The Russian Orthodox Church and Colonization in Southwestern Siberia


A review of Building Orthodox Communities outside Mother Russia: Church and Colonization in Omsk Diocese, 1885–1917, by Aileen Friesen.

The most significant historiographical development in the study of Russia’s late tsarist period (1801–1917) over the past three decades has been the turn toward empire. In short order, long-standing scholarly conventions about imperial Russia, which emphasized the sociopolitics of metropole and were organized around the narrative of decline and fall, gave way to an appreciation for the concerns, dilemmas, and actualities of imperial variety. This reorientation is about much more than gaining access to and exploiting provincial archives or bringing national minorities into the story of Russian history. To study Russia now means to study the multiplicities of its imperial and ethnic identities, the formation and application of imperialist epistemologies and their subaltern counterparts, internal colonization, spacialization, pan-imperialism, and the taxonomies of empire. Much of this work initially found residence in two journals that have their provenance in the same post-Soviet chronology, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History and Ab Imperio: Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space, and in an array of monographs, articles, and edited collections by a long list of scholars, including Alexander Etkind, Robert Geraci, Ilya Gerasimov, Sergei Glebov, Peter Holquist, Michael Khodarkovsky, Alexei Miller, Marina Mogilner, Anatolyi Remnev, Alfred Rieber, Abby Schrader, and Willard Sunderland, as well as the paterfamilias of this “imperial turn,” Andreas Kappeler. A particularly important current within these “new histories for the empire,” as Jane Burbank and David Ransel subtitled their co-edited volume, is the study of Russia’s multi-confessional reality. Imperial Russia, much like its Soviet and post-Soviet iterations, was populated by a wide variety of faith communities that accommodated, negotiated, and/or resisted the colonial and transnational practices of empire. Works by Nicholas Breyfogle, Robert Crews, Mikhail Dolbilov, Mara Kozelsky, Barbara Skinner, and Paul Werth, just to name a few, have expanded our knowledge about the intersecting vectors of religion and empire, and about the various paradoxes generated by an avowedly confessional state—the Russian Orthodox empire—that sought to manage and manufacture religious minorities for raison d’état, sometimes at the expense of the Russian Church and imperial order.

This appreciation of religion as a important constituent in the imperial matrix has been paralleled by another historiographical development, namely the religious turn in the study of Russian Orthodoxy. Moving beyond the conventions of institutional and theological history, this trend broadly relies on modes of analysis derived from the sociology, anthropology, and/or psychology of religion to recover the collective practices and mentalities of Orthodox clergy and laity. Here the emphasis is on veneration, liturgy, pilgrimage, miracle experiences, identity formation, techniques of the self, habitus, and the ways in which Orthodox norms informed social and revolutionary activism. More broadly, these studies, as exemplified by the works of Chris Chulos, Simon Dixon, Robert Greene, Jennifer Hedda, Page Herrlinger, Scott Kenworthy, Nadia Kizenko, Laurie Manchester, Irina Paert, and Vera Shevzov, demonstrate how Orthodoxy was constantly being made meaningful for and by its adherents, including those who sought to reconfigure the tenets of their faith in response to the challenges of modernity. Now that the “foundational” work on lived Orthodoxy has been established, the time has come, as one scholar has noted, to integrate that scholarship into other areas of study so that we might “clarify the broader significance of religion for Russian history” (Paul W. Werth, “Lived Orthodoxy and Confessional Diversity: The Last Decade on Religion in Modern Russia,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 12, no. 4 (Fall 2011), 849–865).

Aileen Friesen’s insightful and informative dissertation, “Building Orthodox Communities outside Mother Russia: Church and Colonization in Omsk Diocese, 1885–1917,” expertly answers this call to integration. Drawing on the Historical Archive of Omsk Region (now State Historical Archive of Omsk Region) in Western Siberia, and two of the most important central archives in Russia—the State Archive of the Russian Federation (Moscow) and the Russian State Historical Archive (St. Petersburg)—as well as an array of published sources, Friesen links the lived religious experiences of Russian Orthodox settlers to the history of southwestern Siberia and the imperial regime’s colonization project along that same frontier. From these sources and this analytical nexus, we learn about the “social, cultural, and institutional interaction” (p. 3) among local and capital-city churchmen, state agents overseeing the empire’s colonial policy, peasant settlers who sought to replicate Orthodoxy in an unfamiliar environment, and Old Believer settlers who offered an alternative culture and counter-community to the one imagined in the Holy Synod, the offices of the Omsk diocese, parish churches, and the empire’s Resettlement Administration. Of particular interest is the way in which the Russian Orthodox Church actively situated itself in the state’s efforts to colonize Siberia. In doing so, the Church took advantage of its already existing, if not entirely robust, institutional presence in Russia’s frontier space to demonstrate its “relevance in a modernizing empire” (p. 14). Orthodoxy helped to fulfill that most modern of projects in late tsarist Russia, namely the Russification and nationalization of empire, a form of material and ideological participation that further complicates whatever remains of the so-called secularization thesis about religion’s retreat from modernity. Of course, such a project, which brought together a variety of epistemologies, institutions, and agendas under the loose rubric of Russian Orthodox imperialism, was not without its difficulties, especially at the turn of the century, when questions about religious toleration, freedom of conscience, imperial, national, and confessional identity, political sovereignty and ecclesiastical authority, and the viability of village life came to the fore of public consciousness. As a result of these complications, the experiences of Russian Orthodox settlers were just as often filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and dislocation as they were with excitement of a new life and the sense of fulfilling some imperial Christian duty to import the values of “right belief” to Russia’s hinterland.

