The Old Faith and the Russian Land

The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals

Douglas Rogers
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Old Faith and the Russian Land
    Book Description:

    The Old Faith and the Russian Land is a historical ethnography that charts the ebbs and flows of ethical practice in a small Russian town over three centuries. The town of Sepych was settled in the late seventeenth century by religious dissenters who fled to the forests of the Urals to escape a world they believed to be in the clutches of the Antichrist. Factions of Old Believers, as these dissenters later came to be known, have maintained a presence in the town ever since. The townspeople of Sepych have also been serfs, free peasants, collective farmers, and, now, shareholders in a post-Soviet cooperative.

    Douglas Rogers traces connections between the town and some of the major transformations of Russian history, showing how townspeople have responded to a long series of attempts to change them and their communities: tsarist-era efforts to regulate family life and stamp out Old Belief on the Stroganov estates, Soviet collectivization drives and antireligious campaigns, and the marketization, religious revival, and ongoing political transformations of post-Soviet times. Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork and extensive archival and manuscript sources, Rogers argues that religious, political, and economic practice are overlapping arenas in which the people of Sepych have striven to be ethical-in relation to labor and money, food and drink, prayers and rituals, religious books and manuscripts, and the surrounding material landscape.

    He tracks the ways in which ethical sensibilities-about work and prayer, hierarchy and inequality, gender and generation-have shifted and recombined over time. Rogers concludes that certain expectations about how to be an ethical person have continued to orient townspeople in Sepych over the course of nearly three centuries for specific, identifiable, and often unexpected reasons. Throughout, he demonstrates what a historical and ethnographic study of ethics might look like and uses this approach to ask new questions of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5919-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Note on Translation, Transliteration, and Names
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Introduction: Ethics, Russia, History
    (pp. 1-32)

    No one could say with much certainty when Sepych’s town library first opened its doors. No anniversaries had been marked in the past, at least as far as anyone could recall, and neither the librarians’ consultations with elderly townspeople nor their archival inquiries had yielded any conclusive evidence. Nevertheless, state workers in cultural affairs jobs, local dignitaries from in and out of town, and a smattering of interested townspeople gathered in late November 2001 to celebrate what would be, it had been estimated after some discussion, the ninetieth anniversary of the Sepych Rural Library. As it turned out, some of...

  8. Part I An Ethical Repertoire

    • 1 In Search of Salvation on the Stroganov Estates
      (pp. 35-70)

      Conventional narratives of Russian history rarely miss the opportunity to tell of the dissent of the Old Believers. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the story commonly runs, Patriarch Nikon, with the support of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, instituted a set of ritual and orthographic reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church. What would appear to some to have been minor adjustments (such as the number of fingers with which one crossed oneself or the spelling of Jesus’ name) were not, however, understood as such by a significant portion of the Russian population. For these dissenters—a few learned monks and...

    • 2 Faith, Family, and Land after Emancipation
      (pp. 71-104)

      In 1888, after twenty-two years of rancor, the priestless Old Believers of the Upper Kama divided against one another in a bitter schism that would endure through the Soviet period and into the twenty-first century. Although differences of opinion and interpretation had flared many times before, they had largely been contained by the decentralized structures of conciliar authority in place in the Upper Kama, supplemented by occasional intervention from the Vyg elders in the north. In the decades following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, however, ripples of disagreement about religious authority, sexual morality, and the proper relationship between...

  9. Part II The Generations and Ethics of Socialism

    • 3 Youth: Exemplars of Rural Socialism
      (pp. 107-146)

      The Soviet era in Sepych opened with bloodshed. In August of 1918, as civil war raged in the western Urals, rebellions against Soviet power broke out in the factory cities of Izhevsk and Votkinsk, some 150 kilometers to the south of Sepych in Viatka Province. The Bolsheviks responded by placing all of Perm Province on a war footing and issuing mobilization orders to former soldiers and officers who had returned to their villages in the western reaches of the province. In Sepych and the neighboring townships, however, the mobilization did not succeed in raising many new troops for the Red...

    • 4 Elders: Christian Ascetics in the Soviet Countryside
      (pp. 147-190)

      On a June day in Sepych, in the lull between the all-out labors of sowing and haying, three middle-aged women came to visit the house in which I was boarding. I had, by that point, grown accustomed to such unexpected visits from townspeople who wanted to meet the foreigner living in Sepych. We sat in the living room for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and asking questions of one another. Upon learning that I was interested in Old Belief, one of the women immediately launched into a story that, she said, would illustrate for me what religion was like...

  10. Part III Struggles to Shape an Emergent Ethical Regime

    • 5 New Risks and Inequalities in the Household Sector
      (pp. 193-221)

      The penitential verse that serves as the epigraph to part 3 was written for—and sung in—another age, yet the transformations it catalogs hint at the ethical debates and dilemmas pervasive in post-Soviet Sepych. The verse sets out the correlates and consequences of becoming rich, sorrows that are manifested primarily through changes in the nature of material objects—the rotting, rusting, and gnawing of moths and the corrosion of accumulated treasure. This corruption of things proceeds to consume human bodies and to become evidence for the flaws of human subjects and groups of subjects (the phrase “And consume your...

    • 6 Which Khoziain? Whose Moral Community?
      (pp. 222-245)

      In the fall of 2001, I attended Sepych’s annual public town meeting (sel'skii skhod), held in the auditorium of the House of Culture. The meeting was sparsely attended, with about sixty townspeople and a small delegation from the district administration present. Faina Timofeevna, the local “head of administration” and chief state official in Sepych, began with her annual report on her office’s activities. She spoke for about ten minutes, covering the various details of the local administration’s projects during the year and drawing particular attention to the fact that, with a considerable amount of effort, she had managed to keep...

    • 7 Society, Culture, and the Churching of Sepych
      (pp. 246-268)

      When I first visited Sepych on an archaeographical expedition in 1994, the frame of a modest wooden church was rising in the center of town. The church, I had learned even before our expedition left Moscow, was affiliated not with local Maksimovskie or Dëminskie elders but with the Belokrinitsy hierarchy of priestly Old Believers, whose influence in the Vereshchagino district had been confined to two parishes well to the east of Sepych until the 1990s. My archaeographer colleagues were astonished and puzzled at what seemed to be the rapid withering of priestless Old Belief in Sepych at precisely the moment...

    • 8 Separating Post-Soviet Worlds? Priestly Baptisms and Priestless Funerals
      (pp. 269-301)

      As we were sitting on the bench outside her home one evening, I asked a friend who had not joined the new church whether she was planning to summon the Dëminskie old women to pray on the upcoming anniversary of a family member’s death. She replied that she was, and I asked which old women she intended to invite. We both began laughing by about the third name on her list: not one of the women was over fifty, all of them still worked, and each would have resented mightily being called an old woman. The common phrase “to summon...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 302-306)

    I am often asked whether anyone will be left in Sepych in a decade or two, whether the three-century story I have told here will end with the forest’s reclaiming yet another corner of the Russian countryside. Predictions about the depopulation of Sepych are nothing new. They have been made many times in the town’s past, from the destruction of the original religious dissenters’ monastic cells in the mid-1720s to the large-scale movement to cities in the Brezhnev era. Will they come true this time? Although anthropologists prefer to leave forecasting to more model-driven corners of the social sciences, the...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-328)
  13. Index
    (pp. 329-338)