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20 May, 2014  ▪  Ihor Losiev

Heresies and Sects in Russia

Was the West really the source of deviance for Russian orthodoxy?

Back when Party of Regions "fought" for Ukraine's European integration, one orthodox priest from the Moscow Patriarchy in Luhansk Oblast threatened in an interview to excommunicate Oleksandr Yefremov, the head of Party or Regions parliamentary faction, for his very involvement in this "sinful" activity. According to the cleric, Europe and the West are the "Sodom and Gomorrah" from which all kinds of heresies and sects are spreading eastward.

But was the West such an inexhaustible source of religious deviance for Russian orthodoxy anyway? To start with, let's clarify the terms "heresy" and "sect", because very often protestant denominations that gained popularity in Eastern Europe were merely referred to as sects by their disgruntled mainstream rivals. Sure, the West is indeed home to Protestantism. But the West is also home to Catholicism which can hardly be called a sect. Secondly, denominational groups in Russia often emerged as a by-product of immanent development of the official church and their specific local ethnic rites.

Therefore looking for any kind of "transgressions" on behalf of the West, all we find is the allure of protestant religious quests for those residents of Russia that failed to find their spiritual nourishment within the bounds of the their country's official Christianity. It was those that sought to advance beyond the ritualistic routine ended up becoming neophytes of western cults. In the late 19th century under the influence of foreigners first Russian Baptist communions emerged. This protestant church has its origins in 17th century England where it branched off from the Puritanism. Another movement rather popular in the Russian Empire was Pentecostalism that emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. While Mennonites for example, came into being in the Netherlands as early as 16th century.

However, Russian society proved perfectly capable of generating various national religious groups without any external influence. Way back in the 17th century communions of Christ-believers, Iconoclasts, Dukhobors (literally Spirit-Wаrriors) and Molokans formed in Russia as opposition to the official church. These denominations had quite independently arrived at the tenets that were surprisingly close to the main ideas of western Protestantism: free and creative interpretation of the faith as the ability and the duty of its every bearer to satisfy own spiritual needs, to improve own spiritual world and behavior, the rejection of official solemnity of the church in favor of the communion of like-minded people. Members of these communions gathered in small cells seeking to realize their social ideals of brotherhood, equality and justice.

Christ-believers used to disregard the ritual nature of orthodoxy (while formally recognizing the official church) and believed in own religious self-improvement where a person "becomes Christ". The main form of Mass was "radeniye" (a syncretic activity consisting of singing, religious dances and prophecies) during which the believers reached a point of ecstasy perceived as the moment of "becoming one with the Holy Spirit". There were also uniquely Russian extremist cults among these "spiritual Christians". For example the sect of "jumpers" founded by Maksim Rudomietkin in 1840s. Their gatherings presented a particular exaltation where members would engage in furious jumping in attempt to achieve the "ascension of the Holy Spirit". Another example of a purely Russian ethnic religious sect was the Skoptsy. Adhering to extreme asceticism they practiced self-castration in the name of ridding oneself of all temptations. Their communions internally called "ships" were led by the so-called "elders". Skoptsy communions chiefly consisted of wealthy people and since they didn't leave any offspring, for obvious reasons, after death all their belongings would become property of the state. For that reason state authorities tolerated the cult for a while until it fell into disfavor after the Tambov Governor-General had come to a conclusion that Skoptsy had castrated themselves to skip military service. Curiously enough, Skoptsism never spread outside Russia, not even to the neighboring Ukraine and Belarus, remaining a purely Russian expression of religious fanaticism.

In 1910–1912 a unique monastic movement called Imiaslavie (literally "praising the name") emerged in Russian orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos, Greece. Founded by Father Anthony (Bulatovic) the teachings of Imiaslavie were rooted in the traditions of Hesychasm and Christian Neoplatonism. The adepts of Imiaslavie believed that human beings due to their sinful nature are capable of glorifying only God's name, and not God himself. Tsar's government and the Synod saw the movement as rebellious and its teachings as heresy. Russian army has been deployed at Mount Athos (the territory of another state, no less!) whereupon hundreds of monks have been arrested and sent to Russian monasteries as punishment. In 1912-1913 they were excommunicated. This movement gained support of such theologians as Pavel Florensky, Sergei Bulgakov and Mikhail Novosiolov. And yet again, no real western influence to speak of.

