WWI & Russia’s Religious Intelligentsia

A review of Providential Empire: Russia’s Religious Intelligentsia and the First World War, by Christopher A. Stroop.

In this impressive and well-written dissertation Christopher Stroop explores the meaning and the context of controversial commentaries on the First World War by Russian religious philosophers, such as Nikolai Berdiaev, Vladimir Ern, Sergei Bulgakov, Prince Evgenii Trubetskoi, and the Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, in public religious and philosophical debates in late imperial Russia. Stroop’s study is a welcome addition to recent post-Soviet Russian and western scholarship on the role of religion in imperial Russian politics [1]. This dissertation’s major focus fits well with the emphasis in recent archival based works on the revival of various forms of Christianity among different social groups in the late Russian Empire [2].  Analyzing the concept of Providence in the thought of Russian religious philosophers, the dissertation shows how Christian Providentialism influenced public debates on Russian domestic and international politics both before and during the First World War. At the same time, this dissertation acknowledges that these Christian ideas of Providence were expressed in a specifically Russian idiom and shaped by a specifically Russian cultural context. The Russian religious philosophers’ politics of Providentialism was a part of universal Christian practices, which developed in late modern European society to stand against the perceived cultural threat of nihilism, and its extreme forms such as social revolution and communism. In his dissertation, Stroop “attempts to bring Russian religious philosophy down to earth, examining it in the context of the politics not only of late imperial Russian Orthodoxy, but also of politicized early twentieth-century traditionalist Christianity in general” (p. 17). Because the religious thinkers, whom he studies in this dissertation, were public intellectuals who “practiced a religiously motivated ideological politics” Stroop refers to them as the “religious intelligentsia.” He explains that the main reason for this new term “lies in the fact that throughout the waning years of the old regime they remained social critics largely alienated from the authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical. They never accepted the principle of absolutist autocracy, never accepted the subordination of the church to the state, never ceased to subject the government, the bureaucracy and the episcopacy to harsh criticisms for their failure to bring about social justice” (p. 20). According to Stroop, this late imperial Russian religious intelligentsia was “a cohesive ideological group in late imperial Russia’s nascent civil society that contributed to the framing of debates and the shaping of public opinion.” The members of this group expressed “an explicitly Christian vision for Russia’s social transformation and worked actively to try to further this vision, which they believed to be God’s will for Russia” (p. 21). His study challenges and revises the traditional approach taken by intellectual historians, such as Catherine Evtukhov, and offers his own “synthetic and comparative approach” to the history of the religious intelligentsia “as a group with a certain ideological orientation and certain institutional affiliations” (p. 25).

As Stroop shows, the politics of Christian Providentialism in Russian religious-philosophical war commentary was an important component of late imperial Russian religious thought. Russian religious philosophers tried to socially engage the Russian public, demanding social action, using their ideological journalism to propagate the worldview of Christian Providence, the widespread acceptance of which they considered necessary for Russia’s healthy future development. Using Christian Providentialist logic during the period between 1905 and 1914, Russian religious thinkers formulated for Russian reading audiences an ever more explicit Russian national messianism. For them, the First World War was the best demonstration of the Divine Providence and God’s punishment of the sinful rationalism of the West personified in Germany and the purification of spiritual Russia, preparing it for its messianic role. The Russian religious intelligentsia interpreted the war between Russia and Germany as a clash between Christianity and godlessness. The First World War was not only divine punishment on modern civilization for its godlessness, but also historic moment where Russia had a divine mission in the war to defeat Germany and to revive the Christian roots of European civilization. According to Russian religious philosophers, the future Russian and Entente victory would open spiritual transformation and a new, more harmonious era in which Russia would play a leading role in the European community of nations and in spreading Christian civilization through imperialism.

The first part of the dissertation, “The Politics of Providentialism,” opens with Chapter 1, introducing the religious intelligentsia’s mentality in the Silver Age as well as its conceptualization of social justice and freedom. In Chapter 2, Stroop analyzes connections between the religious intelligentsia’s concerns with social justice and freedom and Russian national messianism. The second part of the dissertation, “The Religious Intelligentsia and the First World War,” consists of chapters 3, 4, and 5. In Chapter 3, Stroop demonstrates how the religious intelligentsia distanced its Russian national messianism from Russian nationalism. He analyzes two debates that religious philosophers had over nationalism with national liberals of a more secular orientation, one of which took place before the war, and one of which took place during the war. According to Stroop, “The war immediately became, for the religious intelligentsia, a physical manifestation of the spiritual battle between ratio and Logos. Mangodhood and Christianity were transformed into ‘Germanism’ and ‘Slavdom’ (or Russia), respectively, while the religious intelligentsia pointed to signs of religious revival within its Entente allies that would also place them squarely on the side of Christianity. In the process, the religious intelligentsia’s vision for a spiritually transformed humanity became a vision of a post-war Christian imperial order, dominated by Russia and Great Britain” (p. 187).

