Russian Orthodoxy in Revolution

By Autumn Harriger

When people hear the word ‘revolution,’ for the most part, they think of violence, destruction, and executions. However, revolutions also present opportunities for change. In her lecture, “Confession in a Time of Revolution: The Sacrament and the Secular,” professor Nadia Kizenko from State University of New York at Albany discussed how the Russian Orthodox Church sought to reform and adapt following the February Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Romanov monarchy. Before 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church was universally intertwined in the daily lives of the Russian population; however, after the revolution, religion no longer held as much power. Kizenko examined the effects of the changes in the sacrament of confession, with an analysis of gender roles in relation to the church, bringing this story into the larger narrative of the 1917 revolutions.

Before the 1905 Revolution, the annual parish reports contained rosy language about well-behaved religious members. However, following the destabilization and violence of the revolution, the clergy became more aware and more critical of their parishioners’ actions. Fewer people attended confession and communion inducing the clergy to worry about the impact of factory life on Christian values. Kizenko highlighted the impact of migration away from village life to the cities, particularly among young people. As these transformations took place, World War I broke out, and the ensuing years of violence affected the moral behavior of many Russians. This violence provided the backdrop for the growing calls for change within the Church.

Subsequently, calls for the reform of the Orthodox church intensified, particularly in relation to women. In her lecture, Kizenko described the stereotype of the church as a congregation primarily comprised of women and old people. According to Kizenko, the ‘progressive’ depiction of the church highlighted the oppressed nature of women and their need to be liberated. Zinaida Gippius, a well-known intellectual and poet, advocated for new gender possibilities at a religious and philosophical meeting as early as 1902 and 1903. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth also advocated for the restoration of the Deaconess within the Orthodox Church. Other religious women disagreed, and did not necessarily want to break from their traditions.

With the February Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced its greatest freedom. In 1917-1918, the first Church Council in centuries convened.  The church became separate from the state and state institutions. With the abdication of Nicholas II, the symbiosis ended. These political events brought dramatic changes to the Church.  Prior to the revolution, as Kizenko highlighted, confession was incorporated into state traditions. For example, when a crime was committed, the perpetrator would receive both a state punishment as well as a religious penance. This procedure was terminated in 1917. Confession morphed into something new and more personal. It was no longer a requirement. The institution of confession also changed to involve village or communal practices. Priests held group confessionals to give more people the sacrament at one time, a practice previously saved for extreme circumstances such as war.

Following the Bolshevik takeover in October, new societal pressures urged the Russian population to abandon religious traditions in favor of Soviet ideology, atheism and materialism. The church was understood by the Bolsheviks to be tied to the monarchy and therefore a threat against their new order. In the lecture, Kizenko demonstrated the conflict between old and new through Dziga Vertov’s 1931 film Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass. The video, as Kizenko highlighted, interestingly revealed how the Bolshevik revolution did not uproot traditions overnight, for Vertov filmed people still attending church in Leningrad.

With the collapse of the Russian monarchy, Kizenko highlighted how the Russian Orthodox Church seized newly available opportunities to engage in administrative and spiritual reform. The church was no longer subservient to the state and enjoyed greater freedom after February 1917. However, a large portion of the Russian population disapproved of the changes, viewing the church as a force of stability and continuity in the constantly changing environment. Despite the leadership and political stance of the Bolsheviks, a majority of the church population remained devoted to the faith.

Kizenko concluded the lecture with a look at the religious revival in the present. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the restoration of traditional practices transformed the view of the past. In the end, the changes of 1917 drastically transformed the course of the Russian Orthodox Church, allowing for the establishment of reforms and the implementation of new practices that survived the confrontation with Bolshevik forces.

Autumn Harriger is a senior majoring in Political Science and History with a minor in Russian.


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