Friesen’s dissertation is chronologically structured around seven thematic chapters, followed by an epilogue, bibliography, and three appendices that include a map of the Omsk diocese, photographs of a prayer house and church, and charts delineating the educational, geographic, and social origins of Orthodox priests who migrated to southwestern Siberia. Chapter 1 introduces readers to the historical moment in 1885 when leaders of the Russian Church began to articulate a plan to bring Orthodoxy to Siberia in conjunction with state efforts to reinvigorate colonization in the region. Most significantly, this chapter introduces the dissertation’s main protagonist, Archpriest Ioann Vostorgov, who was commissioned by the Holy Synod to further its interests in Siberia, but who also had his own “messianic” ideas about the need “to form the ‘new Israel’ and spread Christianity throughout the pagan East” (p. 60). Chapter 2 explores the practical tasks of bishops who tried but were often frustrated in their attempts to institutionalize and animate the newly established Omsk diocese. Chapter 3 focuses on the working relationships between central and local agents of church and state in their “collaborative effort” (p. 115) to realize the religious aspirations of Orthodox settlers. Here we see how church and state complemented one another in the project to colonize and evangelize Siberia—actions that were often seen by their proponents to be synonymous. Chapter 4 concentrates on local efforts by church officials, state agents, and, especially, Orthodox settlers to construct parish churches in Omsk. The intent was not only to satisfy the religious needs of settlers or to bring Orthodoxy to the frontier. Such projects were also imagined to constitute the best means to ensure that the progeny of settlers would continue to practice the “moral economy” (p. 157) of “right belief.” Chapter 5 examines how sanguine expectations about “the unifying influence of Orthodoxy” (p. 218) faltered on the frontier. Far from being a monolithic, doctrinal faith, Orthodoxy was (and still is) a religion marked by local flavor and tradition. As settlers from across the Russian Orthodox heartland met and interacted in southwestern Siberia, regional distinctions came to the surface and generated an array of epistemological and cultural fissures among the faithful, especially between clergy and parishioners. In turn, these fractures helped to inform one of the most important moments in the history of the modern Russian Church, namely the revolution from below in which parishioners began to see themselves as the authentic representatives of Orthodox Christianity.

Chapters 6 and 7 continue this examination of religious tensions during Russia’s revolutionary era (1905–1917), first by bringing our attention to administrative conflicts between local clergy and imported priests trained under the direction of Ioann Vostorgov, and then by highlighting the real and imagined conflicts between Old Believer settlers and the proponents and recipients of Orthodox resettlement to Omsk. Although churchmen were concerned that their flocks might be led astray by the temptations of sectarianism, the perceived threat posed by Old Belief on the frontier was more than just confessional. It was also national and imperial, as Old Belief was commonly (but not exclusively) interpreted as anti-Russian and anti-state in its repudiation of the Russian Church. Taken together, these chapters demonstrate the value of integrating Russian Orthodoxy into studies of Russian colonialism, as they reveal the narratives, experiences, contests, and complications of Orthodox resettlement in the empire’s internal colonies.

What is most significant about Friesen’s dissertation, however, is not its nimble integration of Orthodoxy and colonialism in the study of late tsarist Russia. The dissertation’s principal innovation resides in its ability to advance the recent trends in historiography noted at the beginning of this review. Friesen actualizes this advancement in her focus on the lived religion of Orthodox settlers, captured most fully in Chapters 4 and 5. Scholarship on religion and empire in modern Russia tends to concentrate on those indigenous minority faiths that responded to and were acted upon by the empire’s religiously inflected colonial project. Friesen inverts this academic orientation to illuminate the role that Russian Orthodoxy performed in the lives of those peasants newly arrived to Omsk, as well as to demonstrate the centrality of faith in attempts to preserve confessional identity in the forge of frontier identity. From this perspective, Russian Orthodoxy helped to bind together these strangers in a strange land through ostensibly familiar forms of worship, ritual, and remembrance, and through the shared experience of living their faith among heathens and heretics. Orthodoxy’s binding property was not just horizontal. It was also, as Friesen convincingly argues, vertical and spatial, in the sense that it helped to link Russian Orthodox settlers to the centers of imperial and ecclesiastical authority in the capital cities and, just as importantly, to the native villages they left behind. The paradox in this binding agent resides in the fact that once Orthodoxy was experienced and deployed in the imperial periphery, it confronted a host of challenges—religious diversity, confessional variety, institutional disparity and conflict—that exacerbated and, ultimately, activated centrifugal currents structured in the late synodal Church. It is to Aileen Friesen’s great credit that the lived religion of Orthodox settlers to Omsk and the colonial practices of church and state in that region are now part of the story of modern Russian history. The fact that Dr. Friesen has secured an advanced book contract from the University of Toronto Press only serves to demonstrate the potential for her scholarship to expand our knowledge about religion and empire in Russia’s historical past.

Patrick Lally Michelson
Department of Religious Studies
Indiana University

Primary Sources

Historical Archive of Omsk Region (IAOO, now State Historical Archive of Omsk Region [GIAOO]) fond 16
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) fond 9452 (I. I. Vostorgov)
Omskie eparkhial’nye vedomosti
Ioann Vostorgov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii

Dissertation Information

University of Alberta, 2013. 401 pp. Primary Advisor: Heather J. Coleman.

Image: Settlers from Poltava praying before moving to Tobolsk and Orenburg, circa 1908, from Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like