Chapter 4 of the dissertation completely deconstructs the western historiographical myth of Vladimir Ern as an especially extreme Germanophobe, nationalist and Neo-Slavophile relative to his better known friends and colleagues. Stroop analyzes Ern’s most controversial works in the context of the broader religious intelligentsia’s wartime journalism and activism, showing that Ern was a typical representative of a European cultural phenomenon known as “Christian Providentialism.” The last chapter, focuses on how the religious intelligentsia’s understanding of God’s calling for Russia came to be expressed as a vision of Christian empire over the course of the war. The main subject matter of this chapter is an analysis of the religious intelligentsia’s wartime writings on the national minorities of the Russian Empire, such as Jews, and these thinkers’ interpretation of international geopolitics and global imperialism.  According to Stroop, during the First World War, the entire Russian religious intelligentsia cultivated a vision of Christian imperialism as a stage on the way to collective redemption. But this Christian imperialism with its emphasis on spiritual purity rejected the “white racism” popular among western imperialist ideologists. As Stroop notes, “Concerns with purity have at times contributed to the development of illiberal ideologies fixated on racial purity, but this was not the case among Russia’s religious intelligentsia. The religious intelligentsia instead looked for purity within the context of what its members perceived to be just, Christian imperial hegemony over a multinational, multi-confessional space. To be sure, they believed that Christianity would ultimately bring about the unity of all humanity, and thus they hoped that this space would eventually cease to be multi-confessional. But, barring more immediate divine intervention on the level of the apocalypse itself, this was likely to occur only in the very distant future, and it could in any case come about only as a result of free conversions—the free reunification of all cosmic motive forces in the living, all encompassing unity of the Body of Christ.’” (p. 263)

Stroop’s dissertation is a remarkable contribution in the recent historiography of the late imperial Russian religious intelligentsia.  This dissertation is the first historical study in the English language, which explores “synthetically and comparatively” how public religious debates and participation in them by the religious intelligentsia influenced a Russian collective imagination and worldview before and during World War I.

Sergei I. Zhuk
Associate Professor
Department of History
Ball State University
sizhuk@bsu.edu

Primary Sources

Berdiaev, Nikolai. “Rossiia i zapadnaia Evropa.” Russkaia mysl’ 38: 5-6 (1917).
Bulgakov, Sergei (from 1918, Fr. Sergii). Apokalipsis Ioanna: opyt dogmaticheskogo
istolkovaniia. Paris: YMCA Press, 1948.
Ern, Vladimir. Bor’ba za Logos: opyty filosofskie i kriticheksie. Moscow: Put’, 1911.
——, Mech i krest: stat’i o sovremennykh sobytiiakh. Moscow: I. D. Sytin, 1915.
Trubetskoi, Evgenii. “Natsional’nyi vopros, Konstantinopol’ i Sviataia Sofiia. (Publichnaia lektsiia).Voina i kul’tura. Moscow: I. D. Sytin, 1915.

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2012. 344 pp. Primary Advisor: Robert Crews.

Notes:

[1] I refer here to A. A. Ermichev, ed., V.F. Ern: Pro et Contra. Lichnost’ i tvorchestvo Vladimira Erna v otsenke russkikh myslitelei i issledovatelei. Seriia “Russkii Put’.” St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Russkoi Khristianskoi gumanitarnoi akademii, 2006; V. I. Keidan, ed. Vzyskuiushchie grada: Khronika chastnoi zhizni russkikh religioznykh filosofov v pis’makh i dnevnikakh. Moscow: Shkola, 1997; Evgenii Gollerbakh, K nezrimomu gradu. Religiozno-filosofskaia gruppa “Put’”(1910-1919) v poiskakh novoi russkoi identichnosti. Seriia issledovaniia po istorii russkoi mysli. St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo “Aleteiia,” 2000; Kristiane Burchardi, Die Moskauer ‘Relgiös-Philosophische Vladimir-Solov’ev Gesellschaft’ (1905-1918). Forschungen zur Osteuropäischen Geschichte. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998; Catherine Evtuhov, The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997; Robert Bird, The Russian Prospero: The Creative World of Viacheslav Ivanov. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006; and numerous publications by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Alexei Kurbanovsky and Paul Valliere.

[2] See especially, Nicholas B. Breyfogle, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca, N.Y., 2005; Heather Coleman, Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution, 1905-1929. Bloomington, IN, 2005; Sergei I. Zhuk, Russia’s Lost Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism, and Radical Sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917. Baltimore, 2004; Mark D. Steinberg and Heather J. Coleman, eds. Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia. Bloomington, IN, 2007).

Image: Трубецкой Евгений Николаевич. Wikimedia Commons.

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