Pastoral Activism & Public Sphere in Late Imperial Russia


A review of The White Priest at Work: Orthodox Pastoral Activism and the Public Sphere in Late Imperial Russia, by Daniel Scarborough.

Drunken, uneducated puppets of a corrupt tsarist regime — such a description summarizes some of the traits associated with Russian Orthodox clergymen in late Imperial Russia. Even scholars who recognize the crudeness of this caricature may still view these men as passive traditionalists who were out of touch with the changing cultural, political, and economic realities of Russian society. While the works of many, particularly Gregory Freeze and Jennifer Hedda, have battled these images, the parish clergy remain a ubiquitous yet elusive social group in the empire. By exploring the pastoral activism of the clergy, Daniel Scarborough sheds new light on this topic. He demonstrates how parish clergymen used the right to organize “institutions of association” (p. 2) among members of their soslovie (estate: plural sosloviia) and other Orthodox believers to create networks that provided a variety of services, particularly in education, charity, and disaster relief. Although the state established the legal framework for such collaboration to serve its own need for “quasi-civil servants” (p. 117), Orthodox clergymen seized this opportunity to undertake community work. Using the dioceses of Moscow and Tver’ as the basis for his case study, Scarborough’s work illuminates how the legal privileges associated with the soslovie system shaped the clergy’s public engagement. Even though restrictions by state officials and the church hierarchy continued to hinder the actions of Orthodox clergymen in political life, in the social sphere they showed initiative in marshaling available resources in response to local need in everyday scenarios and in regional and national crises. Such a study demonstrates how institutions considered traditional in the empire could form the foundation for public activism in late Imperial Russia.

In Chapter 1, Scarborough provides a much-needed history of the practice of mutual aid, which sustained the clerical soslovie and eventually provided the basis for clerical social activism among parishioners. Restrictions placed on clergymen’s ability to own property and engage in other employment determined the financial health of clerical families. To address this problem, the state allowed members of the clerical soslovie to organize their own mutual aid institutions, such as diocesan trusteeships (popechitel’stva), which enabled the clergy to collect funds to help impoverished members of their community. As the state understood the Russian Orthodox Church to be a pillar of stability in the empire, the clergy also had the privilege (with approval of bishops) to organize associations that extended beyond the clerical community. Scarborough provides the example of brotherhoods, which were established across the empire and had members from various sosloviia. These were active in many causes such as education, church-building, and missionary work. He shows how these networks of associations “allow[ed] the clergy to coordinate their efforts to help the population like never before” (p. 70). For instance, during the 1891-92 famine, brotherhoods as well as official church organizations contributed to relief efforts. The effectiveness of the clergy to organize stemmed both from clergymen’s desire to use their networks to reach beyond the clerical soslovie and from the state’s dependence on the work of the clergy at the local level. Although state officials supported the organization and mobilization of these networks, they also struggled with the implications of granting the clergy autonomy in their work. Through exploring this tension, Scarborough contributes much to the scholarly discussion on the relationship between the state and the clergy.

In spite of the state’s apprehension, clerical networks continued to facilitate the participation of Orthodox clergymen in local aid and humanitarian relief. In Chapter 2, Scarborough examines the effectiveness of the clergy in voluntarily rallying their networks and integrating other groups into their efforts. Orthodox clergymen used local assemblies, congresses and other committees to undertake local initiatives and respond to the larger crises of war, revolution, and famine which plagued the empire during the twentieth century. This enthusiasm for organizing forms of association to discuss pertinent issues and to take action stemmed in part from a growing frustration with state interference in church matters and a commitment to addressing community issues through pastoral ministry. The desire to tend to the material and physical needs of Orthodox communities provided a clear motivation for clergymen to engage in charity work and disaster relief. Another more material motivation was financial dependence, as the clergy’s livelihood and mutual aid networks were funded through financial contributions of parishioners. All these factors fuelled an activism among the clergy, inspiring them to be engaged with rather than isolated from their surroundings.

Educational institutions performed an essential role in sustaining the clerical soslovie and in the development of clerical networks. Yet, they also became sites of dissent in late Imperial Russia, and Chapter 3 explores how the clerical community addressed protests in one of its key institutions: the seminary. In 1905, a seminary revolt erupted in which seminarians, primarily sons of clergymen, engaged in an empire-wide strike. Instead of condemning the entire movement, members of the clerical community supported the seminarians in their desire to “reclaim their pastoral mission” (p.146) through reducing both state interference in clerical networks and soslovie restrictions on pastoral service. Chapter 4 explores the development of the parish school system, which constituted one example of a collaborative effort between the laity and the clergy. Both sides invested time, effort, and funds into the system, which benefited parishioners by providing education not only for children, but also for adults who took classes and participated in practical workshops organized by clergymen outside of school hours. For the clergy, these schools provided an important employment opportunity for clerical sons and daughters who earned money for the family through teaching. By showing how both the laity and the clergy were integrated into the same network, Scarborough provides new insight into the bonds that linked Orthodox communities beyond participation in religious rituals.

Yet, the social activism of the clergy was not without difficulties and limitations. Chapter 5 examines how parishioners grew resentful of paying for diocesan institutions over which they had little control. Using the example of relief efforts during World War I, Scarborough shows how this campaign, while successful in collecting funds, illustrates the struggle of parish clergymen to integrate parishioners into these networks as equal partners. The clergy also struggled to transform its social concerns into political action. Scarborough explores this theme in Chapter 6. Although individual priests were elected to the State Duma, the articulation of a coherent political platform from the clerical community did not emerge. Scarborough examines a number of reasons for the aloofness of clergymen from politics, with the possible loss of privileges if they failed to exercise “great political caution” (p. 296) as one of the clergy’s main concerns.

Scarborough’s dissertation participates in three broader scholarly trends in Russian history: an emphasis on the social activism of the Orthodox clergy (represented by recent work by Jennifer Hedda); a rethinking of the development of the public sphere and civil society (expanding on Joseph Bradley’s voluminous research on these subjects); and an interrogation of the relationship between rights and the soslovie system of the sort that Jane Burbank has been exploring. He shows how clerical networks created through the legal privileges of the clerical soslovie allowed their members to form broad associations that clergymen hoped would “revitalize the parishes and dioceses by making them the focus of civic participation” (p. 11). Even though Orthodox clergymen were caught in a system of privileges and duties — a system crumbling beneath their feet in the early twentieth century — Scarborough helps us to see that the clergy’s movement toward building voluntary networks of association that extended beyond their soslovie allowed them to contribute meaningfully to the public sphere during this volatile time.

Aileen Friesen
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow
Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Primary Sources

Central State Historical Archive of the City of Moscow (TsIAM: TsGA Moskvy)
State Archive of Tver’ Oblast (GATO)
Moskovskie tserkovnye vedomosti 
Pribavleniia k tserkovnym vedomostiam 
Tverskie eparkhial’nye vedomosti 

Dissertation Information

Georgetown University. 2012. 329 pp. Primary Advisor: Catherine Evtuhov.

Image: Photographed with permission in January 2009 at the Historical-Ethnographic Museum of Torzhok, Russia (Vserossiiskii istoriko-etnograficheskii muzei – pl. 9 ianvaria, d. 2; G. Torzhok, Rossiia).

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