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Russian historian Igor Yakovenko wrote in his article "Criticism of historical experience": "Manichaeism of the Old Believers stemmed from Russia's everlasting fight with the West. The Evil for them had a western origin while the society was the field for the primal battle between the rich and the poor. Old Believers viewed as Evil any elements of utilitarianism, affection for worldly goods, gluttony which became the embodiment of vices". Weak attempts to Europeanize Moscowia in the late 17th century were not embraced by Old Believers who opposed the official reforms. The state responded with repressions, thousands of Old Believers were executed, tortured, jailed or exiled. The rest ended up having to look for ways of surviving under state oppression. Over time they formed clandestine structures and traditions of underground organization, antagonistic to the state, the official church and with its total rejection of the "sinful West". This highly explosive demographic was quite abundant, making 37 million in 1917. Among Old Believers were active members of Narodnaya Volya: Aleksandr Mikhailov, the Finger sisters, Aleksandr Solovyov (participant of assassination attempt of Tsar Aleksandr II), Sofia Pierovskaya and Ekaterina Brieshko-Brieshkovskaya. Some authors even suggest that the "Soviet" (literally "council") form of government has been borrowed from Old Believers as well.And surely the West cannot be blamed for the uniquely Russian opposition religious phenomenon as Old Believers with its ethno-manichaeistic worldview. The ancient middle-eastern religion of Manichaeism with its clear-cut division of the entire world on absolute Evil and absolute Good, and people onto the "sons of light" and "sons of darkness" indeed exerted considerable influence on Russian spirituality, all the way to extreme fanaticism when it comes to Old Believers with their rejection of the official Nikonian church.

At the dawn of the 20th century Old Believers owned 60% of all industrial capital in Russia. Among the outstanding figures belonging to their circles were such financiers and entrepreneurs as the Riabushkins, the Morozovs, the Tretiyakovs, the Mamontovs and many others. By 1917 a number of Old Believer communion members are embedded in the Russian government: Guchkov, Sirotkin, Kartashov. Old Believer youth becomes interested in Bolshevism and some representatives of the cult such as Kurenin, Molotov, Rykov, Suslov make brilliant careers with the Bolsheviks.

That's where Russian ethnic Manichaeism doubled up with the Manichaeism of Marxism-Leninism with its ideas of antagonism between the labor and capital, a battle between two worlds: the bourgeois and the socialist. Ukrainian researcher Omelian Nestayko wrote: "In Moscowian mindset the evil personified in the West is carried as constant dominant through the centuries. What also remained constant was the loathing of the people that are the source of this evil and have to be fought until their complete extermination".

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Political Manichaeism

In early 1980s in the study of the head of social sciences department of the Sevastopol Higher Naval Engineering College I saw a map of the world hanging on the wall. The map had the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries painted red with the rest of the world painted black. Illustrations of the Manichaeistic worldview don't get more graphic than that… Soviet papers loved to use headlines brimming with political Manichaeism: "Two worlds – two truths" and others of that ilk. In fact it still persists in Russia to this day. Moreover, it is becoming ever more grotesque. The wild hatred of the Russian society towards the "yanks", the "banderites" (patriotic Ukrainians) is resurrecting those archaic subconscious complexes of Russian mentality brilliantly described by historian Yevheniy Vozgrin: "On this foundation of freely chosen unfreedom and despotism Russia has been built. Afterwards rural communities gained power and restored the dictate of the majority over the individual, the rigid Manichaean divide of the world onto the "ones of us" and "not ones of us" and the appropriately double standards for morality and norms of coexistence (for the "ones of us" and the rest). Therefore, essentially, the amorality gradually became one of the most striking traits of the national psychology, the traits that surely "cannot be measured by common yardstick".

The absolute majority of Russian shortcomings are very much of indigenous origin. Europe and the Western civilization definitely have nothing to do with that. Practically all the sects and heresies in Russian orthodoxy originated from own ethnic and cultural background where any western influence was minimal and tangential at best. While naïve desires for conservation and self-isolation from the outside world within the shell of the Eurasian kingdom or some kind of Customs Union is hopeless and futile, especially since the elites pushing these agendas are quite happy to enjoy all the benefits of the western civilization. Any kind of autarchy, be it an economical, a political or a religious one, is completely unworkable in the modern world, unless of course one is willing to follow the "alluring" example of North Korea.


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