advantage of newly available lands in Siberia and Central Asia. Cities and towns also experienced growth during this period; however, these pioneering men, women, and children overwhelmingly settled in rural areas. New villages and settlements transformed Siberia’s landscape, as colonists cleared the land, established farms, and built homes. New settlers also transformed preexisting villages established by waves of Russian settlement throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These original colonists, who were called old residents (starozhily) or Sibiriaki, found their villages inundated by the new arrivals. Village life in Siberia, therefore, had to accommodate a variety of local traditions brought to the region by settlers from their homelands in European Russia. Religion, on the surface, offered common ground for rebuilding community life: the majority of settlers to Siberia identified with the Russian Orthodox faith. Yet, conflicts arose among villagers, which demonstrated the heterodox nature of Orthodox rituals and the fragility of religious adherence in villages without access to churches and without a common interpretation of Orthodox practices.

 

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