I’ve been letting my mind wander off onto lots of other subjects, and I have a lot left to review in this series of posts. Before I went too much further I did want to mention some things. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the subject of the state of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and also Russian attitudes toward Scripture prior to the revolution with some more knowledgeable folks. Let me quickly pass on the cliff notes.
Regarding the modern Ukrainian Orthodox Church I found that Caleb was both right and wrong. Now, this is coming to me second-hand, but from a man who was raised in Ukraine, makes frequent trips back, and is an Orthodox priest. He was quite candid in confirming that Ukrainians can be quite lax in church attendance and Scriptural knowledge. But, that depends on where you are in Ukraine. Ukraine was taken over in stages, and in the west you find a much stronger church tradition where communism had less time to influence the culture. If you are in the west apparently you’ll find stronger church attendance and deeper cultural influence. In the east, not so much. This somewhat confirms Caleb’s experiences, but also confirms my prior held beliefs that this was a culture in recovery.
I was also interested to know if there was a discernible difference between pre-communist Russian Orthodox culture and post-communist Orthodox culture. I emailed with Dr. Mark Steinberg at the University of Illinois, a professor of Russian history. I’ve also thought since then that I should probably contact Fr. John Strickland, an Orthodox priest and history professor on the subject as well, but just didn’t do it. Yet. Anyway, this is what Dr. Steinberg had to say:
First, I would mention some books (that is what happens when you ask a professor a question!) you might find useful on pre-1917 religious attitudes and practices in Russia: Vera Shevzov, “Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution,” Nadieszda Kizenko, “A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People,” and an edited collection I did with Heather Coleman, “Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia,” especially my introduction and chapters by Christine Worobec (who also has a couple of books on peasant Orthodoxy), Shezov, Kizenko, Wagner, Freeze, and Valliere. By the way, Shevzov and Kizenko are both well trained in Orthodox theology as well as being trained as historians.
Second, concerning your question about attitudes toward Scripture before the Communist takeover, keep in mind that a fairly large percentage of the rural population was not literate. Therefore, there would be little point in having a bible, though that does not mean they lacked reverence toward it. Part of the point of going to church was readings of holy scripture. Some years ago I wrote a book on the 1917 revolution called “voices of revolution,” in which it became clear to me, after reading many thousands of appeals letters written by workers, peasants, and soldiers, that the language of the Bible, it’s metaphors and images, were ubiquitous and very well known.
That said, evidence I have seen indicates that when commoners (the question of attitudes and practices among the well-educated but still religious is different) did possess religious books, it was much more likely to be the Lives of Saints. Indeed, it may be argued, the activities of saints were far more important than the acts of God the Father or even Jesus; so the Bible, even the New Testament, was less central a text to their lives. Of course, the Mother of God was always close to average Russians—but less scriptural accounts of her life than a later tradition of her role as protector and intercessor. Practices around icons reflect on this. (Of course, you probably know that this tradition is still strong).
I haven’t had a chance to read any of the supporting material he recommended to round out my impressions. This doesn’t give you a before/after picture of the effect of communism, mass literacy, the 20th century, and more had on Russian Orthodox culture, but it gives a glimpse of pre-communist Russia. It seems to have been a mixed bag. The illiterate rural culture had a pervasive connection to Scripture, but how deeply it was known is hard to tell. It appears that they may have been more likely to focus on hagiography than Scriptural knowledge. Not sure what to make of that, but…well… there it is.
Well, I’ll wrap up the main thrust of the review/response in some further posts and nail down my remaining objections to the misconceptions I found in the book.